With Mac Jones nursing a “pretty severe” ankle sprain, New England Patriots backup Brian Hoyer likely will be thrust into starting duty this week for the first time in two years.
The 36-year-old will hope this start turns out better than his last.
When a positive COVID-19 test sidelined Cam Newton for Week 4 of the 2020 season, Hoyer stepped in to start against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
The game was a clear mismatch, with the defending Super Bowl champs facing a talent-deficient Patriots team led by a second-string quarterback, at one of the loudest venues in American professional sports. The Patriots, wary of additional COVID exposures, also took the rare step of flying into Kansas City just hours before that game, which was postponed from Sunday to Monday night.
But New England kept pace. Its defense, which had faced Patrick Mahomes three times in the previous two seasons, kept Kansas City’s explosive offense at bay, surrendering just six points in the first 44 minutes of game time. Hoyer’s offense, in turn, staged three productive drives, thanks in large part to a breakout performance from unproven second-year pro Damien Harris (17 carries, 100 yards).
Twice, Hoyer drove the Patriots into the red zone with chances to either tie the game with a field goal or take the lead with a touchdown. But both times, the veteran signal-caller melted down.
On the first, Hoyer took a sack as time expired in the first half, mistakenly believing the Patriots had a timeout remaining.
On the second, he held the ball for too long against a third-down blitz and was drilled from behind by Taco Charlton, who forced a fumble that Kansas City recovered.
Those were inexcusable mental errors, especially for a player as experienced as Hoyer. He was benched for Jarrett Stidham after the strip-sack and subsequently demoted to third string, sitting out each of the Patriots’ final 12 games as a healthy scratch.
Stidham threw a touchdown pass in relief but also tossed two interceptions, including a deflection off Julian Edelman’s hands that was returned for a pick-six. The Chiefs won 26-10 despite their second-worst offensive output of any Mahomes start to that point.
Hoyer’s final line: 15 of 24, 130 yards, no touchdowns, one interception, one lost fumble.
“I cost us at least six points,” he said after the game. “I’ve got to do a better job.”
He’ll need to this Sunday if the Patriots hope to avoid a 1-3 start to the season. They’ll be at another iconic NFL venue, Lambeau Field, to take on Aaron Rodgers and the 2-1 Green Bay Packers.
Hoyer at least should be more prepared to start this week than he was for his last opportunity. Newton’s positive test came on a Friday night, after the Patriots’ final practice of the week, meaning Hoyer did not receive any first-team reps during the leadup to the Chiefs game. While the exact timetable for Jones’ recovery remained unclear as of Monday night, he reportedly is expected to miss multiple weeks, so the Patriots can operate this week with the expectation that Hoyer will start against Green Bay and make any necessary game-plan adjustments.
The level of familiarity won’t be there for Hoyer and New England’s coaching staff, however. Whereas they’d frequently matched up against Mahomes and company before their 2020 clash, the Patriots haven’t seen the Packers since 2018 and haven’t faced a Joe Barry-coordinated defense since 2015, when the current Green Bay DC was with Washington.
New England is talented enough defensively to survive a short-term Jones absence if Hoyer can simply be a competent caretaker, limiting mistakes like the ones he committed in Kansas City while leaning on running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson to handle most of the heavy lifting. He has looked solid in his handful of preseason and garbage-time appearances, going 9-for-11 for 227 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions in five games last season and 13-for-18 for 136 yards and one score with no picks this summer.
Hoyer’s track record in starts, however, isn’t pretty. He’s lost his last 11 straight, spanning stints with the Patriots (one), Indianapolis Colts (one), San Francisco 49ers (six) and Chicago Bears (three). Since the start of the 2016 season, Hoyer is an ugly 1-12 as a starter, with his lone win coming for Chicago on Oct. 2, 2016 (17-14 over Detroit). His latest chance will come six years to the day after that most recent victory.
Patriots teammates have expressed confidence in Hoyer in the wake of Jones’ injury. But if he starts and struggles again, the Patriots could be forced to see what they have in third-stringer Bailey Zappe, the fourth-round rookie who has yet to dress for his first official NFL game.