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2022 Patriots Mailbag – Week Two: Answering Your Burning Questions

Patriots nation is a hungry, hungry fanbase, and the week two win against Pittsburgh just increased our appetite. You all have some burning questions, and I’m here to give answers.

It was a rejuvenating Sunday, with the Patriots scoring a 17-14 win over the Steelers. Despair about the death of the Patriot way has suddenly turned into speculation about how good the team could really be. We dive into what the fans are curious about.

#PatsNation Asks, So We Deliver

Anirudh wants to know what the Patriots should do about their offensive play-calling issues.

Last week was certainly a marked improvement in terms of creating a balanced attack, and first and foremost, regardless of who calls plays, there needs to be that balance. The Patriots’ offense is most potent when defenses can’t predict a pattern, and with the right mix of short, medium-length, and deep passes, with the right integration of a running game. With every option available and potent – we’re not there yet, but Sunday’s game showed signs of being able to get there – defenses cannot focus on one option, and all of a sudden, the offense becomes difficult to scheme against.

Matt Patricia, Joe Judge and Belichick need to team up together to some degree, because they all have their own skillsets but none complete enough to run an offense on their own. But that teaming up needs to happen in meetings and not on the field. Mac and the offense need a unified message to work with on gameday to make the right strategic decisions.

With Mac being a leader on and off the field, having a good command of the offense, and having the skills to distribute the ball and make high-percentage decisions, he needs to be given a larger hand in the decisions of the play. Patricia can give him a simple play call, while giving him the freedom to call audibles and adjust to what he sees before and during the play, because he has shown the awareness to make those kinds of decisions.

Alan wonders, with a division win looking unlikely given the strength of the Bills what kind of record will get the Patriots into the playoffs in a stacked AFC?

Unfortunately, it does seem like a divison win won’t be reasonably possible. While the Patriots are just a game out, Buffalo simply looks fearsome and while the Patriots have the pieces to ascend, they’re not there yet, and will lose games in the process of getting there. It’s hard to see a game Buffalo will lose without making some extremely uncharacteristic mistakes.

The conference is stacked, which doesn’t bode well, but a stacked AFC is also one that will beat up on itself, which will somewhat help the Patriots. At least early, it seems like the AFC south as a whole may not be able to muster up a single team that’s better than New England, with the Matt Ryan era starting off badly for the Colts, the Texans not quite hitting their stride yet with Davis Mills, the Jaguars still sorting things out offensively, and the Titans underwhelming in their first two games.

The AFC North looks vulnerable too, with the Bengals not looking like the defending AFC Champions they are, the Steelers just having lost to the Patriots at home, the Browns blowing it to the Jets, and the Ravens blowing a big lead to Miami despite a terrific offense. The west looks fantastic, but they very well could beat up on each other. The AFC East games will be a tough ask for the Patriots, with two games against the Bills still to play, a home game against the Dolphins and a two games against a Jets team that actually looks better than their preseason expectations.

A 10-7 record like last year should be enough to bring the Patriots to the playoffs within all of this. The Patriots have the talent to do it, but they will need to improve offensively in terms of execution. 9-8 may not quite do it like it did last year for the Steelers, as the AFC’s best teams will be able to win most of its nonconference games.

Perhaps the key to this will be an early stretch of very winnable games after the home opener against Baltimore. The Patriots will go up against Green Bay, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and the Jets twice. With Green Bay not looking great without Davante Adams, and the rest of the teams coming off pretty bad 2021 seasons, this is a stretch where the Pats will have to probably win five of those six games to give themselves some wiggle room down the stretch.

Kathryn wonders what Mac Jones’ true ceiling is, and if he can ascend from just good to great or even elite.

Coming into the 2021 NFL draft, so many analysts said the same thing about Jones: the highest floor of the quarterbacks, lowest ceiling. Mac does have a smart and calculated play style, considering the safest and highest probability outcomes, and true to their words, he had the highest floor, having the best season of all the rookie quarterbacks. He went a bit beyond that, though, leading the Patriots to a playoff berth, but skeptics will point to his conservative approach to how he ran the offense as evidence of a low ceiling.

