Mac Jones shook off plenty of pressure in his debut but not enough to deliver a win (Photo: Louriann Mardo-Zayat)
By KEVIN McNAMARA
FOXBORO – After months of conjecture over who would be the Patriots quarterback, followed by hand-wringing over if Mac Jones was really ready to play, some real, live football Sunday at Gillette Stadium began to answer some questions.
The first, most obvious, takeaway? Mac Jones’ teammates let him down in an exciting, mistake-filled 17-16 loss to the Miami Dolphins.
The rookie QB was not the problem in this season opening defeat. No, instead the most critical errors came in fumbles and bumbles, penalties and a missed tackle or three. To be specific the Pats were staggered by penalties (8 for 84 yards), but finally doomed by two lost fumbles.
“It was obviously a disappointing game. We just didn’t do enough. Just didn’t do enough to win,” said coach Bill Belichick. “We had our chances, had our opportunities. But really all the way across the board, we’ve just got to do a better job. Really that’s about the story of it. There’s a lot of things that could have helped us. Just have to coach better, play better, execute better, play better situational football than we did today. Just missed too many opportunities to win.”
The Patriots trailed after the first possession of the game, and then again once the Dolphins were finished slicing up their defense with the opening drive of the second half. Yet a Nick Folk 33-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter pulled New England to within 17-16 and then the defense delivered its biggest play of the game with Jonathan Jones pulling down a tipped Tua Tagovailoa pass at the 50-yard line.
That turnover appeared to be the one the Patriots were looking for. It was the one that whipped the sideline into a frenzy, to say nothing of the 65,878 fans in the stands. It was the mistake the Dolphins always seem to make under pressure up here in Foxboro, the one that’s seemed to hound Tagovailoa early in his career.
Jones took over with 8:07 on the clock and promptly began driving the Patriots towards paydirt. He continued to show poise in the pocket, convert on third downs (11-of-16, 68%) and deliver on the promise that’s excited so many in Foxboro.
But then, on first down way down at the Miami 11, running back Damien Harris rolled into the line of scrimmage, fought hard for his 100th yard of the day and then put the ball on the ground.
A first quarter lost fumble by rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson hurt but you cannot put ball on the ground in crunch time. The Dolphins took over with just 3:31 on the clock and the Pats never touched the ball again.
“What’s important to me is that we didn’t win the game, first and foremost,” Harris said. “The play that happened, I’m ready to move on. It’s a tough play, it’s part of the game but I hold myself accountable but I’m just ready to move forward and I’m not going to let it define me as a player.”
After the game much of the talk among the players was about the waves of mistakes, the fumbles and the penalties especially. They said the expected things, that these things are correctable errors. But a loss, a home loss, hurts.
“From my past experience you’d rather learn from wins,” said veteran receiver Nelson Agholor, “but there are a lot of beautiful things you learn from a loss. You see the little things you could’ve done to put yourself in position.”
Agholor caught Jones’ only TD pass – the first of his career, of course – in the second quarter. Jones would go on to complete 29-of-39 passes for 281 yards. He was good, very good, but hardly perfect.
Jones did flash a lot for Patriots fans to be excited about. He showed good movement in the pocket. He showed the ability to deliver the ball while ready to get whacked by a blitz.
Afterwards he admitted that his miscues are team miscues too. “Like the shots I took, some of them were my fault. I need to get the ball out quicker, and that’s part of football,” he said. “You have to expect to get hit. Our offensive line played good, and they’re going to get better, and we’re going to work together because it takes all of us.”
He certainly uncorked a few eye-popping throws. Maybe none as special as this one to the ever-present James White (6 catches, 49 yards).
Plays like that may excite the Patriots, but they will work to keep the rookie in check. Belichick barely sniffed when asked a question about his rookie QB, saying “I mean, Mac competed hard. I thought we had a lot of guys competing hard. We’ve just got to perform better as a team.”
Agholor said “I think he’s a guy who loves the game of football and he’s very resilient. He’s going to continue to get better.”
With the game on the line, the Dolphins were the team that flashed the needed poise to execute under pressure. That poise was certainly evident on the opening drive of the second half. While Pats fans were still making their way back from the Sam Adams stands, Tagovailoa drove his team 75 yards in nine plays in just 4:09. A deep pass to DeVante Parker (over J.C. Jackson) for 30 yards and a run and reception from Myles Gaskin pushed the Dolphins into the red zone.
Tua closed out the drive in style, hitting impressive rookie Jaylen Waddle for three yards and a touchdown. With that Miami had the lead for good, 17-10.
Then the defense made the biggest stop of the day. Early in the fourth quarter Jones had settled into a nice groove, picking up one third down conversion after another. He had the Pats all the way to the Miami 15 but his pass into the flat for Jakobi Myers was low, knee-level at best. When it bounced into the turf and the Pats had to settle for the Folk field goal that made the score 17-16, the Dolphins had dodged a major bullet.
If all goes as planed, the two Alabama quarterbacks will be matched against each other for years. That’s all well and good, but both of the franchises plan to win right now. Tagovailoa needs to show he can string up wins and this was certainly a great start to his second NFL season. He looks healthy, can beat a defense with his arm and his feet.
Jones is simply the guy replacing You-Know-Who. And we don’t refer to Cam Newton. Winning as a rookie in the NFL is no easy task. Just ask Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence (37-21 loss to Houston) or the Jets’ Trevor Wilson (19-14 losers in Carolina).
Jones has much, much more talent at his disposal here in Foxboro and that’s why this loss stings. He played well enough to win, in fact would’ve been the clear-cut star of the day if the Patriots had hung onto the ball and closed the deal.
But that’s life in the NFL. Limiting mistakes is vital, especially in the fourth quarter when the lights are brightest and it’s time to close the door.