6:35 AM ET
Mike ReissESPN Staff Writer
- Covered Patriots since 1997
- Joined ESPN in 2009
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Mac Jones decisively beat out Cam Newton for the New England Patriots‘ starting quarterback job. In doing so, he now has the chance to rewrite the narrative that Alabama Crimson Tide quarterbacks haven’t measured up in the NFL since the days of Bart Starr, Joe Namath and Ken Stabler, who have five Super Bowl championships between them.
“Two years ago, Alabama hadn’t had much success at quarterback since the early days of the merger and early parts of the NFL, and now you have three former Alabama starters [who could make an impact] this year,” said Greg McElroy, a former Alabama quarterback and the New York Jets‘ 2011 seventh-round draft pick who is now an ESPN college football analyst.
“It’s a fair question to ask. Why is it that Alabama can have all the successful players they’ve had, and the quarterback position has only been one that is newly considered draftable in the first or second round? It used to be, ‘Don’t touch those guys.'”
McElroy includes Jalen Hurts of the Philadelphia Eagles, who transferred to Oklahoma from Alabama for his final collegiate season in 2019, in the evolving conversation with the Patriots’ Jones and Miami Dolphins‘ Tua Tagovailoa. All three will be starting in Week 1, with Jones and Tagovailoa squaring off Sept. 12 at New England (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS).
“They all worked hard and made tremendous improvement while they were here,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said this week of the trio. “It’s a reflection on some of the really good quarterback coaches that we’ve had here, and some of the good offensive coordinators.”
After the heyday of Starr, Namath and Stabler, all of whom played under legendary coach Bear Bryant, the roster of Alabama quarterbacks in the NFL is headlined by Richard Todd, a first-round draft pick of the Jets in 1976. He is the last Alabama quarterback to win a playoff game, during the 1982 season, and he came within one win of leading the Jets to the Super Bowl that campaign, only to be stopped on a muddy field at Miami’s Orange Bowl.
Since Todd’s retirement following the 1985 season, Alabama quarterbacks have combined for 35 touchdown passes in 35 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Those TDs were tossed by Tagovailoa (11), Jeff Rutledge (nine), Brodie Croyle (eight), AJ McCarron (six) and McElroy (one).
Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN’s senior NFL draft analyst, said the history of Alabama quarterbacks in the NFL since Todd is easily explained. The school simply hasn’t had many highly rated prospects at the position.
“They won there, and they were good college quarterbacks, but they weren’t expected to be starting quarterbacks in the NFL,” Kiper said. “That’s one thing we always have to differentiate. Everybody talks about if you’re not a good NFL quarterback, you weren’t very good in college. College is different than the NFL. You have to separate them.”
At New England, where the Patriots believe they have found their successor to Tom Brady in Jones, the Alabama pipeline has been tapped often in recent years. That is partially a result of the close friendship of coaches Bill Belichick and Saban. But this is the first time it has happened for the Patriots at quarterback.
In his college coaching career at Michigan State, LSU and Alabama, Saban has had 10 quarterbacks play in the NFL. They have posted a 54-75 record, with 141 touchdowns and 121 interceptions, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
It’s another QB narrative Jones can change, and he believes his time with the Crimson Tide prepared him for the opportunity.
“Alabama has had some really good players in the NFL,” Jones said. “It’s awesome to have gone to school there and learn from the quarterback room I learned from. Just moving forward, with the same experience you have, some things might pop up again that happened, and you can always learn from the person who’s in front of you — or behind you.”
Those behind him, in particular, are pulling for his success.
“I’m a fan,” said Croyle, who played for Alabama from 2002 to 2005 and was a third-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2006. “The way he carries himself, there’s a confidence, but it’s a relatable confidence. You can see his teammates enjoy playing with him — and for him.”
That has quickly become clear with the Patriots, with whom Jones, 22, has earned a level of respect not often seen with rookies in Belichick’s 21-year coaching tenure.
“He’s a terrific kid. Real smart dude. He’s going to go over the edge,” said New England linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who played for Alabama from 2008 to 2011. “Actually found out he’s been looking at some of the defensive plays so he can kind of conceptually see how we kind of work. I give him credit for that, because not a lot of young guys would see that as an opportunity, and he did that on his own.”
Longtime Patriots captain Matthew Slater added that Jones has been “a pleasure to work with.”
“Character really counts when you talk about what we do off the football field, the way we approach our profession, and I think Mac is a fine young man,” Slater said. “His family should be proud of the way that they raised him and the way he carries himself.”
‘An ideal situation’
As for the torch Jones carries as an Alabama quarterback in the NFL, McElroy is “super optimistic” of good things to come for him.
Field Yates and Stephania Bell discuss Mac Jones’ fantasy outlook after the Patriots released Cam Newton.
“Because 75 percent of becoming a great player is about the situation you walk into. At least I’m convinced of that,” McElroy said.
