49ers

Mac's ascent ratchets up pressure on Shanahan, Lance and 49ers

49ers
Mac Jones, Kyle Shanahan

Hindsight is a gift and a curse. Oftentimes, the further we get from an event the easier it becomes to see what should have been obvious in the moment.

We're slowly entering that territory with Mac Jones. Fresh off a historic season in which he threw 41 touchdown passes, only four interceptions and completed 77.4 percent of his passes while leading Alabama to a 14-0 record and a national championship, it seems absurd that Jones wasn't the second quarterback off the board after Trevor Lawrence, who was billed as John Elway-reincarnated.

But instead, Jones was the fifth quarterback taken. The New York Jets were seduced by Zach Wilson tearing up bad defenses with off-platform throws. That looks like a whiff. The Chicago Bears have certainly seen enough good from Justin Fields to believe great things are possible once he is detached from Matt Nagy.

Then, there are the 49ers. San Francisco sat at No. 12 and could have had one of the quarterbacks fall into their lap. Instead, the 49ers made the bold move to trade two first-round picks to move up to No. 3 and make sure they got the guy they wanted after Lawrence and they assumed Wilson went off the board.

From the minute the 49ers made the trade with the Miami Dolphins, the Jones whispers started and made sense. Kyle Shanahan has an affinity for quarterbacks like Jones. The accurate, poised, smart pocket-passers who can't rip it like Justin Herbert or go off-platform like Patrick Mahomes.

But the 49ers didn't take Jones. Perhaps all the online fan backlash spooked Shanahan off his pick. Perhaps he truly was enamored with what Trey Lance, who the 49ers took at No. 3 overall, can become. One day. Some day. Perhaps it was because Jones lacks true running ability. Or the belief that he was a product of Alabama's talent. Or the fact that his dad-body and "average arm strength" don't look the part of what wins in today's NFL.

 

Except, what Jones does, what he excels at, does just that. It wins.

The low-ceiling, high floor prospect is now the frontrunner for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and just picked apart the No. 3 defense in the NFL on Sunday, going 19-for-23 for 198 yards and three touchdowns in the New England Patriots' 45-7 whooping of the Cleveland Browns. Jones' display Sunday included a number of high-level NFL throws and drives of 99 and 92 yards against a defense that swarmed 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow a week ago.

Against one of the NFL's top defenses, Jones went 6-of-7 for 103 yards and a TD on passes of 10-plus air yards, 9-of-9 for 90 yards and a TD on passes outside the numbers and 6-for-7 for 80 yards and a TD on third down. His 142.1 rating Sunday was the fifth-highest by a rookie QB in the Super Bowl era.

Jones put up a Week 3 stinker against the New Orleans in which he threw three interceptions. But since then, he has thrown for 2,333 yards with 13 touchdowns and seven picks. He went toe-to-toe with Tom Brady and Dak Prescott and gave the Patriots a chance to win each game.

Yes, the Patriots' offensive line has been playing better, the running game is bruising and the defense is looking like a Bill Belichick defense of yesteryear.

Every time Jones does something the NFL, analysts and fans didn't expect him to -- not a year into his career and certainly not 10 games -- it's explained away. He is a product of a system, or can't do it against a better defense or won't replicate that.

Jones' 2021 draft contemporaries are all, for the most part, theoretical. Lawrence should be good once the Jaguars put any sort of talent around him. After all, Peyton Manning recorded one of the worst rookie seasons in NFL history and he turned out OK. Fields should continue to develop as long as the Bears don't mess things up. Wison is in a tough spot and we have seen too little of Lance to know if or when he'll be good. The tools are evident but the finetuning will take time, and betting on the toolsy, small-sample size QB was always going to be a dice roll.

All of them remain quarterbacks that might one day be the best versions of themselves. Maybe.

Right now, Jones is poised, accurate, in command and getting better by the week. The Patriots are 6-4 and look like a legitimate threat in the AFC. Jones is a big reason for their success.

 

Is he lucky to be in his situation? Absolutely. Is he a product of a system? Considering that Cam Newton threw eight touchdowns, 10 interceptions and just 2,657 passing yards in the same system last season while the team went 7-9, the answer is pointing toward no.

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That brings us back to Shanahan, Lance and the 3-5 49ers.

There's no verdict on Jones vs. Lance. There won't be for years. Lance has seen action in only four games and started just one. He is raw. The talent is there. He has a rocket strapped to his right side, an insanely high football IQ and athleticism only a few QBs in the NFL possess.

That's all well and good. But Lance isn't ready now. Or, at least Shanahan claims he's not. The 49ers believed they'd be Super Bowl contenders this season, but the product on the field has suggested the contrary.

Hindsight is 20/20. Always. But the 49ers could have, in theory, stayed pat at No. 12, kept their two first-round picks, selected Jones and traded Jimmy Garoppolo to the Patriots for draft compensation and saved $25 million in cap space.

Coulda, should, woulda.

Instead, Shanahan zagged and pushed his chips in with Lance, who has regressed since training camp, according to a report by Bally Sports' Mike Silver, and still has been unable to supplant Garoppolo as the 49ers' starter.

Jones started ahead of Lance in his development and has had 10 weeks to get his feet wet in the NFL, learn, fail, grow and succeed.

Over the past seven weeks, Jones has shown why Belichick picked him to succeed Brady and why other NFL teams should have seen this coming.

Throws like this ...

And this ...

... can no longer be dismissed.

As Jones and the Patriots get better each week, Lance sits on the sideline learning to use a Microsoft Surface as the 49ers author uninspiring efforts against Colts McCoy and Carson Wentz.

With each dart Jones slings in Foxboro, tremors are starting to be felt in the Bay and the pressure is mounting on Shanahan and the 49ers to give the keys to Lance and prove their gamble to go with tools and raw talent over polish and poise was the right one.

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