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New Patriots QB Mac Jones trying to carve his own New England niche

Tom Brady comparisons hound the rookie, who won the starting job in training camp.
Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones looks to pass during last week's game against the Saints at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones looks to pass during last week's game against the Saints at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. [ WINSLOW TOWNSON | AP ]
Published Oct. 1, 2021
Updated Oct. 1, 2021

TAMPA — The scene last Sunday hearkened to the early pages of the Forrest Gump script, complete with a cumbersome leg contraption and Alabama tie-in.

Cameras caught Patriots quarterback Mac Jones, who was leading the Crimson Tide to another national title less than nine months ago, trying to unbuckle the left knee brace that had come loose following a 12-yard run. Trying to avoid a timeout, Jones’ efforts segued from deliberate to frantic as the play clock wound down.

“There’s a lot of straps on there, so it’s hard to put it on, but it’s also hard to get it off,” Jones told Boston sports-radio station WEEI. “And it was broken, so, I don’t know, it took a little extra time, and at that point in the game we had a lot of momentum.”

Moments later, Jones dropped back and lofted a jump ball to Kendrick Bourne, who snagged it in man coverage near the right sideline, kept his balance and tiptoed to the pylon for a 22-yard touchdown against the Saints.

Related: Tom Brady says breakup with Patriots was 'handled perfect'

If only Tom Brady comparisons could be shed as briskly and dramatically as supportive leg wear.

“For me, it’s just being myself and being my own player,” Jones said at his introductory press conference in April.

The GOAT and the kid

Mac Jones calls out signals at the line of scrimmage during Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
Mac Jones calls out signals at the line of scrimmage during Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. [ WINSLOW TOWNSON | AP ]

In the sprawling annals of no-win situations, Jacksonville native Michael McCorkle “Mac” Jones finds himself lodged somewhere between Brian Griese (who replaced Elway in Denver) and Phil Bengston (who replaced Lombardi in Green Bay).

A large swath of the New England fan base is counting on this lanky right-hander with the boy-band countenance (sound familiar?) to re-boot — if not replicate — the Brady era.

NBC Sports Boston published an article comparing Jones’ first NFL start to Brady’s. Similarly, other outlets have scurried to detail the similarities between the GOAT and the kid.

So are the expectations being heaped upon the No. 15 overall pick in last spring’s draft unfair? Of course.

Unheard of? That depends. If you’re only asking for a sliver of the moon instead of the whole orb, experts suggest it’s hardly unrealistic to believe Jones can deliver.

“I’ve been really impressed with him,” said NFL career passing-yardage leader Drew Brees, who has called Jones the “most NFL-ready” quarterback in the 2021 draft.

“I’ll take this last game (a 28-13 loss to the Saints) specifically, because I had a chance to watch it pretty closely. I felt like the Saints defense, especially the defensive line, really got after New England up front, both with the four-man rush and with their pressure packages.

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“But I felt like Mac Jones showed a level of poise and maturity that is beyond his years. Man, he stood in there, he took a lot of hits. He stood in there with confidence to deliver the ball down the field.”

A Patriots-type player

A fan holds up a photograph of Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones during the first half of last week's Patriots-Saints game in Foxborough, Mass.
A fan holds up a photograph of Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones during the first half of last week's Patriots-Saints game in Foxborough, Mass. [ STEVEN SENNE | AP ]

In a coaching sense, Jones has stood in a pocket of privilege nearly since pubescence. In high school, he played at Jacksonville Bolles for wing-T disciple Corky Rogers, Florida’s all-time winningest prep coach who passed away in 2020. A four-year apprenticeship under Nick Saban at Alabama followed.

Rogers, Saban and Bill Belichick — Jones’ current boss — have combined for 23 Super Bowl, national or state titles. Jones, 23, has started a prep state final (a loss) and a College Football Playoff national title game (a victory).

His offensive coordinators over the years have included Brian Daboll (the current Bills coordinator), Steve Sarkisian (the current Texas coach) and Josh McDaniels. It was primarily under Sarkisian and Saban that he became proficient in a timing-based, vertical system (favored by McDaniels in New England) in which quick, accurate throws are a prerequisite.

“When I watch (Jones), I see a New England Patriots-type player,” said former Bucs and Colts coach Tony Dungy, who will serve as a studio analyst for Sunday night’s Bucs-Patriots game for NBC.

Evidently, so did Belichick and McDaniels, who released veteran Cam Newton in the preseason in favor of Jones.

“I’m not comparing him to Tom Brady ... but it feels like (the Patriots) offense again,” said Cris Collinsworth, who will call Sunday’s game with longtime partner Al Michaels.

“It’s like, okay, they did a certain thing with Cam, they did different things, but now you sort of feel that offense coming back, and I think it’s going to be really interesting to watch. Not just how he grows, but how that offense grows with all those new parts in there now with all the free agents and all the different guys, and how long it takes to start to really feel that way again — if it ever does.”

Standing his ground

Mac Jones throws under pressure during Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
Mac Jones throws under pressure during Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. [ WINSLOW TOWNSON | AP ]

Clearly, Jones isn’t complemented by the constellation of skill guys that surrounded Brady for nearly his whole two-decade tenure. No Rob Gronkowski or Randy Moss. No Deion Branch or Danny Amendola. The team’s best current offensive weapon, multi-dimensional tailback James White, is on the shelf with a hip injury.

Not coincidentally, opponents have blitzed Jones 39 times in three games, considerably more than Brady (32) or fellow pocket passer Jameis Winston (22) have faced to this point.

In his NFL debut, the Dolphins blitzed him on 21 of 40 dropbacks. Yet he completed 29 of 39 passes for 281 yards, a touchdown, a sack, and passer rating of 102.6 in a 17-16 defeat. His current quarterback rating (79.1) ranks 29th in the league, but he’s 19th in completion percentage (67.5).

“I think emotions are a good thing and a bad thing, and you just have to learn how to control them,” Jones said Wednesday. “And it’s hard when you play with a lot of passion and stuff. But you just want to kind of be like an iceman — just nice and smooth, calm, cool and collective.”

A little icy gamesmanship doesn’t hurt, either.

During a 13-minute session with New England reporters Wednesday, Jones never uttered Brady’s name despite being asked about how much he watched him growing up and the magnitude of Sunday’s contest. While lauding the longevity of Brady’s career and doing it “the right way,” Jones used only a pronoun (“he”) in lieu of a proper name.

“I loved him coming out (of college),” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said.

“He’s smart, a pocket player who’s going to get the ball out, he’s very accurate. Obviously, pressure doesn’t bother him. He played in some big games (at Alabama). He led his team to the championship, so yeah, he’s legit.”

For now, that suffices. Whether legit evolves into legend remains at least two decades from being determined.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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