No team has ever made it to the Super Bowl with a rookie starting quarterback, but the New England Patriots could make history this year. Mac Jones, drafted in the first round after leading the University of Alabama to the national championship, has led New England to an 8-4 record, with a six-game winning streak that has them atop the AFC East heading into next week’s Monday Night Football showdown with the Buffalo Bills.
Most NFL analysts would probably demur that it is inaccurate to say Jones has “led” the Patriots to victory this season because New England’s defense has really provided the leadership. Coach Bill Belichick’s off-season acquisition of free-agent linebackers Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy has added stopping power to a defensive unit that now ranks fourth in the league; the Patriots have allowed just 26 combined points in their last four games. Yet it is the performance of the rookie quarterback that is being endlessly analyzed by TV commentators like Kevin Wildes of Fox Sports, who has dubbed Jones “the baby GOAT.”
If you’re not a New England fan, you may not understand that former Patriots QB Tom Brady is the original GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) and to some fans, it may seem nearly blasphemous to compare a mere rookie to Saint Thomas of Foxboro. Yet the comparison is being made, and plenty of commentators, among them four-time Pro Bowl quarterback Boomer Esiason, now with CBS Sports, are singing the praises of Mac Jones.
The fifth quarterback picked in the draft, and the 15th pick overall, Jones is “way ahead” of the other rookie QBs, Esiason said in a radio interview this week: “He’s got a long way to go, but up to this point he is clearly the Offensive Rookie of the Year in the NFL.” In short, to borrow a line from an old science-fiction movie, Mac Jones came to the NFL to chew bubblegum and win football games, and he’s all out of bubblegum.
In last week’s 36-13 victory over the Tennessee Titans, Jones completed 23 of 32 passes (71.9 percent) for 310 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. It was his second 300-yard-plus game of the season, and through his first 12 NFL games, Jones is averaging 70.3 percent completions with only eight interceptions. But none of those individual statistics matter as much to Jones as the Patriots’ won-loss record, which has them near the top of the AFC, behind only the conference-leading Baltimore Ravens.
Above all else, Mac Jones is a team player. At Alabama, he spent three years as a backup behind Jalen Hurts (now with the Philadelphia Eagles) and Tua Tagovailoa (now with the Miami Dolphins) before finally getting his shot as the starting quarterback for the Crimson Tide his senior year. And what a year it was: Jones threw for 4,500 yards with 41 touchdowns and just four interceptions, his 77.4 completion percentage the best in NCAA history, as Alabama rolled to an undefeated season and the national title. It was in those years riding the bench behind Hurts and Tagovailoa that Jones showed his character, patiently studying the game as he waited for his turn at the starting job. Being a lifelong Crimson Tide fan (my dad was Class of 1951 at Tuscaloosa, and I’ve been cheering for ’Bama as long as I can remember), I knew Jones was something special. When New England drafted Mac, they also recruited me as a fan, and I’ve become rather obsessed with the Patriots this season.
No team in the NFL has a fan base as intense as New England’s. During the dynasty years when Brady led the Patriots to nine Super Bowl appearances, winning six league championships, New England developed a devoted following that now supports a mini-industry of commentators and analysts who chew over every detail of every game on TV, radio, YouTube and podcasts. So in becoming a Patriot fan, I’ve also become a fan of guys like Tom Curran, Phil Perry, and super-geek Evan Lazar. It’s possible for a New England fan to spend hours a week listening to commentators making nit-picky assessments of each Patriots game and prognosticating the outcomes of future games.
For someone who hasn’t paid much attention to the NFL in recent years, this season has been something of a crash course in the pro game, and frankly, the criticism of Mac Jones has sometimes felt insulting. You see, according to all these NFL experts, the quarterback who led my beloved Crimson Tide to the national championship is deficient in athletic aptitude. Mac is not “mobile,” as such things as reckoned nowadays, and he has a “weak arm.”
