The Patriots are continuing to prepare for Monday Night Football against the Bears this week, and for the first time in nearly a month, they could take the field with their starting quarterback.
Speaking to reporters for the first time since suffering a high-ankle in New England's loss to the Ravens in Week 3, Mac Jones answered questions about his status for Monday night.
"I think it [the ankle] feels pretty good. Just trying to work through all the stuff to be able to play in an NFL football game. I want to be able to go out there and help the team, and once I'm there, I'm there. I'm definitely making a lot of progress, and we've done a good job with the treatment."
"Gonna try to do my best to put the hours in to get ready. Definitely moving better, so I feel pretty good," Jones said in the Patriots locker room on Friday afternoon.
Jones and head coach Bill Belichick wouldn't confirm that the second-year quarterback will return on Monday night, but reports indicate that the team is hopeful that Mac will be able to play against the Bears, and Friday's media availability speaks to that possibility. In the first two practices of the week, Jones was listed as a limited participant in both sessions.
Belichick's response when asked if a decision had been made on Monday night's starter was, "we're just taking it day-by-day," which has been his sentiment throughout this process.
Last week, Jones was officially questionable for the game, traveling with the team to Cleveland, and was on the sideline for the Patriots win over the Browns. Along with helping rookie Bailey Zappe behind the scenes, Jones sat with the Pats first-year QB on the sideline and helped him along to a 38-15 win over the Browns as best as he could.
"He's helped a lot. Of course, he's been in the league for a whole other year above me. I've been able to pick his brain. I've been able to ask him questions, and he's been giving me great feedback answering them. He's a lot of help," Zappe said earlier this week.
Although it could be seen as an awkward situation given Zappe's success in his two starts, Jones wanted to provide the same mentorship to Zappe as teammates did for him in the past.
"I think I've been in these types of situations before. Whether that's in college or not, if you're in, you're in, and you want to have everyone helping you. He's done a good job stepping up being a young guy, and I've always had really good mentors, so that's my plan," said Jones.
With his primary focus on rehabbing his ankle sprain and helping Zappe and the team any way he can, a silver lining to Jones's injury could be learning from the offense's success during a two-game winning streak with Zappe under center. The Pats coaching staff has modified the offense to build it around the rookie QB, but some of those elements should be here to stay as the team turns back to Jones when he is healthy, which is the plan, according to reports.
For example, New England has expanded its under-center package to feature play-action on 31.6% of Zappe's drop-backs compared to calling play-action on 10.8% of Jones's throws. Furthermore, the Pats used five-man protection schemes on 81.1% of Mac's drop-backs, while Zappe got extra protection on many plays, as only 51.1% of the rookie's passes used five blockers. The Patriots utilized seven-plus blockers on 13.8% of Zappe's throws in his two starts.
|Stat||Mac Jones||Bailey Zappe|
|Avg. Air Yards/Attempt||10.4||6.6|
|Open Receiver Rate||43%||49%|
After running most of their offense from the shotgun and relying too much on deep passes, the Patriots were more conservative with the rookie throwing the ball downfield. Only 8.6% of Zappe's throws traveled more than 20 air yards, compared to 20.6% with Jones, who led the league in deep pass attempts through the first three weeks of the season (20).
The formula with Zappe, as seen in the play-action completion above, was a lot of two-man route combinations off the run fake where there were clean pockets for the rookie to operate due to the extra blockers staying in to protect the quarterback.
As a result of play-action, good protection, and facing worse defenses, Zappe was throwing to open receivers on 49% of his attempts, while Mac was only throwing to open receivers on 43% of throws, according to NextGenStats's tracking data.
With all those factors contributing to their success, the Patriots offense scored 30 points per game, averaged +0.17 expected points added per play, and committed just three turnovers in Zappe's two starts. With Jones, those numbers were: 16.7 PPG, -0.03 EPA per play, and eight turnovers in his three starts.
"I think you get to watch and learn as much as you can and try to get healthy. I've done a good job trying to help the team as best I can in film, and during the game to watch was really good. Obviously, I want to be out there to help the team win, and that's what I'm going to do," Jones told reporters.
After Zappe led the Patriots on a two-game winning streak to keep their season on track, the best thing that can come from this is that the offense is in a better place than it was before Jones's injury as he steps back in as the starting quarterback.
The entire operation, from the play-calling to the players around the quarterback, learns from their success over the last two games and hits the ground running with Jones.
Although Zappe fever was a fun two-game ride, there's zero doubt that Jones gives the Patriots the best chance to compete for a playoff spot and hopefully beyond.
With that being said, the Patriots found an efficient identity with Zappe that needs to have a place in the offense as Jones takes back the reins as soon as Monday night.