FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots being the New England Patriots, everything was done over the past several days to downplay what was scheduled to happen at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night.
But even when you try as hard as Bill Belichick to swat away questions you don’t want to answer or have players repeat that it’s just a game on the schedule, Sunday night was unprecedented.
Tom Brady, The Man for New England for two decades, the greatest quarterback who has ever quarterbacked, was back in the stadium he ruled, on the field he commanded — in another team’s uniform. And he wasn’t just here as a backup. He was here as the starter for the opposition, another Super Bowl title and MVP trophy in tow, his seventh league championship to go with the six titles he won with the Patriots.
As if all of that weren’t enough, Brady came into the night almost assured of becoming the NFL’s all-time passing yardage leader.
So much about Gillette Stadium seems like it’s because of Brady: the streak of sellouts, the six massive banners hanging in the south end zone that announce the championships he helped win, the red, white and blue No. 12 jerseys that were very easy to spot in the stands Sunday even as he was returning as a visitor.
The man replacing The Man is a rookie with as Belichick-friendly a pedigree as one could find, a starter at Alabama, the college program where the lights are brightest, coached by Belichick’s best friend in the game.
Still, he’s a rookie. And his fourth career game was arguably the most-anticipated regular-season game in NFL history.
The rookie — or The Kid as his older teammates call him — didn’t wilt in a 19-17 defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It’s incredibly unfair to call Mac Jones the next Brady, because we may never see another Brady. But if you’re a Patriots fan, even as the team fell to 1-3 for the first time since 2001, you have to feel good about having Jones as your quarterback for the future.
Safety and longtime captain Devin McCourty said he has thought about what Jones is facing, as the quarterback succeeding a franchise icon.
“Just being a starting quarterback in the NFL — he’s here late," McCourty said. "We’re not talking like 6 o’clock late, the guy’s in here late trying to know everything he can know. I’ve thought about it, and I think he’s a guy that’s preparing for this moment, he wants this moment.”
At one point Jones (31-of 40, 275 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) completed 19 straight passes. He was helped by a defense that played strong in the red zone all night, and took over for his last possession with just under two minutes to play and one timeout and got his team in position for a game-winning field-goal try.
“I think the best thing about it is we’re not thinking about it,” McCourty said when asked how the rest of the Patriots were feeling as Jones was on the field for those crucial final plays. “We’re not worried about The Kid; he’s been preparing. I mean, the guy’s in here late, he’s in here early every day. He’s one of the guys.
“We don’t see him as a rookie; honestly, we expect him to lead, we expect him to be our quarterback, and I think that speaks volumes about how he’s grown since he’s been here. He has everybody’s trust in that locker room, and there was no doubt when they took the field they were going to drive down there and give us a shot.”
Jones’ performance against Tampa Bay gets more impressive when you see that he had no rushing game to rely on as the Patriots had eight carries for minus-1 yard. Their biggest gain of the night, 30 yards, came on a trick play, a flea-flicker from Jones to Damien Harris to Jakobi Meyers, who passed to Nelson Agholor.
“He just keeps showing, he’s got some guts,” said center David Andrews. “It’s an honor to play with a guy like that. You know, you’ve just got to find a way to win a football game. He battles, he battles, and he’s a tough kid.”
Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians said Jones was calm and cool, “just like I thought he would be. Played his tail off. He gave his team a chance to win.”
Of course, the counter to all of that is that when the Patriots were facing fourth-and-3, Belichick opted to have Nick Folk try a 56-yard field goal in the rain rather than try to let Jones get the conversion. Even if Folk had made the kick, Brady the comeback king would have had 59 seconds and two timeouts to get his team a chance for a game-winning kick.
At his post-loss mumbling best, Belichick said, “I mean, not really” when asked if he considered going for it on fourth down.
Maybe it was because, as Bucs head coach Bruce Arians noted, Folk made a 60-yard kick during pre-game warmups. Maybe it was because Belichick, who so often gameplans and calls plays to put players in the best position for them to succeed based on their talents, wasn’t sure if Jones was ready. It’s not like he’s ever going to give us a clear reason, so all we can do is speculate.
This year may be rocky and unfamiliar for Patriots fans accustomed to securing a playoff berth in mid-December, but they can feel good that Jones is doing everything he can to get them back on a winning path.
“The biggest thing as veterans, as older guys on the team, is to continue to support him, to build him up and show him that he’s doing a good job, and we’ve just got to help him,” McCourty said. “Being at Alabama, being behind two other quarterbacks that are starting in the NFL right now, he understands and I don’t think the moment’s too big for him.”