By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Given the way it began, the Mac Jones era was at risk of being a nightmare on Sunday. A panic in the backfield, an ill-advised twirl, and a ... backward spike to lose 13 yards and push the Patriots out of field-goal range was not what the Patriots had in mind when they used the 15th overall pick to select Jones.
Yet that shaky start notwithstanding, Jones put together a very impressive day of quarterbacking for New England.
He handled blitzes well, he took what the defense gave him, he stood tall when facing unblocked rushers, he had some zip when needed in some situations and some touch in others, he made plays on third down, and he looked very much like someone who at the very least will be capable of playing in the NFL. The way that he got better as the game went on bodes well for his growth and development going forward.
If you were to point out the negatives from the rookie's NFL debut, you'd mostly be nitpicking. For instance, on the play when Damien Harris got hurt by his own helmet (which had been ripped off his head and then smashed into his face -- ouch), Hunter Henry was wiiiiiide open running up the right seam. On a red-zone incompletion, Jones didn't see an uncovered Nelson Agholor in the middle of the field.
In the first case, Jones took a much easier completion, which went for nine yards on a second-and-10. So again, it's more a negative of lost opportunity than it was of making a costly mistake. One might figure, too, that Jones will see some of those missed opportunities on film and find ways to capitalize when future situations arise.
It's even more encouraging when you consider the Dolphins blitz more than just about anybody and that Brian Flores was certainly putting in work to try to confuse the rookie in his NFL debut.
And the fact that he was willing to wait the extra tick before letting these two passes going, despite knowing he was about to get rocked?
Plus this one?
You can easily understand why you're hearing such praise for the rookie, despite the loss.
Put it all together, and while the 68,000-plus folks who crammed into Gillette Stadium for the first time in 20 months would have preferred a win, they can at least rest well knowing the team appears to have found a quarterback.
Now let's hit some leftover thoughts from the Dolphins' 17-16 win over the Patriots.
--The fumble has been dissected and discussed as much as possible. There's only so much you can say. Harris -- despite walking around with a football in his hands at all times, like a high school player in a varsity jacket -- wasn't careful with the ball, Xavien Howard made a really good punch, and the game was lost.
But ... was it?
For as bad as the fumble was -- and, boy howdy, it was bad -- it didn't end the game. The Dolphins took over at their own 9-yard line with 3:31 left in the fourth quarter. The Patriots had all three timeouts left. A hold by Liam Eichenberg pushed the Dolphins back even more, setting up a first-and-14 from the 5-yard line.
The Patriots had plenty of time to make a stop, force a punt, gain 15-30 yards (depending on field position), and call upon Nick Folk to drill his third-game winner since midseason last year. The Tom Brady Patriots did that a million times. Even the Cam Newton Patriots did it a couple of times. Surely, the Mac Jones Patriots were up to the task. They just needed a stop.
They didn't get it.
First-and-14: Off playaction, Tua Tagovailoa hits DeVante Parker, running a quick slant against Jalen Mills. Free money. Thirteen yards.
Second-and-1: After 35 seconds drained off the clock, Malcolm Brown lined up in the backfield for a direct snap. As happened throughout the day, the Dolphins' O-line outphysicaled the Patriots' D line, getting enough push for Brown to gain two yards.
That run gave Miami a new set of downs and forced the Patriots to start calling timeouts.
The Dolphins kept it simple from there, going with a heavy set to get Brown five more yards on first-and-10 and then four yards on second-and-5:
The Patriots burned their final timeout. The Dolphins faced a third-and-1. If the defense made a stop, it'd be a punt coming out of the two-minute warning -- plenty of time to try to mount the game-winning field goal drive.
And when Jacoby Brissett came in from the sideline to replace Tua, everyone knew what was coming. The sneak.
Patriots couldn't stop it.
At that point, it's not necessarily scheme or surprise. It's old-school, big boy football. The Dolphins -- as they were on their opening drives of both halves -- were the more powerful team.
Obviously, if not for the fumble, we're not necessarily looking at the game like that. But the defense's failure to step up in that moment shouldn't get lost in the haze of the Harris fumble.
