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Chargers vs. Patriots Week 13: Mac Jones’ Future and Bill Belichick’s Legacy

The Los Angeles Chargers’ slide out of AFC contention isn’t quite complete yet and the New England Patriots could halt that slide. We talk to Patriots experts to see what’s going on with the former juggernauts.

Syndication: The Record Kevin R. Wexler / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Los Angeles Chargers are obligated by NFL rules to finish the season, and their next game pits them against the similarly forlorn New England Patriots. DraftKings Sportsbook gives the Chargers a 5.5-point advantage, almost certainly because of their superior quarterback play and offensive line.

The two teams have played each other 40 times in the regular season throughout NFL history and the results haven’t been kind to Los Angeles. The Chargers are coming off of a six-game losing streak against the Patriots and have a 14-24-2 record overall against New England.

Past isn’t prologue, however, so we talked to Taylor Kyles of Pats Pulpit to help preview the New England Patriots and asked him five questions.

1. So, what is exactly is going on at quarterback? Is Mac Jones written off forever at this point or is the ambiguity over who quarterbacks the team merely temporary? Last year, a lot of people bought in to the idea that Jones was held back in part by the lack of a true offensive coordinator. Now that he has that, he still hasn’t returned to his rookie form. Can he ever get back on track or is it time to move on?

I don’t think anyone knows what Mac Jones’ future holds. The Patriots haven’t done much to support him from a personnel standpoint, as he’s never had a true #1 receiver or a quality right tackle outside of Mike Onwenu. Injuries over the past couple of seasons brought these failures to light, but as you mentioned, coaching was also a massive factor last season. Now, we’re seeing the culmination of Jones not trusting his protection or receivers for two straight seasons. He’s falling away from pressure, forcing throws, not protecting the football, and lacks the confidence we saw as recently as this summer. Last week was his second blatant benching in a row, and it was deserved after multiple turnover-worthy plays in just the 1st half against the Giants. Bailey Zappe is set to start this week, with reports indicating the locker room and Jones himself have lost faith in the former National Champion.

I have no idea if Jones will ever get his groove back, which is a shame, considering we saw he can be a functional NFL quarterback in 2021. He isn’t blameless in passing game’s poor play, but it’s hard to imagine any young quarterback with a limited physical skill set doing much better.

2. I don’t know if there’s any fanbase that appreciates the value of an offensive line coach more than the Patriots fanbase. But was Dante Scarnecchia truly the only way for that line to function? Or have the Patriots also misallocated resources there? Are injuries playing a role? Or am I mischaracterizing it — maybe the offensive line is actually fine? What is the feeling of that offensive line group?

Scar gave New England the flexibility to rely on less heralded players, which is invaluable at a position where injuries are virtually inevitable (as the Patriots have seen throughout the past few seasons). He also knew exactly what kind of players he could and wanted to coach, which helped him foster close relationships beyond the field. Scar still gives input in the draft process, but offensive line coach has been a revolving door since he left, which has hurt their ability to develop talent. They also haven’t taken many early-round linemen since Isaiah Wynn in 2018, and he battled injury consistently before flaming out last year. 2022 1st-rounder Cole Strange was up-and-down as a rookie before missing all of training camp, preseason, and significant time early this season with a knee injury.

New England’s front found stability around Week 6 when rookie Sidy Sow became the featured right guard. Mike Onwenu kicking out to right tackle the next week further solidified things on that side, but Trent Brown, the offense’s self-proclaimed best player, has been in and out with multiple lower body injuries. Adrian Klemm has also been out the past few weeks with an undisclosed health issue, so assistant offensive line coach Billy Yates, tight ends coach Will Lawing, and even Bill Belichick have had to pitch in. Run blocking has carried this group and the offense, but pass protection has declined since Klemm’s departure.

3. I really want to ask a defensive question, but the Patriots offense is such a mystery to me. Why were the Patriots comfortable letting Jakobi Meyers walk and sign for a relatively modest deal elsewhere? From the outside looking in, relying on JuJu Smith-Schuster, DeVante Parker and Tyquan Thornton seems beyond optimistic. Was Mike Gesicki supposed to be the centerpiece of the offense? Which offensive players might actually hit their DraftKings overs? Are any good bets for their unders?

