FOXBORO, Mass. — At the risk of coming off as sanctimonious, Patriots fans who were at Gillette Stadium on Monday night should feel embarrassed.
A raucous, tunnel-vision crowd rejected all reason and booed Mac Jones off the field after he predictably looked rusty in his first game action in a month. Their “Zappe! Zappe!” chants eventually were rewarded by Bill Belichick, who called upon Bailey Zappe in the second quarter and watched the rookie quarterback deliver consecutive touchdown drives against the Bears. With Jones standing on the sideline, Patriots fans gave Zappe a standing ovation and jubilantly celebrated Jones’ apparent benching. Hours later, the same fans were silenced as Zappe and New England cratered in a jarring 33-14 loss to Chicago.
It’s hard to undersell just how baffling the scene was. No longer interested in how good Jones was during his rookie season, Patriots fans sent a loud, unambiguously non-supportive message to a 24-year-old team-voted captain who’s garnered rave reviews for his leadership and put in a ton of work to return early from a severe high ankle sprain — all because of one bad quarter. As expected, the same fans who couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge Zappe’s weak competition the last two weeks aren’t rushing to point out that Jones was facing an actually decent passing defense.
And make no mistake: This isn’t just some high-horse column writing. Patriots players themselves also were disappointed in the fans.
“Not even as a football player, it’s tough as a man to see somebody who worked so hard get that kind of treatment,” Patriots receiver Jakobi Meyers said of Jones after Monday night’s defeat. “But at the end of the day, we’re all trying to feed our families, so we’ve got to go out there and make plays for whoever’s throwing it.”
Andrew Callahan of the Boston Herald then asked Meyers to clarify whom he was talking about: the coaches or the fans?
“Not even the coaches, just everybody,” he said. “The crowd, all of it. It was an ugly situation, in my opinion.”
Sadly, what happened Monday night wasn’t surprising.
Sports fans can be an unreasonable bunch, and New England sports fans are no different. We’re talking about the same group of people that allows Kyrie Irving to live rent-free — in this economy?! — in their heads. Tom Brady of all people got booed in his return to Foxboro last year. Even Adam Vinatieri has gotten booed at Gillette Stadium.
It’s not exclusive to Boston. Live sporting events can provide cathartic relief, and fans around the world often forget that human beings are the ones on the field of play. When you worked all day and are 10 Miller Lites deep in the mist-soaked nosebleeds, Mac Jones might as well be “Madden” character. And let’s not act as if the fans committed some sort of crime or did something they weren’t allowed to do after spending hard-earned money on expensive tickets. This is all part of the deal, for better or for worse.
Plus, Patriots fans kind of were led in this direction.
Sports talk radio pundits took the “Zappe Fever” storyline and ran with it, as is their job. Belichick the last few weeks had every opportunity to quiet the noise and publicly back Jones, but instead, he trolled reporters and fostered speculation. Also, most fans haven’t watched each and every throw that Jones and Zappe have made since the start of spring practices (when Zappe was awful), and they likely tuned out while Zappe was throwing picks to former Patriots receiver Isaiah Zuber during the preseason. The only context they have is that Jones struggled to start the season and Zappe played well after taking over for Brian Hoyer in Week 4. There also have been reports — some credible; some reprehensible — of Jones causing a stink behind the scenes.
Add up some narrative-driven radio punditry, a dash of misinformation, a month’s worth of ambiguity from leadership and a glaring lack of context, and you get what happened Monday night: knee-jerk groupthink boiling over into something stupid. We’re resisting the urge to draw a line to Washington and make an overwrought comparison.
So, where do the Patriots go from here?
Perhaps more importantly, where does Jones go from here?
You can’t rule out Jones starting and beating the New York Jets this weekend and New England recovering to go on a run. The Patriots were 3-4 this time last year, after all, and eventually made the playoffs. The next month will see the Patriots visit the Jets, host the Indianapolis Colts, go on a bye week and then host the Jets. New Englanders could wake up on Monday, Nov. 21, with their team 6-4 and in control of its playoff destiny.
But where is Jones’ head at right now, and where could it be by then? Former Patriots linebacker-turned-TV analyst Ted Johnson believes there’s no going back from what went down Monday night — and he might be right.
“Mac Jones will never forget the fans turning on him last night,” Johnson tweeted Tuesday morning. “He strikes me as a guy who will always hold that against them.”
Maybe the fans don’t even care. Maybe the scoreboard is all that matters. Maybe this all was bound to happen following the privilege of the Brady years.
But if you’re fine with your quarterback winning to spite you, rather than for you, what are you really rooting for? Bragging rights and championship t-shirts at Target?
However, that assumes that Jones even wants to win with the Patriots anymore. After what transpired Monday, you couldn’t blame him for being over the entire New England experience.