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Let’s be blunt about where the New England Patriots are and what should matter to them by the end of the season.
Sure, being 5-4 and holding onto the last playoff spot in the AFC is great. Their path to the playoffs certainly looks more possible than it did before the season began, and they might even be able to squeak in with the 9-8 record I have them projected for.
But don’t let the promise of another likely first-round playoff exit blind you to the Patriots’ most important objective: get Mac Jones playing good football again.
Due to a confluence of factors — poor protection, disjointed play-calling in a new offense, his own inexperience and potential limits as a player — Jones hasn’t performed anywhere near the standard we believed him capable of after last year’s strong rookie campaign. All isn’t loss, but the clock is ticking on turning things around and going into 2023 with momentum as a possible franchise quarterback.
The Chicago Bears were having the same problem with Justin Fields up until recently. Now, Fields is running roughshod over the league after his team scrapped their original development plan and re-fitted the offense to Fields’ skills as a runner, which has also opened up opportunities for him to grow as a passer.
The Patriots have to do something similar with Jones — minus the running, of course. Build the offense around what Jones does well instead of obsessing over standalone game plans for every team.
They can start by watching film of Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami Dolphins’ offense and stealing straight out of their playbook.
We know Jones likes RPOs (run-pass options) and ran them a ton in college at Alabama — something Matt Patricia has acknowledged and is working into the Patriots’ offense (though arguably not enough).
Coincidentally (or perhaps not), no one in the NFL runs RPOs as well as Tagovailoa and the Dolphins.
Tagovailoa’s feel and ability to throw to space before it opens up is arguably second-to-none in the NFL, which helps makes up for some of his limits throwing the ball down the field. And he rarely seems to make the wrong decision when he’s tasked with running RPOs, though it’s obviously made easier by having Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle on the field terrorizing defenses at the same time.
Specifically, the Dolphins love to run a version of the RPO that should be easily translatable to the Patriots offense (and really any offense).
Here, Miami lines up with Waddle (outside) and Hill (slot) tight to the formation and has them essentially run a “dragon” concept on this RPO: outside receiver runs a slant, and the slot runs into the flat. That’s a staple concept you’ll probably find in any offense from high school to the NFL.
Tagovailoa can give the ball to the running back or, depending on how the defensive backs are playing the route combination, hit whichever of Waddle or Hill he likes best. But there’s also a third option: the wing coming across the formation as a split zone blocker, which is something the Patriots typically have Jonnu Smith do.
When the edge defender takes away the immediate throw to Hill in the flat, Tagovalioa simply reloads and checks it down to the third option, who takes it in for a score. Quick, easy, efficient. What’s more: Miami runs that RPO multiple times a game, and opponents still can’t slow it down. Some of that is due to Waddle and Hill threatening teams so much with their speed, but the rest is just Tagovailoa making the right choices, which is something Jones proved he could do when given more RPO responsibilities against the Jets a few weeks ago.
Patricia and the coaching staff should lean even further into that progression of the offense to keep unlocking their quarterback and get the ball into playmakers’ hands more quickly.
The goal isn’t necessarily to completely transform the Patriots’ offense into Miami’s. New England doesn’t have the personnel for that, and this offense has already struggled enough to find its identity enough without undergoing another radical shift.
But adding this play to the call sheet immediately, along with a few other adjustments, could help build Jones’ confidence with quick, easy throws — something he’s seen too little of this season.
Some might push back and say adding more RPOs is too gimmicky. Then again, running…whatever it is the Patriots are running isn’t working. When in doubt, do what works for your quarterback.