Patriots, Mac Jones seeking rebound with Bill Belichick, OC Bill O'Brien after losing footing in 2022

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Last Friday, the New England Patriots unveiled to a crowd of season-ticket holders and local residents an enormous video board. To emphasize its vastness, they first played some highlights in a diminutive section of the screen that represented the size of the old board. They were scenes already etched into New England lore -- snowy nights, raucous fans, exploding fireworks, lots of passes.

When the video finally expanded to its full measure, the scenes were more recent. And when the montage was over, the player featured wore No. 23 -- defensive back Kyle Dugger. New moments. New memories. New England, the board read.

That underscored the Patriots' current reality. The safest bet before the 2023 season even starts is that the new memories created this season will likely include a lot of top-level defensive play. Less certain is how many passes from 2023 will be featured in any retrospectives.

If there is a mantra attached to the Patriots offense right now, it is this: "How are we getting better each and every day?"

Offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien used variations of that line repeatedly when he spoke to reporters on Friday. It seems like a modest goal, but nobody here needs reminding that the Patriots offense did not get better each day of 2022. It stumbled in training camp with former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia working as the offensive play-caller -- an unorthodox decision that was later called an "experiment" by owner Robert Kraft -- and never got its footing, finishing 26th in offensive yardage and last in the league in red-zone efficiency. Quarterback Mac Jones, who threw for 3,801 yards, 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions as a rookie in 2021, threw for just 2,997 yards, 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his second season, during which he also missed three games with a high ankle sprain.

That spurred displays of open frustration from Jones and a seeming cooling of support for the quarterback from coach Bill Belichick, who has still not officially named Jones the starter for this season.

But it also prompted O'Brien's return as offensive coordinator -- he had the title in 2011 -- and that has sparked anticipation that the offense and Jones can at least return to the form they achieved two seasons ago, when Jones and the Patriots made the playoffs after compiling the only winning record of the post-Tom Brady era so far. At the Annual League Meeting in March, Kraft, who made no secret of his disappointment in the results, backed Jones and also expressed the belief that O'Brien's presence would improve the offense. His frustration was so obvious, though, that a once-unthinkable question began to surface: could Bill Belichick be under pressure if the Patriots, playing in what Kraft believes is the NFL's toughest division, miss the playoffs again?

That apocalyptic scenario seems a long way off right now. Belichick, after all, needs 31 victories to break Don Shula's all-time wins record. And, more immediately, Jones has been practicing well, with more confidence and even exuberance. He told reporters last week he wants to get back to having fun. The early glimpses of the offense suggest that is at least a possibility.

O'Brien has already declared a clean slate from last season, and on Friday, he also tiptoed right up to the line of declaring Jones the starter by stating the obvious: Jones gets most of the practice work with the first team, while Bailey Zappe, who briefly delighted fans during last season's doldrums, works primarily with the second team.

A complete change of offensive style is not anticipated, but even in these early days of training camp, a few wrinkles have become clear. Most noteworthy is that Jones has regained responsibility to adjust plays at the line of scrimmage. He did that in his rookie season, when Josh McDaniels was the offensive coordinator. There was not as much of it last season. But last week, Jones explained that O'Brien's teaching method includes explaining to players what they are trying to get out of a play -- the "why behind a play," Jones said.

"I do think that this system allows a quarterback -- it puts a lot on their plate," Jones said. "But it also allows us to know what to do to play really fast. I think it's a great system."

Both Jones and O'Brien have talked about how important trust is, and O'Brien made a point of saying the Patriots trust all of their quarterbacks. On Friday, O'Brien repeatedly praised Jones. "I've really, really enjoyed coaching him."

"They have to trust that you're doing the best for them and trying to put them in the right position, put our offense in the right position," O'Brien said. "And then we have to trust that they go out there with their preparation that they're able to do those things."

He continued: "I think in football, nowadays, it's very rare if you think you're going to just run one way and that's the play you're going to run, that's tough. Defenses are so multiple. They do so many different things. Not just our defense but all defenses. We have to take that approach. I think these guys have done a really good job with that approach every day."

Still, there are real questions about the Patriots' personnel and if the team did enough after finishing 8-9, in third place in the AFC East, to keep pace with the star-studded offenses in the conference -- and even in their own division. In the 2023 NFL Draft, the Patriots did not select a pass catcher until the sixth round, when they took receiver Kayshon Boutte from LSU. They also did not land veteran wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who signed with the Tennessee Titans after his release from the Arizona Cardinals. This summer, before Hopkins made his decision, Pro Football Focus ranked the league’s receiving groups, and they included tight ends and running backs in the analysis. The Cincinnati Bengals, not surprisingly, were ranked first. The Philadelphia Eagles -- the Patriots' season-opening opponent -- were second. The Patriots were 29th, the lowest of any team in the AFC East. The pre-Hopkins Titans were 30th.

The Patriots did sign veteran receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to replace Jakobi Meyers, and he and Jones already have developed a chemistry, which showed up in red-zone work last week. The Patriots also signed tight end Mike Gesicki, who, in five previous seasons with the Miami Dolphins, scored 17 touchdowns from inside the red zone (including playoffs). The expectation is that O'Brien, who recruited Gesicki to Penn State while working as the head coach there, will use Gesicki and Hunter Henry in multiple tight end sets -- something with which he had great success when the Patriots had Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.

On Friday afternoon, running back Rhamondre Stevenson was asked what he has seen in Jones this summer, and the first thing he mentioned was his maturity. The early success of the offense in practice explains Jones' noticeable confidence and ease, but Stevenson said Jones is increasingly acting like the long-time New England players who showed them how Patriots leaders should act.

One example of that: On the day Gesicki announced that he was going to sign with the Patriots, Jones was the first person to reach out to him. A week later, Gesicki was staying at his house.

"He's been awesome," Gesicki said. "He has energy, he has that football IQ, he sees things happening before, he's getting people in position when he breaks the huddle. There's no lost time out there. Mac's doing a great job."

On Friday night, after they showed off the new video board, the Patriots held a low-speed practice inside Gillette Stadium. In little more than a month, they will welcome Tom Brady back to the stadium for the season opener against the Eagles. Nostalgia for the highlights he created colors everything that has come since Brady's departure. But now, the demands are coming from much more than a video board. For the new offense, the moments and memories can't come soon enough.

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