Patriots' Mac Jones is the man of the muddled moment

Mac Jones stands at his locker -- a fusty metal; the color of dirty dishwater -- in the visiting team's locker room at MetLife Stadium. He's traded his Patriots uniform for a pair of black pants and a gray hoodie, a somber ensemble that befits his mood. He never turns around, only directs his gaze toward his locker, leaning slightly forward, like if he crept in, it could offer an escape out of this mess.

The lowly Patriots have just fallen to the lowly Giants, 10-7, their ninth loss of the season. It was a miserable affair that, for Jones, ended with his fourth benching this year, and second in as many games.

Over Jones' shoulder, a Patriots employee hollers out once, then twice: "Bailey is at the podium!" And it's a strange kind of salt in the wound, this public service announcement that Bailey Zappe, the man who has been tasked with putting Jones out of his misery today, and for much of this season, is holding court at the postgame news conference. Meanwhile, Jones -- once regarded as the future of this franchise -- packs up the tokens of another failed effort into an oversized team-issued duffel. There goes his chest pad he wore for the first interception he threw, a back-foot toss into triple coverage that the Giants' Deonte Banks turned into a balletic, toe-tapping catch. There goes the helmet he had on for the second interception he panicked into, when his blocking imploded and so did his decision-making.

A few minutes later, that same Patriots employee escorts Jones to the podium. "I really just gotta look in the mirror again and keep going at it," he says. "I'm not going to quit."

He reaffirms his devotion to this game, even as he looks beaten down by it. Two weeks earlier, after his third benching against the Colts -- that time across the ocean in Germany -- he arrived at the podium red-eyed and shaky-voiced. He doesn't look much better tonight, if slightly steelier. Less shocked and more calloused, perhaps.

After an efficient three minutes or so behind the microphone, Jones exits through a side door, grabs a black leather briefcase in one hand, a Louis Vuitton briefcase in the other, then makes his way through the bowels of the stadium, grim-faced, like he's walking out of a job interview he just bombed spectacularly.

He makes a quick pit stop at the team's buffet table, where -- looking for all the world like a man who couldn't stomach a bite -- he still surveys the options; chicken, fruit, cookies. He grabs some for the road, then he wends his way through the concourse, walking behind the gray partition that separates players from the rest of the stadium's employees, who are busy putting MetLife to bed. Jones heads toward the garage doors that wait to open, revealing the steady mist that has left North Jersey raw and dank. That's where the team bus idles, ready to take him back to New England, and a future there that is as murky as this night.

Three days later, Mac Jones stands alone and at a slight remove, his hands tucked into his pockets, the better to stay somewhat warm on this afternoon in late November. A few yards in front of him, Zappe takes the lion's share of reps during the open portion of practice; Malik Cunningham, who hasn't even practiced at quarterback at all since Week 6, takes a handful; Jones takes none.

His immediate future has come into sharper focus: Jones is no longer the Patriots' starting quarterback, at least for this week.

By the time Sunday and the Chargers roll around, Jones is practically a phantom. He doesn't emerge for pregame warm-ups. In the waning minutes before kickoff, he takes to midfield and slaps five with a column of Patriots passing by, but that's the only time he'll see the field that day. And in the open locker room after yet another Patriots catastrophe, one in which he had no hand in making -- a 6-0 loss, and the inglorious feat of becoming the first team since the 1938 Chicago Cardinals to allow 10 points or fewer and lose in three straight games -- he's missing outright. David Andrews stares at his locker, then runs his hands down over his face. Jabrill Peppers walks through the center of the room and over the Patriots logo, wearing a pair of headphones and an angry snarl. He only manages to shake his head. For tonight, for now, the only sign of Jones is his open locker and a white Alabama sweatshirt draped over his chair, a lonely reminder of happier, more prosperous times.

It was at once hard to miss, and hard to witness, the moment -- or at least the most recent moment -- Mac Jones broke in front of the world, two Sundays ago against the Giants. Hunched over on the ground, he bent his elbows by his side, then buried his face in the MetLife turf. He had just tackled the Giants' Bobby Okereke by the cleats, 55 yards into Okereke returning a pass Jones threw off his back foot (again), that missed Jones' intended target by a healthy five or so yards (again), that got picked off (again). In that moment, doubled over, he looked like a man searching for prayers, maybe for mercy. Not this. Not again.

And yet, there he was, doing it again -- making mind-boggling football decisions while showcasing some truly poor technique -- the very thing he looked so unlikely to do, just a few years ago. If no one was going to confuse Jones for Patrick Mahomes or Joe Burrow coming out of college, he had, at the very least, a proven track record at Alabama showing he could make up for a lack of electric athleticism with unassailable fundamentals. He didn't force the ball. He could get to the open receiver. He had no problem taking the checkdown. He moved safeties with his eyes to get the ball downfield. He had good anticipation. Sexy it wasn't, but it was safe and sound.

