While Bill Belichick once again avoided endorsing Mac Jones as his starting quarterback Monday at the league meetings, it’s still a good bet Jones will be under center when the Patriots start the 2023 season.
Unless the Patriots make a true effort to go after Lamar Jackson, which remains highly unlikely, Jones is the man.
Speaking with a few analysts and head coaches at the NFL annual meeting about Jones’ prospects this season, many are expecting the third-year quarterback to blossom.
The chief reason?
Beyond not wanting to spend the money and the draft capital it would take to land Jackson, the Patriots are passing on the Ravens star quarterback because they appear comfortable enough with the in-house situation. Much of that has to do with new offensive coordinator O’Brien. He’s the X Factor.
The expectation is that O’Brien will turn Jones back into a quarterback who can keep the Patriots relevant. And that’s not just the view from Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who told the media Monday he was a huge fan of Jones, and that now having O’Brien would “work to (the quarterback’s) advantage.”
SiriusXM NFL analyst Jim Miller agreed. He said O’Brien would be a difference-maker, and actually pegged the Patriots to win the division because of how much he’d help Jones.
And that’s with or without Jones having elite weapons.
ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Matt Hasselbeck wouldn’t go that far, but he was another who projects a significant turn-around for Jones.
“Who knows? Bill O’Brien could be magic this year,” Hasselbeck said when asked if O’Brien would be a game-changer. “Maybe the Patriots learned some things they needed to learn last year … we’ll just have to wait and see what it actually looks like.”
Given news of Jackson’s desire to be a Patriot, per Kraft, it puts an even greater burden on O’Brien to fix Jones.
In reality, however, O’Brien is only one part of the equation. The state of the offensive line is a close second.
“For me, the only non-negotiables are, who’s my play-caller, and who’s my offensive line?” said Hasselbeck, a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback. “You can’t be terrible at those two spots and expect to be good.”
While O’Brien checks off the box as being a competent play-caller, the offensive line remains a question mark.
The Patriots did hire a new offensive line coach in Adrian Klemm, and added reinforcements with tackles Riley Reiff and Calvin Anderson. Still, it’s debatable how much better the tackle position will be with those additions.
If Trent Brown returns to being a full-time force at left tackle, that would certainly help. Reiff, meanwhile, figures to start at right tackle, and it’s a wait-and-see on how much of a difference he’ll make, or if he’s even able to hold down the spot all season. That said, it’s likely the Patriots will add on in the draft to try and bolster the unit.
“If you take care of those two things, everything else you can scheme around,” Hasselbeck said. “Would it be great to have an All-Pro receiver? Sure.
“I don’t think I ever had that. But we had coaches that had a system that we could figure out ways to get guys open. We had a system that we could marry what we were good at in the running game, to the passing game. We had a system where we could line up in whatever formations, and find the one matchup that worked for us.
“So if you have a scheme that’s sound, and can protect the quarterback,” added Hasselbeck, “if you can do that, then you have a chance.”
The new system the Pats employed last season, with Matt Patricia and Joe Judge running the show, coupled with a porous offensive line didn’t give Jones a chance. Having O’Brien go back to the system Jones thrived in as a rookie, along with providing some modifications, should allow him a better chance to succeed.
Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels, who successfully mentored Jones during his rookie season, was also in the pro-Jones-O’Brien corner.
“I would be surprised if he didn’t rebound,” McDaniels said of Jones, his former protégé. “He’s such a competitive guy. He wants to do well in everything he does.”
Between the boost Jones will get having O’Brien in his ear, and the fact he’s still on a rookie contract, and won’t have the ability to earn top dollar (see Daniel Jones) until his fifth year, that’s a formula the Patriots are banking on.
It’s also a formula that’s easier to navigate, as opposed to going after Jackson. He might be a dynamic quarterback and playmaker, one who would instantly put the Patriots back to contender status, but the team, by most accounts, is content saving their money and assets, and standing pat with Jones.
At least, that appears to be the view of the Patriots’ decision-makers, Belichick and Kraft, even if the head coach refuses to openly back the incumbent quarterback.
Naturally, after regressing last season, there’s concern Jones isn’t the answer at quarterback, that he’s just not good enough to compete with the best. It remains to be seen if he can quiet the naysayers.
Hasselbeck, for one, didn’t think it was necessarily unfair to project Jones’ ceiling based on how he regressed last year, and how he petered out at the end of his rookie season. But he looks at the bigger picture.
“I saw who he was as a player his first year. And he was very impressive,” said Hasselbeck. “What I thought I saw was a young quarterback that was taking a natural progression in his development as an NFL franchise quarterback, and he just hit a huge speed bump last year, and just didn’t look anything like the player we saw in Year 1.
“And, to me, in my view, the reasons for that were related to the coaching change. I feel bad saying that. But I think that seems to be (the case),” he went on. “But now, in my mind, I think they’re back on track. They’re very fortunate to have someone like Bill O’Brien in the building running that offense. I would expect the version of Mac Jones we saw in the first year, if not better.”
