Cassel: Why this could be a career-defining moment for Mac Jones

Mac Jones

I'm still surprised by how the Patriots' quarterback situation unfolded Monday night.

It's hard to play quarterback when you feel like you're on a short leash, so I thought the fact that Mac Jones was healthy enough to start the game meant he would stay in for its entirety.

Listening to Bill Belichick, Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe after the game, it sounded like there was an understanding that both guys would play. But I don't exactly know the reasoning behind it. And now there's a cloud of speculation surrounding the quarterback position, because this last game didn't answer any of the questions we had.

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Jones' benching probably surprised the players, too. If you're not aware of the quarterback plan, those in-game changes seem abrupt, and it probably felt to them like Jones' benching was performance-related after he threw the interception.

The offensive players probably felt Jones was going to play the whole game, so I can see why they might be shocked given the circumstance.


What does Belichick tell the team?

Bill Belichick's message to his players will be something to the affect of, "Look, I know there's probably a lot of questions being asked through the media. Just speak for yourself. Don't speak about other players. Worry about yourself, and your main focus should be getting ready for the Jets because we have to get better in a lot of different areas."

He might address the quarterback situation internally, but I don't think he'll tell his players, "Hey, this guy is starting."

It's not the defensive back's job to worry about the quarterback position. So, he'll try to emphasize that each individual player should just worry about themselves and doing their job to eliminate distractions in that way.

When there's a situation that's bigger than the group -- whether it's Spygate when I was in New England or something like this -- Belichick's message is, "Look, guys, you don't have to answer all the questions. You can speak for yourself or you own position group, whatever it might be. But in terms of the quarterback situation, deflect those questions to me and say, 'Coach Belichick would be better at answering that question.'"

That way you take it off the players and they're not so concerned about saying the wrong thing.

Can Mac Jones channel Drew Brees?

I can relate to Mac Jones. When I was in my last year with the Kansas City Chiefs, we were a much worse team than the Patriots have been so far. There were boos when we didn't get a first down during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals, and I got benched at halftime in favor of Brodie Croyle. So, I feel for Mac.

As a player, you know how much work he put in to get back on the field, and the results weren't there. And to compound the issue, the fans are cheering when Zappe is on the field and booing when Jones is on the field. It's tough. As a quarterback, that's what you sign up for, but there's frustration, disappointment and even embarrassment when you're in a situation like this.

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It's a tough thing to get through mentally. You have to have the mental fortitude to turn the page, get back into your routine next week and correct your mistakes. That's easier said than done, but there are a lot of quarterbacks in this league who have struggled early in their careers.

Just a look at Drew Brees, who was benched several times early in his career with San Diego and went on to become a Hall of Famer. You just find a way to come back stronger and become callous to this type of situation, and it makes you tougher as a player having dealt with this adversity.


A career-defining opportunity in New York

This can go one of two ways for Mac Jones. He can let this difficult situation get to him and allow it to change the way he plays the game. His big issue has been turnovers, and obviously some adjustments need to be made, but a situation like this can make you hyper-aware of what's going on out in the field to the detriment of your play.

Or he can use this tough situation to make strides as a player. It's really about playing one clean game, and a lot of times that helps you get your confidence back. You say, "I know I can play at a high level. I've shown I can play at a high level, and now it's just about carrying momentum through the rest of the season."

The best part about the football season is that you can change the narrative with one good week. There's a lot of negativity surrounding Mac Jones right now -- some of it is warranted and some of it isn't. But if he can get back to his routine and put in a good week of practice, he should feel confident going into next Sunday and be ready to let it fly.

The QB option that should be off the table

It's hard to tell where the Patriots stand in terms of how they evaluated Bailey Zappe and how they feel about Mac Jones. Zappe played well at times Monday, but it seems like they don't have a clear understanding for who their "guy" is based on what happened against Chicago.

But the one thing they shouldn't do is a quarterback-by-committee approach.

That does a disservice to both players, both mentally and physically, because neither gets a majority of the reps. They need to make a decision early this week and give the lion's share of the practice reps to the guy they believe will start on Sunday.

If they decide to go with Mac, they stick with that decision to avoid a repeat of what happened Monday night.

Editor's Note: Matt Cassel played 14 years in the NFL as a quarterback, including four with the Patriots from 2005 to 2008. He serves as an analyst for NBC Sports Boston, appearing on Pre/Postgame Live, as a guest on Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast every Thursday, and as a columnist each week during the season.