Tom E. Curran

What went wrong for Mac Jones in New England? His QB coach has thoughts

"When you contribute to the problem, you've got to own it."

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Mac Jones has taken 2,530 snaps at quarterback for the New England Patriots. The play that stands out from the other 2,529, the one currently defining his three-season experience in New England, Jones can’t bear to watch.

It’s nauseating. It’s like watching surveillance video of a car accident you caused. The lead-up, the moment of impact. It all could have been avoided. Nobody sees or, it seems, cares about the things that led up to that moment. He was driving. He was at fault.

The pick in Germany against the Colts is a play that will live in infamy.

Second-and-12 from the Colts 15 with 4:25 remaining. The 2-7 Patriots trailing 10-6. Jones had tight end Mike Gesicki open in the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown. Jones’ throw got halfway there, wobbling weakly down into the arms of Colts safety Julian Blackmon.

Last week, Jones went to Oklahoma to work with his longtime throwing coach, Joe Dickinson.

Jones was 11 when he met Dickinson at a football camp in Florida. Dickinson, now 67, was offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in the ‘90s and more recently was a quarterback consultant for two years with the Bills.

Their mission was to deep dive what the hell happened to the 2021 first-round pick -- why he went from runner-up for Offensive Rookie of the Year to unusable.

They began by looking at every single one of Jones’ 12 interceptions. Except the Colts pick.

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“I wanted to see the tape and Mac didn’t want to see it, in fact, he wouldn’t even look at that play until our second day,” said Dickinson.

When it comes to Jones, Dickinson very much has a dog in the fight. He acknowledges that but is also blunt about what he’s looking at with Jones.

“I mean, I threw up in my mouth when I saw it live,” Dickinson said of the fateful pick. “And then when I looked at it on tape, I was like, ‘My gosh, you can make that throw with your eyes closed, no doubt.’

“And he knows that. He didn't even want to look at that play. … You know you just don't want to look at it again. But there was a reason when you're falling back and you're a little beat up from maybe a sack earlier in the series or whatever. And you just make a terrible throw and think, ‘Hey, man, how could I get that play back?’

“We can't,” Dickinson continued. “That might have been the straw that broke the camel's back, you know. He can make that throw with his eyes closed. And he knows that. And I think at that point in time, I think he felt like the noose was so tight around his neck that he was choking to death.”

The fall of Mac

They say, “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.” And it seems Jones may well be finished in New England. The atmosphere is too toxic after a 2023 season in which he went 2-9 as the starter, was benched four times, threw 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and was relegated by head coach Bill Belichick to emergency quarterback duties in Week 18.

Jones’ development, or lack thereof, is fingered as the main reason the team went 4-13 and the greatest coach of all time is now out of work.

Maybe Jones wasn’t as good as he seemed in 2021 under Josh McDaniels. But this? His decline is so total it’s hard to fathom.

How does a player go from winning a national championship at Alabama in 2020, setting the FBS record for completion percentage (77.36) while playing for Nick Saban, beating out a former MVP in Cam Newton, dueling Tom Brady, Dak Prescott and Justin Herbert and helping the Patriots to a 10-7 record and the playoffs to being completely unusable less than two years later?

Jones was the best of the five first-round quarterbacks taken in 2021. Now, he’s a bust?

On WEEI’s Gresh and Fauria Show last week, Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy said, "From the outside looking in, I see a guy that played at a really high level as a rookie and a guy that's wired the right way, total gym rat, football junkie … How does that guy fall off? You know what I'm saying? Like to the point where now he probably has to go somewhere else and reset his career?

“You tell me what happened over the last two years. Like, not many rookies come into the league and play the way Mac played. So, to me, what happened up there is not on Mac Jones."

We’ve all looked at the black box from the crash that’s been Jones’ career as a Patriot. Josh McDaniels left in early 2022 to become head coach of the Raiders. Belichick, stung by continual attrition on his coaching staff, decided not to name an offensive coordinator. The troika of Belichick, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge would run the offense. The scheme would be tweaked. The roles would be a work in progress.

But, as the team entered camp in July of 2022, Belichick felt the team had its quarterback.

