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Safety First, Success Later: The Mac Jones Experiment Is Going According to Plan

Young quarterbacks succeed or fail based on the resources they have around them. The Patriots have made sure Jones has what he needs.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Richard Thaler, a Nobel Prize–winning economist whose work on NFL draft value has become wildly influential in NFL front offices, told me something a few years ago I’ve thought about ever since. He thought the generational quarterback prospect—the one teams yearn for, tank for, and rearrange their lives for—does not, strictly speaking, exist.

There are quarterbacks who are better than others, obviously, but at the pro level, so much of their career depends on the talent around them, the schemes they execute, a little bit of luck, and literally thousands of other variables, to the point that a franchise-saving quarterback is a bit of a misnomer. Quarterback development comes down to so many things, and we understand very little about them. The way we talk about young quarterbacks is all wrong.

The logical endpoint of thinking about this is to talk yourself into circles until you question all of existence—football or otherwise. Or at least that’s been my experience. Did Mitchell Trubisky fail because he’s a bad quarterback? Did he fail because the Bears are a bad franchise? Or did he fail—wait for it—because only a bad franchise would pick such a bad quarterback? If only a bad franchise would make such a bad pick, then it stands to reason that a bad franchise would augment that with more bad decisions and everything would get worse from there. To continue to pull this thread, we do not know what it would look like if Trubisky ran the Chiefs offense with Andy Reid, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce because the Chiefs would never use a first-round pick on Mitch Trubisky. Does this make sense to you? Wait, where are you going? Come back. No, I haven’t been drinking; why do you ask?

Thaler’s point was that even a player like Andrew Luck, whose name is still shorthand for a once-a-decade prospect, didn’t have a career that lived up to the moniker. Luck became a very good player, but too many injuries and a series of poor decisions made by his franchise, among many other things, hindered his career and kept him from being an era-defining and franchise-changing quarterback. There’s an old joke Cary Grant used to tell about how everyone wanted to be Cary Grant, including Cary Grant. (Cary Grant wasn’t even his real name.) A lot of young quarterbacks are like that. Andrew Luck did not actually become an Andrew Luck type.

The meta part of this conversation is now over. This particular debate—quarterback nature vs. quarterback nurture—is rearing its head halfway through this season because Mac Jones has so far been the best rookie quarterback despite being the fifth one taken in April’s draft. Whether he is the best is sort of besides the point, because we now know he has an early advantage others do not: The Patriots have a better plan around him than any other team does for its rookie quarterback and, at least this year, are doing more than any other team to help develop him.

This was not always the case. If you’d asked me in May to handicap which rookie would look the best, I’d have assumed Kyle Shanahan would help develop Trey Lance into a young star. Or that Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields would help overcome their teams’ coaching deficiencies with their pure talent. That still may happen in the long term, perhaps even this year, but Jones is currently wearing the crown. Since the spring, the Patriots have been laying the groundwork for a master class in supporting your rookie quarterback. That, coupled with Jones’s natural accuracy and well-regarded ability to diagnose defenses quickly, has put him on pace for the highest completion percentage ever for a rookie, eclipsing Dak Prescott. (Prescott, incidentally, is now a superstar who commanded a stacked roster that was ready to win during his rookie year in 2016. He might win the MVP this year.)

From a scheme standpoint, let’s start with the obvious: The Patriots are not asking Jones to do things he cannot do. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah said the Patriots have him excelling in easy throws. Some franchises want their rookie quarterback to save the franchise; others are going to do a lot of the work for them:

So, yes, the Patriots have a good plan for Jones. Pro Football Focus’s Diante Lee broke it down well:

The recipe for success? Acting like the schematic advances of the past decade never even happened. In a league that’s been 62 percent pass over the past month, the Patriots are legitimately a run-first offense at 50.4 percent (and that’s removing all garbage-time snaps). Just four of the 657 RPOs and three of the 243 bootlegs in the NFL since Week 7 came from New England, and only the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens use 21 personnel—two backs and one tight end—more often.

