Patriots fans stood and applauded Mac Jones as he walked onto the field for his first preseason pass as a professional as if they were watching a ceremonial transfer of power, because when you’ve been conditioned to believe the NFL’s greatest quarterback fairytale for the better part of 20 years, you’re prepared to believe in anything.
As much as we all wish Jones’s initial snaps against Washington provided answers, it would be a fool’s errand to conjure something definitive from the first slate of preseason games in two years. There was a time a few years ago when Robert Griffin III to Terrelle Pryor had a nice ring to it in Cleveland. It’s the active agent in the NFL’s drug, this kind of blind optimism we don’t always reserve for the other aspects of our lives.
But there’s almost as interesting of a story in what we can’t say about Jones’s debut. This is obviously safer but it’s sometimes more accurate than comparing a quarterback’s snaps in a dulled, vanilla offense against various packages of first, second, third and fourth-stringers looking for absolutes. We cannot say that, for even a single moment, Jones looked lost. We cannot say that, outside of two nervous double-clutches, Jones resembled a rookie at all (and that would be nitpicking at its extreme). We cannot say that the ball didn’t get out on time, milliseconds after his foot would land on the third or fifth step of his drop. We cannot say that Jones failed to execute both a traditional and hurry-up version of the Patriots’ offense. We cannot say that the first sack he took was his fault, as his receivers were blanketed downfield. We cannot say that the first two deep balls he threw—one in the end zone to Kristian Wilkerson and one on a post corner route to Gunner Olszewski—were ugly, even if they landed incomplete (the first should have been caught, and the second was long by less than the length of a paper clip). We cannot say he didn’t complete at least one NFL, regular-season caliber timing route that showcased his comfort in the offense.
Preseason debuts for rookie quarterbacks are often wildly deceiving because they tend to run. They drop back and panic and gain yardage scrambling for their lives. That, or they carve up second and third string defenses, feasting on a mismatch where, perhaps, a third-string wide receiver is matching up on a seventh-string defensive back. It looks good because we believe. Then, we act surprised when it all comes undone.
We cannot say Jones won’t land in this category, but for the better part of three quarters on Thursday he displayed all the traits of a quarterback who could function well in New England’s system. The Patriots can survive and win regularly with a quarterback who habitually gets the ball out on time, makes few mistakes, and places the ball accurately in tight windows, close to medium range throws. This all sounds like Sunday morning analyst drivel, but it’s true. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels can give their quarterback more resources than other teams can. They just need someone able to take advantage of those little edges, the tiny nuances that make their system timeless and powerful. It’s why they were thrilled Jones wasn’t drafted by the 49ers, even if that notion wasn’t as ridiculous as Kyle Shanahan made it out to be after the draft. Jones was not the kind of player who was going to stand out among the likes of Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields and Trey Lance. There is nothing about him that is more than anyone else. He is not the most polished, the biggest, the strongest or the fastest. But he is capably smooth and processes the game quickly. He may have landed in the perfect place in that regard.
We cannot say that Cam Newton isn’t in the perfect place, also. Perhaps after a full offseason spent healthy, immersed in a non-crash course version of this system, he is the right choice for New England as they attempt to start another lengthy playoff streak. But we cannot say that Jones should be out of the conversation to start Week One against the Dolphins. At least not yet. If there was one bold take to cling to after a handful of preseason minutes, this might be the one.
Maybe—maybe—Patriots fans were not crazy for applauding like the future at quarterback was never in doubt. We cannot say, after one evening, that they were wrong.
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