PATS REPORTER

Perry: What is it that makes evaluating Mac Jones so polarizing?

PATS REPORTER

Mac Jones has made everyone lose their minds.

The Patriots rookie is the quarterback upon whom no one can agree, apparently. There are corners of the football-watching universe that would say he's a product of Bill Belichick's system. There are others that believe the aforementioned group has no idea what it's looking at.

If it sounds familiar, that's because it is. You've already heard this debate. For about a decade. Back in the early 2000s. Before Tom Brady had truly established himself as one of the best to ever play -- and well before he cemented himself as the best -- there was a similar discussion surrounding the Patriots.

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Fans in New England will of course endure it willingly because if the winning goes away so too does the debate of nature versus nurture. It's a debate that has hovered over Jones for about a year now.

Before the draft, he was a possible top-three pick for some. For others, toward the end of the college football season, there was no guarantee he'd be taken in the first round. Back in the summer, it was deemed lunacy by some for the Patriots to roll into Week 1 with Jones as their starter. For others, he was the clear-cut choice over Cam Newton. Now, 12 weeks into the 2021 campaign, Jones has numbers that would suggest he's one of the most efficient quarterbacks in football. Others are still waiting for him to prove his mettle.

 

Even a one-week sample from Jones is hard to assess with any sort of uniformity, it seems. Pro Football Focus had the Patriots win over the Titans last weekend as Jones' worst grade of the season. He got a B- from me on the Report Card. But no quarterback had a higher passer rating than he did in Week 12.

What is it, then, that makes him such a polarizing evaluation? Why can't folks seem to come to a consensus on the player who is now the odds-on favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year?

"Too many people, when we're watching quarterbacks, we look at them like we look at every other position," ESPN's Dan Orlovsky told us on the Next Pats podcast this week. "When I'm drafting a defensive end, I want big, fast, strong, powerful, athletic. Same thing with a wide receiver. That's the stuff I want. If I can get the physical with [the mental], great. I've got a really good player. It's the opposite with quarterbacks.

"I need you to think incredibly fast, and process incredibly quickly, and be able to check things off, and keep an even keel temperament-wise, be an incredible leader, and own moments. And then I need you to be physically good. The mental is way more important but we don't care about that. We want the big, sexy, shiny thing -- even at quarterback. That's just not the reality of the position.

"If you can give me a guy like Patrick Mahomes, who has the mental and then the physical? Awesome. Or a guy like Josh Allen, who has a lot of the mental and a lot of the physical? Awesome. Great. But the two most important things in the history of this position, that always have been, are and always will be: how fast you think and how well you can throw. Mac, that's why I thought he was going to go No. 3. All these things that are incredibly important about playing quarterback, I think he's elite at. That's why all that stuff makes up for his 'inability' physically, if we want to phrase it that way."

There are subtleties to Jones' game -- some of them noted on Next Pats by longtime NFL quarterback JT O'Sullivan back in September -- that may be harder to appreciate than the highlights produced by Mahomes, Allen and others.

That nuanced style was spotlighted again on Tuesday when I asked Josh McDaniels for his evaluation of Jones from against the Titans. The Patriots offensive coordinator pointed to a nondescript play that underscored the hard-to-see value Jones adds in certain situations.

 

"We had the one sack on the fringe in the fourth quarter," McDaniels said. "And it's third-and-[21]. We need a handful of yards to get back into field-goal range, and he makes a decent decision, completes the ball underneath to Jakobi [Meyers]. We get it into field-goal range. Nick [Folk] capitalizes on it, and makes the kick.

Are the Patriots helping provide a situation in which a young quarterback is more likely to thrive? Of course. They wouldn't be doing their jobs if they weren't. But is Jones elevating his team in critical moments? He is.

"Ultimately the possession wasn't exactly what we wanted, but there was some positive there because he's understanding the scenario that he's in, and he helped us actually 'win' the situation, if you will, because third-and-20-somethings are hard to overcome."

Orlovsky, unprompted, brought up the same play, saying that it "embodies this offense and this football team."

"People probably see that and say, 'Oh,' " Orlovsky said. "That's a big play! For that kid to understand that, that's a big play."

The debate over who has been more responsible for Jones' recent success -- Jones himself or the Patriots system? -- has legs because there are real points on both sides. 

And because first impressions are hard to shake. 

