HOUSTON - Delivering accurate spirals with plenty of zip while pushing the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the brink Sunday night, New England Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones' impressive performance in a losing cause opened a lot of eyes around the NFL.
"That kid can flat-out play," an NFL general manager said. "He's legit."
"Mac Jones? Really good young quarterback," an NFL scout said in a text message. "I like everything about him. He's for real."
The accuracy and poise that Jones displayed during a last-second loss to the Buccaneers last Sunday night was overshadowed by Brady’s dramatic homecoming victory, but how the former Alabama standout performed was absolutely a big deal.
The replacement for former NFL Most Valuable Player Cam Newton after beating the veteran out in a training camp competition served notice that the Patriots have an up-and-coming quarterback one year after Brady left as a free agent to join the Buccaneers and led them to a Super Bowl championship.
When Jones completed 19 consecutive passes against a veteran-laden Buccaneers defense, it represented the longest streak by a rookie over the past four decades as he surpassed Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon’s 16 straight completions.
“I think you’ve got to have fun in those moments,” said David Morris, the founder of QB Country and a former Mississippi quarterback who has coached Jones and several other NFL quarterbacks, including Eli Manning and New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones. “If you’re kind of in the zone, it’s important to be in those moments and not just hover above them or beneath them. Emotions can flow. Mac does a very good job of managing them After a touchdown pass, you saw a bunch of low fives with teammates and then he went directly back to the bench to study.
“It’s the frame of focus. As you’re trying to execute and have successful plays, it’s all about that play and not thinking about the next drive. As long as you can stay within the play and not hover over it and be pretty locked in, you have a better chance of having success. Then, it’s over and it’s on to the next one. Every play is its own entity, so be in the moment. Mac is a guy who’s ultra-competitive. It was a heartbreaker against Tampa Bay because he plays about as good as you can play and you don’t win it, so that’s frustrating. But Mac is a guy who has persevered through a lot. Most people don’t realize his road to getting there. He’s been very patient. When your moment comes, he took advantage of it.”
Jones' steady approach and keen knowledge of the game are making a difference for a 1-3 Patriots team that lacks a strong running game. Although most of Jones' passes are short to intermediate throws, he's completing them and moving the chains heading into Sunday's game at NRG Stadium against the 1-3 Houston Texans.
“Just keeping in mind that they have a rookie quarterback, I’m sure they want to make quick throws, keep his confidence level high," Texans veteran safety Justin Reid said of Jones. "He did a tremendous job in my opinion against the Buccaneers. So, that game is just dink and dunks,. don’t think will kill you. And there’s some trap plays that you can set up for that, too, if that’s what they want to do the entire game. But I don’t think that those plays kill you. You’ve just got to be disciplined for when the real opportunities come.”
A former national championship winner at Alabama, Jones completed 31 of 40 passes for two touchdowns and one interception against the Buccaneers.
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Jones passed for 4,500 yards, 41 touchdowns and four interceptions in his final season for the Crimson Tide, beating Ohio State, 52-24, in the national championship game as he passed for 464 yards and five touchdowns. He won the Davey O’Brien, Johnny Unitas Golden Arm and Manning awards and finished third in the balloting for the Heisman Trophy, which went to teammate DeVonta Smith.
"Seeing what he’s done in the NFL, for you to come into an NFL camp and to be a game-day starter, that tells you an awful lot in a program like theirs," Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith said. "Any program, for a rookie to play and to play at the level that he has, I think all the different challenges that have been put in front of him, he’s handled them all well right up until primetime Sunday night in that environment. He can make all the throws. I’m told he’s a smart player. His play, just watching on video, says that. He’s running their offense and running it well, and it’ll be a good challenge for us.”
Jones' timing, chemistry and intelligent play while collaborating with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is leading to an improved passing game for New England.
"I think Josh obviously, is one of the best offensive minds in football, and I always like to learn how he wants to do it, and we’ve had really good conversations like, “Hey, what do you like about this play or not like?'" Jones told New England reporters. "He does a great job of, obviously, attacking defenses, and my job is to see it how he sees it, and the good thing is that, I think, even from the start, we see it very similar, and, obviously, we have room to grow there. That’s just an every-week thing because every defense changes every week. You’re not going to face the same scheme, players, coaches, etc.
"So, whatever the scheme on our end is for that week, by the end of the week, I feel really comfortable where I’m at. That’s why we practice. We make errors and fix things and talk through it and by Sunday, I feel really prepared, and all of us do because the coaching staff does a good job of holding us to that standard. We’re trying to hold each other to that standard now, too."
Jones drew heavy praise from former Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman on Paramount's Inside the NFL program.
Although Jones was hit 12 times and sacked four times against the Buccaneers, he stood tall in the pocket and kept firing away.
Jones has completed 70 percent of his throws for 1,012 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions. He's averaging just 6.3 yards per attempt, but the volume of passes and his precision is adding up one short pass at a time. Jones has been sacked 10 times in four games and has an 84.7 passer rating.
Jones isn't a game-changer just yet, but he's part of the Patriots' solution and certainly far from a problem.
“He doesn’t seem to play ‘hero ball,'” Edelman said. "“He’s not a guy that’s going to try to win you the game. He’s going to take what the defense gives you, I think that paired with Josh McDaniels in New England.
"I know they’re not where they want to be, I know they didn’t win the game, but this was a huge confidence-builder for the New England Patriots seeing how Mac Jones played. The lights weren’t too bright for him.”