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What Does a “Successful” Rookie Season Look Like for Mac Jones?

The first-year quarterback got to New England and found a scheme that wasn’t designed for him, and a painfully thin receiving corps. So what does he need to do this season to overcome those limitations and show he’s trending in the right direction?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This season was supposed to be different for the Patriots offense. The team spent a lot of money this offseason to ensure that it was. They splurged on two tight ends—Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry—after realizing how hard it is to play football without a good one. They signed two solid receivers in Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne to help fill out a painfully thin corps. And, most significantly, they replaced aging starting quarterback Cam Newton with a first-round rookie who plays more like the guy who led the Patriots to six Super Bowls over the last two decades.

With that guy—his name is Tom, by the way—set to make his return to Foxborough on Sunday night, we can say this about the offense: It is different than last year’s version … just not in a good way.

So far this season, New England’s offense has fallen from 23rd to 26th in DVOA. The passing game, led by rookie quarterback Mac Jones, has jumped up a spot, to 26th on the DVOA leaderboard, but the run game has dropped to 18th after a top-10 finish a year ago. This unit has been inefficient; even worse, it’s been painfully boring to watch. Every drive feels like a tedious chore. There are no explosive plays—the Pats are one of just three teams without a play of at least 40 yards this season—and any foray into the red zone requires a road trip of a drive to get there.

Everything looks disjointed, and most of the blame for that has fallen on offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Jones’s supporting cast. McDaniels has been criticized for mundane play-calling. The receivers’ inability to create separation downfield has been a talking point all month. The offensive line just allowed its rookie quarterback to get hit 11 times in Sunday’s 28-13 loss to the Saints. And the man who put it all together—Bill Belichick—didn’t build this unit with Jones in mind.

Now Jones finds himself in an uncomfortable system, playing for a team with playoff aspirations. For most rookie quarterbacks, just surviving their first season and showing some flashes of potential is enough. But Jones is also expected to play winning football and do it like Tom Brady. So what ultimately spells success for Jones in his rookie year? And what’s reasonable to expect from him given the limitations of New England’s personnel and scheme?

The prevailing narrative surrounding the Pats’ offensive issues is that McDaniels isn’t calling nearly enough plays that are designed to push the ball downfield. The follow-up to that is that even when he does, the receivers aren’t getting open. A deeper look into the team’s first three games, though, shows that neither argument is true. Here is a heat map of Jones’s passes so far this season, via Pro Football Focus:

If you’ve been watching the Pats, you probably didn’t need a chart to know that Jones has been throwing the ball underneath a fair amount. But this next one may come as a surprise. It’s a heat map of receivers’ routes—on plays where they’re targeted or not—and there is a lot more red in the deeper parts of the field.

McDaniels is calling plays that allow for deep passes. Jones just isn’t throwing them—and it’s not because he doesn’t have open receivers to target. Here’s a two-minute compilation of the rookie passing up open receivers downfield for more conservative options.

Jones is leaving a lot of meat on the bones. Now, his choices haven’t necessarily led to bad plays. Sometimes, they end up working out just fine. Here’s one from the team’s loss to the Saints last week. It’s third-and-2, and the Pats have the ball in the red zone. New Orleans had been playing man coverage for most of the game, so McDaniels dialed up a pick play to help get a receiver open.

The pick worked! It worked so well, in fact, that Saints safety Marcus Williams had to make a beeline to the open receiver to cover for his teammate who was caught up in traffic. Even with Williams closing in, there was plenty of room to make the throw. And if there hadn’t been, McDaniels included a backside vertical route designed to take advantage of the free safety abandoning his post in the deep middle.

Instead of going for the touchdown, though, Jones settled for a short completion, which went for a first down. That’s undeniably a good result, and it’s difficult to complain about a third-down conversion. But a few plays later, the Patriots had to settle for a field goal after failing to convert on their next set of downs. The point is, it’s really hard to score touchdowns in the NFL. When the defense gives you an opportunity to do so, you have to take advantage.

Jones just isn’t doing enough of that right now, but it’s not fair to put all of the responsibility on him. Or even most of it. The centerpiece of the Patriots scheme is a physical ground game that operates out of condensed formations to help set up deep shots off play-action fakes. Well, the power run game has been ineffective so far this season (more on that later) and those play-action shots aren’t traveling very far. Jones’s average depth of target on play-action passes is 5.9 yards, the fifth-lowest mark in the league, per Pro Football Focus. The Patriots are calling a bunch of inefficient runs with no explosive passing plays to show for it.

