Mac Jones started two playoff games (plus the SEC Championship) for the University of Alabama last season. Those were big games. High stakes. Lots of pressure. Lots of hype. There was also a top-five regular season clash with Georgia in 2020, and two starts in the annual Iron Bowl rivalry game with Auburn.
As college spotlights go, this was about as bright as the lights get.
Perhaps that helps on Sunday, when the rookie makes his fourth NFL start when his New England Patriots host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in what just happens to be the most hyped regular season game … ever?
Jones is a supporting character in an all-time NFL soap opera drama – the return of Tom Brady to the franchise (and head coach) that he won six Super Bowls for only to move onto a new club and promptly win a seventh.
This is about Brady and Bill Belichick, Brady and Robert Kraft, Brady and Patriot fans (with some Rob Gronkowski thrown in there, all to the backdrop of Adele.)
The television audience will be far larger than 18.7 million who watched Jones and Alabama win the national title in college back in January. Depending on the competitiveness of the game, industry insiders think 30 million is possible.
But what of Jones, who has to step into this cauldron of old emotion, old slights (real or perceived), old rivalries (real or perceived) that concerns a lot of stuff that happened back when he was growing up in Florida, let alone playing ball in Tuscaloosa?
This isn’t his night or his fight but he’s center stage as well, right there in Brady’s old spot for the Pats. Even if expectations are low, getting punked by the old guy and his new team would not be fun.
"It's not like one person versus one person,” Jones said Wednesday, trying, understandably, to tamp down on the Brady v. Jones storyline. “So I think that a lot of it is 11-on-11, and that's what goes into it, and that's how they're going to look at it. That's how every team looks at it. It's just you're getting a chance to compete in a primetime game, and it just kind of is what it is."
There was some preseason discussion – apparently not by Belichick – about whether the Patriots might be better off keeping veteran Cam Newton as the starter thru at least the early part of the season. If nothing else, it would keep Jones out of the way for this game.
Newton is a 32-year-old former NFL MVP who started a Super Bowl. He’s also Cam Newton, unlikely to be fazed at all, let alone left with lingering doubts, by any game.
Jones is different, a rookie in a league where promising quarterbacks have been ruined by less.
Jones is certainly promising. The Pats are 1-2 and he’s been far from perfect, but he’s completed 67.5 percent of his passes. While his average depth of target is just 8.4 yards per Pro Football Focus, some of that is taking what the defense is giving and what the offensive line allows.
Of the four first-round rookie quarterbacks who have started a game, his 72.2 offensive grade by PFF (23rd in the league overall) is far ahead of Zach Wilson (56.9), Justin Fields (48.4) and Trevor Lawrence (46.6). Or put it this way, the Pats aren’t looking for a redraft. The possibilities of Jones as a 10-year starter are helping salve the wounds of Brady being gone.
Belichick certainly never doubted Jones’ ability to handle being a Day 1 starter in general, let alone this specific game. It’s not like Tampa Bay came out of nowhere. The question for Jones isn’t even how well he can play on Sunday but whether he comes out of the entire night on the same developmental track physically, mentally and emotionally.
"I think it just goes back to [dealing] with pressure,” Jones said. “You [have] to focus on doing what you're supposed to do. People who have jobs in high-pressure situations, that's what they do. They do their job really well, and they prepare really hard. It's all you can control. And once the hay is in the barn, the hay is in the barn. You just got to go play.”
Jones has played in big ones before. As big as they get in college. This is a NFL game like no other, though, especially for a rookie with a chance to prove himself in front his new teammates and Brady’s old fans.