FOXBORO, Mass. — Mac Jones sat at his locker, head in his hands, towel covering his face, silence enveloping his space.
It was 11:41 p.m. ET, more than 20 minutes after the Patriots’ 24-17 loss to the Miami Dolphins had concluded, and the quarterback was still in disbelief over how this had happened, how the team’s final drive had ended a couple of inches short for the second time in as many weeks.
The 2023 season was supposed to start differently. Jones was confident. After a turbulent year, he and coach Bill Belichick had put the disaster that was the 2022 New England offense behind them. Jones was working with an established offensive coordinator in Bill O’Brien. He had a few new receivers, a new tight end and several new offensive linemen.
But here, as the clock approached midnight, Jones seemed to be making a tough realization. Through two games, this year’s Patriots offense hasn’t yielded more positive results.
Patriots start 0-2 for first time since 2001 with SNF loss to Dolphins
The unit still lacks playmakers. There are still major struggles on the offensive line. The offense still puts the team in tough spots with too many turnovers.
“Just wasn’t our day,” Jones said. “Hasn’t been our day for the last two weeks.”
Bill Belichick Live Postgame Press Conference: https://t.co/lsxRtHaRNE
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) September 18, 2023
The Patriots are 0-2 for the first time since 2001. But this team, unlike that one, doesn’t have Tom Brady about to come off the bench. Instead, New England is left with a dull offense that lacks playmakers and an offensive line that continues to look inept.
That’s because of Belichick. He’s nearly omnipotent within the organization, and he’s earned that. All decisions are made — or signed off on — by him. That includes the ones this front office made that have left the offense without the drastic help it needed. Despite major needs at wide receiver and on the offensive line, the Pats used their first three draft picks on defense. And though all three players have impressed, the offense largely has been left to die on the vine.
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This unit, the decision-makers thought, wasn’t just going to take small steps toward competence after last season’s disaster under Matt Patricia and Joe Judge. It was going to hit the high bar that former coordinator Josh McDaniels set in Jones’ rookie season of 2021.
Instead, the Patriots look nothing like that offense. They didn’t have a single play of 20 yards or more Sunday night. They had one play longer than 14 yards, a scramble by Jones in the fourth quarter.
“Look, we had a lot of production on offense,” Belichick said defiantly afterward.
Huh? What’s just as concerning as Belichick’s offseason personnel choices is that he doesn’t seem to see a problem with how the offense fared. It averaged only 4.1 yards per play Sunday. (For reference, the worst offense in the league last season, the Houston Texans, averaged 4.7 yards per play.) It didn’t score a touchdown until the fourth quarter. It couldn’t run the ball. The line struggled to block long enough to allow Jones to do anything.
“(DeVante) Parker had a good day,” Belichick said. “(Mike) Gesicki had a good day. Hunter (Henry) had a good day, JuJu (Smith-Schuster), KB (Kendrick Bourne). So, you know, a lot of good players.”
Yet none of those players reached 60 receiving yards. Only two, Parker (57 yards) and Hunter (52 yards), topped 35. This is the group that has Belichick insisting there are too many good players to get them all into the game?
Belichick benched the one player who did seem to have some explosiveness on offense. Demario Douglas, the star of the team’s preseason practices, might be the team’s best receiver at creating space underneath and making tacklers miss. He showed that on a would-be third-and-8 conversion. But Douglas fumbled on that first-quarter play as he fought for more yards, and after that, he didn’t see the field again on offense.
“We played all of our skill players,” Belichick countered. “They all played.”
Here are Bill Belichick’s exchanges on Patriots rookie WR Demario Douglas not playing on offense after his fumble. pic.twitter.com/OF05R2VCwh
— Doug Kyed (@DougKyed) September 18, 2023
So far, the coach’s offseason moves to revamp this unit and bring the best out in Jones haven’t worked. Smith-Schuster hasn’t looked like the No. 1 receiver the Pats hoped he could be. Gesicki has been fine but far from a game-changer. Douglas was benched. Fellow rookie Kayshon Boutte was a healthy scratch in favor of Jalen Reagor, a practice-squad player who is on his third team in three years.
That has left the passing game in a funk. In Week 1, Jones and company averaged 5.8 yards per pass attempt. On Sunday night, with the nation watching in a prime-time game, they averaged 5.5 yards per pass. (Kyler Murray, who ranked last in the stat last season, averaged 6.1 yards per attempt. The league average was 7.1 yards.)
“We’ve got to be better on offense,” Jones said. “And we will this week.”
That would require the offensive line to be better, too. The Dolphins were without one of their best pass rushers, Jaelan Phillips, and still had four sacks and seven quarterback hits against Jones.
For the second straight week, they were left inserting new options on the offensive line amid injuries and uncertainty. Guards Cole Strange (knee) and Mike Onwenu (ankle) made their season debuts after missing Week 1 with injuries, but starting tackles Trent Brown and Sidy Sow did not play. That forced Belichick to continue his Band-Aid solution to the team’s front five from the offseason, where he added several middling players — like Riley Reiff, Calvin Anderson, Tyrone Wheatley Jr. and Vederian Lowe — in the hope that depth there would yield success. Instead, the musical chairs on the offensive line have led to a dysfunctional running game and a quarterback constantly under pressure.
This Dolphins team is still learning and getting used to a new defensive scheme run by coordinator Vic Fangio. The unit tries to take away deep shots and invites teams to run against it. In last week’s season opener, the Chargers torched that defense for 233 rushing yards and 34 points. The Patriots managed only 17 points and 88 rushing yards, largely because of their poor offensive line.
“We’re close,” Jones insisted.
The Patriots better hope so, or this could be a long season.
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(Photo: Adam Glanzman / Getty Images)
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