He didn't blow away NFL brass with a Josh Allen cannon or a Jalen Hurts superhuman ability to squat 600 pounds; he wowed them, instead, with his on-field smarts. One former NFL scout who studied Jones closely in the leadup to the 2021 draft says he was far and away the most impressive candidate his team spoke to that year, when it came to his football acumen.

They'd grill Jones on what he'd do if he saw one safety rotation, or how he'd adjust protection if he saw a defender walk up, and each time, Jones would leave them marveling at his grasp on the problem at hand. "I remember after we interviewed him, we were like, 'Wow. He was so sharp,'" the scout says.

If no one else was going to confuse Jones for Mahomes or Burrow, he wasn't going to confuse himself for them either. Jones knew exactly who he was -- and who he wasn't. Oh, you thought his lack of burst was comical? So did he, which is why he laughed at himself and his decision to dive headfirst into the grass instead of trying to bounce outside of a defender back in his Tuscaloosa days. So you weren't blown away by his physical prowess? Neither was he, which is how he wound up dressing himself down three years ago, a lifetime ago, even in the middle of a Heisman-finalist run.

"You just have to know your limits," he said in 2020. "I'm not gonna roll out to my left and try to throw it 80 yards down the field like [other] guys probably can do."

Then he laughed.

He figured he could laugh at himself, because he knew that even if he looked like a jester out there, he was serious in ways that mattered: obsessing over playbooks, poring over every angle of tape like game film was the Zapruder film. (It's an approach several of his Patriots teammates say lives on. "He grinds tape. He watched more tape than really anybody I've ever been around," says Will Grier, who, for much of the season, has shared the New England quarterbacks room with Jones.)

So he was brash enough to needle Nick Saban. He was goofy enough to hassle defensive linemen whose legs were thicker than both of his combined. He was sure enough of himself to take football really seriously, but without the dour gravitas. That brashness, that goofiness, that surety of self? It might not have vanished completely, but it has been punctured, popped like a balloon under the pressure of what he is trying to fix about himself, and about his play, in New England.

Witness another day, another unraveling: In the waning minutes against the Colts, Jones heaved a ball in desperation. He threw off his back foot, only to watch the ball land some 10 yards short of his receiver, who was streaking wide open into the end zone, and into the waiting arms of a defender.

"He can make that throw 99 times out of a 100," says one source close to the situation, "With his eyes closed."

He could once; this version of Jones did not. Perhaps more alarmingly, he cannot -- at least right now.

"He's still Mac. But you can tell he's taken a few bullets," says the source. "You can see it in his face. You can see it in his eyes. You can see how he's been deflated."

For just a flash on the Sunday against the Giants, that deflation morphs into defensiveness. Or a faint whiff of it.

Jones stands at the postgame microphone, fielding questions about what is wrong (is it mental or mechanical?) and what it feels like when it goes this wrong (how do you keep going back to work when every week yields the same results?). Then a reporter asks Jones, who has found success near impossible to come by these last two years in New England, if he feels like he has been put in the best position to succeed.

He points the finger at himself -- "It's my job to go out there and play well regardless of the circumstances" -- if not exactly answering the question as posed. When a second reporter repeats the line of inquiry, Jones, for just a moment, cracks.

"I've just answered it. Thanks," he says. He lets out a laugh, short and quick, enough to make plain he doesn't actually find any of this funny. "I don't know what you want me to say."

It's a lot, after all, to ask someone in freefall to pinpoint the moment they stumbled over the cliff.

Is Mac Jones broken? Or did the Patriots break him?

In ways that seem to defy the gravity of the 21st century, the Patriots, as a team, are a holy mess. The offensive line in front of Jones is patchwork, and it shows: New England has a league-worst pass block win rate of 44.3% -- that is to say, the line is able to sustain their blocks for 2.5 seconds on less than half of their dropbacks. And the weapons he's throwing to comprise one of the NFL's most uninspiring units: the Patriots' receivers are dead last in yards of separation (3.06) and second-worst in wide-open percentage (18.3%).

That's a heaping pile of obstacles to overcome, to say nothing of a slew of team misfires that have left Jones teetering. Take, for instance, the rapport Jones had built with Jakobi Meyers, one of last year's lone bright spots among the receivers -- only to have the team let Meyers depart for Las Vegas in the offseason. The Patriots then brought in JuJu Smith Schuster, a similarly situated slot receiver for roughly the same financial hit, minus all that established chemistry. An offensive coordinator carousel featured three different coaches in Jones' three-year tenure in New England. Then there was the thoroughly failed experiment to hand the keys to the quarterback and offense last year to a pair of coaches -- Joe Judge and Matt Patricia -- with precious little quarterback or offensive experience to their names.

