By Henry McKenna
FOX Sports AFC East Writer
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Mac Jones has a picture of himself in his locker. No, it’s not a matter of vanity. To the contrary, it’s a nightmare of an image.
The photo is tacked up on the back wall of the locker and stares Jones in the face. It’s from the New England Patriots‘ loss to the Buffalo Bills in the postseason. In the photo, Jones’ head is low. He’s walking off the field while Bills players celebrate in the background. In pink highlighter, someone has written the score of the game: 47-17. In that rout, Jones threw for 232 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
The image is inescapable when Jones gets to work and when he leaves. The photo sends a message.
“I’ve seen that picture,” running back Rhamondre Stevenson said. “It’s not really off my mind either. Yeah, it was our last game. That’s how we ended last year. So we got to build off that. And I think that’s just a motivation factor in what we got to do this year.”
Jones isn’t a patient young man.
To say it more tactfully, he possesses a rare urgency to overcome obstacles. When he joined the Patriots, Jones didn’t want to be the backup, so he seized the job from incumbent starter Cam Newton. When Jones got the starting job, he remained hungry to learn more — ravenous to win more. So the Patriots finished 10-7. He was hard on himself after losses, often publicly tearing into himself in postgame press conferences. And in the locker room with his teammates, he did the same thing, with veterans occasionally picking him back up. He isn’t easily satisfied.
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“He takes losing personal. He takes mistakes personal,” receiver Jakobi Meyers said. “That’s just what you get out of him: a guy who truly loves what he does. And I mean, it’s easy to play with a guy who loves playing football.”
Jones’ father, Gordon, was not surprised to hear about the picture. It wasn’t long ago that Jones’ mother, Holly, walked into Mac’s dorm room at Alabama to find a collection of negative social media posts and articles on the back of his door. Alabama coach Nick Saban told the Jones family that social media serves as “rat poisoning.” Whether the platforms bring praise or criticism, the message is always toxic in volume. And yet, Jones posted some of the social media inside his room to keep him honest.
On occasion, poison can be good for you.
“He does have the ability to use that as a positive — just use it as a fuel really to get to where he wants to get,” Gordon said. “Obviously, you had a pretty good year for a first-year quarterback and making the Pro Bowl, had a winning season, get to the playoffs. All that is nice. And that could be like the rat poison. He listens to it, and he could say, ‘Hey, we got there.’ But [instead he says,] ‘I want us to do better.’ And this [photo from the Bills’ game] is a reminder that we didn’t quite get where we wanted to get last year.'”
It’s interesting to see a photo of a game from last year, in part, because it doesn’t exactly jibe — at least on the surface — with Bill Belichick’s philosophy: On to 2022. On to the Miami Dolphins (whom the Patriots play in Week 1). On to the next thing. But Belichick isn’t as militant with his players about that message as he is with the media. He has often posted negative newspaper articles about the Patriots inside the facility and, when they’re traveling, around the hotel. He isn’t afraid to remind the team of its shortcomings when he thinks it’ll make the team better.
Jones is drawing from the past to propel himself forward in what comes next. That absolutely jibes with what Belichick wants. Belichick wants Jones to “Do Your Job” as a quarterback and as a leader of the team. That’s what put Jones into the position where he nearly won the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2021. His intense work ethic helped put the Patriots into the postseason.
“Let’s be honest; he’s 23,” Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer told FOX Sports before Jones turned 24 on Monday. “[It’s unique] to see the motivation to be great, to want things to be right, to want to get things right. He very rarely wants to make a mistake and then learn from it. He wants to get it right the first time. You know what I mean? And that’s obviously a great quality that drives you.”
Hoyer added: “To say [he is] all-in is an understatement. So it’s impressive to see from a guy his age.”
It takes guts to hang the photos from the Bills game in the locker. It takes leadership. It takes veteran-level moxie. So far this year, Jones has demonstrated all of that and more.
“Like last year, he was the starting quarterback and had some leadership, but like this year, just took a whole ‘nother step,” Stevenson said. “He reminds me of one of the old, old vets.”
The photo isn’t the only thing Jones has tacked up in his locker. On one of the sidewalls, he has two poems: “If” by Rudyard Kipling and “Man in the Arena” by Theodore Roosevelt.
Both are about overcoming adversity. There’s a line in Roosevelt’s writing that surely resonates with Jones: “There is no effort without error and shortcoming.”
