Why the New England Patriots put trust in Josh McDaniels to develop QB Mac Jones

  • Covered Patriots since 1997
  • Joined ESPN in 2009

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones arrives on the sideline during games, he always sits in the same spot on the bench, shoulder-to-shoulder next to the same person.

It’s Mac and McDaniels: The even-keeled, deep-breathing first-round pick from the University of Alabama and his offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, who is usually holding his play sheet or flipping through a binder of data and pictures from game action.

Thus, it’s no surprise as Jones has steadily ascended during the team’s 6-4 start, so, too, has the buzz around McDaniels.

That dynamic provides context for Patriots coach Bill Belichick recently paying McDaniels one of the highest compliments possible, comparing him to Nick Saban. Belichick holds Saban, his assistant with the Cleveland Browns in the 1990s who has led Alabama to six national championships over the past 15 years, in the highest regard.

“It’s kind of like Saban, when we were in Cleveland. Nick knew what every player on the field was doing, and Josh is kind of the same way,” Belichick said.

“He knows what all 11 guys are doing on offense, what their keys are, what their adjustments are, and he knows defensively how guys are taught to play certain blocks or routes or reads and how to attack them. I’ve learned a lot from Josh. He really excels in every area.”

But there is one specific area where McDaniels, 45, has proved to be most valuable to the Patriots entering their road game against the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday (8:20 p.m. ET, NFL Network/Fox). As offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, he has helped bring along Jones masterfully.

“Josh, obviously, is one of the best offensive minds in football, and I always like to learn how he wants to do it,” Jones said. “My job is to see it how he sees it. The good thing is that I think, even from the start, we see it very similarly.”

Jones, the 15th pick in the 2021 NFL draft, has outperformed fellow first-round QBs Trevor Lawrence of the Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 1), Zach Wilson of the New York Jets (No. 2), Trey Lance of the San Francisco 49ers (No. 3) and Justin Fields of the Chicago Bears (No. 11).

Coming off the first three-touchdown performance of his NFL career in Sunday’s 45-7 blowout of the Browns, Jones is now 223-of-323 (69.0%) for 2,333 yards with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

His efficiency has been one of his top assets, finishing with a 70-plus completion percentage in six of his 10 games. The rookie record is nine games with a 70-plus completion percentage by Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott in 2016.

While Jones deserves all the credit for his emergence, teammates also have taken note of how he has benefited from having McDaniels ease his transition to the NFL.

“It’s huge. Mac, his knowledge of the game is going to be a lot just from Josh and all that he’s seen throughout this league,” tight end Hunter Henry said. “Working with Tom [Brady] for a while, too, I think that’s obviously a big deal. Mac is definitely lucky to have a guy like Josh.”

In his 12 prior seasons as offensive coordinator, covering two different stints, McDaniels guided the Patriots to eight top-10 rankings, which includes their standing as the No. 1-ranked offense in 2007, 2012 and 2017. He has been part of six Super Bowl championship teams.

McDaniels’ early success as quarterbacks coach/coordinator came with Brady. In 2008, when Brady tore his ACL on the 15th play of the season, McDaniels showed his coaching chops by helping backup Matt Cassel emerge. The Patriots finished 11-5, narrowly missing the playoffs.

In 2016, when Brady was serving a four-game NFL suspension, McDaniels prepped Jimmy Garoppolo to open the season, and then had Jacoby Brissett ready to go when Garoppolo injured his shoulder in Week 2. The Patriots went 3-1 in that opening stretch.

And last season McDaniels worked with Cam Newton in a 7-9 season, with Newton calling him one of the brightest minds he’s been around.

Jones, 23, knows he’s fortunate to have McDaniels by his side.

“Josh is a great coach, and he’s been close with me ever since I got here,” he said. “He’s done a great job putting me in a position to lead the offense.”

‘Big-picture focus’

McDaniels detailed his approach with Jones, explaining that it’s a delicate balancing act.

“You have short-term and long-term goals whenever you have a young player like this. Short term, let’s try and fix A, B and C this week. Long term we want to get to D, E, F and G a month or two from now,” he said, crediting Jones with having “a great attitude and approach” in an ever-changing environment.

