Patriots Mailbag: Could Bill Belichick's handling of Mac Jones backfire?

Perry's Mailbag: Belichick is playing a dangerous game with Mac Jones originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

There's plenty at stake for the New England Patriots this weekend as they aim to avoid falling to 3-5 against a 5-2 New York Jets team.

But first, it's time to dive into some of your mailbag questions. Let's get into it...

It's hard not to view what the Patriots are dealing with right now at the quarterback spot as self-inflicted, Harry. By handling Monday night the way he did, Bill Belichick invited that which he despises: "noise."

What I find interesting now is how he's continued to handle the situation. How he approached his Thursday morning press conference, in my opinion, felt like a real risk.

Belichick is, of course, generally speaking, a risk-tolerant individual.

He rolled with the second-year quarterback (Tom Brady) over the $100 million vet (Drew Bledsoe). He called for the long snap out of the back of the end zone in Denver. He went for it on fourth and two. More recently, he hired two coaches with little offensive coaching experience to help him run a new offense. On Monday, he ran out two quarterbacks when his first-round pick from last year was medically cleared to play.

Maybe Belichick doesn't always go for it on fourth down when you'd like him to. Maybe he's too willing to play the field-position game for your tastes. But, for the most part, you can't knock him for his aversion to risk.

Thursday was his latest. How he handled his back-and-forth with reporters qualifies as the most recent volley in a dangerous game being played with his for-now starter's psyche.

Belichick simply... would... not... commit to Mac Jones as his quarterback for the duration of the 2022 season. He told reporters that Jones would be his quarterback for the Jets game on Sunday, but beyond that? He wouldn't go there.

Perry: Belichick remains non-committal on Pats' long-term QB plan

That's probably partly attributable to Belichick just not being willing to share much at the podium. As is his wont. But it also has to be attributable in some way to the fact that Belichick doesn't believe he should commit to Jones publicly. Given the results, both for Jones individually and for the Patriots in the win-loss column, he may have a point.

But the risk lies in how Jones reacts. This could go in one of a couple of ways.

Jones could show the resolve that he showed at times last year. He handled adversity with aplomb through the early portion of his rookie season. If he had a bad practice in training camp, he typically bounced back with a good one, eventually outplaying Cam Newton to the point it was clear who should be the team's Week 1 starter.

When he was on pace to set a record for quarterback hits, he kept the Patriots in the playoff hunt. He played through injury and ended up as the trigger man for a top-10 offense in points scored.

Perhaps Belichick's latest podium session will spur Jones to become a better player. He's taken hard coaching before, and he's had to earn his role on a daily basis before. Both were facts of life for him at Alabama, where five-star recruits pop up in the locker room like meercats in the Kalahari.

When Jones was backed into a corner there and forced to fight for his job prior to the 2020 season, he answered. Now, adversity strikes again, and it could nudge Jones' season back on track.

But if Jones views the events of Monday night as a rebuke? If he hears Belichick's unwillingness to call him the team's quarterback for now and moving forward -- as Belichick did with Cam Newton back in 2020 -- as a slight? And if his performance suffers? Then what?

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Toughen up, you may say. But trying to play quarterback with a confidence level that has been sufficiently dinged can be a brutal task. Ask Matt Cassel, who described the feeling for our site this week.

Some damage, confidence-wise, may have already been done. Would be understandable. Jones had to listen to a Gillette Stadium crowd chant the name of his backup. He was pulled from a nationally-televised game when his last play was an ugly interception.

But on Thursday, Belichick had an opportunity to sign off publicly on a healthy Jones for the first time -- Jones was removed from the injury report Wednesday -- as his guy for now and the foreseeable future. He didn't.

The risk is if Belichick's perceived tweaking doesn't work. If it doesn't motivate and instead leads to either tentative or over-aggressive play as Jones tries to earn his keep, the Patriots will be worse off. They have a seemingly-serviceable quarterback they could turn to in Bailey Zappe, but his ceiling -- according to league sources who have spoken to NBC Sports Boston over the last month -- is likely "long-term backup."

The Patriots came into this season hoping to upgrade their offense. They have their sights set on eventually competing with Buffalo, Kansas City and the other top-tier teams in the AFC. They want to be more explosive. They want to light up scoreboards because they know they have to in order to contend.

But if they nudge Jones' confidence in the wrong direction and their only option thereafter is to replace him with an arguably less-gifted version, where does that leave them?

"I think [Belichick] knows that to win in this league, you have to have the best guy that you can possibly get pulling the trigger," Dante Scarnecchia said on WEEI this week. "I think that is borne out every year, almost every year, with whoever ends up winning the Super Bowl championship.

"... When it all comes down, you have to have a guy at that position that can make big-time plays and help you win games when it counts the most. I think that's an absolute prerequisite. That's the good news. The bad news is those guys aren't easy to find."

It's fair to wonder if the Patriots have found one yet. But the contention could be made that they haven't exactly done all they can -- from changing the coaching staff, to changing the playbook and overall philosophical approach offensively -- to support Jones on a path that would help him on his way being one, either.

Players have supported Jones in recent weeks in a way Belichick hasn't. Jakobi Meyers was open about his feelings after watching Jones deal with a booing home crowd and what looked like a benching. Matthew Slater said Wednesday that he still felt like this is Jones' team.

"I do," Slater said. "I still feel that way. I still have a lot of confidence in him as a player and him as a person."

