As the New England Patriots head into Sunday’s game against the New York Jets, it’s probably safe to say this is the most pivotal game of the 2023 season for Bill Belichick’s football team.
Get a win, and they’re instantly one game from getting back to .500, and it would at least provide some confidence ahead of next week’s trip to Dallas.
Lose this one, and it just creates further doubt from fans who are already turning on Belichick’s club mere weeks into this 2023 football season.
This is definitely a weird time for Patriots fans. This is the first time since 2001 that the team has been in this position after the club dropped two tough games to begin the season.
Looking back, there was frustration growing at that point where there was concern about whether or not Belichick would have even survived that season. At the time, New England was coming off of a 5-11 campaign the year before, which led to a purge of players that offseason as Belichick changed the culture and solidified a pretty good group.
At 0-2, that hadn’t shown itself yet. Coming off that loss to the Jets, then-starter Drew Bledsoe was going to be sidelined for an extended period thanks to the sheared blood vessel he suffered thanks to the hit from linebacker Mo Lewis. With Bledsoe out of the line-up, any chance at becoming a playoff contender certainly appeared well out of reach.
That was bad news for Belichick. Another 5-11 (or worse) finish likely would have instilled a fair amount of doubt, and it’s hard to say whether or not his history in Cleveland would have worked against him and accelerated Robert Kraft making what would have been a tough decision based on their relationship ahead of hiring him.
Obviously, there ended up being a key player coming on the offensive side of the football that year. Second-year quarterback Tom Brady took the reigns and played well enough from there to guide them through to the end, which, as we know, saw them raise their first Lombardi Trophy.
Those were good times. But anyone who expected history to repeat itself likely forgot that storybook endings tend to be pretty rare, and we’re living through it right now.
Puzzling Lack Of Support For Jones
Coming off of a 10-7 season, where rookie Mac Jones showed a fair amount of promise, things didn’t take long to take a nasty turn in 2022. A tough 1-2 start saw many fans kick Jones to the curb just three games into his second season, especially after Jones went down with an ankle injury in a loss to Baltimore in Week 3.
Bailey Zappe stepped in for Brian Hoyer, who lasted less than 10 minutes in Green Bay while Jones was out with an ankle injury. Zappe and the offense came up short against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, but two wins against the Lions and Browns endeared the rookie quarterback to a fan base who had already seen this script play out before and were hoping history would repeat itself.
The whispers started growing for Jones to be replaced, and Belichick certainly didn’t help the situation. He exacerbated the problem when he provided zero support for Jones over that span, which was a sharp contrast to when Cam Newton had played far worse the previous season and Belichick said repeatedly, “Cam’s our starter.” It created an unneeded controversy and, as we learned over the offseason, also negatively affected the locker room.
It also clearly split the fan base, leaving many of them now with an “anybody but Mac Jones” mindset. The rest still remain patient in seeing if Jones can rebound, especially coming off a frustrating season with problems that hampered his success, which are well-documented.
The pinnacle of that strange saga happened when Jones inexplicably started against Chicago on national television, which was a disaster. He was clearly still hampered with the ankle injury as he had a tough time moving laterally in that game, including one play where he tried to escape outside and immediately crumpled as the Bears defense came in on him.
His night abruptly ended on an ill-advised interception, leading to a cascade of “Zappe, Zappe,” chants raining down from the stands.
Belichick rewarded those chants, and Zappe entered the game and led two scoring drives. However, a second half where they were shut out added insult to what had been an ugly scene, and one that shouldn’t have ever happened.
Belichick should have closed the door on all of it, saying, “Jones is our quarterback,” keeping him sidelined until he was healthy while playing Zappe all the way through until Jones was ready. Instead, it took reps away from Zappe ahead of that game and created a difficult environment, potentially costing them a loss in a season where each one was critical.
2022 Clearly Was a Mess
Much of last year was uncomfortable enough as it was. There was clearly a divide between Jones, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, with Jones’ outbursts on television revealing that conflict. We also later learned Jones went looking for guidance from his old coaches at Alabama, which made things even more tense between the second-year quarterback and Belichick.
Still, we didn’t understand that things extended even beyond that until an article by the Boston Herald came out after the season that documented it. One player admitted, “Bill f—-d us,” which more or less tells you how others felt about the entire situation.