For instance, Jones still gets criticized for being a checkdown artist. Tennessee safety Kevin Byard said last week that if Jones wanted to "dink and dunk" against the Titans, that was fine with them. Jones was a dink-and-dunk guy, it could have been argued, through two weeks of the season. He averaged 5.7 air yards per attempt, which was 27th in the league. 

But since then? He's actually snuck into the top half of the league in terms of average depth of target, ranking 15th with an average throw traveling 8.1 yards down the field, placing him ahead of Tom Brady (8.0, 17th), Patrick Mahomes (7.8, 21st) and Justin Herbert (7.3, 23rd) during that span. 

For the it's-the-system crowd, there is plenty that McDaniels has done to help Jones from a play-calling perspective. The Patriots are a top-10 team in terms of play-action usage (28.4 percent of dropbacks, 9th in the NFL) and they are 13th in screen usage (10.8 percent), according to Pro Football Focus. Both of those can help simplify the life of a young quarterback.

And then there's the Patriots running game. In one-score situations -- when it would stand to reason that the playbook is wide open and there are a plethora of options from which a play-caller can choose -- only one team (San Francisco) likes to run the ball more than the Patriots. During their six-game winning streak, only the Niners and Eagles have run the ball more often on first and second down than the Patriots. And they're good at it. They are the eighth-most efficient rushing offense in the league on an expected points added basis, per Ben Baldwin of the Athletic.

Belichick has a massive offensive line, big running backs, a German tank for a fullback, and he leans on them. That approach has encouraged defenses, PFF's Seth Galina pointed out this week, to play Jones with lighter deployments in the secondary, which in turn may make Jones' life a little easier. 

 

Add it all up -- and don't forget the No. 1 scoring defense in football -- and you start to get a sense for why NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah told Next Pats this week that if he had to choose between "truck" (someone who pulls his team along) or "trailer" (someone who gets pulled) for Jones, he'd still nod toward the latter.

"I think the way he was initially used early on in the season you would say he was kind of the trailer because he was being pulled by the rest of the team," Jeremiah said. "Great defense. Their ability to run the football when they wanted to. I thought that the play-calling, the set-up, the design, all the screens, the things they did to make it comfortable for him, they were getting where they wanted to go but he was kind of being pulled by the group. 

"I think as the season's going along, you're starting to see some -- I guess you would say -- truck tendencies. There's been times they're starting to let him do some other things and try to make those around him better and pull the team. To me, he's still in the trailer category. But I think you're seeing their confidence in him grow, his confidence grow, to start putting the ball more in his hands and letting him make those around him better."

Jones has shown he's capable of that. He did on Sunday, when the Patriots had their seven-game streak of 120-yard rushing performances broken by the Titans, Jones was able to step up and help the passing game put together one of its most productive games of the season.

For the it's-in-his-nature crowd, they can point to the fact that he's as accurate as they come. According to Next Gen Stats, he's fifth in their completion percentage over expected metric, behind only Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow, Dak Prescott and Teddy Bridgewater. 

They can also point to Jones' performance in third-and-long situations, when everyone in the stadium knows a pass is coming, when the quarterback is going to have to throw accurately, on time, and often against schemed-up pressure. During New England's winning streak, no team has a better quarterback rating in third-and-five or longer spots (127.6), and only the Chargers have a better success rate in those scenarios.

Then there's the off-the-field component to playing the position, having the necessary demeanor and leadership qualities, which are far from a given for young passers. Jones seemed to come to Foxboro with that facet of his game in place, even though -- like a dump-off to get back into field-goal range -- it can be hard to spot.

 

"I don't think he's ever satisfied with how he is," tight end Hunter Henry said Wednesday. "I think that's a big thing. He's playing really, really well. And he's continuing to go out there and play really well. But he's not satisfied with that. He continues to take a step with each week. Turn the page each week. Especially with a young guy, especially with a long season, I think it can be hard to see that. But he does a great job of turning the page and attacking each week and expecting more out of himself even after a good game."

Like all good debates, the truth falls somewhere in the middle. 

Are the Patriots helping provide a situation in which a young quarterback is more likely to thrive? Of course. They wouldn't be doing their jobs if they weren't. But is Jones elevating his team in critical moments? He is.

That means the back-and-forth will probably rage on indefinitely. But as long as the Patriots continue to perform as one of the league's top teams, no one at One Patriot Place will care all that much if the young quarterback at the center of things remains one of the most polarizing players in the game.