FOXBORO, Mass. – Mac Jones wore his team-issued blue sweatshirt with the New England Patriots logo and gripped both sides of a lectern as he tried to explain how things had become so bleak for a faltering offense and a equipment in free fall.
He was careful Sunday not to criticize anyone for the terrible nature of this season or point fingers. But for the first time, his responses were peppered with comments that shed light on how the third-year quarterback really feels about his situation.
He paused on a specific question. Other quarterbacks, the ones who now routinely come to this town and leave with wins, seem to have more wide receivers to throw to than he does, whether by scheme or personnel. So it seems like Jones has to be so good at everything he does that it’s almost detrimental?
“Ummmm,” he said, stalling for time. He did not want to say anything bad about his teammates or his coach and pointed out that it is difficult to compare this team with other teams. But Jones continued. “That’s a great point,” he said. A few seconds later, he added, “That’s a good question.” He was also asked if it is difficult to maintain confidence in this offensive system and admitted: “It is difficult,” as part of an answer he reiterated that he needs to maintain confidence in himself.
All of this was further proof that this team is in uncharted waters.
The Patriots are not only bad, not only are they 2-7 for the first time in 23 years, not only are they leaving apathy within the fan base, and they are not just a team that lost 20-17. to a mediocre Washington Commanders group that traded its two best players on Tuesday. The Patriots are now, it seems, teetering toward dysfunction.
The quarterback is making it clear in his own way that he doesn’t like the current setup around him, whether it’s the offensive coordinator or the wide receivers or both. Two defensive backs are making it clear in their own way that they don’t like how Bill Belichick is handling his playing time. And that’s just what’s happening off the field.
Meanwhile, the team’s performance on the field alternates between maddening and boring. The Patriots make self-inflicted, easily avoidable mistakes every game, like their offsides penalty on a crucial fourth-and-2 on Sunday. When they execute what they want to do, it takes near perfection to achieve sustained success. Every offensive drive feels very laborious. Defensive drives seem to last until an opponent makes a mistake, as this injured group struggles to stop on third down.
All of this has left the Patriots in an unusual place for this franchise, now an NFL afterthought with no star players to draw national attention and no intrigue beyond what this means for Belichick’s future.
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Perhaps the most worrying thing is how little things have changed and how few reasons there are to be optimistic. The offense hasn’t improved. Silly mistakes persist. The defense is not good enough to withstand a bad team.
“When you’re 2-7, everything is concerning,” said wide receiver Matthew Slater, the team’s most respected and longest-tenured player.
On Sunday, the team’s best outside cornerbacks were benched at the start of the game, but they weren’t actually benched if you listen to Belichick, but definitely feel benched if you go by how they reacted.
Jack Jones and JC Jackson didn’t play the first two series, sitting out when Shaun Wade started (then didn’t play again once Jones and Jackson were allowed back on the field). During the benching that wasn’t a bench according to Belichick, Jones sulked about… get this… bank While the defense was on the field, the only member of the unit that wasn’t was near the sideline waiting to play. After the game, Jones liked a (since deleted) tweet that said he should have pleaded guilty (presumably to the charges he faced for bringing loaded weapons to the airport earlier this season), implying that the alternative is better than this. Current situation with the Patriots.
That’s where the team is now. The Patriots, once a model of stability that won games easily and dealt with any problems internally, are adding off-field drama to their on-field problems.
There is also the question of who plays and how it is decided. The Patriots knew they would be without their top wide receivers, Kendrick Bourne (out for the rest of the season) and DeVante Parker (concussion). That left them with five healthy wide receivers, typically the minimum needed for a game, which meant an opportunity for rookie Kayshon Boutte, who has been healthy in every game since the opener. On Friday, Belichick seemed to offer him a boost of confidence, saying Boutte was coming off his best week of practice.
Then when the game against the Commanders came around, Boutte returned to being a healthy scratch as Belichick chose the risky route of playing with only four wide receivers.
“We activated the players we thought were the best to put in the game,” Belichick said in another brusque news conference with few definitive answers.
The wide receivers that did play were downright bad. The game-sealing interception bounced off the hands of JuJu Smith-Schuster. Tyquan Thornton was scheduled to get a lot of playing time, then struggled so much early (one catch for 7 yards on four targets) that he was shelved. And Jalen Reagor had a deep pass slip out of his hands. Could Boutte be that bad? What’s the downside of playing a rookie in a long-lost season?
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Of course, none of this is meant to absolve Mac Jones. He was bad, and in almost every game this season, he has been the worse of the two quarterbacks on the field. On Sunday, he was 24 of 44 for 220 yards, a touchdown and an interception, missing wide receivers and throwing several bad passes. It’s difficult to win like that.
Now, it appears he’s making his feelings known, apparently not thrilled with a wide receiver group that’s probably the worst in the league along with a Bill O’Brien-led system that offers almost no easy throws.
So where do the Patriots go from here? They are at the bottom of the AFC and head to Germany for an international match before their break with questions about how things got so wrong and who is most to blame. How can a team that entered this season with playoff hopes lose at home to a Commanders team that just traded away its best players? The problem for the Patriots is that there is so much blame to go around in games like Sunday’s, it’s hard to pick just one place to start.
(Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)