Phil Perry

Mac Jones debacle serves as cautionary tale for new Patriots regime

"Mac Jones wasn't a miss. ... He got ruined."

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The Mac Jones Era in New England is over, with the Patriots reportedly set to trade him to Jacksonville in exchange for a sixth-round pick when the new league year begins.

Forgettable as this three-year stretch in Patriots history has been, it's imperative that the new Patriots regime not forget how the team ran aground over the course of the last two years.

The lesson? Handle the situation around the next young quarterback with care.

Inevitable outcome

Dealing away Jones seemed inevitable to league sources over the last few weeks. While Jones still had fans in the building because of his work ethic and the promise he showed as the No. 15 overall pick in 2021, the consensus was that even if he was salvageable, he likely wasn't salvageable in New England.

Jones had lost confidence in himself, struggled in his de facto leadership role, and after a series of disastrous starts last season had lost the confidence of many in the Patriots locker room.

It was a question of when, not if, Jones would be moved. And with the legal tampering period set to begin Monday at 12 p.m. ET, it made sense for personnel chief Eliot Wolf and head coach Jerod Mayo to part with Jones ahead of the free-agent rush. Had they waited, perhaps until draft weekend, there was a chance that most backup quarterback jobs around the league would be filled, leaving few (if any) suitors for Jones' services.

Jones has one year left on his rookie deal and will be in competition with CJ Beathard for a backup role behind entrenched starter Trevor Lawrence, who was taken No. 1 overall in the same draft class as Jones three years ago.

There were some close to Jones who earlier this offseason understood he was likely headed elsewhere to be a backup -- a remarkable two-year fall from grace in Foxboro.

Jones' situation is the definition of a cautionary tale for Wolf, Mayo and the rest of New England's brass. Should they select a rookie quarterback in April, they must know they can't fall asleep at the switch when it comes to surrounding that player with the coaching and talent necessary to create as soft a landing spot as possible for the new pro.

What made the Jones failure a mystifying one is that Bill Belichick and the rest of his front office were on board with taking Jones at No. 15 overall.

The truth about the 2021 draft

When it came time for the Patriots to pick back in 2021, they knew they should go with the quarterback. There was only one QB remaining who was worthy of being in the conversation at No. 15 overall, and there was a unanimous acceptance in the draft room at One Patriot Place that he had to be the choice.

"When you get into quarterback purgatory, you have to take your shots," said one source in the room on that April night in 2021. "Is there a good chance you'll miss? Yes. But if you never take your shot, you won't hit."

Sources suggest there were signs that Belichick wasn't completely convinced in the investment his team was about to make at the game's most important position.

The thinking was that Jones could provide the Patriots with something along the lines of what Andy Dalton brought to the Bengals in his prime. Or better. He clearly wasn't the most physically talented quarterback in the class. But he was smart and accurate as the maestro of an offense that captured the National Championship for Alabama in 2020.

Still, Jones' pre-draft evaluation still didn't exactly make him a slam-dunk at No. 15.

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"He wasn't necessarily sold on taking [Jones]," said a source familiar with Belichick's thinking on the matter. "He wasn't all the way in to the point he wanted to trade up for him. It was more, 'If he fell, then OK.'"

When asked by NBC Sports Boston later that night if Jones was the highest-graded player remaining on the Patriots' draft board when it came time to pick, Belichick deflected.

"Yeah, I mean, we're not going to go through all the grades on everybody on the board," he said. "That's not really something that I would want to talk about in this setting."

Was it safe to say that there were not a lot of players the Patriots were considering at that point, Belichick was asked?

"Like I said," Belichick continued, "the grading of the players on the draft board and all that, I mean, we've met on that for hours and hours and hours. I mean, we're not going to get into that now."

The company Belichick kept that night -- including Matt Patricia (senior football advisor at the time), Matt Groh (director of college scouting), Wolf (front-office consultant), director of player personnel Dave Ziegler, director of pro scouting Steve Cargile, owner Robert Kraft and team president Jonathan Kraft -- was included in a video produced by the team's website soon after the selection was made.

At one point in the video, Belichick called Ziegler, Groh and Wolf over to ask the huddled-up personnel men, "We're all good with this?"

Later, Belichick doubled back to Groh specifically. Known for an ability to gather sound information and recite player backgrounds at a moment's notice, Groh was perhaps even in that moment pegged as a future director of personnel by Belichick. There's a belief that Belichick's acknowledgment of Groh with the cameras rolling was Belichick's way of setting the stage for him to take his next position as director of player personnel.

One opinion not caught on camera? That of ownership.

The reason? It wasn't part of the equation.

"We all wanted to do it," the in-the-room source explained, referring to the football operations staff present. "It had nothing to do with Robert."

Jones was good enough, it was deemed. The need for a quarterback was great enough. As they sat in "purgatory" at the position following Tom Brady's departure and Cam Newton's underwhelming 2020, Belichick and his assistants knew where the team had to go next.

Jones was the choice.

Where it went wrong

Initially, Belichick was rewarded. 

