Mac Jones did everything he could in his Patriots preseason debut to prove he should be the team’s starting quarterback right away in 2021. The rookie first-rounder from Alabama didn’t exactly light it up downfield against Washington on Thursday night, but he won the night by outplaying Cam Newton and also playing well into the third quarter.
With plenty of dinking and dunking by design in New England’s more horizontal than vertical offense, Jones showed all of his strengths while still getting a few chances to flash his deep ball. Jones (13-of-19 passing, 87 yards, 4.6 yards per attempt, 78.2 passer rating) brought a veteran-like confidence to the pocket, similar to his presence throughout the Crimson Tide’s latest championship run.
The Patriots trusted Jones to handle every situation — they had him under center and in the shotgun, and his night ended with a no-huddle series. He was up to the challenge of spreading the ball around and getting the ball out quickly. It was clear Jones has been a quick study when it comes to Josh McDaniels’ complex playbook.
Jones can’t be blamed for being in a superior system at Tuscaloosa. He also didn’t waste time taking full advantage of another great system in Foxborough.
Based on multiple reports from training camp, Newton has been struggling with his accuracy and decision-making. The Patriots expect precision and rhythm from their passing game. Their receiving strengths lie in the backfield (James White), their new high-priced tight ends (Jonnu Smith and, when healthy, Hunter Henry) and in the slot (Jakobi Meyers). When White left the game, Jones dumped off often to replacement J.J. Taylor.
Jones also made the most of having fifth-string wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson as his go-to guy. His best throw of the night was a 34-yard incompletion to Wilkerson, a perfectly thrown ball outside to the left corner of the end zone that should have been caught. The numbers say Newton (4-of-7 passing, 49 yards, 7.0 yards per attempt, 78.9 rating) was a little more efficient than Jones, but that would have been a different story had Jones been out with the first team. Jones without a doubt aced his eye test.
Newton’s biggest advantage over Jones, beyond his many years of experience, is his supplemental rushing ability. Jones is an underrated athlete, but he won’t be adding a true running element. But when Newton isn’t running and not executing on short to intermediate routes, Jones is the better QB for the Patriots’ needs.
Bill Belichick will try to manufacture enough wins to make the AFC playoffs via the defense and running game, the latter powered by a sturdy offensive line and boosted by what Smith and Henry can do as blockers. The Patriots will try to stretch the field at times with new wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, but those shots will mostly be calculated risks off play-action.
The Patriots giving Jones extended action in his first game is a good sign. He gave them reasons to want to see more, until it was time to hand off to Brian Hoyer after five solid series in relief of Newton.
Belichick has stuck with saying Newton is the starter, but the preseason is long and things can change in a hurry. Jones should have given him and McDaniels better information with which to make a decision. If Jones builds on this momentum in subsequent practices leading into next Thursday’s exhibition against the Eagles, it will be increasingly difficult for Newton to maintain his suddenly shakier status.