FOXBOROUGH — There was good news and bad news here at Gillette Stadium early Sunday evening.
Let’s go right for the jugular – the bad.
The New England Patriots lost, 17-16. Ultimately, that’s the bottom line at 1 Patriot Place.
We’re not used to losing on opening days, be it here or elsewhere. The film will show a lot of miscues, on both sides of the ball, a Damien Harris’ fumble on the Miami 9-yard line with 3:35 remaining the most damaging.
If that fumble doesn’t happen, at worst, the Patriots make an easy kick a field goal, and their defense probably keeps Tua Tagovailoa in check.
It was just like Belichick scripted when he signed all of those free agents for $160+ million in guarantees, the defense finishing the job.
But, in reality, after the fumble, the Patriots defense went off script and couldn’t get the Dolphins off the field the last 3:31 of the game, preventing the offense from even attempting a late game-winning drive or field goal.
The Dolphins got two first downs, including three straight direct snaps to running back Malcolm Brown in the “wildcat” formation and a keeper by backup quarterback Jacoby Brissette.
That ended what was a pretty good, combative game with a thud, at least from the Patriots perspective.
Now the good news, or in some respects, the really, really good news:
We have to put in perspective what the young man did in his opener.
Relatively speaking, he was superb.
And by “relatively,” I’m talking the gold standard – Tom Brady
If you recall, the Patriots won Brady’s debut as a starter. In fact, they won big, 44-13.
But the story of the game was Bill Belichick 2001 defense winning the turnover battle, 4-0, forcing three Petyon Manning interceptions and recovering a fumble.
Brady completed 12 of 23 throwing for 168 yards that afternoon at Foxboro Stadium.
In Mac Jones’ debut, there were no such advantages. In fact, Jones’ Pats lost the turnover battle, 2-1, and that 2001 defense, come to find out, had three (and more coming) Patriots Hall of Famers.
Belichick’s 2021 defense, on paper, looks very good and maybe even great with Stephon Gilmore, on injured reserve.
But Jones, particularly in the second half, became the centerpiece of the Patriots offense as the Dolphins shut Harris & Co. down, allowing only 37 yards on 15 carries.
Statistically, for Jones, the two halves were similar — 14 for 19, 133 yards, 1 TD in first half and 15 for 20, 148 yards in second half. But the rookie quarterback showed more moxie when it counted in the second half, at least more than many of us expected on opening night.
On a 3rd-and-11, following the Dolphins’ 75-yard go-ahead drive (17-10) to open the second half, Jones made the prettiest touch pass of the game, floating a ball into James White’s hands with linebacker all over him, good for 26 yards.
The fact that Jones read the mismatch and took advantage of it looked very Brady-like.
On the next two third down passes on the next drive, Jones found tight end Hunter Henry for 6 yards and White for 8 yards, both beating the first down markers by one yard.
On the drive that was supposed to put the Patriots ahead, Jones converted another 3rd-and-6 to Harris for 7 yards.
This isn’t normal for rookies … playing in their first-ever game.
Belichick was not about to praise anybody in a loss, particularly one as painful as this one.
“Mac competed hard,” said Belichick. “I thought we had a lot of guys competing hard. We’ve just got to perform better as a team.”
Miami coach Brian Flores, barely, went a step further in his praise of the Patriots rookie.
“He played well,” said Flores. “He moved the ball. Made the throws he needed to make. Made good decisions. I thought he played well.”
Jones, who doesn’t yet look comfortable in front of the media, looked a bit dazed afterward.
But some of his answers were spot on, at least compared to the legendary QB he really is replacing.
“Definitely wasn’t good enough, starting with me,” said Jones. “That’s just how we have to look at it. … We lost, so it’s not good enough.”
Jones ability to move in the pocket, and adjust with poise, was impressive. This is not Alabama where every player around him was better than every player on the other defense.
Belichick’s defenses usually take a few months to find their place. The opening drive of the game and second half weren’t good enough. Neither was the ending.
For those of us that wondered how long it would take Jones to catch up to the defense, the Patriots rookie quarterback is a lot closer than we guessed.
Last night he was better.
And that bodes very well for this franchise’s future. They not only chose the right quarterback to start this new era, but he looks like a keeper.
You can email Bill Burt at email@example.com.