The offseason was never about the quarterback.
Despite the competition between rookie Mac Jones and Cam Newton dominating the headlines over the summer, and understandably so, Bill Belichick’s unprecedented 2021 overhaul was more about rebuilding a Patriots roster that had eroded at several other key spots, and doing it overnight. Now absent a quarterback to cover up all their flaws, the Patriots aimed to field as strong a squad as possible around the man under center.
It just didn’t seem like it would be Jones so soon. But after doing what Newton termed as “disguising” his true intentions, and naming Jones the starter after giving Newton first team reps throughout camp, Belichick put the finishing touch on an offseason designed to support a situation that, historically, is not conducive to playoff success.
Seattle’s Russell Wilson is the only quarterback in the past decade to win a playoff game as a rookie, and he did it in 2012. So a deep run for the Patriots, based on history, is a long shot. If the Pats are to make it back to January football and notch even one win, they’ll have to do it on the strength of Belichick’s coaching, a revamped defensive front-seven, massive upgrades at tight end, and dominant special teams.
For Jones, his rookie season will be largely about protecting the football. For his teammates, it’s about protecting him.
That starts with the obvious: a mountain of protectors up front. And one should expect the Patriots’ retooled offensive line to return to something closer to the dominating unit of the Super Bowl-winning 2018 team. Right tackle Trent Brown, who played left tackle in New England three years ago, would be (literally) a huge part of that resurgence. Brown admitted in a press conference on Wednesday that “pass blocking and keeping the quarterback upright and clean may take a little edge over the run game.”
Despite the paramount importance of keeping Dolphins pass-rushers at bay, the easiest way to protect and preserve your quarterback is to hand it off. Despite Jones showing impressive command of the offense over the summer, and the promise of making plays in the passing game when the situation calls for it, the Patriots are likely to lean on their deep stable of running backs in 2021. Bleed the clock. Minimize the need to drop your prized rookie back in the pocket in the first place.
The practical X’s and O’s are easier to prepare than the mental cauldron of a rookie in his NFL debut. That’s why it’s more of an art than a science to preserve a 23-year-old quarterback starting from day 1. It’s important for Jones’ teammates to support him in a way that he never leaves the huddle feeling like he’s carrying the weight of the game. Especially in those first huddles.
“There’s a lot of pressure on his shoulders. Hopefully I can sit there and be somebody who he can rely on to help take some of those nerves off and ease his role,” said wide receiver Jakobi Meyers. “Being steady hands for him, a calm voice, whatever he needs so we can all pull together and get him through this [first game].”
Jones will have a deep group of veterans, many of which have won at a high level, to help alleviate those inevitable rookie jitters. But it’s also important to keep Jones confident in himself. Because if the Patriots are going to surge back to relevance, they’ll need their quarterback to have as much command of what he’s doing as anyone else on the field.
“I tell him he’s not a rookie,” Brown said. “This is his offense, and lead it as such. We go as he goes.”