It doesn’t matter if you’re an OG that sat on the frozen aluminum bleachers at Foxboro Stadium or if you’re not even old enough to buy a 6-pack yet, the one thing all Patriots fans know better than most that’s always held true throughout the decades is this: nothing else matters if you don’t have the quarterback.
And after Mac Jones’ rookie campaign last season, there’s plenty of reason to believe that the New England Patriots emerged from their devastating ~3 months of QB wilderness after the end of the 2020 season and found theirs. It’s easy to say that now, but after the first few games of the 2021 season, the feeling was generally that we had paid for a Corvette, but we were only using it to make a Dunkin’ Donuts run.
Remember those few weeks? Where the offense looked like a combination of Josh McDaniels’ favorite tosses and screens and the Jeff Fisher Special of run-run-pass? And Mac Jones was averaging almost exactly 250 passing yards a game through the first four games, but only had one win to show for it? When it looked like Jones already had downloaded the offense to his brain better than some of the skill guys that had been here for years? The promise was there, the skills were there, and the coaching staff just seemed to be obsessed with whatever the opposite of Sammy Hagar “I Can’t Drive 55” is.
Then things got better, to the extent that things can when your quarterback isn’t Justin Herbert, anyway. Josh McDaniels and the gang appeared far more inclined to let McCorkle let it rip on the midrange stuff and even take some shots downfield.
A fun bit of trivia: Mac Jones ended the 2021 regular season ranked 11th in Intended Air Yards, 12th in Average Depth of Target, and 12th in Completed Air Yards. In other words, by the end of the 2021 season, Mac was slinging it when he got the chances, and not-infrequently getting it, as opposed to the pew-pew-pew checkdowns and quick outs everyone seems to think he throws every play.
So for 2022, the objective was clear. If the quarterback is all that matters — or, footballisms aside, probably priority No. 1 for this year with Mac Jones entering Year 2 of his career — then the hope had to be that Mac was ready to take more ownership of the offense and start really slinging it consistently. With all due respect to Bill Belichick’s undisguised love for a power run game, a team doesn’t win in 2022 without developing a quarterback that can send it and put points on the board in a hurry. 3,801 passing yards and 22 TDs against only 13 INTs is cute; let’s see what Mac can string together in Year 2.
That season opener last weekend against the Dolphins ended up being discouraging for the Patriots offense in all the most discouraging ways. Drops, guys looking out of sync, routes that made us ask “.....who’s the intended target here, exactly?”. You saw it, you know. But one stat emerged that just may indicate that this year’s much-maligned coaching staff is far more inclined to put the fate of this team in Mac’s hands than last season.
All the usual yeah-buts apply; it’s only one game, it could’ve been game plan, the Patriots got down early so multiple scores were needed, yada yada yada. That’s fine. What’s promising is that in situations where the Patriots didn’t have to pass — i.e. when as recently as last season they could’ve gone I-formation and ran it straight up the gut for 3 yards and a cloud of dust — they chose instead to let the QB go hunting.
Now if you’re like me, when you see “Neutral Pass Rates”, your eyes probably instinctively dart for the bottom, since the post-Brady Patriots aren’t exactly infamous for slinging the rock early and often. Weirdly enough, though, the 2022 Patriots are apparently the 8th-highest in the entire NFL at passing when the situation doesn’t necessarily scream YO THEY’RE PASSING. Observe:
Week 1 neutral pass rates pic.twitter.com/aMRVsddomX— Hayden Winks (@HaydenWinks) September 12, 2022
Let’s zoom in on that graphic real quick:
There’s some qualifiers on there, to be sure, but the isolated data is fun in the sense that it shakes out to “OK, if it’s not third down, if it’s not a two-minute drill, and the game’s still winnable, how often are you trusting your quarterback to let it rip instead of ground and pound?”
The answer for the Patriots — again, just based off this one game and all those qualifiers — is apparently one of the highest rates in the entire NFL. These are situations where, in theory at least, you can call whatever play you want. The game situation isn’t forcing you to do anything, so all the options are on the table. And when those came up last week, despite the 2021 Patriots ending the season with the eighth highest rushing yards total in football, they chose more often than not to let Mac cook.
Or try to cook, anyway. The results obviously weren’t there on the scoreboard, but for those of us that desperately wanted to see the coaching staff put more on Mac’s shoulders, it’s promising. It’s showing us that despite the Patriots still, somehow, doing that thing where they look hung over for the first month of the season, they’re open to Mac Jones having the game in his hands instead of being worried that your rookie QB will get the yips and sling it into double coverage, like it seemed was the case on quite a few occasions last year.
We’ll see if that holds true and hits “twice is a pattern” territory this Sunday, when the Patriots take on a Steelers team that still boasts a gnarly defense despite missing arguably the best non-Aaron Donald defensive player in football.