Mistakes happen. He seems to recognize that he would do well to remember that, not always shredding himself to pieces with criticisms. While Jones dodged a question about the picture from the Bills game, he was more willing to discuss the poetry.
“I’ve always been a big fan of having motivational stuff in your locker. My dad actually — the two things that he’s always showed me is the poem ‘Man in the Arena’ and ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling. Those are the two that are more important to me.
“I do love the two poems a lot. That’s a big shout-out to my dad because he gave me those when I was probably like 6 years old and kind of explained everything to me. And as I grew, I continued to just enjoy that. Actually, the ‘If’ poem was in Wimbledon, so that’s where he learned about it — in the locker room in Wimbledon. So that’s pretty cool.”
It is fitting that Jones’ father might give the future NFL star a poem that opens with the following message: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” It sounds a lot like a quarterback trying to “Ignore the Noise” — as Belichick says (and has written on a wall near the locker room at Gillette Stadium) — amid the constant criticism of fans and media members.
And even when the Patriots are good, there is no shortage of criticism surrounding the team, with Boston sports radio specializing in airing grievances, sometimes manufactured. When New England started last season with a 1-3 record, the negativity seemed infectious. But Jones & Co. still made the playoffs in a season where few expected it — even if the postseason blowout seems to haunt the young quarterback.
Perhaps those external distractions are why Jones almost never has his phone on him. It at first annoyed Hoyer, whose texts often go unread during the workday. But Hoyer also sees it as a quality of maturity. Jones likely doesn’t listen to sports radio. He has not tweeted since May, and he clearly leaves his Instagram to a professional production team. He keeps his head down, like the poem instructs. He limits distractions, like his coach instructs.
He strikes a balance of finding motivation to overcome obstacles — hanging the poems — while staring down his obstacle every day — by hanging the picture.
That is absolutely in keeping with “If” when Kipling writes: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.” Those are the exact lines that Gordon, a former professional tennis player, saw at Wimbledon. A few days later, he sought out the poem at a library.
“It just struck me when I was there, because I think as an athlete, you really have to do that,” Gordon said. “It’s about trying to keep yourself in that athletic zone where you’re not too high, not too low.”
The Patriots have needed all of Jones’ steadiness and attention this offseason. With former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels leaving to serve as the Las Vegas Raiders‘ head coach, the Patriots put Matt Patricia and Joe Judge in charge of the offense, with Patricia seeming to be the lead play-caller. (We can’t be certain because, in typical Patriots fashion, the coaches won’t confirm anything.) New England is conducting a schematic adjustment, which includes deploying new formations and a new blocking scheme for the offensive line. And the Patriots have experienced growing pains, with the offense struggling for the better part of training camp and preseason. Jones — a perfectionist — has been visibly frustrated at practice and in games. He has stayed optimistic with the media, however.
“A lot of learning experiences and [there’s] always room for growth,” Jones said about the offensive changes. “I think it’s been good. I think we’ve ironed out a lot of things, and it’s good that they’re happening now. I feel confident in what we’re doing.”
To get ready for Week 1 in the season-opener against the Dolphins, Jones has been working tirelessly behind the scenes.
“It’s cliché a little bit, but he’s truly one of the first ones here — [and the] last one here. He’s one of the first ones on the field, last ones off,” Meyers said.
It’s cliché because every good quarterback has to do it, right?
“A lot of guys start and stop, though,” Meyers said of Jones. “He’s consistent with it.”
It’s a lot of pressure for the young man whose locker was once that of seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, who — perhaps poetically — produced a docuseries about himself and named it: “Man in the Arena: Tom Brady.” Gordon admitted he didn’t know about that coincidence, but he wasn’t surprised by it.
“I find that there are some commonalities about people that are super successful,” Gordon said. “That is the type of mentality that you have to kind of succeed in the world.”
The beauty of poems like “Man in the Arena” and “If” is that their messages are universal. Whether Jones is a 6-year-old or a 24-year-old, he can find applications for the lines of verse. This year, Jones has the brutal task of unseating the Bills, who are not only the odds-on AFC East favorites but also the Super Bowl favorite. And the Patriots’ quarterback will try that while fending off a Dolphins team that is empirically more talented than New England.
But he’s heard these sorts of criticisms before, and he’s overcome them, whether during his rookie season or, before that, his single season as the Alabama starter, when he won a national championship. Perhaps the photo and the poems will inspire an intangible element — something immeasurable — to shift the balance of power in the AFC East.
Henry McKenna covers the AFC East for FOX Sports. He previously spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.
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