Tua Tagovailoa and his health have overwhelmingly and justifiably dominated the discourse ahead of Sunday’s Miami Dolphins vs. New England Patriots showdown.
But as for the game itself, there’s no one with more at stake Sunday than Tagvoailoa’s backup at the University of Alabama. Mac Jones looks to put a dreadful December behind him with two must-win games in January.
And if Jones can’t break out of this late-season funk, there’s reason to believe the Patriots will address the position in a meaningful way in 2023 — either by opening up a competition for the starting job or bringing in an outright replacement for the former first-round pick.
Is Mac Jones’ Career at a Crossroads?
The Patriots almost certainly need to beat the Dolphins and Bills in the last two weeks of the season to return to the postseason for the 19th time in 22 years.
To beat the Dolphins and Bills, they’re going to need to score points. Those teams have too many weapons to expect even the Patriots’ stellar pass defense to shut them both down completely. And to score points, the Patriots are going to need much-improved play out of their QB1.
Jones is in the midst of a big-time sophomore slump. He’s been bad and is seemingly getting worse. And while he may not be turning the ball over as he did earlier in the season — he threw seven interceptions in his first five starts — that’s about the only good thing you can say about his game over the last month.
In the month of December, he went 80 of 135 for 782 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. But those basic stats only tell part of the story.
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Since Week 13, Jones is 32nd in CPOE+EPA (-.004) among the 36 QBs with at least 50 snaps. He’s 35th in success rate (34.6%), above only Trace McSorley and behind the likes of Zach Wilson, Matt Ryan, and Russell Wilson. On the season, Jones has regressed from his rookie year in almost every statistical category.
Among the most glaring — completion percentage (from 67.6 to 65.6), touchdown percentage (4.2 to 2.4), adjusted yards per attempt (7 to 6.4), passer rating (92.5 to 85.6), and QBR (50.9 to 32.3). Furthermore, he is not stretching the field as much as he did in 2021, with his intended air yards and completed air yards both down.
The pass protection stinks this year, too, compared to last. Jones has been pressured on more than one out of every five dropbacks and has been sacked more times than in 2021 (30 to 28) on 363 fewer snaps.
On the plus side, Jones’ bad throw rate is down significantly (17.7% to 13.3%), and it is important to note that he has been victimized by drops at an appreciably higher rate.
Adding to the intrigue of all of this: Jones has a potential replacement in his own position group. Rookie Bailey Zappe, in a much smaller sample size, has been the more effective passer.
Zappe has a better completion percentage (70.7), touchdown rate (5.4%), adjusted yards per attempt (8.1), a passer rating of 100.9, and a QBR of 34.3 Also significant: The Patriots are 2-0 in games in which Zappe starts but have lost seven of Jones’ 12 starts.
Widening the lens even more, Jones’ game has historically turned to ice as the temperature has plummeted. Jones, in his career, has gone just 3-6 in December and January, completing 59.6% of his passes with a 79.9 rating and a 6.3 yards-per-attempt average.
If Jones can’t amend that trend, the Patriots have a major decision to make. Is he their future? If Jones’ struggles continue, the Pats would be foolish to simply cut him. But given his contract situation (he’s owed less than $5 million over the next two years), he’s got real trade value should the Patriots choose to go another way in 2023.
What’s more likely, if Jones doesn’t rise to the occasion — there’s an open competition next summer, one that involves Zappe and perhaps a veteran. Either way, it’s difficult to see Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick at this stage, simply crossing their fingers and hoping for the best.
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“We’re in a good spot here,” Jones said this week. “We have a great opportunity this week to compete in a really big-time game. This is the type of game everybody wants to play in where both teams have a lot at stake. We’ve got to give it everything we’ve got. Everything that happened in the past is just a learning experience.
“Then everything that’s happening now is the present, and that’s what you have to focus on. We’re focused on the present and what we can do better, and how we can just put together the best game plan and execution of that game plan for this weekend.”