This will be the week of Mac Jones. The New England Patriots rookie had his best game of the season and is drawing deserving consideration for rookie of the year after a 45-7 win over the Cleveland Browns. At the very least, he deserves praise for a breakthrough game, in which he looked more efficient than ever passing the ball downfield.
But that’s not what I want to talk about — at least not in this article. No, I want to acknowledge coach and general manager Bill Belichick, who has managed to turn a listing, lackluster 2-4 team into a 6-4 contender.
He did that in the wake of raising the stakes on himself over the last two years. He let Tom Brady leave New England, only to see the quarterback win a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Questions, whether legitimate or not, emerged as to whether Brady was more to credit for the Patriots dynasty. As a response, Belichick drafted a quarterback in the first round, something he’s never done, then traded up for a defensive tackle (Christian Barmore) in the second round. He also spent $159.6 million in guaranteed dollars in the first nine days of free agency, a sum so large owner Robert Kraft had to liquidate some of his investments to free up cash.
He’s rebuilding a team just like everyone else — spending big in free agency and drafting a quarterback in the first round. But how many times have we seen those two avenues fail? He appears to have made that recipe work. He’s also doing it better and more quickly than everyone else.
The season didn’t start going according to plan after losses to the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints. Those are teams that, at this point in the season, the Patriots can beat. But it made sense that this team needed time to gel, with a rookie quarterback and a massive influx of starting-caliber talent, which needed to learn the Patriots’ way of doing things on and off the field. New England, however, would have done well to get its act together by the matchup against the Buccaneers in Week 4 — and it nearly came away with a win. And then there was the matchup against the Cowboys when, again, the Patriots could only watch while Dak Prescott stole away a win.
Belichick made questionable calls during that timespan, bypassing fourth-down attempts and punting with hopes his defense would step up. Those weeks of trust in his defense lacked justification. But Belichick didn’t change. He reinforced the idea within the locker room that the Patriots were a playoff team. He reminded them to keep believing in themselves. And they did. That belief — mixed with multiple players realizing their talent — has brought the Patriots to this point, where they are legitimate playoff contenders and maybe even Super Bowl contenders.
Big movers up this week: Chiefs, Cowboys, Packers, Patriots, Eagles, Panthers
Moving down: Bucs, Ravens, Seahawks, Steelers, Falcons pic.twitter.com/oavlrBWACY
— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) November 15, 2021
The upward trajectory of Jones has been impressive. Even when his usage went down in recent weeks and he grew less efficient, Jones was still doing the right things to help his team win, with just two turnovers in the last four games — a four-game win streak. Jones is one of the quickest studies the Patriots have had at quarterback. Remember: Even Tom Brady sat for his rookie season. Jones has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the NFL, and has been, by far, the best rookie.
And then there are other rookies who are hits. Running back Rhamondre Stevenson had his issues with fumbling but has been an ideal fit — dare I say, more so than Sony Michel and Damien Harris — because of how he can contribute as a power runner and a pass-catcher. Even when Harris returns from his concussion, the Patriots are likely to lean on Stevenson in the red zone, where he’ll make New England’s offense less predictable. Defensive tackle Christian Barmore has been an impressive presence in the interior, starting the season as a pass-rusher and situational player but earning a full-time role, with the most snaps among defensive linemen in Week 10. He is second on the team in pressures, per Pro Football Focus.
The free agency class has been a mixed bag — but, frankly, that’s how it goes in free agency. What Belichick did that was smart: create redundancy at positions where the Patriots couldn’t afford to whiff. They doubled their signings at receiver and tight end. So far, there is one signing that’s struggling to make an impact at each position — tight end Jonnnu Smith and receiver Nelson Agholor — and one that is thriving — tight end Hunter Henry and receiver Kendrick Bourne. EDGE Matthew Judon has been a sensation, with 9.5 sacks. The play of defensive tackle Davon Godchaux and cornerback Jalen Mills has been good enough, though not particularly impressive.
A team is the sum of its parts. This team had its growing pains — and will surely have more — but the Patriots have emerged as one of Belichick’s best creations in recent memory. Yes, he’s not so far removed from winning three Super Bowls (and six in total), but he also did that with a familiar recipe, which stated with you-know-who at quarterback.
This is totally different for the Patriots under Belichick. This is uncharted territory. And he may just make it look easy.