It's been just three weeks and there's a long way to go before any final determinations can be made, but the month of September showed the Patriots are much the same as the other teams trying to work their rookie quarterbacks into their plans.
Bumps in the road
No one anticipated an easy transition for Mac Jones. While terms like "most NFL-ready" and "Brady-like qualities" were often tied to the rookie's bio, few felt those traits would manifest themselves immediately.
However, there also were many folks who felt, unlike the rookies in outposts like Jacksonville, New York and Chicago, Jones would benefit from the structure and talent around him in New England. The first three weeks of the season have shown that not to be the case, as Jones has been harassed as much as or more than any of his classmates.
First and foremost this is not about Jones. The rookie has faced heavy pressure in all three games and has generally stood in the pocket and continued to fight each week. There have been some errant throws and some poor decisions, but Jones' play has little to do with the team's 1-2 record heading into October.
But despite some claims to the contrary, Jones isn't any different than the others either. Boomer Esiason, a Hall of Fame quarterback who has worked for CBS for years claimed if the draft were to be redone that Jones would be the top pick. Esiason watched the first couple of weeks and saw Jones avoiding turnovers and generally making good decisions while Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson were throwing interceptions at a high rate, and the assumption is he felt Jones was the better option.
Then the Saints came to town, attacked Jones ferociously, and the same mistakes that plagued Lawrence and Wilson haunted him as well. When Jones was forced to play from behind, things deteriorated just as they have for Lawrence and Wilson, who have been asked to do much more than Jones has thus far.
But again, Jones isn't the problem and despite tossing three picks on Sunday he wasn't the problem against New Orleans either. The surprising element to the team's disappointing start has been the play of the supporting cast. Heavy free-agent investments and the presence of Bill Belichick figured to keep Jones' development on the rise. Thus far the Patriots have looked like most other teams looking to incorporate 10 or 12 new free-agent starters into the mix – disjointed and inconsistent.
The tight ends were supposed to be the focal point of the offense but neither Jonnu Smith nor Hunter Henry has provided much pop. Smith struggled through a dismal game on Sunday while Henry has contributed mostly short catches underneath with little impact.
The run defense hasn't improved to the level of investment, a fact that was particularly on display late in losses to Miami and New Orleans when the opponents closed out wins by grinding out yards on the ground even when the Patriots knew it was coming.
And the offensive line, which was thought to be one of the league's best, hasn't been able to overcome the loss of right tackle Trent Brown, who missed all but seven snaps this season with a calf strain. Missing just one piece has led to a sporadic running game and leaky pass protection each week.
Jones was sacked six times in three games and hit on 22 other occasions. As a point of comparison, Lawrence was sacked five times and took 13 hits during that time while playing for the rebuilding Jaguars with a first-year coach.
It's all added up to choppy play with very little continuity on offense and inconsistency on defense and special teams. In other words, the types of struggles that most teams face when adding a host of free agents and a rookie quarterback.
Brandon Staley has his Chargers at 2-1 after Sunday's huge win in Kansas City in which the rookie head coach walked the line between aggressiveness and foolishness. With the game tied at 24 in the final two minutes, the Chargers intercepted a Patrick Mahomes pass (one of four Chiefs turnovers) and were in great position to post a monumental road win. But Justin Herbert and the offense faced a fourth-and-4 from the Chiefs 30 with :48 left, forcing Staley to make his first bold decision.
Instead of attempting a 48-yard field goal in swirling winds, Staley kept the offense on the field. Even after rookie Rashan Slater was called for a false start, making it fourth-and-9, Staley stayed aggressive. He was rewarded when Kansas City was called for a 15-yard pass interference penalty, moving the ball to the 20. At that point a game-winning field goal should have been the goal, but Staley wanted more.
He had Herbert continue to throw and eventually the ball was at the Chiefs 4 with :36 left and Kansas City having just one timeout remaining. The smart move would have been to run the ball, wind the clock down and take a timeout before ending the game with a chip shot field goal. Instead Staley wanted the touchdown and Herbert hit Mike Williams for the 4-yard game-winner.
The problem was it left Mahomes and the explosive Chiefs time to match it. CBS color analyst Tony Romo was incredulous, rhetorically asking why as Williams made the touchdown catch. Ultimately it didn't matter as Mahomes worked into Chargers territory but saw his Hail Mary attempt fall incomplete despite plenty of contact down around the goal line.
Staley was fortunate that the officials correctly opted to let the heavy contact go in a jump ball situation. Otherwise, Mahomes would have had another play from the Chargers 1 with no time left, and a potential touchdown could have won it because the Chargers missed their PAT and held on for the 30-24 win.
Staley shouldn't have had to sweat out the final moments, though. There's aggressive and there's reckless, and passing up a 22-yard field goal on the final play in order to score a touchdown, claiming the conditions made the kicking game no sure thing, falls into the latter category.
Great win for the Chargers but the coaching missteps of the past may not be behind them just yet.
Week 3 tidbits
What else can be said of Ravens kicker Justin Tucker, who now has two 60-plus-yard game-winners in the waning seconds in Detroit. His 61-yarder in 2013 broke the Lions hearts, but his 66-yarder on Sunday was even worse. Two plays earlier, the Ravens appeared to snap the ball after the play clock expired but no delay of game call was forthcoming. Instead, Tucker's bomb was just enough, doinking off the crossbar and over to set a new NFL record and move the Ravens to 2-1 on the season. … Earlier in Jacksonville, Arizona's Matt Prater attempted a 68-yard field goal only his results weren't quite as positive. His kick to close the first half fell short and Jamal Agnew returned it 109 yards for a touchdown. Prater held the previous NFL record with a 64-yard field goal set in 2013. … Rookie Justin Fields struggled in his debut as the Bears starter, completing just 6 of 20 passes for 68 yards in Chicago's 26-6 loss to Cleveland. Fields was also sacked nine times for a loss of 67 yards, meaning the Bears netted a single yard passing on the day. … Hard to imagine a better fit for Sean McVay than Matthew Stafford has been thus far in Los Angeles. The Rams impressive 34-24 win over the Bucs featured four touchdown passes from Stafford, who must feel like he went to football heaven after languishing for years in Detroit.
Lots of early-season losses affecting things at the top while the Rams made a statement with a dominant win over the defending champs.
- L.A. Rams (3-0) – No longer are the Rams all about defense. Now the offense is just as capable of dominating.
- Tampa Bay (2-1) – The Bucs haven't been at their best to start the season, particularly in the secondary. But everyone deserves a mulligan.
- Buffalo (2-1) – Speaking of mulligans, we gave the Bills one after a Week 1 loss and Josh Allen has put up 78 points in two wins since.
- Cleveland (2-1) – The Browns defense surrendered less than 50 yards of offense to the Bears on Sunday.
- Las Vegas (3-0) – Newcomers to the Power 5, the Raiders have wins over Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Miami, which would be more impressive in the late-70s but still pretty good.