Mac Jones Or Bailey Zappe? Cases For, Against Each Patriots QB

Jones appears likely to make his return this week


Oct 20, 2022

There reportedly is no quarterback controversy in New England. Once he’s healthy enough to return from his high ankle sprain, Mac Jones will reclaim the Patriots’ starting quarterback job, according to a report from The Athletic’s Jeff Howe.

But should he? Or, more specifically, should he this week?

The Patriots are preparing to host the Chicago Bears on “Monday Night Football.” ESPN’s Mike Reiss reported Jones “expects to be available” for that game, and his activity at practice Thursday suggested he is in line to start after sitting out the last three games with a high ankle sprain.

Some fans, though, have called for the Patriots to stick with rookie Bailey Zappe, who’s now 2-0 as a starter and has impressed in Jones’ absence. Ahead of Jones’ likely return to the lineup, we took a closer look at the cases for and against each Patriots QB:

There’s a reason Jones entered this season as the Patriots’ unquestioned starter. He’s coming off one of the best seasons by any rookie QB in recent memory, leading the Patriots to 10 wins and a playoff berth and making the Pro Bowl, albeit as a deep alternate. Did he show the improvement many were hoping for in the first few weeks of Year 2? No. Jones needs to be more careful with the ball and cut down on his turnovers (five interceptions over the first three games, including three in Week 3), and if he can’t do that, it likely won’t take the coaching staff long to hand the reins back to Zappe.

But that less-than-stellar start doesn’t erase all the promise Jones showed in 2021 when he looked like he had the makings of a legit franchise QB. And let’s not forget how much other areas of the Patriots’ offense already have improved. Remember how awful the running game looked over the summer? It’s now back to being one of the NFL’s best. Remember how disjointed the O-line was, with free rushers streaking through left and right? Those problems have largely been remedied (though Isaiah Wynn’s play at right tackle remains an issue).

A combination of increased comfort in New England’s new offense and some necessary scheme tweaks triggered those turnarounds. The same easily could happen with Jones, especially if the Patriots carry over some of the adjustments that have helped Zappe succeed. Chief among those: a sharp uptick in play-action usage, which the Patriots largely eschewed during Jones’ three starts. They’ve utilized play-action — which often creates wider windows and easier throws for QBs — on 31.6% of Zappe’s dropbacks this season, compared to a 10.8% rate for Jones that’s the lowest of any NFL starter, per Pro Football Focus.

Zappe has been undeniably impressive in his first two NFL starts, but those also came against two of the NFL’s worst defenses. The Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns currently rank 32nd and 31st in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA. Detroit also lost about a half-dozen defensive backs to injury during their Week 5 game at Gillette Stadium, and Cleveland was playing without Jadeveon Clowney and top cornerback Denzel Ward. That’s not a knock on Zappe, but it’s important to consider the quality of competition here.

As for the benefit of starting Jones against Chicago, specifically, rather than giving him an extra week to heal up, there’s an argument to be made for giving him a less challenging matchup in his first game back. The Bears aren’t as defensively deficient as the Lions or Browns, but they’re one of the NFL’s worst teams overall. The Patriots — pegged as 8-point home favorites — should win this game with relative ease regardless of who’s behind center. Let Jones get his feet back underneath him before the Pats head to New York for a matchup with the surprisingly frisky Jets.

This would be the “it it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. The Patriots nearly pulled off an upset at Lambeau Field with Zappe at QB, and they then won each of his first two starts. Zappe was more of a passenger against Green Bay and Detroit, but he’s posted a passer rating of 100 or above in all three of his appearances, and his game against Cleveland (24 of 34, 309 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) was the best by any Patriots signal-caller this season.

Yes, the Patriots are playing things a lot safer with Zappe than they were with Jones, but that approach, at least so far, has been working. The rookie has been lethal off play-action — perfect 158.3 passer rating on play-action passes in both starts — has shown poise against the blitz and has taken care of the ball. His lone interception came on a pass that Nelson Agholor dropped, and his two lost fumbles could be blamed on poor pass protection by Wynn, who was benched after both.

It hasn’t been mistake-free football by any means. There have been some missed reads and some penalties — stuff you would expect from a rookie who still has very little legitimate NFL experience. But Zappe’s responsible play has been a major reason for New England’s recent turnaround.

But even if you don’t believe Zappe has done enough to supplant Jones, you can make the case for the Patriots giving him one more game, just to ensure Jones fully heals and doesn’t subject himself to further injury earlier than he needs to.

Again, the Bears are a team New England should handle independent of who starts at QB. It’s only been four weeks since Jones suffered his injury, which is on the early side of the typical recovery timetable for high ankle sprains. Even if Jones is close to full strength, as he reportedly is, why rush it? The forecast for Monday night — which, of course, could change between now and then — also calls for steady rain in the Foxboro area, which could add another wrinkle. Do the Patriots want to start a quarterback with a bad ankle on a slick field?

Jones surely would not be pleased with this path. He’s reportedly been pushing to return, injury be damned, and can’t love the Zappe Fever that’s infected New England during his backup’s successful fill-in stint. But protecting him from hits for one more week is at least an option worth considering.

Thumbnail photo via Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports Images
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