As Bailey Zappe Impresses Again, How Will Patriots Proceed At QB?

Should Zappe or Mac Jones start in Week 7?


Oct 16, 2022

CLEVELAND — Mac Jones traveled with the Patriots to Cleveland this weekend. He warmed up pregame, albeit not with anything approaching his usual intensity. He watched Sunday’s game from the sideline, the first time he’s done so since suffering his high ankle sprain three weeks earlier.

By all accounts, the New England quarterback is making consistent and substantial progress as he recovers from that injury. If he stays on his current trajectory, there seems to be a real chance he’ll be medically ready to reclaim his starting job when the Patriots host the woebegone Chicago Bears next week on “Monday Night Football.”

But should he? His replacement is making that question more and more difficult to answer.

Impressive in his first NFL start last week, Bailey Zappe was even better Sunday, propelling the Patriots’ offense in a runaway 38-15 victory over the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium.

Cleveland’s cellar-dwelling run defense mostly succeeded in limiting Patriots backfield standout Rhamondre Stevenson (19 carries, 76 yards, two touchdowns) but had no cure for Zappe Fever. The fourth-round rookie completed 70.6% of his passes (24 of 34), threw for 309 yards and tossed two touchdown passes. He did not throw an interception, and his lost fumble came on a badly blown pass block by right tackle Isaiah Wynn, who subsequently was benched for the second time in three weeks.

After heavily relying on top wideout Jakobi Meyers the previous week, Zappe spread the ball around Sunday. Five Patriots players tallied exactly four receptions — two wideouts, two tight ends and one running back — with none catching more. Four reached 60 receiving yards, but none topped 65. Zappe moved well in the pocket, ducking around Browns pass rushers and locating the open man.

It wasn’t a flawless performance by Zappe, who was flagged for delay of game and intentional grounding and should’ve had a quicker trigger finger on an early end-zone shot to Hunter Henry. A closer review of the game film likely will reveal more plays that the Western Kentucky product wants back.

But for a player who didn’t begin taking first-team reps until more than a week after Jones’ injury, his poise and confidence have been impossible to ignore.

“He’s got some moxie, doesn’t he?” special teams captain Matthew Slater said after the game. “I’m really proud of what he’s done. You rewind (to) a month ago, nobody’s talking about him being a contributor for our football team. But that’s the National Football League. You never know when your moment’s going to come, but your hope is that you prepare enough and you’re able to take advantage of it, and I think the young man is doing just that.

“We’re very fortunate to be in a situation where our third quarterback can play the way that he’s playing now. He’s really keeping us alive and keeping us competitive. Keep it up, young fella.”

Sitting at 1-2 after Calais Campbell crunched Jones’ ankle, the Patriots have pulled themselves back to .500, with Zappe nearly quarterbacking them to an overtime upset in Green Bay before scoring back-to-back victories over the Detroit Lions (29-0) and Browns. In all three of those games, Zappe posted a passer rating of 100 or above. He’s the first rookie in the Super Bowl era to win his first two starts and post 100-plus passer ratings in both.

Play-caller Matt Patricia and the coaching staff deserve credit for putting Zappe in favorable situations, but the young QB has more than held up his end of the bargain.

“He’s making a ton of improvement,” said tight end Jonnu Smith, whose 53-yard catch-and-run set up Zappe’s first touchdown pass. “He just looks comfortable. He looks like he’s really just settling in and really trying to figure it out, you know what I mean? And he knows that he’s got a lot to improve on, as we all do, and I think that just from him having that mindset, he’ll continue to make a lot of strides.

“So hats off to him. He’s come in these last couple of weeks and been doing a hell of a job. I couldn’t be more proud of him. He’s playing his ass off.”

Indeed he is. And with Jones scuffling in his three starts pre-injury, Zappe’s strong play has a portion of the fanbase calling for him to take over as the Patriots’ new QB1, at least until he stops performing at his current level. Those calls still seem premature. Jones, after all, is coming off one of the best rookie QB seasons in recent memory, and though the opening stretch of the season wasn’t his best, other elements of the Patriots’ new-look offense (O-line and run game, in particular) recently have improved after less-than-stellar early returns. Jones easily could do the same.

Whether head coach Bill Belichick — who, of course, famously stuck with hot backup Tom Brady over Drew Bledsoe in 2001 — is even considering such a change is unclear, but he turned down a chance this week to say Jones will automatically start once he’s healthy enough to do so.

“We’ll see where he is today,” Belichick said on Wednesday. “I don’t know.”

At the very least, the Patriots can afford to be as patient as possible with Jones. Unless his ankle is 100% healed, there’s really no reason to play him next Monday, with Zappe playing the way he is and the Bears looking like a team New England probably could beat with Garrett Gilbert at quarterback. Give him another week to heal. Don’t rush it, even if the notoriously competitive Jones lobbies to get back onto the field.

Jones should be feeling some pressure, though. Even if Zappe isn’t yet in position to steal his job, he’s certainly moving in that direction.

Thumbnail photo via Scott Galvin/USA TODAY Sports Images
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