National Football League
With QB Mac Jones' make-or-break season getting messy, what do Patriots do now?
National Football League

With QB Mac Jones' make-or-break season getting messy, what do Patriots do now?

Published Oct. 5, 2023 1:36 p.m. ET

The New England Patriots' efforts to reignite Mac Jones' career are not going well.

Maybe you caught some of Sunday's game when the Cowboys put a 38-3 hurt on the Patriots. The rout featured one of the worst quarterback performances of the season — and reminiscent of what the Cowboys did to Zach Wilson. Jones has not had a worse game in his career, per Pro Football Focus' grading system.

What went wrong? Well, everything.

Let's start with Jones, who threw a handful of passes that demonstrated a staggering lack of awareness. He finished the game with two interceptions and a fumble. The defense returned two of those three turnovers for touchdowns. Jones also had five turnover-worthy plays, another single-game career high for his career, per PFF.


This was supposed to be the season when the third-year QB would look better than ever. Or, at the very least, this was supposed to be the year Jones found the 2021 version of himself, when he helped the Patriots make the playoffs with a heavy reliance on shrewd decision-making and sharp accuracy. But there was optimism, with offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien joining New England, that Jones might even take a step forward. 

And to be fair to him, he did appear to be doing just that prior to Week 4. In Weeks 1 and 2, Jones kept his team competitive against two of the NFL's top five teams: the Eagles and Dolphins. He managed a game and got a win against the Jets in Week 3. But the Patriots had the opportunity to jump to .500 last Sunday, and Jones had the chance to beat a playoff opponent. And everyone balked, especially Jones.

So now what?

Jones has not yet broken in his make-or-break season. But it's not looking good. The difficult question for the Patriots is whether anyone else would do better in this offense. I genuinely don't think so. Certainly, Bailey Zappe and Will Grier, the team's backups, don't seem like legitimate options to upgrade the offense. Even Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who could — in theory — become available at the trade deadline, might not be able to bring this offense to life.

The problems start on the offensive line. The Patriots went into the offseason without a right tackle. And even knowing they had a problem, they came out of the offseason without a clear starter at the position. They have slotted Calvin Anderson into the role — along with Vederian Lowe, with Anderson dealing with injuries. With Anderson at the position in Weeks 1 and 2 and Lowe starting for Weeks 3 and 4, the Patriots' starting right tackles have allowed 26 pressures, four QB hits and two sacks. That means they've accounted for 38% of the team's pressures, 36% of the team's QB hits and 29% of the team's sacks. 

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That spot wouldn't be as big of a problem if right guard Michael Onwenu, returning from an ankle injury, were playing at a higher level. Last season, he was the team's best or second-best offensive lineman (behind David Andrews). This year, Onwenu has not been up to his own par of play. Right guard Cole Strange, a 2022 first-round pick, has been less than stellar when he's on the field and when he has been hurt, guards Atonio Mafi and Sidy Sow have not held up. The good news, however, is that Trent Brown is playing extremely well, allowing just four pressures and one sack in three games. He and Andrews have been good. But two of five won't cut it.

Teams can compensate for poor offensive line play if they have a good quick passing game on offense. But none of the Patriots receivers is separating quickly enough — nor with consistency. The Patriots let Jakobi Meyers leave in free agency in 2023, instead trusting their receiver scouting prowess to sign JuJu Smith-Schuster. And that transaction has been yet another receiver miscalculation by New England. Smith-Schuster has slipped down the depth chart and, frankly, brings down the offense when he's on the field. But it's not like the Patriots have a bounty of options: DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne, Demario Douglas and Kayshon Boutte have all disappointed in their own ways.

The other part of the team's offensive plan is and was to use its tight ends at a large clip. New England is …

  • Third in percentage of plays in 12 personnel (30.8%)
  • Second in percentage of plays in 13 personnel (12.8%)
  • Tied for second in offensive snaps of any team with two or more TEs on the field (124, 45.4%)

With that much time on the field, the Patriots tight ends must be wreaking havoc, right? Well, you know the answer. Tight end Hunter Henry is putting together a solid season with 17 catches for 176 yards and two touchdowns. But Mike Gesicki has just nine catches for 99 yards. Pharaoh Brown, who is predominantly a blocking tight end, has two catches for 71 yards.

It's not what New England had hoped for, in part because Henry and Gesicki are much better in the passing game than they are as blockers. The beauty of Rob Gronkowski was his ability to do everything. There was nothing predictable about his game. 

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And so, you can see the picture. An incomplete offense. A broken offense.

But it's hard to imagine this unit changing its stripes and getting into the postseason. So, again, that begs the question of what the Patriots do with Jones, whose final year of his rookie contract expires after next season. If it's a hopeless situation and they want to see whether to stick with Jones in 2024, then it would probably be smart to give him another pass-catching weapon and maybe even another offensive lineman, to see if he's really worth keeping around next season. 

That would mean acquiring a guy like Raiders star Davante Adams (the Patriots have relationships with Josh McDaniels and Dave Zeigler) or Bengals star Tee Higgins (his contract is set to expire and Cincinnati is likely to miss the playoffs). If the Patriots added a WR1, they'd give this offense a better shot at turning out a good season. They'd give Jones a shot at a good season.

Bill Belichick isn't one to sit back and watch his draft stock appreciate in value. Maybe he actually makes a move, especially with more than $80 million in cap space next season. He could lock down a WR1 on a long-term deal and do what basically every team does for their QBs on their rookie deal — Belichick can stop shopping in the bargain bin for knockoffs and go get Gucci or Louis Vuitton or whatever luxury brand he wants.

What the Patriots are doing now isn't working. And if they keep limping through the season to a 7-10 record, they might not even get a good enough evaluation on whether they need to replace Jones. It won't be easy for Belichick to cut bait on a first-round pick at quarterback. He hates cutting his losses and admitting he whiffed on high-round picks. Just look at how long N'Keal Harry lasted in New England. 

So if the Patriots stick with Jones through 2024, there might be hope for him. But in 2023? It feels like Belichick has accidentally thrown his quarterback to the wolves, between the lackluster personnel and the team's overwhelmingly challenging schedule.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @henrycmckenna


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