If the Patriots have done Jones few favors, though, Jones has done even fewer favors for himself. He was afforded a rare NFL mulligan last year, thanks to Belichick's odd promotion of Judge, a longtime special teams coach, to quarterbacks coach, and Patricia, an established defensive coach, to offensive coordinator. But then Belichick brought back Bill O'Brien -- a credentialed offensive mind -- for the 2023 season, and Jones managed to ... play worse.

Behold a study in bleakness: He has the third-worst QBR this season (36.4; ahead of only Bryce Young and Zach Wilson). He has the worst QBR, period, when not pressured (49.2). He's 4-for-29 on passes thrown 20-plus yards, and he's off target on 48.3% of those throws (only Baker Mayfield and Aidan O'Connell are worse). His footwork is poor. He's skittish. He's making baffling decisions.

In the end, it's football's most dismaying and unknowable chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Maybe the Patriots wrecked Mac Jones. Or maybe Mac Jones' ceiling was never all that lofty in this league, so he was primed for the wrecking.

"He's not at the level of a Mahomes," says one scout. "If they could protect him better, of course he'd be a better player. If he had better things around him, he could be a better player. But that's the difference. He's not gifted enough to overcome the lack of supporting cast."

All which leaves Jones and the Patriots in the league's unhappiest marriage: A quarterback just two years removed from a Pro Bowl rookie season, has no clear future in football, at least as a starter in New England. Perhaps anywhere.

If history serves as any kind of guide, when Jones looks ahead, when he tries to divine what comes next -- not just in these final five weeks of the 2023 season, but next year, and the year after that -- the landscape is grim. For every Jared Goff, who has cratered as a quarterback in the NFL and managed to breathe new and real life into his career arc, there is a Carson Wentz and a Josh Rosen and a Zach Wilson. For every Tua Tagovailoa, who has swooned, but then soared, there is a Mayfield and a Sam Darnold and a Mitch Trubisky. The road to reinvention is not impassable, but it is fraught.

Publicly, Jones insists he wants to do that reinventing right where he is, here, in New England. Even though Goff needed a fresh start on a new team and Tagovailoa required a clean slate via a different coaching regime, Jones says he is not looking for a new beginning.

Naively, perhaps. Devin McCourty, who spent 13 years in the league and all of them in Foxborough, thinks a new beginning is precisely what Jones needs. "I think Mac is gonna be in the NFL for a good amount of time. Call it 10 to 15 years. I don't know at what level. Will it be a starting quarterback and a Super Bowl winner? Only time will tell. ... But I think it will be tough for that to be in New England."

Still, Jones hasn't waved any white flags. He is either resolute to a fault or a glutton for punishment -- maybe both -- but many of his teammates say that's exactly what they like about him.

Even if those teammates are ready for a change, any change, at quarterback (and McCourty, after spending time with the team last week, thinks they are), even if they feel worn down by how this season has played out (and Grier indicates they do; "It's definitely a locker room full of people searching for answers, people that are not happy") they appreciate that Jones continues to fight for another day.

After practice wraps, a smattering of players filter into the locker room and offer as much.

"Anytime I get here, however early, his truck's always there," says Cole Strange, the Patriots' offensive lineman. "When I leave it's usually there. I respect that, because sometimes, when you're doing bad, you just want to get away from it."

Jones makes a brief cameo in the locker room, himself, after practice. He changes into a new pair of shoes, then announces to no one in particular, "It's time to work out," then leaves as quickly as he came, passing through a set of double doors and a sign for the weight room. In his wake, his locker -- this one glossy and expansive, a far cry from the spartan visitor's locker back in MetLife -- showcases the contents of his life as a Patriot. A pair of polished helmets high overhead. A gray business suit, presumably for his pregame arrival. And on the left side, hanging askew and stuck to the wall with scotch tape, a printout of "Man in the Arena." His father, Gordon, introduced him to Theodore Roosevelt's famous speech when he was just a kid. Long before he arrived in this town, or stepped foot in this particular arena. Before Tom Brady -- a self-proclaimed acolyte of this very same speech -- became the face of this franchise and its dynasty. Before Jones played, then prospered, then fell from grace, in the long shadow of that acolyte and his dynasty.

It is not the critic who counts ...

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena ...

Who errs, who comes short again and again ...

For a spell, Jones was the man in the arena. Now he sets out to discover if it's who he can be again.