Let us stipulate that, in terms of “mobility,” Mac Jones is not Lamar Jackson or Patrick Mahomes. That is to say, Jones is not the kind of run-and-gun quarterback suited to the RPO (run/pass option) style of offense favored by many football teams in the 21st century. Jones is an old-fashioned drop-back pocket passer, a type which some sports commentators seem to think is nearing extinction. But if Mac is the last dinosaur in Jurassic Park, he’s doing a pretty good job so far of beating the run-and-gun mammals in the NFL, and what’s this “weak arm” noise about, anyway? Those of us who watched Jones during his championship season at Alabama saw him repeatedly hit receivers with 30- and 40-yard passes, and two-thirds of the way through his rookie NFL season, he’s connected on enough long balls that a clever YouTuber was able to put together a video compilation refuting the oft-heard claim that Jones can’t throw deep.
The rookie’s achievements so far, however, will count for little in the eyes of Patriots fans if New England doesn’t beat the Buffalo Bills in primetime Monday. Last year, when the team struggled to a 7-9 record in their first season after Brady departed for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it was the Bills who profited from the end of the Patriots’ dynasty. Buffalo beat New England twice last year — the first time that’s happened since 1999 — as the Bills won the AFC East with a 13-3 record. Buffalo advanced in the playoffs all the way to the conference championship game before losing to the Kansas City Chiefs. To add insult to injury for New England fans, the 43-year-old Brady led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl victory. Were the glory days over for the Patriots? Had Belichick lost his championship touch?
New England went on a record-setting off-season spending spree, adding a pile of free agents to their roster. In addition to linebackers Judon and Van Noy, Belichick grabbed tackle Davon Godchaux and cornerback Jalen Mills for his defense, while adding two tight ends (Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith) and two wide receivers (Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor) to the offense. The Patriots also did well in the NFL draft. In addition to getting Jones in the first round, they picked up his Alabama teammate, defensive tackle Christian Barmore, in the second round. Jones and Barmore joined two other Alabama alumni (running back Damien Harris and linebacker Dont’a Hightower) on the New England roster, giving a downhome atmosphere to the up-north team. The Patriots had even more luck in the fourth round of the draft, picking Oklahoma running back Rhamondre Stevenson, who has combined with Harris as the one-two punch that has New England averaging 144 yards rushing per game over the past six weeks.
Rebuilt and revamped, it took time for the Patriots to gel this season as they lost four of their first six games, including narrow losses at home to Brady’s Buccaneers (19-17) and the Dallas Cowboys (35-29 in overtime). Even after their 2-4 start, however, New England’s players vowed they were better than their record and, now that they’re riding the NFL’s longest win streak, frequently invoke the “two and four mentality,” remembering how far they’ve come. And their coach isn’t satisfied yet. After the Patriots won their eighth game Sunday, Belichick said, “Eight games – look, eight games isn’t enough to clinch anything or win anything. We have a long way to go.”
That brings it all back to Monday night’s game in Buffalo, which ESPN analyst Dianna Russini has declared “without a doubt the biggest game of the year” so far. “Now it looks like the New England Patriots are dominating, not just that division, but the AFC,” Ruffini said Thursday. “This is going to tell us everything we need to know about whether or not Buffalo is going to be a contender in the playoffs. Because it’s now or never for them.” The Bills have lost two of their last three games, including a humiliating 41-15 home-field loss to the Indianapolis Colts on November 21. Buffalo would fall to 7-5 if they lose Monday’s game to the Patriots, and New England would then have a decisive edge to win the division title, which would leave the Bills scrambling for a wild-card playoff spot in the wide-open AFC race.
“If” is a mighty big word in football, and there’s no telling whether the Patriots and their rookie quarterback are up to the test of a primetime showdown in Buffalo, where the Monday forecast is for rain with winds as high as 35 mph. Yet if New England can beat the Bills and extend their winning streak to seven games, dreams of a return to Super Bowl glory will have Patriots fans singing an old rock-and-roll classic: “Guess who just got back today? Them wild-eyed boys that had been away.… The boys are back in town.”
Could it really happen? Could Mac Jones become the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to take his team to the Super Bowl? With six weeks remaining in the regular season, it’s too early to say, but if — there’s that big word “if” again — New England should go all the way to Super Bowl LVI, guess who their opponent might be? Yep, Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are now 8-3 and leading the NFC South division. At age 44, Brady would be the oldest quarterback ever to start a Super Bowl, and a showdown between the aged veteran and the 23-year-old kid from Alabama — well, consult the works of Joseph Campbell for that heroic mythology.
If the Patriots are destined to make history, their path goes through Buffalo, where winning on a wild and windy Monday night could be the biggest step of their season.