Mac Jones walked alone down the Patriots sideline. Eventually, in the 90-degree heat, after another busy day of work, he took a knee.
The Patriots rookie quarterback had just submitted one of the most impressive stretches of play the team had seen from that position this summer. In a hurry-up period, he helped the Patriots drive the field from deep in their own territory, completing six of eight attempts to score on the first-team Giants defense. His longest throw was his most impressive of the day -- a corner route to Jakobi Meyers that split double coverage -- and put the Patriots on the doorstep of the goal line for an easy score two plays later.
Jones had taken just about every competitive rep for the Patriots offense by the time he took a knee on the sidelines at the end. Between 7-on-7 periods and 11-on-11 work, he'd seen a whopping 55 snaps against the Giants defense. That was after taking all the first-team reps on Monday and Tuesday against the Patriots defense. For all intents and purposes, he'd had six days of practice crammed into three.
After leading that late-practice scoring drive, though, his team showed him some appreciation. Not much. But some. Defensive line coach Demarcus Covington gave Jones a quick low-five. Deatrich Wise offered a fist pound. Then strode over Bill Belichick.
The Patriots head coach seemed to go out of his way to seek out Jones on the sideline. As Belichick headed to his spot behind the Patriots defense -- at that point on the field and at work against the Giants offense -- Belichick stopped short in front of the kneeling Jones. He turned to the field to watch his defense play one snap. Then he turned back to Jones, low-fived the rookie, and walked away.
It was quick. But, for Belichick, it was a tad out of the ordinary. And it spoke volumes. Whether or not Jones will be Belichick's starter Week 1 is anyone's guess. But with one show of appreciation for his likely-exhausted quarterback, Belichick left no doubt. He watched Jones go to work with a field full of NFL starters, and Belichick was pleased with what he saw.
Here's the skinny on the numbers for Jones from Wednesday: In 11-on-11 periods, he went 20-for-23. In 7-on-7 work, he went 13-for-14. He had to eat the football in one failed rep of 7-on-7 play. He also took a sack and a delay of game penalty in 11-on-11s. But for the second straight practice, Jones completed over 80 percent of his passes. And unlike his two-pick day on Tuesday, he was turnover-free in practice No. 1 against the Giants.
Situational success: Years ago, Bill Belichick told a coaching clinic what he was looking for in players. The abridged version: smart, tough, dependable.
What did the third of those attributes mean to Belichick? "[In] critical situations, you can count on those players to perform under pressure."
Hard to replicate "critical situations ... under pressure" in training camp. No doubt. But that doesn't stop teams from trying. The Patriots, in particular, spend the vast majority of competitive periods in their practices working on what Belichick calls "situational football" in order to get his team accustomed to working in the types of scenarios that most often decide winners and losers.
Why is it worth revisiting that quote from Belichick? Because in a critical moment -- as critical a moment that could be conjured up in late-August practice -- Jones was on point Wednesday. It came in a two-minute drill, and it started not-so-ideally for the Patriots offense.
Trent Brown was called for a false start, pushing the Patriots deep into their own territory. Then Jones threw incomplete to a diving Kendrick Bourne. Second and long.
But then came back-to-back completions to Bourne and Jonnu Smith. After a defensive holding call and two more completions to Isaiah Zuber (on a blown protection when Jones had to sprint right upon receiving the snap and get the ball out quickly) and Gunner Olszewski, Jones was cooking.
That led to Jones' deep completion to Meyers -- from over 30 yards away -- that was dropped between Adoree Jackson and Darnay Holmes. After a throwaway to avoid trouble on the doorstep of the goal line, Jones found James White wide open in the front corner of the end zone to cap the drive. With time to spare.
As has been the case throughout the summer, even in some of Jones' most impressive practices, there are rookie mistakes. He took a sack at one point when the ball didn't come out of his hands quickly. The offense took a delay-of-game penalty while he ran the huddle. One of his first throws of the day in 11-on-11 work should have been picked off by safety (and Alabama teammate) Xavier McKinney.
After that near-pick? He completed his next 20 competitive reps. Mixed into that sequence was a defensive hold that wiped away an incompletion and a sack that would've ended another rep before Jones was able to get off an attempt. Still... 20 passes? And the 21st was sent to Kendrick Bourne over the middle and -- though it required a dive -- was placed away from the Giants defense and Bourne acknowledged later it was catchable.
Early in that sequence came Jones' second-best throw of the practice, which put his anticipation on display. On a wheel route by White, Jones lofted one up the right sideline well before White turned around to look for the ball.
"I kind of got jammed up on the route a little bit," White said. "I actually heard somebody scream ‘ball,’ so that was kind of [telling] me the ball was coming. It was perfect timing, but a perfect throw and a big play in the two-minute drive."
Accuracy. Anticipation. Dependability in critical -- albeit practice critical -- situations. Jones showed flashes of that which Belichick and the Patriots are looking for from the quarterback position.
The question now is whether or not it was enough to allow Jones to maintain his standing as the team's No. 1 quarterback. Cam Newton is scheduled to return to practice Thursday.