FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A little more than a month ago, Pro Football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner was sharing how impressed he was with New England Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones. He pointed out that Jones was doing more in 2021 than Tom Brady had done in his first year as a starter in 2001.
But Warner also said at the time Jones' ceiling remained a mystery; remarks that are timely to revisit with the Patriots preparing to visit the Buffalo Bills in the wild-card round of the playoffs on Saturday (8:15 p.m. ET, CBS).
Jones' recent play, with the Patriots having lost three of their past four, has caused some to wonder whether he has hit the rookie wall.
In the Patriots' seven-game win streak, Jones threw nine touchdown passes and two interceptions. In the four games since, he has six touchdown passes, five interceptions and a costly lost fumble. Jones called his most recent performance in Sunday's regular-season finale (20-of-30 for 261 yards and one touchdown and one interception in a 33-24 loss to the Miami Dolphins) "super embarrassing."
They are growing pains most rookies experience, and to Warner, Jones has already proved he's worthy of being one of the NFL's 32 starting quarterbacks. That's how Warner views QBs -- through a prism of 32, one for each team in the league -- and he ranks a player like Chicago Bears veteran Andy Dalton among those closest to 32nd.
That's also where he sees Jones at this time.
"I'm a big fan of Andy, but he's limited physically," Warner said. "Yet he makes the right decisions, he makes the layups, he gets the ball to the right guy and that's why, [When Dalton was] in Cincinnati, they went to the playoffs all those years. Now, they didn't win in the playoffs, because he wasn't a guy to elevate the team and win championships. He needs help around him."
When the 2021 Patriots get a strong running game going, and the defense creates turnovers and wins in critical situations, Jones is best suited for success.
Trouble has come when those other pieces aren't falling into place, which is why Warner puts Jones in Dalton's class right now.
"That's the lower echelon of the 32. ... Then you go up the chart to Tom Brady. To me, the reason Tom is the greatest ever is that he does all those things and he makes the special throws. The key throw at the key moment. The throw into the tight window," Warner said. "Then there's all the guys in between. Someone like Patrick Mahomes; he doesn't make quite as many layups, or doesn't read quite as well -- even though he does it well. But he makes a lot of special plays. Aaron Rodgers -- kind of the same way.
"So there's some sort of ratio out there on how good you are at making layups, the right play. And then however you do the special. That ratio puts you where you're at in the 32 guys."
This also seems to reflect how opposing teams view Jones. The Indianapolis Colts, on "Hard Knocks" after beating up on Jones on Dec. 18, shared their plan was to stop the run and force Jones to make plays. The next week, Bills players echoed similar remarks.
This is the challenge Jones once again faces in the playoffs, and the stakes are raised.
Teammates believe he is up to the challenge and say his harsh self-criticism is endearing.
"I've been around a lot of quarterbacks and they carry a lot of the weight, and I think that's very humbling and very mature of him to show the responsibility and also to accept the realities of what the tape may show sometimes," veteran receiver Nelson Agholor said, adding he believed Jones played well Sunday.
"He wants to be perfect, and there's nothing wrong with that. We all can be better. How he sees it, and how he calls it, is something you have to respect because he has a standard and expectation for himself."
Starting center David Andrews, who has developed a close rapport with Jones, added: "As a competitor, when your team suffers, you microanalyze all the little things you could do better. That's the sign of a competitor to me."
Jones' resolve showed up in the fourth quarter on Sunday, when he was 9-of-9 for 121 yards, a finishing kick that provides a contrasting viewpoint to those who believe he has hit the rookie wall.
The truth, as it often does, might fall somewhere in between, as there's a reason no rookie quarterback has ever won a Super Bowl championship.
"Most rookies aren't in the top 32. Most rookies I look at and say, 'That guy shouldn't be starting right now; he's starting because they're forcing him to start.' Not Mac. He should be starting in the NFL, and he's doing enough to win games," Warner said.
"Now the question will become over the next 10, 12, 15 years, 'Where is he?' Does he get into the top 10? The top five? Or will he be just a really good starter, Andy Dalton-ish, for the bulk of his career? That's not a bad thing. It's just 'Can you get to the point of winning a championship without all those other pieces around you?'"