Want to know when Mac Jones will take over as the Patriots starting quarterback? Then use this quote from Bill Belichick -- uttered nearly 20 years ago -- as a guide.
"I really don't think that I am going to be standing here week after week talking about all of the problems that Tom Brady had. I have confidence in him, I think the team has confidence in him and I think that he will prepare himself well and he will go out there and perform at a good level."
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Belichick said that on Monday, September 24th, 2001, the day after Brady came on in relief of Drew Bledsoe who’d been demolished the day before by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis in a 10-3 loss.
God willing, it won’t take anyone experiencing a sheared blood vessel and significant internal bleeding for Mac Jones to get his shot. Better it just happens naturally where Belichick is confident of two things. First, Jones won’t be a complete train wreck. Second, he’ll be an upgrade over Cam Newton.
Brady got his shot because Bledsoe was in a hospital bed. But he also proved an upgrade over Bledsoe. Those paying attention in the 2001 offseason suspected he might be. Brady performed better than Bledsoe in training camp practices and preseason games and that was illustrated by the fact Belichick made Brady the backup over Damon Huard, a player the team signed to a three-year, $3M deal in the offseason to be Bledsoe’s No. 2. That was good money.
Meanwhile, after the loss to the Jets, the Patriots were 5-13 under Belichick. Bledsoe’s penchant for taking sacks and making head-scratching decisions were becoming impossible to ignore or explain away and getting in the way of winning. Brady was the anti-Bledsoe in that the ball came out fast and the rest of the offense played with urgency that was absent when Bledsoe was running things.
Even though the Patriots gave Bledsoe a huge offseason deal just months before making him a “Patriot for life”, they structured it so they could get out of it very easily and took just a $6M 2002 cap hit on a $103M contract. But it took a year of development for Brady to be in position to unseat Huard and then Bledsoe. And it took brilliant play from Brady in limited action, stale play from Bledsoe and a catastrophic injury for the move to be made when it was.
Now, back to live action. There is no question of “if” Mac Jones will become the Patriots starting quarterback. The question is “when.”
My guess? It will be later rather than sooner. The reason?
First, Newton has to suck in a way that makes it impossible for Belichick and Josh McDaniels to watch anymore. He has to either be actively making them lose games or the team has to be barely surviving his performances. And I don’t think that’s going to happen. The offense around him is too far improved. His readiness to play is going to be miles ahead of where it was last year. The defense and special teams will be so good the Patriots won’t need Newton to be Superman. We will fixate on his hard-to-watch misfires. Beli-Daniels will notice them too, but they’ll also weigh in the stress Newton puts on opposing defenses as a runner. And his game management.
Second, Jones has to be the savant that he’s being billed as. And his mastery has to be so obvious that Belichick could stand at a podium and say, "I really don't think that I am going to be standing here week after week talking about all of the problems that Mac Jones had.”
That’s going to take time. How much? Former Patriots executive Mike Lombardi who is now with The Athletic said this on his "GM Shuffle" podcast.
“I think it is a year,” he said when asked how long Jones will sit. “Look, they are going to coach the shit out of him. They are going to get him in there. He’s going to be smart as hell. Look, here is what you have to do to play quarterback for the Patriots: You have to have great intelligence. You have to have really great anticipation with the football. And you have to be deadly accurate. Those are the three things Mac Jones does.
“Now, Mac Jones can’t run the power out of shotgun,” Lombardi added, contrasting Jones with Newton. “Mac Jones isn’t going to run the quarterback sweep. There’s going to be two different offenses here, but they are going to be the same passing game. This is what I think people disconnect a little bit here. The passing game will be the same for Cam and it will be the same for Mac Jones.
“I think Mac Jones will take a redshirt year,” Lombardi added. “He’s going to have to prove it. The one thing Belichick is not going to do, he’s not going to give anybody a job whether he picks them 15 or he picks them 1,500th. They are going to have to earn it. Mac Jones is going to have to go in there and earn it. I think it will be a great quarterback room for them. I think they have great competition in the room and we’ll see what he can do. They will get a chance to really develop him and allow him to work on his craft, and really get him ready to play.”
From Brady to Brett Favre to Steve Young to Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Jimmy Garoppolo, Patrick Mahomes, the evidence of an apprenticeship being a good thing is stacked pretty high. There’s evidence on the “throw ‘em in there!” side as well, but the common denominator with those guys is often that there was nobody else there and the franchise stunk.
Regardless how you feel about his arm slot, accuracy, social media fonts or hat collection, Newton’s presence buys the Patriots time. But the battle will be joined.
“At the end of the day it comes down to execution,” said former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel. “Guys respond more to execution than any rah-rah leadership you can provide. You can be a great yeller, you can be a great screamer, you can be the guy that picks people up. At the end of the day, we’re all in a success-based industry and if you’re not successful then the next guy will come up.
“I’ve always believed Bill will go with the guy that’s the best player,” Cassel added. “And he lays that out from Day 1. I remember walking into my rookie meeting and he put up the depth chart. I was at the bottom of the depth chart. He said, ‘Look guys, these depth charts are here but you guys determine who’s gonna play. At the end of the day, we have to win. And that’s what the basis for all this is. You guys determine your position on this team whether you play a lot, play a little or don’t play at all. As long as you’re out there and executing, we’re gonna find a way for you to be on the field. And if that’s the case with Mac Jones and he’s outperforming Cam Newton, then guess what? Sooner than later Bill’s gonna take that and say, ‘We’ve got to give him the opportunity to be the guy.’ And I think that’s how the approach is gonna be coming into this season.”
Right now, it’s going to be an uphill battle to dislodge him. Cam being a veteran and being with the organization last year and going through what he did and now the team being better, Cam’s got a step up on him.
At the end of the day, where Mac Jones has come from in the Alabama system, the complexities of what Steve Sarkisian presented to him and what he was able to do last year within that system, he’s going to understand the nuances of what goes into the Patriots offense.
What it’s gonna take is him to establish himself on the field and in the huddle as a leader. It’s not gonna be the vocal leader that Cam is because obviously everybody respects Cam as a leader. But at the same time, Mac Jones can lead on the field by, 1) taking command of the huddle, being efficient, understanding his job and purpose and then executing the play.