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Bill Belichick May Have Outsmarted Everyone Again

Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
 2021-08-31

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The Patriots are now all-in on Mac Jones, and they may have found a potential star hiding in plain sight.

Bill Belichick is probably right, because Bill Belichick is usually right, and so we should pause now to ponder what it means if he is. Belichick just stuffed the rest of his career into Mac Jones’s pocket, just four months after Jones was the fifth quarterback taken in the draft. We are left with the astounding but increasingly likely possibility that Belichick outsmarted the league yet again.

The Patriots might have found a star hiding in plain sight: a national-championship winning, All-America quarterback at the nation’s most successful college program. We’ll see how Jones does—next week, next month, next year. But if he excels, I would not want to be the general manager who has to explain how I missed on that guy.

Well … uh … I know he showed he could do all this at Alabama … but ... um … you see …

Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

Maybe Belichick is wrong. But if he’s right, he will be right because of a concept that is very simple yet still gets lost sometimes: Playing quarterback in the NFL is primarily about figuring out where the ball should go and getting it there. Arm strength, foot speed, athleticism, work ethic and the ability to read defenses are all just factors that help a quarterback accomplish that task.

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If you look at the best quarterbacks of the modern era, they all knew where the ball should go and got it there. So simple it sounds ridiculous. But think about Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. There are quarterbacks who threw harder than all of them and never made it. There are quarterbacks who could read defenses just as quickly but couldn’t deliver the ball fast or accurately enough. There are quarterbacks who could throw hard enough and read defenses well enough but reacted very poorly to 300-pound men charging toward them. Somehow, the combination of traits has to add up to enough.

Now go back to last spring. So much of the predraft talk was about Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and whether he would “drop” in the draft . Fields put up great numbers for the Buckeyes and won a ton. He is a phenomenal athlete: great arm, fast runner, incredibly tough. There were questions about his ability to go to his second read, which were refuted by those who said he actually went to his second read frequently. But the question was not whether Fields could do it; it was how quickly he could do it. It requires a specific kind of intelligence—the ability to process and react in less than one second. Some people who are brilliant in many areas of life would struggle with it; others, who struggle in school and show very little intellectual curiosity, excel at it.

Behind a fantastic line at Ohio State, with NFL talent at receiver, Fields had plenty of time to find open targets. That won’t be the case in the NFL. Maybe he will show he can do it. But Belichick would’ve had to move up only four spots in the draft to get Fields, and there are no indications he tried.

He waited for Jones instead. Belichick is not the type to share all his reasons for that, but we don’t need to know all those reasons to know this: He believed in Jones’s ability to figure out where the ball should go and get it there.

Belichick’s genius takes many forms. But it only takes those forms because he has so much trust in himself. He believes in what he sees, no matter what anybody else thinks or how it looks on the outside. Trusted advisers like Jones’s coach at Alabama, Nick Saban, can help shape Belichick’s decisions, but the media narrative almost never does.

If Jones becomes a star, it’ll end the argument that Belichick only won because of Brady—an argument that is just as silly as arguing that Brady only won because of Belichick.

New England’s offense can bring out the best in Jones, but Jones can also bring out the best in the offense. Belichick can drastically change game plans each week because Jones can handle it. The Patriots’ free-agent shopping spree last winter will also look different if the starting quarterback during the duration of those deals is on a rookie contract.

The game has changed, and coaches are much smarter about using running quarterbacks. There is more room for quarterbacks with more varied skill sets, which is great and makes the game more entertaining. But the primary task has not changed.

Brady is great largely because of two traits that help him complete that task: He maintains his poise when he is about to get hit, and he moves his feet just well enough to buy himself time. His 40-yard-dash time has never mattered. I am not comparing Jones with Brady; I am comparing Belichick with Belichick. He saw what made Brady special before almost anybody else. He kept him on the roster as a rookie and believed in him when he got a chance to start. Now he trusts what he sees in Jones. Belichick scouted him, he waited for him, he picked him, he made him earn the job, and now he is ready to roll—this season, and beyond. Maybe Belichick is wrong. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

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An Early Look at the 2022 NFL Quarterback Carousel

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