“Each defense we play is different. There’s going to be things we’re preparing for this week that we didn’t prepare for the rest of the season. That’s the nature of the challenge of the NFL every week, and so a young player — he has things that we want to work on mechanically and fundamentally with him in his game that has nothing to do with the opponent.”

McDaniels has always valued accuracy and decision-making in a quarterback, as well as processing skills, which were some of Jones’ top assets coming out of college.

While that had ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. making an obvious pre-draft connection to Brady, McDaniels has distanced Jones from any comparisons to Brady, saying he doesn’t want to measure him against anyone.

“He’s a rookie [who has played] 10 games of his first season,” McDaniels said. “I’m just looking at, ‘Did we make progress in this area from last week? And we’re talking about everything: Cadence, stance, drops, pocket movement, eye level, reading the defense, progressions, patience, when it’s time to be aggressive, when it’s not, and his throwing mechanics. …

“So there’s a million things that we work on. I think we’re just trying to chop wood little by little in every area, and help him prepare for the game while trying to keep a big-picture focus on this season and his daily improvement.”

During the Patriots’ four-game winning streak, they have outscored opponents 150-50. Since 1950, the only other team with a rookie quarterback to outscore opponents by 100 points over a four-game span was the Seattle Seahawks with Russell Wilson (2012).

This marks the fifth different four-game span New England has scored at least 150 points and outscored opponents by 100, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The four other times that happened came in 2007 (twice) and 2012 (twice).

Second chance as head coach?

McDaniels’ acumen developing quarterbacks is among the primary reasons he’s annually mentioned among top NFL head-coaching candidates. In January, he was a finalist for the Philadelphia Eagles’ job that went to Nick Sirianni.

And, of course, in February of 2018, the Indianapolis Colts had announced an agreement to hire McDaniels, only to be shocked when McDaniels — after Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Belichick provided him more clarity on his situation and a sweetened contract after the team’s loss in Super Bowl LII — backed out.

McDaniels has consistently said he hopes to be a head coach again — he was 11-17 in a well-documented disappointing stint as the Denver Broncos boss (2009-10) — although it’s clear he won’t jump at any job. He’s happy in New England, and Belichick is pleased to have him.

“I don’t think he really has any weaknesses as a coach,” Belichick said, having noted his rise with the team, starting as a personnel assistant in 2001, then as a general coaching assistant (2002-03), quarterbacks coach (2004-05) and officially earning the coordinator title in 2006.

“He has a great vision for how to utilize the skills of the players on his side of the ball and how to try to attack the weaknesses, whether it be personnel weaknesses or schematic weaknesses, or how to try to force the opponent into a situation that he’s able to take advantage of.

“He’s an excellent playcaller. Timing. Setting up sequences of plays. Josh is creative, a very forward thinker. He’s got great poise during the game, never gets rattled, never loses track of the situation. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve gone to Josh and said, ‘What do you think about this?’ or ‘Should we think about that?’ And he’ll say, ‘Yeah, we just talked about that.’ I’d say I have tremendous confidence in all the things that he does.”

Such confidence extends to players.

“He’s one of those coaches — he sees your skill set, sees what you’re good at, and tries to put you in the best situation to be great,” said running back Brandon Bolden, who entered the league in 2012 with the Patriots.

The coaches on his staff share a similar viewpoint.

“A brilliant mind, very smart guy,” said Patriots Hall of Famer Troy Brown, who serves as assistant receivers and returners coach. “He’s very detailed about the plays that he’s calling and the things he puts out there and how he wants them done. That’s one of the biggest things that I have noticed about Josh — his attention to detail; very, very, very tedious.”

Henry, the sixth-year tight end in his first year with the Patriots, said playing for McDaniels “helps make our job a little bit easier how he sees things.”

Arguably no one has benefited more than the team’s quarterback of the future, with Jones’ early growth reflecting favorably on McDaniels.

While McDaniels hopes his future holds another head-coaching opportunity, his focus remains on developing Jones.

“You’re always trying to figure out how to win the game that particular week,” he said. “But at the same time, our job will never stop in terms of trying to develop the player so he can play his best at the end of the year and be the best version of himself that he can possibly be so our team can play to its potential at the end of the year. That’s our goal.”

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