Mac Jones and the New England Patriots have had a classic relationship arc. When Bill Belichick broke his historic bond with Tom Brady after the 2019 season, he was adrift. He had unproductive flings with Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham in 2020’s pandemic-disrupted season. But in 2021, Belichick decided to settle down again; he drafted Jones, who had just led Alabama to a national championship, with the 15th pick. Belichick and Jones’ first year together was a vision; Jones wasn’t a star, but he was the most productive rookie quarterback in a class that included Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Trey Lance (yikes) and Zach Wilson (doubles yikes). The Patriots made it to the playoffs, and though Jones had some limitations, he looked like Belichick’s partner for the long haul.
The situation gradually disintegrated in 2022 as Jones failed to progress, and it looks in tatters 12 weeks into the current season. In a 10-7 loss to a mediocre New York Giants team on Sunday, Belichick benched Jones for the fourth time this season, in favor of Bailey Zappe. The Patriots fell when kicker Chad Ryland missed a 35-yard field goal as time expired, but that may prove to be a long-term victory. Jones’ two interceptions and 89 yards on 12-of-21 passing helped the Patriots drop to 2-9. For the moment, they’re positioned to pick third overall in the 2023 draft. By playing miserably, Jones has given the Patriots a decent shot at drafting a superior successor to him next year.Jones never had wowing physical ability, but his strength at Alabama was that he distributed the ball in rhythm to an extraordinary group of wide receivers and running backs who went on to their own NFL careers. Jones’ targets in Tuscaloosa included Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith (now a star with the Philadelphia Eagles) and Jaylen Waddle (now an even bigger star with the Miami Dolphins). In Jones’s first year with New England, Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels helped him get along despite a much more paltry receiving corps to lift him up. But McDaniels left for a doomed head coaching opportunity in Las Vegas before Jones’ second pro season, and New England’s receiving group remained underwhelming, and Jones himself regressed after his encouraging rookie season.
The 2023 season has only brought further decline. Jones is of course losing more than ever, but he’s throwing more interceptions, fewer touchdowns, and less productive average passes than ever before. Belichick has not liked his backup, 2022 fourth-round pick Zappe, enough to give him a start yet this season. And the coach is famously prickly and when reporters pry for information about which QB he prefers. But benching Jones, a recent first-round pick, four times in one season says all one needs to know about Belichick’s evaluation. Whether Jones starts going forward or not, quarterbacks who suffer that many benchings do not tend to have enduring partnerships with their coaches.
Jones’ future isn’t the only subject of New England speculation at the moment. Belichick’s status, too, will be up for discussion as long as the most accomplished coach in league history languishes in a failed post-Brady experiment. But no NFL coach would want Jones in his current state, and the Patriots could have a no-brainer this offseason in declining the fifth-year option on Jones’ rookie contract. That would cause his deal to expire after next season. His time as the starter could run out much sooner.