"I think Mac has done a great job," Belichick said. "He's worked extremely hard. He's got a tremendous work ethic in all areas. I think there's a dramatic improvement. His physical work and conditioning, working on his mechanics, working on his footwork, working on his understanding of our offense, of opponents' defenses, the situations -- all those things.

"He's made tremendous strides," Belichick added. "He did a great job last year, but he's starting from a much, much higher point this year than where he started last year. So, his offseason work has been significant, and I think everyone recognizes how well he prepares and how much further along he was than he was a year ago.”

Within weeks of Belichick saying that, it was clear on the Gillette Stadium practice fields how difficult the transition actually was. Between Patricia, Judge, Belichick, offensive assistant Evan Rothstein and backup quarterback Brian Hoyer, there were a lot of people trying to help get it right. But session after session the offense was inept, and frustration grew.

The Patriots started the season 1-2. Jones threw three picks and was injured in a loss to the Ravens. He threw five in the first three games. Hoyer started in place of Jones in a game at Green Bay. When he was driven from the game with a concussion, rookie Bailey Zappe took over. Zappe was terrific in relief and played crisply in back-to-back wins against Cleveland and Detroit.

Jones came back to start against the Bears the following week. He got lifted after a pick in the first half. Zappe came in but fared no better. The Patriots got bludgeoned 33-14 by the worst team in the league.

The obvious question then became, “Why does the offense look better with Zappe than Jones?”

Over the next few months, whispers were that Zappe simply took the coaching he was given while Jones resisted it. Jones himself acknowledged during camp he “liked to know the ‘why’ ” of certain plays.

Jones quieted some of the noise over the next three games -- two wins over the horrible Jets and one over the horrible Colts -- before a shootout loss to Minnesota.

But in a prime-time loss to Buffalo in early December, Jones got demonstrative with his frustration over the team’s lack of aggressiveness. He showed up the Patriots sideline with gestures, body language and rants.

“Obviously just kind of let my emotions get to me,” Jones said. “But, we’re kind of playing from behind. What I said was about throwing it deeper [as opposed to] the short game. I’ve gotta execute that part better, but it’s the short game that we kept going to — which was working. But I felt we needed chunk plays, and I shouted that out to kind of get everyone going. And that’s emotional, that’s football. I’m passionate about this game."

One man’s passion can be another man’s snot-nose. Jones’ rant was a public rebuke of what Belichick put in place. And the effort to put Jones back in his place ensued.

“I think he didn't feel like he had anybody on the coaching staff that could help him to get him out of jams,” Dickinson said of Jones. “I mean, there were guys learning on the job there. They're great coaches, don't get me wrong. Come on, man. Those guys are documented, good coaches. But they were both in the first year. They were coaching, being an offensive coordinator and being a quarterback coach.

"He didn't feel like at that time he had a guy that could say, ‘Hey, I got your back here. I'm going to help you out of this situation that you're in. I'm going to make trying to make you a better player.’

“How are you going to do that when you're you've never actually done that as a coach?” asked Dickinson. “It would be what I would call coaching out of position. … Well, if it worked out, no one would ever say anything about it. But it wasn't working out.

"Winning is a great deodorant. When you lose, you see all the warts. And there was a lot of warts here. I think that he felt like, you know, there wasn't a commitment to him. … It was a tough situation. And when you feel that lack of commitment.”

By season’s end, all Belichick could offer in the way of praise for Jones was that, “Mac has the ability to play quarterback in this league.”

Irreconcilable differences

Belichick’s initial leaning going into 2023 was to keep on with Patricia as his offensive coordinator. Kraft, according to a source, requested Belichick hire an experienced OC. Belichick offered a list of names. Kraft approved. Belichick then pursued Bill O’Brien and hired him.

But stung by Jones’ 2022 performance, his perceived insubordination or both, Belichick was pretty clearly out on his third-year quarterback. Kraft, though, saw Jones as being damaged by the 2022 coaching decisions and said so.

Belichick never presented ownership with a trade request for Jones last offseason. But, as we stated in February and then again on draft night, Kraft wanted to see how Jones -- still on his rookie contract and a year removed from high-competency -- performed with an experienced OC.  