Jakobi Meyers was extremely solid in New England’s offense and one of Mac Jones’ few security blankets. I think Meyers’ consistency may have gotten boring, and Bill Belichick felt they could move on for someone more explosive. There’s also the possibility Meyers didn’t fall in line sufficiently under Matt Patricia and was alienated. I don’t know for sure, but I’ll admit I didn’t mind the move at first. JuJu Smith-Schuster, who signed a different-but-similar contract to what Meyers agreed to with the Raiders, was the leading wide receiver for a Super Bowl-winning team. I figured he would be a chain-mover who could rip off some long gains after the catch and make a few grabs on back shoulder fades. But the knee injury Smith-Schuster suffered in last season’s AFC Championship game sapped any explosiveness he had left, which was immediately obvious. How he was medically cleared blows my mind, and he’s been a massive disappointment.

DeVante Parker was a consistent vertical presence in training camp, beating stud rookie Christian Gonzalez at the catch point on a near-daily basis. This prompted New England to extend the veteran so he could retire as a Patriot. That big-play threat disappeared when the regular season began, and his effort has ranged from questionable to unacceptable. Parker was also being phased out for Jalen Reagor at one point before the former Eagle and Viking squandered that opportunity.

Tyquan Thornton has missed a ton of time due to injury since being drafted in the 2nd round last season, and it shows in his imprecise route running. He’s a speedster who doesn’t know how to threaten defenders and takes forever to make himself available. He’s been phased in and out of the lineup since being activated from IR midseason.

Whatever the plan was for Mike Gesicki, it hasn’t come to fruition. Effort is no longer a glaring concern with his blocking, but he’s too angular to be consistently effective. I don’t think he’s been maximized as a receiver due to Jones becoming gunshy, but Gesicki’s been reliable when targeted outside of two miscommunications last week.

Parker could hit his DraftKings Sportsbook over since Zappe’s shown confidence in hitting him on go balls and slants. Rhamondre Stevenson is another option as a heavy-use player and security blanket underneath. Mike Gesicki hasn’t shown much chemistry with Zappe, and he isn’t a highly-targeted player, so he’s a solid unders option.

4. I think optimism for the offense was always going to be cautious and speculative. But optimism for the defense is pretty well-founded. Even before the injury to Christian Gonzalez, who looked like he was playing really well, it didn’t seem like they were living up to their potential. After the injury, they turned into what looks like a below-average defense to me. What’s going on? I really felt like this could have been a stellar defense.

The offense’s poor play masked a strong start from New England’s defense. They contained two explosive offenses in the Eagles and Dolphins, giving Mac Jones and company comeback opportunities in each game. Losing Matthew Judon, who had key sacks in each of the team’s first three games, on the same day as Gonzalez was brutal. He brought juice to run groupings and excelled in their stunt-heavy system. Christian Barmore has stepped up as a one-man wrecking crew vs run and pass, but the pass rush has been one of the league’s worst without him.

As much cornerback talent as New England entered this season with, they’ve been bludgeoned by lack of availability. Jonathan Jones has also battled injury, Marcus Jones went down in Week 2 with a torn labrum, and Jack Jones was allowing a passer rating over 100 after being activated from IR, then was waived due to a drama-filled tenure. JC Jackson was brought in to replace Gonzalez as the team’s primary boundary corner, but he commits multiple egregious mental mistakes a game without the big plays to even them out.

Without Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger has been forced to play more deep safety, which stymies his playmaking ability as a box specialist. Tackling also continues to be an issue for him.

5. So... have we all been overrating Bill Belichick? Is he really a genius or have we been hoodwinked by the presence of Tom Brady? It felt like those first couple of Super Bowl-winning teams were defense-forward and that it’s hard to win seven rings regardless of how good your quarterback is. Maybe I just want to hold on to my narratives though. What’s the truth to you? And if he is (or was) a genius, what do we do with this fact now?

Neither would’ve had the success they did without the other, but as Belichick always says, players make plays. The system Bill implemented throughout his tenure was perfect for an era where players were more willing to fall in line. While he’s not fully lost buy-in, there’s been a clear falloff in terms of discipline and situational execution. Having Brady and a strong defensive core also covered up what’s shaken out to be a horrendous draft record. His lack of a succession plan for Brady, Josh McDaniels, and several other key pieces has also been devastating.

Belichick is who we thought he was, but Brady’s departure revealed several cracks in the armor. I was a big “In Bill We Trust” guy, which he earned after several miraculous Super Bowl runs. But after hiring his friends to drag down the offense last season, then failing to provide his young, limited quarterback with support, he’s become impossible to defend.