Mark Daniels: The Patriots 2021 season was a success. The reason is Mac Jones.

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Patriots 2021 season came crashing down on Saturday night.

Throughout the Bill Belichick era, we became accustomed to comebacks, underdogs prevailing and things happening that seemed impossible. This past season had its moments, but the stretch run was rough.

The captain of the plane, however, did everything in his power to stay the course. That’s why the Patriots 2021 season has to be considered a success. Sure, losing 47-17 to the Buffalo Bills in the wild-card playoff round was embarrassing. Those 10 wins don’t shout dominance. But when you put everything in perspective, you see that the Patriots' turnaround from a dreadful 7-9 team to a playoff participant was remarkable.

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That’s because the Patriots found their quarterback in Mac Jones.

Drafted 15th overall after four other quarterbacks, Jones put forth the best season of any of his rookie peers and one of the best in NFL history for a rookie. On Saturday, he became the first rookie quarterback to start a playoff game in New England Patriots history. He was only the 11th rookie quarterback to lead his team to the playoffs after starting at least 10 games.

Rookie Mac Jones is why this Patriots season was a success.
Rookie Mac Jones is why this Patriots season was a success.

And remember, it’s about perspective. No rookie quarterback has ever won a Super Bowl. They’re historically bad in their first year. Jones put forth an above-average season and helped get the Patriots back to playoffs — two years into the post-Tom Brady era.

With Jones as the pilot, the Patriots future is on course.

“I always relate it back to being a pilot. If you’re a pilot and only have flown so many times, by the time you have hundreds of flight hours, it’s an everyday thing for you,” said Jones, when asked about his development. “For me, obviously, I was a rookie and played like that sometimes and I shouldn’t have. I could’ve played better. That’s my goal this offseason, just to advance and bring the guys along with me.”

Jones’ growth was the biggest win for the Patriots

You saw glimpses of it all year long. Jones is a good quarterback. Other than their loss on Saturday, the Patriots never truly felt out of any game this season. And although the ending of this 2021 season happened in blowout fashion, Jones still showed moxie.

The Patriots' offense could have rolled over just like their defensive counterparts. Instead, Jones led his group to two late fourth-quarter touchdowns — both to Kendrick Bourne. In the end, Jones' 232 passing yards were the sixth most in NFL history for a rookie quarterback. He threw some nice passes — he also made some mistakes — but in the end, his first playoff game is a building block for his future.

More: Patriots coach Jerod Mayo continues to draw interest from around the league as a coaching candidate

“I do appreciate everybody on our team for having my back. I wish I could’ve played better,” said Jones, after the loss. “We want to win every game we play in. Hopefully, we have the chance to have a really good offseason, funnel it into next year. That’s all we can do.”

Patriots quarterback Mac Jones scrambles during the first quarter of the AFC wild-card playoff game against the Bills at Highmark Stadium in Buffalo on Saturday.
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones scrambles during the first quarter of the AFC wild-card playoff game against the Bills at Highmark Stadium in Buffalo on Saturday.

The harsh truth is that this season was never about winning the Super Bowl. The Patriots are rebuilding. This year was about gaining experience. Getting Jones a start in the playoffs and in meaningful games will help greatly in the future.

The Patriots have a handful of players that are 25 years old and younger who got valuable experience in 2021: Jones (age 23), defensive tackle Christian Barmore (22), running back Rhamondre Stevenson (23), Josh Uche (23), Damien Harris (24), Jakobi Meyers (25), Kyle Dugger (25).

Experience for that group is worth its weight in gold.

“There’s nothing to feel sorry about,” said Jones. “It’s just a learning experience to get better for next year.”

The Patriots found their quarterback

Perspective is the key word here.

Matthew Slater has a career full of it. The 14-year veteran played the majority of his career with the greatest quarterback of all time in Brady. Slater knows that what the Patriots accomplished during their dynasty was unheard of in the NFL.

That’s why Slater will tell you that this 2021 season was a success.

More from Mark Daniels: You should believe in Mac Jones. He gives the Patriots hope. Here's why

“What we’ve experienced here, the runs we’ve had, the expectations for this football team — nobody else in the league has done that. That’s not reality,” said Slater. “That’s not reality in the NFL. I think perspective is important. You look at what happened last year and the regression that we had to get back to this point, I think certainly we should be proud of that.”

That brings us back to Jones.

Patriots quarterback Mac Jones prepares to pass on the last play of the game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on Jan. 9.
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones prepares to pass on the last play of the game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on Jan. 9.

Look at the team that beat the Patriots on Saturday night. Does anyone remember how long it took the Buffalo Bills to find their franchise quarterback, Josh Allen?

Hall-of-Fame quarterback Jim Kelly's last year in Buffalo was 1996. The Bills had a 16-year playoff drought a few years after that. After Kelly retired, they lost in the wildcard round in their next four playoff appearances. That franchise's outlook changed dramatically with Allen’s outstanding quarterback development.

How about the Miami Dolphins? They're still searching for a franchise quarterback since Dan Marino retired back in 1999. When's the last time the New York Jets had a franchise quarterback?

The point is that finding a good, young quarterback in the NFL Draft is one of the hardest things to do in sports. Two years after Brady left and signed with Tampa Bay, the first quarterback Bill Belichick drafted happened to take the Patriots to the playoffs. Jones finished with the second-best completion percentage (67.6%) for a rookie in NFL history. His 3,801 yards are the fifth-most for a rookie and his 22 touchdowns are tied for eighth.

The future is bright

The Patriots now head into the 2022 offseason with a promising young quarterback who already has playoff experience. The Pats front office doesn’t have to worry about their quarterback position. Instead, they can focus on building a team around Jones, who impressed his veteran teammates this season.

Slater has seen enough from Jones to make him a believer.

“I think the future is bright for this organization with that young man,” Slater said of Jones.” Not just his play on the field, but the man that he is, the character that he possesses. He’s the type of man you hope to build around. I know my kids and I will be watching him for a long time to come.

Patriots quarterback Mac Jones celebrates with Brandon Bolden (25) after the running back scored a touchdown during a game in Miami on Jan. 9.
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones celebrates with Brandon Bolden (25) after the running back scored a touchdown during a game in Miami on Jan. 9.

“I’m excited about where this organization is going to be in the future with him. It’s certainly been an honor to play alongside him and see him grow over the course of the year. Patriot Nation, they should be excited to have No. 10 as their quarterback.”

There will be more turbulence after this, but at this moment, Jones feels like the right pilot for the New England Patriots.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Patriots owe NFL playoff run to quarterback Mac Jones, Daniels says