Under offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Jones was the runner-up for offensive rookie of the year in 2021 behind Ja'Marr Chase. He made the Pro Bowl as an alternate. He helped the Patriots to a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance with a few eye-opening performances -- including one where he threw for more yards and touchdowns than Tom Brady in a loss to the Bucs that impressed Patriots staffers -- sprinkled in over the course of his first season.

Jones opened his coaches' eyes, maybe even surpassing some of the not-so-lofty expectations laid on him on draft night. The offense didn't have the full breadth of what Brady ran when he controlled the most complex offense in football. "But he was running the offense," one assistant coach said. "It was pared back a bit, but there was a lot on him. He was tough. He knew what he was looking at. The ball came out on time."

That included checks at the line in the run and passing games. He was up to the task in Year 1, the thinking went, particularly when it came to his ability to think his way through the game.

How Belichick handled him from there, though, set Jones' downfall in New England in motion. Patricia was hired as de facto offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. Joe Judge was hired as quarterbacks coach. Belichick put in place a plan to shift to a West Coast-style offense, altering the language from the previous playbook.

Things fell apart.

Mac Jones stats

"I saw that trainwreck coming from a mile away," said one Patriots assistant coach.

"Young quarterbacks can get ruined," said another source. "When you change coordinators, change quarterbacks coaches, change the offense, they get ruined. Look at Sam Darnold. Mac Jones wasn't a miss. He was really good as a rookie. He got ruined."

People close to Jones were worried about the coaching setup even before training camp began in the summer of 2022. He understood that the staff was relatively inexperienced on the offensive side as well as anyone. And it wasn't just Patricia and Judge at the top. 

Ross Douglas went from a defensive quality control coach to the assistant receivers coach in 2022. Billy Yates, a former Patriots offensive lineman, began his coaching career on the defensive side of the ball under Patricia in Detroit and ended up back on the offensive side when he returned to New England. Vinnie Sunseri spent three years in the NFL as a safety, then worked on the defensive coaching staff in New England before ending up as the team's running backs coach in 2021.

Belichick has long cross-trained coaches, including Josh McDaniels, who began his career on the defensive side. But the transition for several coaches from one side of the ball to another, combined with a young quarterback, significant roster turnover and a change in scheme, was viewed as a glaring error made by Belichick.

Others in the league saw it similarly, especially when it came to Patricia and Judge's impact on a young quarterback in his second season.

"The scheme was a [expletive] trainwreck," said one rival offensive coordinator of the 2022 offense. "They didn't know what they were doing. With Josh, [Mac] looked good. On a mediocre football team he looked solid. Very few quarterbacks have played well early in Josh's system. Because it's hard. It puts a lot on the quarterback. Derek Carr didn't play well in it [in Las Vegas]. St. Louis was a mess.

"It's impressive [Jones] went in and played well right away. He has that ability to process. He understands the game. He's a good decision-maker. But to benefit from that, you need a great coach. Physically he's sufficient. It's fine. It's fine. At no point impressive, but at no point a liability. But he needs to be put in better positions to be successful."

Unable to be salvaged

Belichick ended up spending most of his time behind the scenes getting together with the offense and trying to solve what ailed them on that side of the ball in Jones' second season. One player described Belichick as a great mom-and-pop restaurant that suddenly had to juggle various branches on a nationwide scale. The head coach was spread thin and the product was suffering.

By the end of 2022, Belichick believed things were trending in the right direction offensively under Patricia's guidance, though he wasn't able to see that part of his plan through when Kraft made it clear the team would be hiring an experienced offensive mind to handle the offense moving forward. The obvious choice was Bill O'Brien, but how the personnel filled in O'Brien's offensive huddle was confounding to some corners of the organization and predictably led to further backsliding for Jones.

The team opted not to re-sign Jones' top target Jakobi Meyers, acquiring JuJu Smith-Schuster instead. The results for Jones were worse than they were in Year 2, with Jones pulling the trigger for the worst offense in the NFL (13.9 points per game) for the majority of the season.

"How that went down with Mac," Meyers told the Next Pats Podcast during Super Bowl week, "I kind of watched it all unfold the last couple of years, and I feel like you could've seen it a couple years ago and tell that it would end up bad.

"I don't like singling people out, but I think they had to meet him a little bit more. 'Cause I know he's in the building working. I can't name too many people working harder than him. I hate to see it for him, I really do."

🔊 Next Pats Podcast: EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Jakobi Meyers on what happened with Mac Jones | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Meyers explained his "meet him" comment further, saying, "Yeah, to help him. Like talent, coaching, you name it. Just putting him in a better position to win I think would've helped their program a lot."

Nature versus nurture debates over failed quarterbacks can be never-ending. Was the quarterback never good enough to succeed at a high level, or was the spot in which he found himself an impossible one? 

The truth with Jones probably lies somewhere in the middle. But now that he's moving on, it falls on Wolf, Mayo and others to ensure the same thing doesn't happen with whichever quarterback is given Jones' old gig.

Simply put, they have to take the nurture portion of their jobs seriously.

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