“If you’re a first-round pick, you’re going there because you have a remarkably good skill set. Now how do you get to the finish line of becoming a super-complete franchise quarterback? By surrounding yourself, hopefully, with a lot of really good players. Having a really thoughtful and innovative playcaller. Having a program or an organization that is the model of consistency and has a clear and established hierarchy of how things work and how you do things. I think because of all those things, Mac is in an ideal situation.”
Jones himself has said as much. On draft night, when rumors of him going No. 3 overall to the San Francisco 49ers didn’t come to fruition and he ended up sliding to No. 15, he said during a news conference shortly after being selected by the Patriots that he had been secretly hoping New England would be his destination.
In contrast, McElroy wonders how things might have been different for Croyle — and the narrative about Alabama quarterbacks — had he been in a similar situation entering the NFL as a third-round pick in 2006.
Croyle, an Alabama native who played for three head coaches with the Crimson Tide before Saban was hired in 2007, initially thought playing for the Chiefs was an ideal situation. But he looks back with no regrets.
“I was really excited for going to play with what some deemed to be the best offensive line in the history of the NFL. I show up and, quickly, it’s like they all dispersed, before I ever took a snap,” Croyle said with a laugh.
“But [coach] Herm Edwards, to this day, is one of the greatest influencers in my life. I really do not believe for a different opportunity that I would trade the friendship and the wisdom that man displayed on a daily basis. … And you know what? I don’t play the ‘what if’ game. I play the ‘what happened’ game. I am grateful for my career. Did it turn out the way I hoped it would? No, man. I wish I was still playing. But … would it have led me back to what I get to do now, which is my true calling all my life? It probably wouldn’t have, so I thank God for the timing, and I thank him for the appointments.”
Croyle, 38, serves as the executive director of Big Oak Ranch, a Christian home in Alabama for orphaned and abused children founded by his father, John.
In Jones, Croyle sees an exemplary person — a top-notch decision-maker, on and off the field — to represent the fraternity of Alabama quarterbacks in the NFL. While some discredited Jones’ success at Alabama because he played with future first-round picks DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Najee Harris, Croyle views the Heisman Trophy finalist through a different lens.
“I just see his resilience. Being an Alabama guy, he’s not the name you heard all the time. You hear all the blue-chip guys, all the big-name guys, and he just quietly did his job, and he quietly got better. Then when his opportunity came, he seized it,” Croyle said.
“There’s so much for our young people today that are coming up to go, ‘You know what, you don’t have to be the crowned or anointed to make it where it is you want to go.’ Sometimes just putting your head down and deciding to put one foot in front of the other is enough.”
In five months Jones proved himself to Belichick and many in the locker room. They cite his even-keeled approach and, of course, the on-field results.
“I feel like he’s been able to show an ability to do things the way we want them done, at a productive level,” Belichick said. “He’s young, and I’m sure he’ll continue to learn and grow, and we’ll see where that goes. But that’s why we drafted him, and he’s come in and performed at a level that supports that.”
What has unfolded through spring practices and training camp has some of his Patriots teammates thinking big. A critical point came when Newton was away from the team for five days, and three practices, due to a COVID-19 protocol “misunderstanding.”
Jones made the most of the opportunity, teammates rallied around him and it provided Belichick and his staff a clear vision of what it could look like without Newton.
“I think he can be special,” Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown said. “To be so young, I think he makes some throws that not a lot of young guys can make.”
At the same time, Jones doesn’t move as well as some of his quarterback peers, something McElroy said could be an obstacle for him to overcome.
“The position has become more capable of creating on their own, and Mac Jones is not that guy. He is going to be your more traditional pocket-passing quarterback that is going to rely on accuracy and mental acumen to pick you apart,” McElroy said.
“The beauty is, that’s not a dinosaur. What’s a dinosaur are the guys with absolutely no mobility — the guys 6-foot-5, statues in the pocket, absolute cannon arms that can’t process really quickly. Those are the guys that are a dying breed. But if you can process quick, if you’re really accurate, if you can move in the pocket and if you can anticipate where receivers are going to be, then having less-than-ideal mobility is not the end of the world.”
As for Alabama quarterbacks under Saban, and before him, McElroy wonders if they have been judged to an unfair standard.
“They get a little bit of a bad rap. Meaning if they don’t go on to become an All-Pro, they really weren’t worth their weight in salt,” McElroy said. “I feel like there have been so many great players that if you are a forgotten-about journeyman backup — but you’re vested and have a pretty good career — you’re essentially a scrub in the eyes of some. But it’s all because of how good your teammates are and, obviously, the success that in some cases they go on to have.”
The Patriots have high hopes Jones will be the franchise quarterback they have been searching for since Brady’s free-agent departure in March 2020.
Those who came before Jones at Alabama — where the QB history after Starr, Namath and Stabler is well-documented — hope that’s how it unfolds.
“There is a connection because you shared the same blood, the same sweat, the same sacrifice at the same place. There’s a brotherhood you carry,” Croyle said.