Incidentally, PFF says that over the past four weeks, the Patriots have the best offensive and defensive grades in the sport. FiveThirtyEight says the 6-4 Patriots have a 74 percent chance to make the playoffs.

There should not be any long-term declarations about Jones—he had two blah games before his dominant performance against Cleveland in Week 10, but there should be an appreciation for how New England got back into AFC contention. Yes, I am going to overpraise Bill Belichick here because when you win a bunch of Super Bowls, you’ve earned the right to get credit whenever anything goes right. And things are going right for the Patriots.

In the spring, the Patriots did something that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me: They spent a ton of money on players in free agency, overspending in most cases. This is not normal. For two decades, the Patriots’ entire roster-building system was predicated on finding bargains and trying to balance the cap to get the best roster, not acquiring the most top-end talent in free agency. Owner Robert Kraft explained the team’s rationale for 2021: “We had the second or third-most cap room at the start of free agency. This year, instead of having 10 or 12 teams competing for most of the top players, there were only two or three. And in my 27 years as owner, I’ve never had to come up with so much capital before,” Kraft told Peter King.

Two things made this strategy far smarter than I anticipated. The first is that the AFC is far worse than I thought it would be. I thought the Chiefs would be better, and I didn’t know the Ravens would have the 20th-ranked defense halfway through the season. I thought the Patriots’ high spending to not compete in the AFC was a waste. I was wrong. They are competing. The second thing is that I did not anticipate how much it would help their new quarterback (even if it was done before Jones was drafted). They added weapons at tight end and receiver. They improved their defense dramatically with Matthew Judon. Jones can throw an accurate pass, but free-agent addition Kendrick Bourne can catch it:

I suppose we should have seen this coming. Tom Brady, the best quarterback of all time, was helped along by Belichick’s understanding of defenses and Josh McDaniels’s near-constant innovation, which incorporated nearly every new edge from every level of football. During the spread revolution, McDaniels met with coaches at the University of Florida, who emphasized tight ends and physicality when defenses learned to defend the more wide-open game they themselves helped introduce. The Patriots understand where everything is heading and then go there first.

Matt Cassel once wrote on NBC Boston about how Belichick prepared quarterbacks:

On Tuesdays during game weeks, we would sit with Bill Belichick and go through the scouting report on every one of their DBs who we thought were going to play: corners, safeties, nickel backs, and sometimes even linebackers we thought we could take advantage of in the pass game. Then we’d go through strengths, weaknesses and an overall summary.

At the end of that session, we’d actually get to sit there and watch film with Bill, which was one of the most educational things for a young player: to see the game through Bill’s eyes and understand what he was talking about. So, by the time we got in on Wednesday, we had a great understanding for why these plays are being called and what our matchups were.

Some of it could be as simplistic as, hey, this cornerback has great transition and quickness, but he’s a little smaller and we think he struggles on the deep ball, so we can take our shots on this guy. Or, this safety has really good range, so we’re going to have to make sure we do a really good job with our eyes when we’re throwing the seam route to get him off his mark.

This is not a typical education in the NFL. A head coach going to meetings on a side of the ball in which he does not specialize, telling his players how to exploit the opponents’ weaknesses, is not universal practice in the NFL. (Aqib Talib said on Slow News Day a few weeks ago that Sean McVay, an offensive-minded coach, does something similar by telling defenders about opponents’ offensive tendencies.)

How much has Jones bought in? Well...

Geography is destiny when it comes to quarterbacks. I’ll never forget a talk I had with former Titans head coach Mike Mularkey early in Marcus Mariota’s career, when he said that anyone who thinks Mariota should run the spread in the pros “don’t understand the NFL.”

“I’m going to do the things that I’ve had success with since 2001, and I will continue to do that until someone stops us,” he said. “I know people say this is a passing league. I’ll argue with that.” He argued it until he lost his job a year and a half later. Mariota, obviously, did not get off to a hot start in his career and is now a backup. It’s easy to fail quarterbacks. The Patriots aren’t doing that. They’ve got a plan and Mac Jones knows how to use it.