Mac Jones and the New England Patriots have had a classic relationship. When Bill Belichick severed his historic bond with Tom Brady after the 2019 season, he was adrift. He had unproductive affairs with Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham in the pandemic-disrupted 2020 season. But in 2021, Belichick decided to settle down again; he drafted Jones, who had just led Alabama to a national championship, with the 15th pick. Belichick and Jones’ first year together was a vision; Jones was not star, but he was the most productive rookie quarterback in a class that also included Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Trey Lance (yikes) and Zach Wilson (doubles yikes). The Patriots made the playoffs, and while Jones had some limitations, he seemed like Belichick’s partner in the long run.
The situation gradually fell apart in 2022 as Jones failed to make progress, and 12 weeks into the current season it looks in tatters. In a 10-7 loss On Sunday, Belichick benched Jones for the fourth time this season in favor of Bailey Zappe. The Patriots fell when kicker Chad Ryland missed a 35-yard field goal as time expired, but that could prove to be a victory in the long run. Jones’ two interceptions and 89 yards on 12-of-21 passing helped the Patriots fall to 2-9. For now they are positioned to pick third overall in the 2023 draft. By playing miserably, Jones has given the Patriots a good chance to draft a superior successor to him next year.
Jones never had overwhelming physical ability, but his strength at Alabama was distributing the ball in rhythm to an extraordinary group of wide receivers and running backs who went on to their own NFL careers. Jones’ targets in Tuscaloosa included Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith (now a star with the Philadelphia Eagles) and Jaylen Waddle (now an even bigger star with the Miami Dolphins). In Jones’ first year with New England, Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels helped him get along despite a much meager receiving corps to lift him. But McDaniels left for a doomed head coaching job in Las Vegas before Jones’ second pro season, and New England’s receiving group continued to be disappointing, and Jones himself regressed after his encouraging rookie season.
The 2023 season has only caused further decline. Jones is losing more than ever, of course, but he’s throwing more interceptions, fewer touchdowns, and less productive passing averages than ever before. Belichick didn’t think his backup, 2022 fourth-round pick Zappe, was enough to give him a start this season. And the coach is famously prickly and when reporters dig for information about which QB he prefers. But benching Jones, a recent first-round pick, four times in one season tells you everything you need to know about Belichick’s evaluation. Whether Jones advances or not, quarterbacks who suffer so many benchings typically don’t have lasting partnerships with their coaches.
Jones’ future isn’t the only subject of speculation in New England right now. Belichick’s status, too, will be in question as long as the most accomplished coach in league history languishes in a failed post-Brady experiment. But no The NFL coach would want Jones in his current state, and the Patriots could decline the fifth-year option on Jones’ rookie contract this offseason. That would mean his contract expires after next season. His time as a starter could end much sooner.
MVP of the week
Jalen Hurts, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles. The best quarterback matchup of the season was Hurts’ Sunday in a brutal rainstorm in Philadelphia against Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills. Hurts’ passing numbers were not exceptional, completing 18 of 31 passes for 200 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. But he rose to the occasion when it mattered, running for two more touchdowns – including a 12-yard keeper to clinch the game in overtime. Allen also played brilliantly a 37-34 loss, matching Hurts with two touchdowns (and 81 yards on nine carries) on the ground and another 339 and two touchdowns (and a matching interception) through the air. Allen made play after play and seemed unwilling to let the Bills lose. But when Hurts took the ball and needed a field goal to tie the overtime and a touchdown to win, he didn’t give Allen a chance to strike back.
Video of the week
In the first half of the Steelers’ game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh tailback Jaylen Warren fumbled with the ball as he went to the ground. Diontae Johnson, the Steelers’ talented but inconsistent No. 1 wide receiver, stood nearby but made no attempt to go after the loose ball. Johnson told reporters after the game that he did not see the fumble. Pittsburgh still won 16-10, and moved to 7-4 in their first game after firing offensive coordinator Matt Canada. With co-coordinators Eddie Faulkner and Mike Sullivan replacing him, the Steelers reached the 400-meter plateau for the first time in 59 games – a feat they never accomplished under Canada. The Steelers only scored 16 points on all those yards, but baby steps.
Statistic of the week
5-6. The Atlanta Falcons hold that record, but somehow lead the NFC South after beating their rivals, the New Orleans Saints, on Sunday in Atlanta. The Falcons played an unusually stable game and gradually built their lead during the afternoon in their 24-15 win. Rookie running back Bijan Robinson, whose light usage by coach Arthur Smith has been a source of irritation for Falcons fans and fantasy football players alike, was carried 16 times for 91 yards and a touchdown. The saints Also have a record of 5-6, and for the second year in a row, a team below .500 could well win the division after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished on top last season with an 8-9 record. Time for a ruling that teams with a losing record can’t make the playoffs even if they win their division?
Elsewhere in the competition
— The Las Vegas Raiders have been a good story under interim head coach Antonio Pierce, who replaced the fired Josh McDaniels earlier this month and won two of his first three games to keep Vegas within shouting distance of the AFC playoff picture. Sunday was a reality check as Patrick Mahomes brought the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs to town. The Raiders fought valiantly with backup starting quarterback Aidan O’Connell and jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the second quarter, but found themselves outgunned. Mahomes had what for it is a pretty good game – 27 of 34 passing for 298 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions – but the Chiefs didn’t need anything more in a 31-17 win. KC finished on a 31-3 run to move to 8-3. Vegas fell to 5-7, no longer on the edge of contention.
— Remember the Denver Broncos giving up 70 points against the Miami Dolphins? And fell to 1-5? That wouldn’t be the case this Denver Broncos, who have won five in a row and scored 15 points in their last four games. Sunday’s victims were the Cleveland Browns, who once again lost a quarterback to injury – this time it was Dorian Thompson-Robinson with a concussion.
— The Broncos are now 6-5 and competing for a wild-card spot in the AFC. But the team occupied the last wildcard spot at the moment are… the Indianapolis Colts? Gardner Minshew’s team has rarely made headlines this season but has continued to produce results, although their last three wins have come against the Patriots, Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers. On the other hand, their remaining schedule isn’t exactly daunting either, with games against the Tennessee Titans, Bengals, Steelers, Falcons, Raiders and Houston Texans.
— It’s easy to blame Aaron Rodgers’ absence, Zach Wilson’s ineptitude, Nathaniel Hackett’s playcalling or offensive line injuries for the New York Jets’ offense — pick-sixes of 99 meters aside – is not observable, the most recent evidence of which came in their 34-13 Black Friday loss to the dolphins. But who decided to draft Wilson in the first place, failed to get a decent backup for a 39-year-old quarterback, gave in to Rodgers’ request to sign former Packers and failed to build a decent o-line? The rot starts at the top for the Jets, a depressing reality for their fans.
— The 9-3 Baltimore Ravens have the best record in the AFC after a 20-10 win about the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday Night Football. The hot seat just got a little toastier for Brandon Staley as the 4-7 Chargers stumbled again.