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38-3 loss to Cowboys a low point in the Mac Jones era

The Patriots’ third-year quarterback played the worst football of his career on Sunday.

New England Patriots v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Even though the New England Patriots opened their 2023 season with a 1-2 record, there were a lot of positives from third-year quarterback Mac Jones. Their Week 4 loss to the Dallas Cowboys was not that, far from it.

It was bad. Worst-football-of-Jones’-career bad.

The numbers tell only part of the story. Jones completed 12 of 21 pass attempts for 150 yards with two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown. In addition, he lost a fumble on a strip sack that also was returned for a score. Before he was pulled in the late third quarter, he had either directly or indirectly contributed to 22 of the Cowboys’ points.

The Patriots ended up losing the game 38-3, the worst defeat of the Bill Belichick era. It also was a low point of Mac Jones’ tenure as the team’s starting quarterback.

The team’s 30-point blowout in the 2021 wild card playoffs in Buffalo was painful, but it was still early in Jones’ career; a disappointing end to an otherwise encouraging season. Some losses in 2022 also were anything but pretty, but they were oftentimes not seen as reflective of who he is as a player given the unorthodox coaching setup the team employed on the offensive side of the ball that season.

With Bill O’Brien now in charge as offensive coordinator and Jones working in a system supposedly tailored to his strengths, the belief was that this would be the year. Jones would put 2022 behind him and emerge as a serious franchise QB.

That has not happened so far. The circumstances played a part over the first three games of the season — offensive line play in particular left plenty to be desired — and did also do him little favors on Sunday at AT&T Stadium. However, Jones himself also did not look like the player he has shown he can be.

His decision-making against the Cowboys left a lot to be desired. He did not see defenders or passing lanes properly. He showed little feel for pressure.

All in all, he looked spooked and nothing like the player the Patriots hoped they would get when they drafted him 15th overall in 2021.

“It wasn’t my day,” Jones said after the game. “I can’t turn the ball over like that and try to beat good teams. Definitely a lot to learn from.”

One of the most disappointing sequences of play came in the second quarter. With the Patriots trailing 18-3 and in need of a spark on offense, Jones and company were in a position to deliver: four minutes were left on the clock to decrease the deficit a bit, and, with the second-half kickoff coming New England’s way as well, set up an opportunity to get right back into the game.

Facing a 2nd-and-16 on the second play of the drive, however, Jones made a rather risky play when he escaped the pocket to his right and proceeded to throw across the field to Kendrick Bourne. The play worked — Bourne gained 16 yards to move the chains — but it was not a sustainable way of playing offense.

Surely enough, he was burned when he tried a similar pass just five snaps later. This time, cornerback DaRon Bland anticipated the throw and undercut it. 54 yards later, he was in the end zone to all but put the game out of reach and end New England’s comeback aspirations before they even seriously developed.

It was just bad football from Jones, and far from the only instance of that. It looked like he was trying to play a brand of football he is not suited to play — “hero ball” — in a desperate attempt at helping his team stay in the game.

There is a mic’d up clip of former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels from Super Bowl LI, when he told the team’s running backs to not try to make up what was then an 18-point deficit in one play. On Sunday, and for reasons unknowns, Jones repeatedly and uncharacteristically looked like he was trying to do just that.

Of course, football is the ultimate game of opportunity.

Every play, drive and game offers players a chance at redemption. For Jones, it never came against the Cowboys. The next shot at it is right around the corner, though: the 2-2 New Orleans Saints will visit Gillette Stadium on Sunday.

Jones is well aware that quickly and decisively turning the page after a game as bad as the one against Dallas is paramount.

“It wasn’t a great day. I’m not going to let it carry over to next week,” he said. “It’s going to be done after I watch the film. I’m definitely disappointed but at the end of the day, I’m going to keep grinding. Hopefully, the guys are going to come with me. It’s hard for me to sit up here and say that. I’m very disappointed in myself, but I’ve got to bounce back.”

Even though the upcoming bout with the Saints is an early-October regular season game, it might be the biggest game of Jones’ young career. Football, after all, is also a game of habit, and negativity can start building up under the wrong set of circumstances.

For Jones, it is about not making a habit out of the issues that plagued him on Sunday and to show that his career-worst performance in Dallas is not representative of him as a player and his trajectory. The previous three games this season suggest as much, but it is on him to prove that Week 4 was a blip on the radar — a definitive low point — rather than the starting point of a concerning trend.

Because if it is, a once promising career could begin to disintegrate quickly.