The New England Patriots’ 2021 season came to a crashing halt on Saturday night, with the Buffalo Bills blowing them out in the wild card playoff round. The 47-17 loss was the low-point of an otherwise solid year that saw the return to the postseason behind a rebuilt roster and first-year quarterback.
That quarterback is exactly why one of the team’s veteran leaders feels confident in the future of the organization, regardless of its defeat in Buffalo. First-round rookie Mac Jones has a fan in Matthew Slater.
“The future is bright for this organization with that young man. Not just his play on the field, but the man that he is, the character that he possesses. He’s the type of man that you hope to build around,” Slater said during his postgame press conference on Saturday.
Jones joined the Patriots as the 15th overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. The Alabama product spent virtually the entire offseason and summer as New England’s second-string passer behind Cam Newton, but was surprisingly handed the keys to the offense when the incumbent was released on roster cutdown day.
A few days later, Jones started his first NFL career. He did show some ups and downs early during the year, but the arrow was pointed upwards the entire time. The youngster eventually finished the regular season as the best rookie QB in the NFL, and the only won to lead his team to a winning record let alone the playoffs.
His playoff debut may have ended in disappointment, but Jones did still have some encouraging moments to build on. In fact, he was one of the few players on either side of the ball not to vastly underperform.
No less importantly, the game in Buffalo was one more to add to his résumé.
“I always relate it back to being a pilot. If you’re a pilot and you’ve only flown so many times, by the time you have hundred of flight hours it’s just an everyday thing for you,” said Jones about his level of experience after the loss on Saturday night.
“For me, obviously I was a rookie and I played like that sometimes when I shouldn’t have. I can play better, and that’s my goal this offseason: advance and bring the guys along with me. We have great players all around me, and I know we have a lot of progress to make. You’ll just feel more comfortable with anything you do a second time around — schedule, routine, everything. There’s no excuses, but there’s a lot that goes into it.”
Jones plays the most important position on the field, and his encouraging rookie season certainly has the Patriots well-positioned heading into 2022. That said, the team has a lot of homework if it wants to bridge the gap to the Bills and the top teams in the NFL.
Whether it is the big-play ability at wide receiver, the speed at linebacker, or the depth in the secondary, New England has plenty of areas that have to be addressed — shortcoming Buffalo exploited in the wild card round of the playoffs. Having a franchise quarterback on a rookie contract, however, makes addressing all of them a whole lot easier.
It also is why Slater’s optimism is not misplaced even this shortly after a season-ending loss to a division rival.
“I know my kids and I, we’ll be watching him for a long time to come,” he said about Jones. “I’m excited about where this organization is going to be in the future with him. It’s certainly been an honor for me to play alongside him, and to see him grow over the course of the year. The Patriots Nation, they should be excited about having No. 10 as their quarterback.”
Jones himself also sounded ready to turn the page after Saturday’s defeat.
“There’s a lot to look forward to and be positive about,” he said.