I don’t think there has ever been a regular season NFL game hyped as much as Sunday night’s matchup between the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The storylines were abundant in Tom Brady’s return to Foxboro following 20 years in a Patriots uniforms and 6 Super Bowl titles. It seemed on paper that this could be a 1-sided match-up with Brady showing his former fanbase and team that he is still atop the mountain, but instead, it was one of the best football games of the year.
Lost somewhat in the Tom Brady hype this week was his “replacement” Mac Jones. One has to imagine that Tom Brady was feeling a ton of emotion returning to Gillette as a visitor and with the ovations and chants he heard as he came on the field for warmups and then for pregame, but what about Jones? A rookie in just his 4th NFL game who had been compared by some to a Brady and has been anointed the successor to lead this storied franchise. What were his emotions leading up to kickoff and into the first quarter on Sunday?
While there are certainly comparisons between Tom and Mac, I always find it unfair to compare players, especially when one is the GOAT. That being said, once Mac settled in after the first drive or two, he showed a massive national TV audience why he is being compared to Tom and just what he can do in a high-pressure environment (literally). He faced a lot of pressure from the Bucs defense, but was able to make smart decisions. When he sensed pressure coming, he was often able to step up in the pocket to gain an extra half-second to make a better throw (very Brady-esque).
Mac’s quick decision-making is what sets him apart from all other rookies, and many veterans. I’ve been talking about this ad nauseum, but it’s critically important and a big reason he won the starting job this year. He takes the 3-5 step drop, does a quick scan, and and lets the ball go. It keeps the ball moving and doesn’t allow the defense to adjust or get set in coverage. Will the quick decisions lead to mistakes at times? Absolutely, but it’s a recipe for success. When it isn’t a quick read, Mac is able to scan through his receiving options and make the smart, right choice, all while being aware of defensive pressure.
Other than the interception, Mac mostly made the right decisions around when to take a sack vs. risk a turnover with a bad throw. Taking a sack is a negative play and obviously should be avoided, but may also be the most unappreciated successful result of a play. There were at least 2 times on Sunday night that Mac took a sack, because pressure got to him quickly, he couldn’t get out of the pocket, and there was no passing lane to put the ball in. In that case, a sack is the smart decision because you live to play another down, you don’t risk intentional grounding, and you don’t risk a turnover that could shift the momentum of the game and lead to opponent points. Of the reasonable outcomes in that instance, a sack is the best result.
I’ve already said this a ton and I’m guessing it’s going to keep coming up, but Mac is poised and confident well beyond his years. He’s able to put the last play behind him, learn from it, and move forward very quickly and it appears that very little can phase him. It already seems like Mac has been in the league for a few years and has a high floor for performance, but the questions were around his ceiling coming out of college. If he continues to learn and grow, his ceiling is as high, or higher, than any other rookie QB in the league.
While Tom Brady and the Bucs won the football game on Sunday, the real winner for me is Mac Jones. I know they aren’t on the field at the same time and that’s not how wins and losses work, but in the first head-to-head match-up between the GOAT and the rookie, the rookie came out on top. If only the scoreboard reflected the W.