That early-down inefficiency is putting Jones into a lot of obvious passing situations. According to PFF’s Tej Seth, only five quarterbacks have thrown a higher percentage of their passes in situations where the expected pass rate is greater than 60 percent:

Passing the ball is a lot harder to do when the defense knows it’s coming, because defensive coordinators can pull out all their funky blitzes and coverage disguises. That’s going to cause issues for any rookie passer, especially when they’re seeing those looks all the time. Jones has been blitzed at the tied-for-third-highest rate among starting quarterbacks this year, per PFF. And the strategy is working for defensive coordinators. Against the blitz, Jones is averaging -0.23 expected points added per dropback. To put that into context, he averaged -0.34 EPA per dropback in his ugly three-interception game against New Orleans.

It’s not a surprise that veteran defensive coordinators are outsmarting Jones. It was always going to take him a few years to catch up mentally, and it was his mental processing that helped him win in college. He no longer has all the answers to the test, which may explain why he’s opted for safer, less complicated passes underneath versus throwing it downfield where there are defensive backs lurking in unexpected places. Jones himself has said that his urgency to get rid of the ball is a problem.

“I think it just goes back to execution,” Jones said Sunday. “I can do a better job just sticking to my reads and being patient and letting things develop. I didn’t do a good job of that today. We’ll get better, and we’ve made it a point of emphasis.”

That Jones has identified the problem and made it a “point of emphasis” is an encouraging sign. Eventually, he’ll get enough reps to grow more comfortable with what defenses are throwing at him. He just needs time.

But sitting at 1-2 with the defending Super Bowl champs coming to town, the Patriots don’t really have time if they plan on making the playoffs. So what can they do to make Jones’s life easier now? They could start by borrowing some concepts from Alabama’s offense. At Alabama, Jones wasn’t asked to hold onto the ball and read out a defense very often. The Tide were powered by run-pass options, which require an almost instantaneous throw.

You can’t build an NFL offense around RPOs, but the Patriots have only called two of them so far this season, per Sports Info Solutions. Calling more will not only get Jones more comfortable, but it should also help the struggling ground game, which has been far more effective the few times the Pats have run the ball from shotgun formations.

Patriots Run Game: Shotgun v. Under Center

Formation Attempts Success Rate EPA/Att.
Formation Attempts Success Rate EPA/Att.
Under center 59 37.30% -0.11
Shotgun 12 58.30% 0.21
Data via Sports Info Solutions

Playing with more tempo might also help, as the no-huddle makes it much harder for opposing defenses to disguise their coverages or get into blitz looks before the snap. Jones has attempted only six passes on no-huddle plays this season, and almost all of those have come in end-of-half situations. His college coach Nick Saban explained the benefits of going fast during an appearance on ESPN’s ManningCast on Monday:

Increased usage of those tactics should improve the overall efficiency of the offense, but it won’t solve the big-play problem. At Alabama, a quick slant to DeVonta Smith or Jaylen Waddle had a high probability of turning into an explosive gain. The Pats receiving corps, which is headlined by two tight ends, isn’t built for that. Agholor is a vertical deep threat and not much more. Bourne is a possession guy who isn’t going to give you much after the catch. And Jakobi Meyers wins at the intermediate level. Julian Edelman’s not walking through that door.

McDaniels deserves some blame for not doing more to tailor his playbook to Jones’s strengths and weaknesses—as we’ve seen other coaches successfully do for rookie passers in recent years—but he doesn’t really have the pieces to build that type of offense. That falls on Belichick, who built this roster. He hasn’t given his offensive coordinator or his quarterback the tools they need to succeed in the way Patriots fans might’ve expected before the season started. This isn’t going to be Brady leading the team to a Super Bowl in his first year starting. Even the playoffs look like a long shot at this point.

For the most part, Jones has lived up to his pre-draft billing. He’s been decisive, accurate and has mostly protected the ball while struggling to create big plays in the passing game. That’s what New England was signing up for when it drafted him 15th overall back in April. If he can continue to do that for the remainder of his rookie season, it should be considered a success. But it’s up to the coaches to create an offense that can be productive with that kind of quarterback under center. And Belichick may need another active offseason to do so.