It’s time to let Mac Jones cook. Before the snap.
The Patriots struggles on the offensive side of the ball this summer have been… well chronicled. The offensive line's adjustment to a new language and a new scheme have been among the most pressing issues in need of ironing.
Other eyebrow-raising miscues have flowed as a result. Mac Jones hasn’t always looked like he’s trusted what’s happening in front of him. Running backs have had little room to run. Timing in the passing game has been off at times.
But there is reason to believe change is ahead for the Patriots on that side of the ball. Jones is about to have more say when it comes to which plays get run.
Through the summer, offensive players have been coached to walk before they run. Simply hear the play-call in the huddle. Get lined up. Run the play.
Adjustments at the line were mostly shelved. Even if a defensive look was well-suited to stop whatever was about to be run by the Patriots offense, they ran it anyway. The goal was for less thinking, which would encourage the offense to play more quickly.
Hear the play-call. Get lined up. Run the play.
That was the modus operandi for Bill Belichick’s offense, whether it was practices or preseason games.
In theory, that approach would help everyone get accustomed to the new system in due time. Of particular importance has been getting rookie left guard Cole Strange up to speed as he transitions from dominating at UT-Chattanooga to finding his footing in the NFL.
The results were often not pretty. But even offensive line coach and play-caller Matt Patricia acknowledged on Monday that the Patriots didn't give themselves much of a chance at times by limiting their pre-snap adjustments.
"Right now, we'll run [running plays] into looks that maybe aren't great,” he said, “so that we can get the runs in and make sure we are getting enough reps at everything before the reps kind of get limited as we go forward."
Run or pass, the approach has been similar. Run the play that’s called. As it's called. Get the reps in.
But the time for tinkering in the lab just to get the reps in is winding down. Now that the games matter, Jones should be liberated to use his quarterbacking superpower to process quickly. As he showed he could during his rookie year.
Before the snap, when Jones surveys a defense on the other side of the line of scrimmage, he’ll have the freedom to adjust and get his offense into the right play. He proved last season that he was frequently able to come up with the “answers to the test,” as Tom Brady once put it. And Josh McDaniels encouraged Jones to do so throughout the course of his first season in the system -- no matter if it was minicamp, training camp or Week 1 of the regular season.
Run a play into a bad look? What was the point?
Jones, whose football acumen has been touted as exceptional by league sources even prior to the start of his rookie season, could handle it. Thus McDaniels trusted him to handle it.
Once Jones is back to playing with pre-snap looks, there will be a leap that will have to be made for Strange and others to be able to keep up with whatever gets called. But there’s a belief at One Patriot Place that the two weeks between the preseason finale and the regular-season opener will be enough time for the rest of the offense to prepare for Jones' audibles -- often signaled by an "alert!" call at the line, meaning it's time to shift to the second play that was called in the huddle.
When the summertime reins come off and Jones can engage in football's version of chess, the Patriots offense should at least have a chance at success on a play-to-play basis, which wasn’t always the case through August.
Still, giving Jones more leeway at the line won’t be a panacea.
His protectors still have to understand how to pick up a blitz, which they couldn’t when the Raiders sent one last week; Jones got drilled by a defensive back and threw incomplete. That same group will have to better understand how to block wide-zone runs — even if Jones makes a change at the line to call for the play to go in the optimal direction.
But any offensive improvement should be a welcome one for the Patriots. Which is why it's the right call to put more decision-making power into the hands of a quarterback for whom decision-making is among his greatest strengths.