Slater added: "I think he’s done a tremendous job in terms of being a leader for this team and how he’s handled it. He’s handled it in a very professional manner. He’s been a good teammate through it all. And I think because of that, you don’t get the sense of division or anything like that."

Belichick obviously has handled his Jones commentary much differently. Perhaps that plan is carefully crafted. Maybe Belichick views this as the best way to get Jones to turn things around.

But if it backfires, he risks making an already arduous road back to contention even longer.

Opening game scripts the last few weeks have been eye-opening, in my opinion. Those scripts are typically made up of the plays an offense feels best about, highlighting the strengths of an offense's best players.

Take the last two weeks as an example. On 16 first-quarter snaps against the Browns, Zappe was under center 56 percent of the time. Lean on the run game. Set up play-action.

On 11 first-quarter snaps against the Bears, Jones was under center just 18 percent of the time. And to further the point, in the Bears game when Zappe entered -- and the game was still very much up for grabs -- he spent four of his first seven snaps under center. The under-center results for the rookie: 80 yards (20.0 yards per play) and two touchdowns.

If the Patriots can strike a balance between A) some of the early-down under-center work from which Zappe has benefited and B) the more complex downfield passing game Jones has shouldered, the results could be a more functional and diverse offensive attack.

Felt like everyone disappeared on Monday. With Zappe in for most of the game, though, maybe it was harder to get Tyquan Thornton involved since he was aligned outside on 82 percent of his snaps in the game, per Pro Football Focus. Lots of checking down on Monday.

The investment made in Mac Jones has been significant. Not only is he a first-rounder -- and all teams want to see their firsts succeed, including the Patriots -- but the team also tried to incorporate Jones in the restructuring of the offense this offseason.

They wanted to tailor it to him to an extent. Time. Energy. Draft capital. Lots of reasons to want Jones to work. (I'd add "viable alternatives," or a lack thereof, to that list as well.)

It's not your fault, Caoimhin.

You'll see him this week, Mark. And I agree. Part of the value in this year (and next) is finding out what you have in a player. If you're toggling him in and out of the lineup, not sure how that helps you in that regard.

If you know you don't want the player long-term, that's a different story. But it'd be hard for me to believe they know that already after one year and three games. Particularly when you factor in that he's been in two different offenses in that time.

I think it's both. When you don't see those types of quarterback runs all that often, it's hard to be sound in your scheme to defend them.

But talent is an issue, too. Signing Jamie Collins was a commentary on how the team views the state of the linebacker position in Foxboro. Where it could rear its head again is against Buffalo. Those games late last season seemed to highlight the fact that the Patriots needed to get more athletic at the second level.

With guys like Mack Wilson and Raekwon McMillan playing reduced roles -- and with Cam McGrone on the practice squad -- that second-level athleticism isn't there outside of the safety position.

The former.

Quarterback league. If it's a problem, it's your biggest problem. In my opinion. The defense had its issues, no doubt. But that quarterback running game is a relative rarity in the NFL. It's a problem for the Patriots. But there's only so many weeks they'll see it.

Tough matchup. James Ferentz, Cole Strange and Mike Onwenu will have to be ready for the challenge. Because it's not just Quinnen Williams. Sheldon Rankins is a problem. The entire front is a pain. John Franklin-Myers is an underrated piece for the Jets. Carl Lawson is an impactful edge defender. Could be a challenge if Andrews (concussion) can't go.

That's our guy Tom Curran's working theory! My belief? Mac Jones was ready to go. We know he was medically cleared. He was "close," I was told, to being ready for the Cleveland game the week prior. Then, about 36 hours after the Bears game, he was a full participant in Wednesday's practice and not even listed on the injury report.

I believe he was well enough to play the entire game if Belichick wanted him to. (I asked Belichick that question on Tuesday, but he called it a "hypothetical" question and chose not to answer.) But we know Belichick didn't want him to.

Maybe he simply wanted to ease Jones back in. Maybe he just wanted to see if Zappe could continue playing well. Maybe a little of both. Either way, the Jones interception, in my opinion, simply expedited the switch.

That was a weird one, Darryn.

Corey. Unwavering.

Tremendous production as a pass-rusher. Thought he had a very difficult time, at times, setting the edge against the run the other night. But that pass-rushing skill is one of the most valuable in the league.

Matt Judon has clearly been their most consistently-disruptive player this season on that side of the ball.

Running back in a contract year? For half a season? You're probably right, Brett. The Patriots just dealt Sony Michel last year to the Rams for fifth and sixth-rounders. But that happened at the beginning of the season, meaning Michel had the entire year to impact his new club.

Same won't be true for Damien Harris. For that season, I think it'd make sense to hang onto him. Unless Belichick just wants to sell, sell, sell. Which doesn't sound like him.

Yes and no.

He's been hurt. Injured in the first half of the Browns game and missed last week. Missed each of the first two practices this week. He's been doubled quite a bit, explaining some of the lack of statistical production.

According to ESPN, Christian Barmore is fourth in the NFL among interior defensive linemen in double-team rate.

Lots of these this week either calling for Belichick's job or the jobs of those on his staff. I know Robert Kraft made it clear he wants to be back in the postseason and winning postseason games this year, and I know that looks unlikely right now. But unless the team completely tanks from here on out, I can't see Kraft wiping out his coaching staff.

What's a number less than zero?

I'd say just eat candy until you can't anymore. But that doesn't necessarily make this week unlike any other.