New England Patriots

BUFFALO, NEW YORK - JANUARY 15: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots looks on against the Buffalo Bills during the first quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

The dumbest thing you could do after that debacle Saturday night is blame Mac Jones for any of it.

This season was never about Mac Jones, and it’s not about him in the aftermath, either. The 2021 New England Patriots were always about everyone and everything else around the rookie. Their performance, not Jones’, would dictate where New England ended up by February.

When it comes to the Bills’ 47-17 demolition of the Patriots in the wild card round, just about everyone and everything on the Patriots let their quarterback down.

Jones finished 24-of-38 through the air (63.2 percent), but the Patriots’ pass-catchers had at least four drops. Brandon Bolden dropped an easy one that would’ve gone for 30-plus yards, and Jakobi Meyers couldn’t handle a quick strike on the next snap. Jones then threw his first interception, which more than anything was an outstanding play by Micah Hyde to range across the field. But it was also a play that could’ve used more fight from intended target Nelson Agholor. A promising opening drive, in which Jones converted two third-and-long plays, went poof.

“We didn’t have a chance to win the game, and that starts with me, just getting momentum early and not putting ourselves in that position,” Jones said. “Of course, it’s not how we wanted to be, and like I said, I could play better. A lot of guys would agree with me that we can push each other harder to get that product on the field. I think there will be a lot of strides this offseason to get there.”

Fullback Jakob Johnson also dropped his only target, and Hunter Henry dropped a would-be touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Kendrick Bourne, one of the few Patriots to show up and play a good 60 minutes, bailed Henry out by scoring his second touchdown of the game on the following play.

  • Jan 15, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Kendrick Bourne (84) makes a catch against Buffalo Bills cornerback Levi Wallace (39) in the first quarter of the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

    Jan 15, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Kendrick Bourne (84) makes a catch against Buffalo Bills cornerback Levi Wallace (39) in the first quarter of the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

    Jones’ second interception wasn’t the best decision, because Bills linebacker Matt Milano had Hunter Henry well-covered and got a hand on the ball. But it was another play where the receiver could have fought a little harder to make the catch.

    The play-calling didn’t do Jones many favors. On the ensuing Patriots possession after going down 14-0, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called three straight run plays. The Patriots gained nine yards and had to punt.

    On the next possession, which of course came after the Bills extended their lead to 20-0, Jones took an eight-yard sack after Star Lotoulelei burst between Shaq Mason and David Andrews. Jones committed a delay of game penalty on the next play, one of many repeated mistakes across the team that cropped back up on Saturday.

    Throw this in, for good measure: wide receiver N’Keal Harry played only five snaps with zero targets. It’s fair to wonder if Harry will see another season in New England, as one of multiple 2019 draft picks that had a bad night in Orchard Park.

  • What Has To Change?

    BUFFALO, NEW YORK - JANUARY 15: Micah Hyde #23 of the Buffalo Bills intercepts a pass intended for Nelson Agholor #15 of the New England Patriots during the first quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

    BUFFALO, NEW YORK – JANUARY 15: Micah Hyde #23 of the Buffalo Bills intercepts a pass intended for Nelson Agholor #15 of the New England Patriots during the first quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

    It wasn’t all bad. The offensive line didn’t have their worst night. Bourne totaled 91 yards and two touchdowns on eight touches and looks like a keeper. Rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson had a clean game and feels like a much-needed hit from the draft. After his early drop, Bolden made a few plays and had a surprisingly productive run as the team’s primary pass-catching back.

    But outside of those guys, everyone else either needs to be better or may not make it to the 2022 roster. Agholor caught just one pass for 18 yards. He finished with only 37 catches on the season, an unacceptable number for a free agent who was widely considered an overpay, even if he matched his production from 2020. Instead, it was basically cut in half.

    Tight end Jonnu Smith, the team’s first signing of their unprecedented offseason spending spree, looked lost as a pass-catcher for most of the season and came up empty on Saturday night. But he was signed for four years and $31.25 million guaranteed, so he’s a virtual certainty to get at least one more season to figure it out.

    Bolden, James White, Trent Brown, and Ted Karras are all on track to become unrestricted free agents. Meyers will be a restricted free agent, so the Patriots will need to allocate money for either an extension or RFA tender. They’ll have the same decision with Johnson and punt returner/slot receiver Gunner Olszewski.

    Big-picture, the current offensive roster doesn’t need an overhaul. Just tweaks and a stern talking-to for the guys who need to be better. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t use more talent.

  • What Do They Need?

    BUFFALO, NEW YORK - JANUARY 15: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots looks to pass against the Buffalo Bills during the first quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

    BUFFALO, NEW YORK – JANUARY 15: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots looks to pass against the Buffalo Bills during the first quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

    “Someone who can do anything!” screamed many irrational humans. But they’re not incorrect, exactly.

    One of the positives to take away from the 2021 season was that Jones performed well above average, compared to every other rookie starting quarterback in history. Another was that he appeared to click with Bourne, Henry, Meyers, and the running backs. It looks like the Patriots have a quarterback and some stable passing game options that they can roll with for the next 3-4 years.

    But are any of those pass-catchers true game-changing talents? It’s fair to say that while the aforementioned players look like good fits, none of them are on the level of, say, the Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase in terms of pure talent. Even Tom Brady had Rob Gronkowski stampeding opposing defenses when the Patriots “proved you don’t need a No. 1 wide receiver.” Jones needs his Gronk, his Chase.

    Easier said than done, but the Patriots have to try. The last time they tried was Antonio Brown, and Harry before that, so the recent track record isn’t great. But if Jones had a true high-end pass-catcher who dictated coverages, got consistent separation, and constantly threatened to make big plays, that may unlock the quarterback’s full potential. And, by extension, open things up for the rest. Make everyone else better.

    They could also use a more traditional slot receiver. Bourne and Meyers are more hybrid inside-outside types. Jones would look a lot more comfortable in the pocket if he had a slot receiver who got open early in his routes in the short-to-intermediate areas of the field. Especially if the Patriots aspire to run Brady-like offense, they need the next Julian Edelman, Wes Welker, etc. Someone quick who can jump-start drives, make tough catches in tight windows, and move the chains.

  • Expectations

    BUFFALO, NEW YORK - JANUARY 15: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots warms up prior to the AFC Wild Card playoff game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

    BUFFALO, NEW YORK – JANUARY 15: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots warms up prior to the AFC Wild Card playoff game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

    When you have a rookie quarterback starting out of the gate, you basically get a full season of unlimited excuses. “He’s a rookie” is available for use, for one league year. That free pass expires in the spring of 2022.

    Jones and the Patriots don’t have to do a ton to take a step forward after the way 2021 ended for them. Just be competitive in a playoff game, preferably win it. But for the quarterback, it’ll be about eliminating or minimizing the mistakes he made as a rookie, showing more command in and out the huddle, making better decisions, and being more of the reason why the Patriots win, rather than a passenger.

    He Said All The Right Things™ in his postgame press conference. But the reality is that Jones doesn’t need to be better in the areas he outlined until next fall, at the very earliest.

    “I think it just goes back to practice and holding everybody to a higher standard,” Jones said. “I know that I’m a rookie … but I could’ve just done a better job of holding everybody to that standard, myself included. I think we’ll make a lot of progress in the offseason with that and my leadership and just being myself.”

    For one year, Jones is absolved of blame, because He’s A Rookie™. That excuse won’t be available anymore in his sophomore year. He’ll have to start making the players around him better more often.

    But if the players around Jones can’t be better themselves, the Patriots can’t expect to improve much as a team.