I think Jones can be better than the expectations, though, and I boil it down to a few reasons. First of all, Mac has shown the ability to throw the right ball in the right situations, including deeper throws. Of course, at Alabama, he was gifted with weapons like Jaylen Waddle, Devonta Smith, and Najee Harris, but his statline of 41 TD to just four interceptions was absurd. And most importantly, the guy knew how to win, leading the Crimson tide to an undefeated season and a national title.

He’s shown the ability to win despite not being at his best as a Patriot, and the ability to find the right plays at the right time, even if it’s not the prettiest. He has a tenacious work ethic and is ever so hungry to get better and win games. It’s hard not to compare these traits to Brady, who thrived as a Patriot, and think about what those similarities mean for Jones’ development.

Of course, it’s not fair to Jones to make this comparison, but while not expecting Brady-like production, the Patriots can certainly use this as a blueprint for how to work with someone of Jones’ build and mindset. Brady is evidence that a quarterback doesn’t need to be a deep gunslinger from the get-go, nor do they need to come into the league with crazy athleticism. That is, if they are developed in the right system, and have other traits to compensate for that. Not many people his age have Mac’s ability to read defenses, distribute the ball so well and make safe but effective plays.

Probably the biggest knock on Jones is his lack of velocity on his arm, or at least his relative inability to throw the ball accurately, deep and fast all at the same time. Most of his effectiveness on deep throws at Alabama and as a Patriot have been on more floaty touch passes, which are accurate but don’t always cut it when the coverage can catch up. And as such, Mac Jones’ work with throwing coach Tom House also inspires some hope, and House gave his own assessment of Mac’s ceiling, saying that “the sky’s the limit for him”.

House is a former pitcher and current throwing coach, who in the past also coached Tom Brady. As far as the muscle-level motions that need to be done to throw a ball quickly and accurately, there’s nobody better to work with. And we have seen so far an increase in aggression with the deep ball and some increased throw velocity. He needs to find the right balance between his intelligence and that aggression, but that will come with time.

Mac’s lack of deep weapons on the Patriots as well seems to have subsided with the improvement of Agholor this season and the looming threat of speedster Tyquan Thornton upon his return. With a potential for a truly balanced attack in New England, all of a sudden, people won’t able to read Jones and the Patriots’ offense, and things can become truly fearsome. It’s hard to even extrapolate what Mac can do with that freedom and confidence, in the best way possible.

My ceiling for Mac Jones is multiple years as a top-five quarterback, along with an appearance on the All-Pro first team. He won’t be in the conversation as an all-time great, but he has the potential to have some serious success in a Patriots uniform. A lot needs to go right, but he has the potential and the demeanor to make it so.

Pat is confused as to what is going on with the tight ends, and is frustrated that they’re not being used more.

So am I. Talent-wise, the Patriots have the potential to have the best tight-end duo they’ve had since Gronkowski and Hernandez in 2012. Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry have complementary skillsets. Henry is a more traditional tight end, who runs orthodox routes but runs them well, has good hands and can make big plays. Smith has the potential of being a jack of all trades, showing incredible quickness and versatility while still having the traditional tight-end skills too.

There’s so much that can be done with these two, from gadget plays to end arounds to two tight-end sets where both can serve as decoys for each other. If used properly by the Patriots, these two can frustrate and stymie defenses. The issue is, they’re not. They’re barely being utilized, and Mac Jones knows how to get the ball in a variety of hands, so that’s not the issue. Patricia, Judge and the offensive playcalling team seems to be unable to use them in the right way.

Likely, part of the fix here is to more closely integrate Nick Caley into some of the playcalling decisions with those two. He has worked with a number of tight ends for the Patriots, including Gronkowski, and has done a very good job with the position. In a way it’s exciting to see a team that is making so many seemingly terrible decisions yet is still doing ok on the field, as there’s so much more to unearth. But these two can be and need to be utilized more for the offense to evolve.

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