FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - New England's 2021 season opener requires some perspective. Sure, it wasn't the final score the home team was hoping for, but when NFL teams begin their seasons with rookie quarterbacks under center, the results are usually slow in coming.
Since 2008, 23 teams in the league have started rookie quarterbacks, with only eight having finished that season with a winning record. What you need to look for, at least initially, is how that rookie QB handles the situation, the environment, the moment.
In that regard, Patriots fans should be encouraged by Mac Jones' debut in Foxborough, despite the 17-16 final score against Miami.
After coming under duress the first time he dropped back to pass and losing the football in the process (New England retained possession), Jones showed great pocket awareness, decisiveness with the football, and an overall command of what offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels asked him to do throughout the evening. Jones didn't seem to overthink things and played within his means.
The Patriots offense faced numerous third-down opportunities against Miami - 16, to be precise - and Jones and Co. converted a whopping 11 of them, compared to just 4-of-11 successful conversions by the Dolphins' O.
Jones and the Patriots will grow together over the course of the ensuing weeks and years. Though they didn't win Sunday night at Gillette, the coaches put Jones in positions to have success. He continued to show improvement in this game as he did during the summer, demonstrating that the Patriots just might have the right player for the future under center.
Mac Jones at a glance Incompletions vs. MIA Incompletions in 2021
Meantime, some other thoughts from what we saw Sunday in the opener.
The Patriots immediately came out with their two-tight end personnel package featuring veteran newcomers Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, an element of the offense that's been severely lacking in large part over the past couple of seasons. They happened to be the only tight ends on the 48-man active roster Sunday, after New England healthy-scratched second-year man Devin Asiasi.
Of the two, Smith saw considerably more action than Henry throughout the first two quarters. He caught all three of the passes thrown his way during that span, but also fumbled deep in Miami territory. Smith was saved by center David Andrews, who made a heads-up play to pounce on the ball and retain possession for New England.
Henry, meantime, appeared to be assigned mostly to help block on running plays for Damien Harris during the first half.
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Starting right tackle Trent Brown suffered a calf injury very early in the game and was later declared questionable to return. On the second Patriots drive, second-year player Justin Herron had to substitute for him and stayed in that spot for the remainder of the half.
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Rookie RB Rhamondre Stevenson had a wonderful preseason overall, but in his regular season debut during the second drive, he put the ball on the ground and Miami recovered around midfield. Were it not for an injury timeout that forced Harris to leave the game for a play, Stevenson might not have come back in at all. He did, though, for that one play and got bowled over trying to pick up an Elandon Roberts blitz. Not a great start for Stevenson after a promising summer.
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Pass rusher Matt Judon, who was the defensive MVP during the preseason, continued his strong start with a couple of nice plays that resulted in a run for a loss and a sack by linebacker Kyle Van Noy. Judon set the edge nicely on the first play and forced Miami to double-team him (and incur a holding penalty in the process) which then allowed Van Noy and fellow LB Dont'a Hightower to clean up on Tagovailoa. Judon was the highest-profile defender to join the club in free agency this past offseason and seems to be fitting in seamlessly.
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Jones threw his first touchdown pass in the NFL, a 7-yarder to WR Nelson Agholor, after the aforementioned Roberts was flagged for roughing the passer, keeping what would likely have been a field goal-ending drive alive. Overall, Jones enjoyed an efficient first half, hitting 14 of his 19 pass attempts, going often to Agholor, who was a question mark to play today because of an ankle injury sustained during the week of practice. Agholor, though, proved a reliable target for Jones Sunday evening, catching five of the seven throws Jones sent his way.
Like Agholor, defensive back Jalen Mills suffered an ankle injury during the week and was a questionable listing for this game. He suited up, though, sharing time with Joejuan Williams throughout the game. Mills made his best play at the end of the first half, with a great PBU (pass breakup) in the end zone with about 30 seconds left in the half. Miami receiver Albert Wilson had beaten Mills by a few steps, but despite a bum ankle, Mills recovered in time to knock the pass away.
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We didn't see a whole lot of OLB Josh Uche in this game, but he stood out in a positive way when he steamrolled Dolphins tackle Liam Eichenberg on his way to a sack of Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa. That sack helped keep Miami out of the end zone, and forced the 'Phins to kick a field goal instead.
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New England's run defense - a vulnerability of this team in recent seasons - seemed to make strides this summer with several new additions along the defensive line. On Miami's opening drive, the Patriots did plenty of rotating up front, but Dolphins ball carrier Myles Gaskin rushed five times for 28 yards, helping set up Tagovailoa's untouched waltz into the end zone for the game's first score. Thereafter, the Dolphins only ran four more times in the half and New England's defense stiffened, holding the 'Phins to just three net yards on the ground.
Herron stayed at right tackle in place of Brown for the start of the second half. He went on to commit a holding penalty in the mid-third quarter when Jones was being pressured by Dolphins DE Emmanuel Ogbah. Afterwards, newcomer to the Patriots O-line Yasir Durant took Herron's place in the late third quarter. Herron wasn't announced to have suffered any injury, so, the replacement must have been performance-related.
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The Dolphins brought back their famous Wildcat formation - unveiled here at Gillette back in 2008 - for a few plays during the opening series of the second half. It worked well enough to set the Dolphins up nicely inside the New England red zone and eventually gave Tagovailoa a chance to throw his first TD pass of the season and give Miami the lead back. They'd use it again later in the half to help secure their one-point victory. New England's defense was prepared for this unorthodox look, but couldn't keep the Dolphins from gaining just enough yardage to sustain their clock-killing drive at the end of the game.
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The Dolphins played quite a bit of zone coverage in the secondary, allowing New England receivers to get open downfield numerous times.
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RB and Patriots co-captain James White picked up a big first down late in the game with a great wheel-route and a perfectly thrown pass by Jones - something we saw frequently throughout the summer. This is a play we're sure to see more of throughout this season.
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New England's secondary had a tough time defending the quick slants by Miami receivers DeVante Parker and rookie Jaylen Waddle. They both gained significant yardage on these plays several times in the game.
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Kicker Nick Folk began 2021 the same way he did 2020, by being called up from the New England practice squad. The veteran proceeded to drill all his placekicks - three field goals and an extra point - and continues the hot streak that he's been on since late 2019 with New England.
Folk's promotion allowed the Patriots to deactivate rookie Quinn Nordin for this game, and unless Folk suddenly begins to struggle, Nordin is going to have a difficult time supplanting him.
Re-watch the game on NFL Game Pass