That said, Hasselbeck, a former Xaverian and Boston College star, doesn’t completely absolve Jones for everything that went down last season. There are plenty of places he can improve.
“If I was him, my priority would be looking in the mirror, and saying, ‘OK, what were the areas I got exposed? What were the areas that I need to improve on?’ ” said Hasselbeck. “I think that’s the best way for him to grow. But as an outsider looking in, I think the scheme failed him more than anything else in my mind.”
What about his public displays of frustration? His showing up his coaches during games, something that has clearly irritated Belichick? How does that get fixed?
“I would say this: when you blow up, and you start yelling, and you start saying something, it’s on you to back it up,” said Hasselbeck.
He then recalled when he had a major dust-up with Mike Holmgren during a game in San Francisco, when Hasselbeck was Holmgren’s quarterback in Seattle. After the run-in on the sideline, Holmgren made his point by calling the game the way Hasselbeck desired.
“It was almost like he was saying, ‘Alright tough guy, you want to act like you’re one of the best quarterbacks in this conference, I’m going to call the game like that.’ So he got real aggressive,” Hasselbeck remembered. “The point being, if you want to step up and be that guy, you better be that guy. That put me in check in a way.”
That said, Hasselbeck offered some unsolicited advice for Jones.
“It’s not your job to be the offensive coordinator. Your only job is to be the quarterback,” said Hasselbeck. “If you disagree with how a play is being designed, or coached or run, get that out of your mind. Just do the quarterback job how it’s supposed to be done.”
The addition of a competent play caller should help diffuse that situation. Plus, O’Brien is not the type to take any guff from his quarterback — see Tom Brady for details.
Hasselbeck then explained what he liked about Jones, and why he believed he was “head and shoulders” above the rest of his class during that first year.
“His decision-making was great. What he was doing at the line of scrimmage was great. How he was protecting the football was great. I was really impressed, really, really impressed,” said Hasselbeck. “I just think Mac has all the things that seem to matter, he has those intangibles.
“I also think those things need to be developed and cultivated, and they need to be put in fertile soil to grow. I really believe he was in fertile soil Year 1. He had the perfect opportunity to grow. He had the greatest head coach of all time, and one of the greatest offensive coordinators ever.”
So after a year stuck in offensive purgatory, some see a light at the end of the tunnel for Jones and the Patriots by extension.
Said Hasselbeck: “Bill O’Brien plus Bill Belichick plus Mac Jones, that works for me. I’ll take that any day.”
Let’s just say if the Patriots don’t make the playoffs, and Jones doesn’t make the expected leap, Kraft letting it be known on Monday that Jackson wanted to be a Patriot won’t ever go away.
Belichick ruffled some feathers with the answer he gave after being asked why fans should be optimistic about for the upcoming Patriots season.
His “the last 25 years” response didn’t sit well.
Brian Daboll, a one-time member of Belichick’s staff, had the right idea.
During his Tuesday session with the media, Daboll was asked about the high bar he set in his first season as Giants’ head coach, especially with the team making the playoffs for the first time since 2016, winning a playoff game, and also being named NFL Coach Of the Year.
He answered before the full question was asked.
“Yeah, I got smoked in the playoffs,” Daboll said.
He was then asked how the Giants take the next step, and vault over the Eagles.
“It starts all over,” Daboll said. “I don’t get that far down the road. I just focus on today and try to get better at the things we can get better at. We have a long way to go in terms of time and we have a long way to go in terms of improvement. And … what you do one year has no correlation to what you do the next year and what you do one game has no correlation to what you do the next game.”
File that under not resting on your laurels.
At the AFC coaches breakfast, Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel said he was excited to see tight end Mike Gesicki get an opportunity with another team.
He just wished it was another team.
“He’s a guy that I think the Miami fan base will miss,” McDaniel said of the Patriots new tight end. “It’s just unfortunate in a weird uniform, right? But that’s our business that we thrive in.”
Gesicki, who signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal with another $4.5 million in incentives, wasn’t utilized as much in the system McDaniel brought to Miami. The Fins’ head coach believes the Pats are getting a tight end with something to prove.
“I think what you’re getting is a guy with a chip on his shoulder that is going to really, really go after it and do whatever the coaches ask of him,” McDaniel said. “Happy for Mike that he’s getting the opportunity and know he’s going to do his very best to make the best of that.”
Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels told the Herald Jimmy Garoppolo wasn’t the only quarterback the Raiders looked into signing, but that Jimmy G was “the best choice” for Vegas going forward.
“I have an affinity for the guy. I’m looking forward to working with him again,” said McDaniels. “What he’s done since he’s gone to Kyle (Shanahan) and John (Lynch) in San Francisco, he’s played in a lot of big games and really performed well under pressure in a lot of those.
“He’s been in a good winning culture. I’m actually excited to learn from him and listen to him talk about the things he’s learned … but very excited going forward with him.”
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