Heading into 2023, one thing is abundantly clear.
The New England Patriots will go as far as Mac Jones can take them, and for that to happen, the former Alabama quarterback needs to take a significant step forward from how he played last season.
It’s been quite the offseason for Jones, who has seen some big changes compared to 2022. Gone is last year’s offensive coordinator Matt Patricia, with Bill O’Brien returning to New England to assume that role for the Patriots.
Even better for Jones is the fact O’Brien spent some time coaching in Alabama, which made him an even more perfect fit when the Patriots brought him back into the fold.
The results so far have been fairly solid. During the preseason, Jones looked light years ahead of where he was just a season ago, with the former first-round pick looking closer to the player he was during his rookie season.
The ball is coming out faster, the offense looks sharper, and Jones just looks much more comfortable compared to 2022, and his play on the field has reflected it.
That appears to have him set up for success in 2023, and Jones seems to be in a different place. He’s thinking less and letting it fly, which Jones talked about recently while comparing himself to who he was when he last led his college team to an unbeaten National Championship season.
Jones told Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer recently he needed to get back to playing like “Alabama Mac,” which the third-year QB claimed was “When I’m in the right headspace and I can go out there and let it fly and not think too much and go play football.”
Looking back at the film comparing last year to 2021, there certainly appears to be some truth there. In 2021, Jones played fast and didn’t seem to be thinking too much. In 2022, things unfolded slower and he didn’t appear anywhere near as comfortable.
Obviously, last year got off to a bad start. The Patriots had offensive line issues early on which saw them struggle to run the football and pass protect, with Jones suffering a back injury in Week 1 and then a high ankle sprain in Week 3, the latter of which knocked him out of the line-up.
The season as a whole was disappointing. It was clear that both Jones and offensive coordinator Matt Patricia never got on the same page and the result was a giant step backward, both in Jones’s play and in their 8-9 finish.
With Bill O’Brien now in the fold, Jones looked free and closer to the player people saw in 2021. Even in Green Bay, where Jones got knocked around and appeared to struggle, the film from that game showed that O’Brien has provided some answers in pressure situations, which saw Jones make two huge throws with defenders bearing down on him.
If that’s a glimpse of what’s to come, people should be feeling a little better about things compared to one year ago. One thing players talked about this offseason was the fact there were situations last season where they weren’t necessarily prepared for. O’Brien has seemingly answered those questions, and those moments were likely just a few of many more Jones and the offense will face this season.
With O’Brien now behind him, it’s definitely a big year for the former Alabama quarterback. He heads into 2023 in what’s essentially a key season. What he does this year is effectively going to decide his future, with the Patriots having to make a decision on whether or not to pick up his fifth-year option next offseason.
For that to happen, Jones can’t just be good this year.
He needs to show the potential of being great.
That being said, Jones doesn’t need to go out and throw for 300 yards and multiple touchdowns every week. Granted, that would be ideal, but it’s a big ask with this offensive line and his current group of targets.
But he needs to have some moments that end up proving that he’s good enough to be who they need him to be.
2023 is a key year for Mac Jones. (PHOTO: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)
While the Patriots’ defense will likely be a big key to their success this season, Jones needs to do his part. He needs to come up with a big throw when the team needs a key conversion, or fire a strike to quiet the crowd coming off of a scoring drive by an opponent on the road with the home fans going crazy.
He doesn’t need to throw bombs or put up ridiculous numbers. But he needs to hit some daggers that end up being difference-makers with some regularity against what’s expected to be a brutal schedule this season.
He needs to be the guy that when teams make a mistake, makes a key throw that ends up closing out any shot opponents have at winning. He needs to make teams pay for mistakes in coverage, and impose New England’s will on offense.
He needs to consistently string together drives that wear down opponents and give their defense enough time to get a breather on the sideline, which was a problem last season. Opponents held a 34:23 to 25:37 time of possession advantage in 2022, which can’t continue if they hope to get back to being among the contenders in the conference.
He doesn’t need to be Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, or Tom Brady. Jones has gone out and played well at times against AFC contenders, including some pretty good performances last year despite the fact the team came up short in several of them (Minnesota, Cincinnati, and even the finale in Buffalo).
But unlike last year, he needs to do it for 60-minutes over 17 games, and he needs to take the reigns and start leaving no doubt.
It sounds like a big ask, but that’s what upper-tier quarterbacks in this league do. Jones may not necessarily be an elite talent, and he also may not be the most physically gifted player. But he doesn’t need to be.
He just needs to be a guy who can have his moments and make the Patriots’ offensive engine run.
On hand to take in Sunday’s game will be Brady, who will be honored ahead of kickoff and he certainly had plenty of his own moments over the course of his incredible career.
He’ll get to sit back and watch Jones begin writing his next chapter in front of a crowd that demands the best after seeing just that for so many years.
Hopefully, the third-year quarterback will be able to start proving his critics wrong. Because whatever “Mac Moments” Jones is able to string together this season will potentially either prove he can be their long-term answer, or that he’ll instead become just a footnote in the quest to replace the previous guy who was certainly able to create plenty of his own big moments – and the trophies that went along with them.
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