Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: the NFL is a quarterback league. That saying may be a bit worn out by now, but it is the truth.
No player on a team has as big an impact on success and failure as the quarterback. That is why it is the most important and expensive position on the roster, and why 15 of the last 16 league MVPs were picked from that group of players.
The New England Patriots have seen the peak of quarterback performance for two decades, with Tom Brady leading the team to an unprecedented run of success. Since his departure in 2020, however, things have been uneven.
After one disappointing season of Cam Newton, the Patriots invested a first-round draft pick in Mac Jones. The Alabama product played some encouraging football during his rookie season, but he had a rough go as a sophomore in 2022: with New England losing long-time coordinator Josh McDaniels to Las Vegas, Jones took a step back and never seemed quite comfortable leading the Patriots offense.
The team recognized the need for change, and brought back former New England OC Bill O’Brien to replace Matt Patricia and Joe Judge atop the unit. In addition, two veteran assistant coaches — Adrian Klemm and Will Lawing — were added to the mix as well.
Making those changes should have a positive impact on the entire Patriots offense and its third-year quarterback. The same will ideally also be true for the team’s free agency signings: five players on the offensive side of the ball were brought in; wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, tight end Mike Gesicki, running back James Robinson, and offensive tackles Riley Reiff and Calvin Anderson.
The Patriots offense did lose wideout Jakobi Meyers, its top pass catcher of the last three seasons, and also traded away tight end Jonnu Smith. All things considered, however, the unit overall should still be well-equipped to bounce back.
That being said, none of it will matter if the most important piece of the puzzle cannot get back on track himself.
Mac Jones has shown he can play successful football at the NFL level — his rookie season was one of the best in recent memory — but there is no denying he failed to build on his encouraging foundation in 2022. Between the coaching change, a high-ankle sprain, and letting his frustration get the better of him on multiple occasions, his second year as a pro was a struggle from its offseason start to its 8-9 finish.
Now, the question becomes which Mac Jones will show up in 2023: the one who played some impressive football at times in Year 1, or the one who never quite found his rhythm in Year 2?
The Patriots’ success this upcoming season will be closely tied to that question, as will be Jones’ future with the team as well. New England, after all, will have to make a decision on the fifth-year option in his rookie contract next spring; the 24-year-old rebounding would obviously make this an easier one from an organizational perspective.
Sure, he will never be a Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen or Justin Herbert — he lacks the same physical gifts as those players (although his arm is a lot better than the popular narrative suggests). The Patriots may not need him to be that, though, particularly this year: if they can surround him with the pieces both on and off the field to help him play the game to his strengths, he should be more productive than he was in 2022.
Ideally, he also would continue to develop into a QB less and less reliant on his surroundings. Player development is obviously not linear, especially at this position and in the early stages of a career. But the Patriots need to find out what they have — and can have — in Jones sooner rather than later.
So far this offseason, they have put in the work to do so: they have made investments to try to improve the supporting cast around him, and to put him in a more competitive position. And make no mistake, no move the team could have made this offseason would have the same impact as its starting quarterback making a leap in Year 3.
They are committed to their young passer, and still believe 2022 was no true representation of the player he can eventually become.
At the end of the day, though, the team can only do so much: the pressure will be on Jones to go out and prove that he can be a franchise quarterback. And to reach championship status in today’s NFL, that is the one asset you need.
It’s a quarterback league.