The New England Patriots are 1-1 after two AFC East matchups under rookie starter Mac Jones. Though he’s off to a strong start—he’s completed almost 74% of his pass attempts—there’s still one big question surrounding his performance and the Patriots’ plan for him.
As accurate as he’s been, a big reason for the high completion percentage is the types of passes he’s attempting. Almost all of his passes have been short, safe passes under 10 yards. Through two games, Jones has averaged just 3.1 air yards per completion, with just 15 pass attempts longer than 10 yards. Of all quarterbacks who have attempted at least 50 passes this season, the New England rookie is fourth-to-last in that statistic, above only Jalen Hurts, Jared Goff, and Matt Ryan. And of those three, only Ryan has fewer intended air yards per attempt.
It’s been an effective method so far: Jones has no interceptions and the highest percentage of throws on-target (90.9%) of literally every player with more than one pass attempt, and the Patriots could be 2-0 if not for a heartbreaking fumble at the end of their Week 1 game against Miami. For now, it seems like they’re working to build up confidence in their rookie quarterback.
“You want to be able to test those areas of the field as we go forward, but I also want him to make smart decisions, I want him to protect the football, and I want him to be aggressive when there are times to be aggressive,” said Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
While many of his passes were short and easy, the Alabama product did show off his first-round talent a couple of times, for instance, this beautiful sideline touch pass to Jakobi Meyers in the second quarter on Sunday.
But a lot of the play-calling in their Week 2 game in New York seemed to suggest New England didn’t want Jones to be all that aggressive. Eight of the Patriots’ first 12 passing plays were either play-action passes, screens, or both—often-conservative plays didn’t put pressure on Jones to make a perfect throw. The result was a stat line for the rookie that included just 186 pass yards.
Some of the lack of aggressiveness has been because of Jones’ decision-making as well. Take this pass from Sunday, for example.
The Patriots decided to break out a bit of a trick play with a double-pass that gave their quarterback some wide-open options downfield. Instead of airing it out to receiver Nelson Agholor, who had about five yards on his defender and an easy touchdown, Jones opted to throw to the undefended Jonnu Smith for a 19-yard gain.
It’s unclear whether he didn’t see Agholor or if he just didn’t want to take the little extra risk he needed for the touchdown pass. Either way, the touchdown throw—or at least attempt—to Agholor there is the throw that an NFL quarterback needs to be able to make on blown defensive coverage.
It’s hard to predict exactly when the Patriots will take the “training wheels” off Jones since New England hasn’t had to develop a young quarterback since 2001. We do know that in Tom Brady’s first two starts, he was held to fewer than 25 pass attempts each game with under 200 yards before leaping in his third start to more than 50 pass attempts and more than 360 yards. But that doesn’t necessarily mean head coach Bill Belichick will stick to that formula.
If I had to guess, I wouldn’t be surprised if New England waits for Week 4 to make a change to their offensive game plan. Their Week 3 opponent is the New Orleans Saints, who rank fifth in DVOA so far this season. The following week, the Patriots take on Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “Unleashing” Jones for his first matchup with Brady would be a classic Belichick move, especially against a Tampa pass defense that has given up 400 and 300 passing yards in their first two games, respectively.