One thing became clear the morning after the first game of rookie Mac Jones’ career as an NFL quarterback: It’s better to be the man who replaced the man who replaced Tom Brady than it is to be the man who replaced Tom Brady.
Had Cam Newton still been under center Sunday instead of standing in the unemployment line all the talk would have been about how the Patriots scored only one touchdown in four trips inside the red zone in what became a 17-16 loss to the Miami Dolphins. But the much maligned Newton is history now, replaced by Jones in a move that stunned some in New England when head coach Bill Belichick pulled the trigger and jettisoned a former league MVP for the 15th player taken in April’s NFL draft.
Jones has been a fan favorite since the moment he was drafted because he was seen as the counterpoint to having Newton back at quarterback after the latter struggled mightily to get his oft surgically repaired body to respond the way it had when he was lighting it up for the Carolina Panthers.
Those days are behind him now, and so is his one-year chance to replace the GOAT. The difficulty of that assignment was only heightened after the Patriots failed to make the playoffs while Brady went off and led the seldom competitive Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory, something Brady had done six times in New England before Belichick showed him the exit.
Being the man who replaces the man is often a thankless task, but as Jones learned Sunday the same is not true if you’re the man who replaces the man who replaced the man.
Then you are welcomed with open arms, at least for the time being, a fact made clear when the crowd of over 60,000 in Foxboro gave him a standing ovation when he trotted out of the locker room for warmups to the strains of “Mr. Jones, Mr. Jones’’ piped over the stadium sound system.
Depending on how badly you wanted him to be the next Brady (which, of course, there will never be) he did not disappoint. Or, if he did, it was only a little bit and well within the Cam Newton Margin of Error.
Yes he led the Patriots on four 14-play drives. Yes, he got them inside the red zone four times. Yes he led a final drive from the 50-yard line following an interception of another former Alabama quarterback, Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa, with 8:07 to play, down by one point all the way to the Miami nine-yard line.
And that’s where the good news stopped.
New England scored only one touchdown in those four red zone trips. The potential game-winning drive ended when Jones’ former Alabama teammate, Damien Harris, fumbled at the nine-yard line and a defense that is supposed to be the backbone of a rebuilt Patriots' playoff contender couldn’t stop Tua and the Dolphins. even when a penalty backed them into a 1st-and-14 situation at their own 5 with 3:24 to play and the Patriots in possession of three timeouts plus the two-minute warning.
That defense did not hold, and Mac Jones never got the ball back but to the locals he left a hero after completing 29-of-39 passes, including some beauties, for 281 yards and his first NFL touchdown pass. Although that wasn’t enough for a win it was enough for New England’s irascible and often impatient fans to burst into rhapsody after Jones refused to accept the ball he’d thrown for that touchdown from the man who received it, veteran Nelson Agholor.
Later Jones would say, “It doesn’t really matter. It’s just one touchdown. We have to score more. We got to do better in the red zone and get more touchdowns. And we will.”
That’s all the desperately uneasy Patriot fans had to hear. Cam Newton wore wild hats. Mac Jones wouldn’t accept the ball he’d thrown for his first NFL touchdown. Neither mean a damn thing anywhere but in New England, where the man who replaced the man who replaced the MAN is instantly seen as a selfless Brady clone. Brady, of course, kept the first ball he’d ever thrown for a touchdown in the NFL and a hell of a lot more of them, both inflated and deflated. That didn’t mean a thing either but these are desperate times in Dynasty City.
The man who replaced the man who replaced a GOAT looked a little shaky on his first two drives but after that settled down and did almost enough to win a football game. In the end, if you’re replacing Cam Newton and not Tom Brady that’s more than enough.
At least for now.
But with Belichick’s head coaching record without Brady now having slumped to 59-71 in nine-plus years without a GOAT to bail him out, people may start to wonder about his genius if this persists much longer. That 59-71 record with every quarterback other than Brady is a .450 winning percentage. In eight years without Tom Brady as his quarterback, Rex Ryan posted a record of 61-66, a winning percentage of .480. People in New England believed he was an incompetent boob and a borderline nitwit even though he went to the playoffs twice as often as Belichick did when Brady was not their quarterback (2-to-1) and was 4-2 in the postseason to Brady-less Belichick’s 1-1 playoff record.
For now Mac Jones is a breath of fresh air and, more importantly, reason to hope in Dynasty City that New England’s dynasty isn’t headed in the same direction of the Ming Dynasty, which is to say into the ash heap of history. He is their future hope and Belichick’s as well and that future didn’t even have to be now in New England.
It just better be next week against the lowly Jets down at the Meadowlands because if not, Mac Jones may soon find out love can be fleeting in Foxboro unless you’re a GOAT.
Just ask Cam Newton.
Or soon, maybe Bill Belichick.