--If we're talking about power, though, we must state this: Matt Judon is powerful.
The Dolphins learned on consecutive snaps that you can't block the man with a wide receiver or a running back. Well, you can ... you're just going to have a bad time.
A potent fellow, he.
--In the discussion about losing the game, the lack of defensive stand at the end was big. But so was this drop by Jakobi Meyers:
Jones didn't throw a great ball there. It was a little too far ahead of Meyers.
But it also hit Meyers in the palm of his left hand. And he's been known to be something of a vacuum out there. That was a biggie. You can sometimes get away with fumbles inside the opponent's 10-yard line, so long as you convert your earlier red zone trips into touchdowns. This one could have cost the Patriots four points in a one-point loss.
--Know what wasn't a drop? This one:
Don't mention the Wes Welker Super Bowl drop. Don't mention the Wes Welker Super Bowl drop. Come on, Mike. A decade has passed. You don't need to mention the Wes Welker Super Bowl drop, which people sometimes put on Tom Brady, seemingly unaware that these passes are caught every single week across the board in the NFL by professional pass catchers who are required to turn their body while making said catch. No need to bring that up. OK, deep breath. Good. We're good.
Nice snag by Jonnu Smith. Makes you think about Wes Welker in that Super Bo-- oh, dang it!.
Smith was really good, though.
Except for this:
You never want to be doing that.
--You've surely seen Jones' picture-perfect drop in the bucket to James White a few times by now, and rightfully so. But this one here was just as good, if not better. Jason McCourty simply had tremendous coverage on Jakobi Meyers:
Good throws are good.
--The "blindside block" penalty on Shaq Mason felt like an incorrect application of the rule. The rule -- which everyone hates, because it's terrible -- penalizes a player for making a block while moving parallel to the line of scrimmage or back toward the line of scrimmage (you may know such a thing as a crackback block). In this case, Mason clearly blocked the Dolphins defender in the back (while Kendrick Bourne was hitting the R1 button in rapid succession while gaining zero extra yards), but he did so while moving up the field, away from the line of scrimmage.
As is always the case with bad NFL rules ... we'll never know.
On the topic of officiating, I'm also curious why Judon's hit on Tua wasn't roughing the passer ...
... but Za'Darius Smith's hit on Jameis Winston was flagged for roughing the passer:
NFL officiating: You never know what you're going to get!
--Elandon Roberts' roughing the passer penalty, while stupid, was the correct application of the rules. It's not in line with the intention of the rule, but generally speaking, when you hit a quarterback below the knees, the flag is going to fly. The NFL needs quarterbacks' knees to remain intact.
The real story on that play is Rhamondre Stevenson getting absolutely blown up in pass protection. The fumble -- well, fumbles are bad, but didn't it look like Stevenson was down before losing that ball? Replay did him no favors but it did seem like he was down.
This, though? This was ... a learning experience. To say the least.
Usually when a rookie screws up in pass protection, it's a missed assignment, or getting confused in the sea of bodies at the line. In this case, Stevenson got himself into the right spot and then ... boom.
Like I said. Learning experience.
--The Patriots are 0-1, and that loss may sting. Let's say they end up where we expect them to end up -- somewhere between 9-8 and 11-6. Maybe this Week 1 loss will be remembered as the gut punch that cost them a trip to the playoffs. Who knows? It's possible.
But ... it's OK to feel OK about where the team is headed. Next week, they'll get the Jets, with a rookie quarterback and rookie head coach, without their starting left tackle. They'll win the game.
New Orleans in Week 3? Potentially trouble. Jameis looked ... shockingly good vs. Green Bay, and the Saints' defense made Aaron Rodgers look like Roger Aarons. (I don't know who that is but I bet he stinks at football.) Then the Bucs visit ... which is a problem. but then the three-week stretch of Houston, Dallas, and the Jets should let the Patriots be sitting in a stable position toward the end of October.
From there, we'll stop prognosticating. Even going through eight weeks is a fool's endeavor. But the point is, given how bleak the situation looked through the second half of last year, there is at least some light on the possibility of a competitive season and a playoff game or two for the 2021 Patriots. Even after a loss.
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