FOXBORO – The two teams were barely off the field, the detritus of the game still being wheeled up the runways when Cyrus Jones was seen walking silent and alone toward the players’ game-day parking lot.
The postgame buffet, the joking with teammates in the locker room after a big win, the prying questions from media who’d be wondering what in God’s name he was thinking out there all left behind.
The Patriots 2016 second-rounder helped turn a rout into a nailbiter by inexplicably wandering too close to a bounding punt in the third quarter. Earlier in the game, he’d done the same thing. He jumped and scuttled away from that one. This one found his foot. And the Ravens leaped on it while Jones was caught between giving chase and trying to pretend he hadn’t actually touched it. But touch it, he had. And the Ravens cashed that blunder in with a 3-yard touchdown drive then recovered a Matthew Slater fumble on the ensuing kickoff and got a touchdown out of that too.
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Jones’ night from hell wasn’t over. He got beaten down the left sideline in coverage by Breshad Perriman after getting dusted in the first 10 yards of the route. That completion set up a field goal. This mess, of course, followed last week’s mess against the Rams when Jones muffed a punt and was relieved by Danny Amendola, who sprained his ankle while on in relief of Jones on a punt return.
With Jones out the door, the only place to turn for answers about how Jones might work through it was with his teammates.
“I’ve been in that situation,” admitted Julian Edelman. “I’ve been in that doghouse and it’s gonna suck. But what you do to get out of it is you gotta work hard. There’s two things you can do: you can go in the tank or you can work your way out of it. Cy, he works hard, he practices hard, he’ll be alright. He’s gonna work his way out of it. That’s just growing pains. That can happen to anyone. It happened to me, it happened to Wes. You can go in the tank or you can work out and I believe he’ll work out of it.”
After Jones’ muff, special teams coach Joe Judge gave him a quick talking to then left him alone. Before heading out to return the kickoff Slater fumbled, both Dont’a Hightower and Malcolm Butler gave him pats of encouragement.
That’s all his teammates can do at this point.
“Just keep on him, keep telling him, ‘Keep on coming out here playing,’" was Devin McCourty’s answer when asked what a captain could tell Jones. “I’m not new to struggles. I’ve had struggles throughout my career here and you’ve just got to keep playing. It’s football. We have a tough football team. We have a lot of guys in that locker room that care about each other, great leadership. That’s what helped me through was just keep playing when I had some struggles throughout my career. He’s a very talented player. He’s young. He’s a rookie. You’re going to have some bad plays out there. You’ve just got to keep playing. We’ll continue to count on him, keep on making sure his confidence stays high. I have no doubt that he’s going to rebound and keep playing for us and keep playing well for us.”
Asked about trying to buck up Jones’ confidence by sticking by him while still doing what’s best for the team, Bill Belichick didn’t address Jones specifically but said, “We turned the ball over three times tonight. Three situations that all I would say are pretty preventable. We’ve just got to do a better job of taking care of the ball than we did tonight, and that’s everybody that handles it so we’ll work on those things. We’ll work on it with everybody. It’s everybody’s responsibility to protect the ball who handles it and we’ve just got to do a better job of it. We’ve got to coach it better. We’ve got to handle it better.”
Jones’ brilliance as a returner at Alabama was one of the reasons the team selected him. He’s no dummy, not by any stretch. But his mistakes are so costly, it’s probably gotten to the point where the Patriots can’t keep propping him up if he’s going to make unforced errors. He may be in exile for a spell, at least when it comes to returns.
“We just have to continue to be supportive of our teammates,” said Matt Slater. “He’s a guy we have a lot of confidence in and that’s because he’s got a ton of ability. We stick with him, we stick with everybody in this locker room and hopefully we can endure through this process.”