Is quarterback the deciding factor for Josh McDaniels’ next move?

Mac Jones and Josh McDaniels have had a fantastic first season together. But could the QB position be the deciding factor for McDaniels' next move?

New England Patriots QB Mac Jones has been universally praised for his play as a rookie. However, things in December and January haven’t gone so smoothly. With Nick Caserio running the show in Houston and Jones’ struggles of late, could Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels finally make the jump to another organization (such as the Houston Texans) as head coach with a quarterback he believes in?

Rumors around Josh McDaniels as the next Texans head coach

On December 30, PFN NFL Insider Tony Pauline revealed what he had been hearing in league circles regarding David Culley’s future as Texans head coach, with McDaniels being a part of the conversation.

“You know, this was something I heard earlier this week, and it’s one of those situations — one of those things you hear, you’re like, ‘No, that’s not going to happen.’ But the more I delved into it, the more calls I made, the more people are telling me there’s a very good chance that Culley is fired after one year of coaching the Houston Texans, and Nick Caserio brings in Josh McDaniels.”

Pauline also reported that while McDaniels likes Jones, he may not be enough to win a championship with. And that could be a reason why McDaniels would want to strongly consider a head coach job, especially with the Texans.

“A lot of people feel — at least from what I’m told — that while Josh McDaniels likes Mac Jones, he doesn’t think Mac Jones is a Super Bowl type of quarterback. He thinks Jones is a guy that can get them to the first or second round of the playoffs but not much further. He isn’t a guy who can carry the team like Tom Brady.

“I think the question people think Josh McDaniels has to answer in his mind – Is Davis Mills the quarterback of the future (in Houston)? Can he work with Davis Mills to build a competitive and then championship franchise with the Houston Texans?”

Could Mac Jones’ rough patch be a glimpse of a low ceiling?

Before we answer that question, let’s first take a look at Mac Jones and his progress (or lack thereof) throughout the 2021 season. I spent the better part of five hours pouring over Jones tape from this recent streak of games while going back to clips I’d captured while watching him weekly during the Rookie QB Rankings era (Weeks 1-14) before it became too much of a burden on my mental health to go through Zach Wilson and Trevor Lawrence tape weekly.

Although we don’t normally talk about the rookie wall when it involves quarterbacks, the grind of an NFL season is sure to affect every individual differently. It’s also fair to assume that the kid from Jacksonville, Florida — who in 2015 tweeted he’d never seen snow — is still acclimating to the cold weather. After all, his first snow game was in Buffalo, where he threw the ball a whopping 3 times.

As someone who grew up in Pennsylvania and spent time in upstate New York at Fort Drum when I was in the Army, I know cold. However, I lived in Texas for six years, and even I am struggling back in Pennsylvania as the temperatures continue to drop.

There were times the rookie quarterback looked physically uncomfortable, to the point where it affected his mechanics. Occasionally, he looked tight, which is probably simply a product of being mind-numbingly cold for the first time in his life.

This is an extreme example, but it’s far from the only one. The left leg locks out, which doesn’t allow Jones to “finish” his throw. This usually leads to two results; a throw like the one above or a 58-foot curveball that skips in the dirt.

Rookie wall is more mental than physical

Jones was lauded as the most “NFL ready” of the rookie quarterbacks throughout the draft process. His instantaneous decision-making and ball-handling prowess made him a great fit for McDaniels, who schemes up some of the best screens in the league. But he also showed he’s adept at playing in a top-down attack, especially against spot drop-zone concepts.

His ability to swiftly survey the field was applauded early, and he even started to take more shots around midseason. Knowing exactly where the checkdown is and placing passes to maximize yards after the catch is another of his specialties.

But even this has waned in recent weeks.

It doesn’t get much easier than this for a quarterback. Both cornerbacks are playing with outside leverage in press alignments. There are two deep safeties. But for some reason, Jones has a mental lapse and disregards the clear Cover 2 look.

He must have thought he was getting a Quarters look because the vertical on the outside with a quick out from the slot is a known Quarters beater. His eyes get caught on the Apex defender, and he never sees Xavien Howard driving on the ball.

Arm limitations are real but not necessarily permanent

The other issue with the above play is, do we believe Jones could actually hit the honey hole shot? Does he currently have the juice to drive that throw to the sideline before the safety gets there?

Accuracy was always Jones’ calling card. From Weeks 15-18, his completion percentage over expectation (CPOE) sat at -4.1%, meaning he was completing fewer passes than anticipated. In the first 14 weeks, he completed 4.7% more passes than expected.

Part of that comes down to his adequate but low-end arm strength compared to the average NFL QB. And although he’s played better on the move in 2021 than we anticipated, Jones is struggling to drive the ball through the cold and wind.

Nevertheless, there are ways to gain velocity and arm strength, even as a professional quarterback. A full offseason in an NFL weight program will help, and we’ve seen Joe Burrow add a bit of juice to his arm, even while rehabbing a torn knee.

Does Houston have the foundation to entice McDaniels?

After seeing how the Texans and Deshaun Watson have communicated over the past 12 months, it would be an absolute shock to see him ever suit up for Houston again if his 22 sexual assault allegations magically disappear.

That leaves the Texans’ roster, a New England tie-in, and … Davis Mills?

This is where things get tricky for me. I think Mills could possibly have a higher overall ceiling than Jones. He has more arm talent and similar abilities on the hoof. But it takes a lot of creativity, arrogance, and possibly even delusion to believe he’ll even consistently play at the level Jones did for most of this season.

McDaniels isn’t like the other head coaching candidates. He’s still relatively young, but he’s already coached a team and accepted a second job before bouncing back to New England after having second thoughts. He’s in a situation that breeds success, and we can conceivably see a path toward progression both by Jones and the receiving corps in New England.

Despite the flashes of high-end play from Mills that includes a gem of an outing against the Patriots, he ranked last in expected points added (EPA) per play of any QB with 300 plays. Additionally, he generated a negative CPOE despite attempting passes at an average of 6.9 air yards, which ranked 28th out of 31 qualifying quarterbacks.

Then, there’s the rest of the roster. Aside from possibly wide receiver, there isn’t another unit that even competes with New England, let alone looks better. So while it’s plausible that McDaniels would have some doubts about Jones’ ceiling, the Houston head coach job doesn’t seem enticing enough to snatch him from New England. And for now, McDaniels isn’t hinting at swerving in another direction.

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