That didn’t stop things from spilling over into the offseason. For a coach who preached a “clean slate” with other players, Belichick left Jones hanging again over the course of the spring, claiming there would be a competition at “every position,” insinuating that also included the quarterback position.
But behind the scenes, new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien seemingly put an end to that as they rebuilt an offense that cleaned up last year’s mess. More importantly, it also appears to have provided far more answers to situations on offense, which had left players beyond Jones frustrated the previous season.
Zappe had a tough preseason (PHOTO: Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean / USA TODAY NETWORK)
Meanwhile, any competition at quarterback never really unfolded. Zappe found himself essentially starting all over again, and he was inconsistent. What was surprising was the fact he actually seemed to get worse the longer training camp went on. Each of his performances during their games felt like small steps backward, which saw him struggle down the stretch. Worse yet, it ended with Zappe playing into the fourth quarter of the finale, where he and O’Brien seemed to have an uncomfortable exchange during one of his final trips to the sideline.
He ended up being waived at the end of training camp but fortunately found his way back into the fold. Still, his future certainly appears less stable than it had been a year ago.
For Jones, this is clearly his most important season. This will be the year where he’ll either put himself in a position for the team to pick up his 5th-year option next spring or potentially put him in the final year of his contract. That could alter the landscape significantly as it could instead make next year a possible audition for someone else.
All of that clearly depends on how things go from there. If Jones plays well and the team struggles, it’s tough to say how the Patriots will handle it. But if Jones continues on his current trajectory and the club passes on his option, anyone believing that he’ll remain in New England may end up being disappointed. Given what’s already transpired to this point, it would be hard to imagine the situation that played out in New York with Daniel Jones and the Giants applying here.
If that ends up being the case, the thought of having to dip their toes back into the quarterback pool shouldn’t have anyone excited. It’s rare for a rookie to reach the postseason (Jones obviously accomplished that), let alone win the entire thing. Not to mention that the percentage of quarterbacks who pan out is already a big enough crapshoot. It would just lead to yet even more seasons of waiting to see if they got it right.
A Win Sunday Would Change the Tone
For those still rooting for Jones’ success, that stems primarily because the fate of this football team depends on it. However, every sack, incompletion, and turnover, regardless of context, only empowers the thought process of those who have already made up their minds.
The return of Brady two weeks ago was certainly a reminder of what used to be and now isn’t, especially after Jones couldn’t bring them back late despite two chances down the stretch to pull off the comeback against Philadelphia. At the same time, it’s hard to remember a season where Brady started things off with an offensive line in this much disarray, with two rookies starting at guard and a journeyman lining up at right tackle.
For those who want Jones gone already, they seem to forget that competent NFL starters are so hard to find in this league. The Patriots ended up with one of the only two quarterbacks from the 2021 draft class who have turned out to be solid starters, with Trevor Lawrence being the other in Jacksonville. Like Jones, Lawrence has endured his own frustrations but has turned a corner with Doug Pederson now at the helm. Jones enjoyed a successful year under Josh McDaniels, only to take a step back with Patricia and Judge in charge of the offense.
So far in 2023, he’s off to his best career statistical start under O’Brien, which includes an impressive 5-of-7 (71.4%) for 56 yards and four touchdowns in the red zone. Those four touchdowns have him tied for third in the NFL with Brock Purdy, Tua Tagovailoa, Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen. The difference, so far, between Jones and those other five names is that New England has yet to get into the win column.
That needs to change on Sunday. If not, the number of people clamoring for Jones will grow, as will those who are already doubting whether or not Belichick is the right person to lead them through what could be the most trying season we’ve seen over the last 20+ years.
Winning tends to cure most problems, but 2023 will likely conitnue to be rocky. The Patriots appear to have quite a few challenges that may hamper them all season, and it remains to be seen how they’ll be able to consistently overcome them. Barring an in-season trade, their tackle situation will likely continue to be shaky, as will their offense if someone doesn’t emerge at receiver to make a play in a key moment.
Needless to say, it’s probably not going to be an easy ride.
Considering how important this year is for both Belichick and Jones, losing on Sunday to the Jets would only further complicate things, especially if the mistakes and miscues appear for yet the third-straight game.
As a result, they need to show signs of getting it together, and quickly. Otherwise, it’s potentially going to be a long year for both guys if 2023 goes on to be as frustrating as it’s already been through two weeks.
Hopefully, a win in New York will start to change that.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary
Tags: 2023 Patriots Bill Belichick Mac Jones