In late October, with the trade deadline approaching and a spate of quarterback injuries around the league, Belichick did broach with ownership the possibility of trading Jones. The OK was given to explore possibilities but nothing materialized. By that time, though, the addition of O’Brien hadn’t mattered a bit. The offense – and Jones – were even worse than in 2022.

And Jones, knowing he wasn’t the greatest coach of all-time’s cup of tea, pressed even more.

Was Jones set adrift? Or was it just hard coaching Jones didn’t respond to?

“Well, there's three sides to every story, right? His side, Mac’s side, the truth,” said Dickinson. “You know the truth is it probably contributed a little bit on everybody. Look, Bill had earned his stripes. He earned the right to say or do whatever you wanted to do knowing that it may or may not cost him his job.

“But, you know, he's an older guy,” Dickinson pointed out. “He’s (71) years old. I'm 67. I understand we don't have patience a lot with younger guys. All those guys think they know it all. It's a different world than we live in. Those guys have to earn their stripes. Sometimes I think we get too caught up into that. To make this work, we've got to bend a little as a coach, too, or I've got to contribute it. I've got to maybe put my arm around this guy a little bit at a time when I don't want to. And when I don't, then I'm part of the problem.

“But if I do, if I help this kid because I chose him in the first round, and if I'm not going to do the right things by trading (him), don't make it worse.”

Dickinson said that, even before the 2022 season, he told Jones the Patriots should trade him.  

“If it’s miserable to both of you, it's not something that you married that you got to hang with for the next 30 years,” said Dickinson. “Bill's probably looking up at the ceiling at night – and look, man, that guy's the greatest, most decorated of all time Nothing but respect for the guy. … But when you contribute to the problem, you've got to own it.

“If Mac contributed too much to the problem, he has to own it. If I contributed too much by trying to help Mac in it, I have to own it. And when you do, you own it or it owns you. And that's just the way it is. I don't know why it didn't work. Maybe he just felt like that he wasn't his guy.

“After the first season, I saw that it was really good for Mac and I saw that his coach was leaving, and I advised Mac and his agent to go and ask for a trade. ... I just said, ‘Hey, I just think it would be better for you and the Patriots if they trade you.’

“I felt like, ‘Hey, if you really want this guy to work, you're going to get some guys around him. You're going to put the right guys around him helping him. And if you don't, this is really easy, just trade him, get another guy, because that's allowed and that's within the rules.'”

What was Jones’ reaction to that?

“Mac is Mac, for whatever reason. He grew up watching Tom Brady … and for whatever reason, he's always been a New England Patriots fan and he wanted to be like Brady, (who) a lot of guys want to be like.

“The good Lord made one Tom Brady,” said Dickinson. “And I think Mac wanted to be that guy. Yeah. And still does.”

So what now?

Jones is a long way from Tom Brady. Understatement.

It’s impossible to pinpoint how Jones fits in the Patriots' plans. Could he return as a backup or bridge quarterback for the first-rounder they spend on a new guy in April? Could the team eschew taking a quarterback and take offensive line and/or receiver help and let Jones play out his rookie contract?

If you polled New England, the answers to those questions would be “no” and “eff no.”

Team sources believe Jones is salvageable but wonder if there’s too much damage done for it work here. Dickinson considered the atmosphere and said, “We could say (it’s too toxic) and then he comes out, throws five touchdowns in the first game and everybody falls in love with him again in New England. I don't know the answer to that. The answer is most people have made up their mind.

“You can't change some of these people's minds. He's not Tom Brady. He's never going to be Tom Brady. Tom is no longer going to play for the New England Patriots,” said Dickinson.

“I don't know what the answer is on that because my own projection is, I thought he should have tried to get traded after the first year. But he wants to be a Patriot.  … Maybe sometimes the best thing is to cut bait and go somewhere else where you might be a better fit. But I will tell you this: His thoughts are that he's under contract. So he's in the building. He'll be in that building working out tomorrow, I bet you.

“Because if he's not going to be at the New England Patriots being a successful quarterback, it'll be somewhere else, because Mac Jones is a quality quarterback. He's shown it before at the highest level. He will do it again. I believe that in my heart.”

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