Reporter of the AFC Est
Mac Jones said last week that the New England Patriots couldn’t give up. Their playoff chances had fallen off a cliff after a humiliating loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. (You’ve seen the Las Vegas Side, right?) But the Patriots had a long way to go before the end of the season.
Give New England credit — it didn’t give up.
The Patriots lost, 22-18, to the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 16. They played hard for four quarters, even when the Bengals took a 22-0 halftime lead. The second half was a completely different story, but in the first half, the Patriots looked completely lost. Their defense had no answer for Cincy’s offense. New England’s offense, especially its passing offense, looked completely unsure of … almost everything.
The offensive line looked unsure of setting their protections.
Jones doesn’t look confident in the pocket – afraid of impending QB hits.
The receivers looked unsure on the field.
The game design and calling issues seemed as bad as ever. On third downs, Jones was forced to throw pass receivers under the posts. And while that can work if the receiver has room to run, thanks to the unique speed or unique play design, these plays didn’t lead to first downs, as usual. If there was one image of dysfunction that fit the Patriots, it was the moment Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith collided during a pass play. Smith knocked Henry out of the game.
Even when Jones started taking risks and shooting downfield (with confidence), his receivers couldn’t help him. Jones hit rookie wide receiver Tyquan Thornton in the hands of a ball that traveled 55 yards downfield. And Thornton dropped it. The next play, Jones fired the ball to wide receiver Kendrick Bourne about 25 yards downfield. The ball bounced off Bourne’s mask.
The second half was a different story.
It almost seemed as if the pendulum of fortune was swinging in his direction. New England got a 48-yard Hail Mary touchdown on a play where tight end Scotty Washington tipped Jakobi Meyers in what looked like a fullback.
It seemed like a poetic turn that might inspire new confidence. They might have lost in an embarrassing side last week. Maybe they would win because of a crazy fullback this week.
Cornerback, receiver, punt returner and kick returner Marcus Jones had a pick-6, a fumble recovery and a 15-yard catch. He played a pivotal role in the near comeback.
Even with everything going the Patriots’ way, they still lost. His last game was an embarrassment, with a delay of game penalty and, on his last offensive play, an ineligible man on the field. His penultimate game ended with a fumble by Rhamondre Stevenson in the red zone.
It was downright awful, and probably excruciating for Patriots fans.
Let’s move on, shall we?
Patriots fans have seen these things all season long. They’ve watched Bill Belichick’s offensive staff crumble a passing offense that showed promise last season. So let’s look at the big picture, instead of pouring them out (as I’ve done all year).
I can’t imagine it’s a coincidence that in the hours leading up to this game, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien is emerging as the favorite for the gig offensive coordinator for the Patriots next season.
This is not a coincidence. The Patriots surely felt like they couldn’t keep up with Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase. Surely, they wanted to spread this information to the world to give New England fans hope on a day that was mostly dreary for the offense.
If New England’s season didn’t end last week, it’s now officially dead. The Patriots have a 10 percent chance to make the postseason, per FiveThirtyEight, with games against the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills on the horizon.
If the Patriots believe O’Brien can help their offense, they shouldn’t wait until the offseason to bring him into the building. They should hire him the second the score goes down in Alabama’s Bowl Game against Kansas State. They won’t radically change the offense, but at least they can figure out what to do with the players they have, namely Jones and the receiving corps.
Because while the young quarterback has been mostly poised in a dire situation, he hasn’t lifted New England. The Patriots shouldn’t be actively looking for a new quarterback prospect. But New England should explore its options. Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo will be very tempting for obvious reasons. It makes sense for the Patriots to pursue both pending free agents, especially with $56 million in salary cap space.
New England should begin its review as soon as possible. It should get wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and Tyquan Thornton going on the field. Should get O’Brien in the building to start planning for 2023. Matt Patricia can return to the defense, or continue working as the run game coordinator, which was the only strength of this offense . And, yes, the Patriots should see if they can improve at quarterback.
Offensive review should have started yesterday. Belichick needs to admit his mistake in appointing Patricia as the de facto offensive coordinator. Belichick needs to remake this offense.
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Prior to joining FOX Sports as an AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.
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