At first glance, someone may see Mac Jones’ stat line from Sunday night and think, “Hey, this is pretty good.” The New England Patriots’ rookie quarterback, working opposite Tom Brady in his return to Foxborough with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, completed 31 of 40 passes for 275 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception against the defending Super Bowl winners. Those figures were more prolific than Brady’s 22-of-43 for 269 yards, no touchdowns, and no picks. Another reason one might think Jones thrived is that Cris Collinsworth, the booth analyst on NBC, was deeply infatuated with Jones all night. He gushed about him throwing a short completion over the middle to a running back out of the backfield. He raved about Jones’ processing of the defensive coverage before throwing an inaccurate, short incompletion: “From rookie quarterbacks, you don’t see that a whole lot.” He mentioned Jones’ 4.0 college GPA more times than I will count in the course of the evening, which ended with Brady winning his homecoming in dramatic fashion, 19–17.
In truth, Jones was not good on Sunday night. His effort against the Bucs was an almost perfect illustration of how looking at QB performance in more detail than traditional stats allow can make clear that a passer’s actual effect on his team can be a lot different than completion percentage or raw yardage totals reveal. Jones might indeed play a lot of great games in his career. He developed into an all-time great at Alabama, and any QB good enough for both Nick Saban and Bill Belichick is worth taking seriously. But don’t be misled. In the modern NFL, Jones’ performance was pedestrian or worse, and it only took on a better sheen than that because of the narrative allure of Jones playing well against his Hall of Fame predecessor.
One of my favorite football stats is expected points added per play. EPA posits, in essence, that not all yards are created equal. It takes into account game state—where the ball is on the field, how many yards to a first down, and how much time is left on the clock—and tries to sort out how each play affects the offense’s likely amount of scoring on that drive. For instance, imagine a QB completes a 10-yarder on fourth-and-12. It goes in the books as 10 yards on one throw, which is great. But did it really help the offense? Not much. The ball is going back to the other team. However, if that same QB throws a 3-yard completion on fourth-and-2, that’s a huge play for the offense. The defense was fine allowing the 10 yards on fourth-and-12 but will be kicking itself over allowing the 3-yard TD on fourth-and-2. EPA knows the difference between the two, and it assesses how much each play increases or decreases a team’s likely scoring output on that drive. An EPA of zero means that a play kept the offense more or less on schedule, without increasing or decreasing what it should expect to score. It is not a perfect stat, and different models will spit out different numbers, but it’s a smart way to look at offense. EPA is a great tool, for example, to explain why Kirk Cousins puts up such big numbers and still loses.
On Sunday night, according to football analytics site RBSDM.com, Jones averaged 0.01 EPA per play. His contributions did almost nothing to make the Patriots more (or less) likely to score points than they were based on the situations they were in when Jones trotted out to begin every drive. He threw 40 passes and neared 300 yards, but EPA posits that many of those yards were empty calories. The highest-impact plays Jones made were an interception, an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Hunter Henry, and a 6-yard sack he took. Brady’s EPA per play was eight times higher at 0.08. That included the biggest passing play of the game, a 27-yard deep completion to Antonio Brown on a third-and-4 in the first quarter.
The point here is not to dump on Jones, but to point out what good QB play really looks like in an increasingly pass-obsessed NFL, where teams throw more often and for more yards than ever before. A 240-yard passing game on 65.2 percent completions is now the league average, and QBs who push 300 yards might look like they’re playing great by default. But Jones wasn’t really helping the Patriots move the ball, which explains how they wound up with 17 points.
More evidence that Jones didn’t play well exists in how the Patriots deployed him. His average intended target was just 5.3 yards downfield, per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats data. That was the shortest intended distance per throw of any QB this week. (Brady’s 11 yards per intended target were the third-most, behind Lamar Jackson and Jones’ fellow rookie Justin Fields.) Jones threw exactly one pass more than 20 yards downfield, and it landed in the hands of Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. after deflecting off closely-guarded receiver Nelson Agholor.
That interception was a cautionary tale, and Jones almost never tested the Bucs other than that. Just 7.5 percent of his throws (three of 40) were into what Next Gen Stats classifies as “tight coverage,” the second-lowest rate in the NFL this week. Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels quite simply didn’t trust him. The strongest support for that point came when Belichick sent out kicker Nick Folk for a 56-yard field goal in the rain on fourth-and-3 at the Bucs’ 37 in the final minute. Folk doinked it off the left upright while Jones watched from the sideline, rather than get the chance to improve the Patriots’ field position on fourth down. Converting a fourth-and-3 in the rain is hard, but if it’s harder than kicking a 56-yard field goal in the same conditions, it is not the best sign for the coach’s faith in his quarterback.
None of this is a rolling indictment of Jones. There’s no shame in a first-year QB facing an elite defense for a defending Super Bowl champion in his fourth start, taking almost literally nothing more than what the defense let him have, and losing a close one in bad weather. Jones will probably get better, and he’s already been the most effective QB in a hyped 2021 rookie class that has so far fallen flat. Jones has been much better than fellow first-years Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Justin Fields—all of whom have more natural talent, and all of whom are their own examples of how hard it is to be good right away in the NFL. The best approach with Jones and his peers is to let them get there eventually, rather than pretend that they’ve already arrived.
Update, Oct. 4, 2021, 6:45 p.m.: This post wasn’t all fair to Jones as initially written, and I’d like to add a note here to that effect. The Patriots’ running game is bad and had little chance of doing anything against the Bucs. And as Andre Weingarten pointed out on Twitter, Jones’ short passes had the effect of replacing that running game and getting the Patriots first downs that teams would usually try to get on the ground. Jones’ effort wasn’t nearly as prolific as his raw yardage and completion figures suggested, but stating that he didn’t really help the Patriots move the ball is unfair, as the Patriots’ 15 first downs on his throws indicated.