Why Patriots Cannot Go Back To Mac Jones After Latest Benching

Jones looks irreparably broken

FRANKFURT, Germany — Any hope the Patriots had of rehabilitating Mac Jones’ once-promising career was extinguished Sunday in front of a rabid crowd in a foreign country.

Head coach Bill Belichick benched Jones in the final minutes of New England’s putrid 10-6 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at Deutsche Bank Park. Jones was yanked twice earlier this season. But this removal was different.

The quarterback’s first two benchings came with the Patriots trailing by 30 points in a pair of blowout losses. Sunday’s took place in a one-score game against an easily beatable opponent. Jones had driven into the red zone on each of his previous three possessions. The Colts had scored just three total points since their opening drive. A sorely needed victory was within reach.

But after watching Jones commit the ugliest of his many, many horrendous turnovers this season with 4:38 remaining, Belichick had seen enough. Moments after Jones’ back-footed lollipop pass found Indy safety Julian Blackmon near the goal line, backup Bailey Zappe began warming up.

“I just thought it was time for a change,” Belichick said postgame.

Think about that: In a game his team desperately needed to win — a game team owner Robert Kraft called “critical” in a speech to players on Saturday — Belichick believed his starting quarterback was not the best option for a potential game-winning two-minute drill.

Jones watched from the sideline as Zappe picked up two first downs, then threw his own horrible interception to clinch New England’s eighth loss in 10 weeks.

There’s no coming back from that. You cannot bench a player in a scenario like that and then start him the next game. There needs to be a different player behind center when the Patriots return from their Week 11 bye and visit the equally dreadful New York Giants on Thanksgiving weekend.

Who should that be? Well, that’s the problem. Zappe has been even worse than Jones in his three relief appearances.

The 2022 fourth-round draft pick has completed just 10 of 25 passes for 104 yards, posting a completion rate below 45% in all three games. His interception Sunday was a bad throw into triple coverage that at least one Colts player openly mocked after the game.

Zappe also performed so poorly in training camp and the preseason that the Patriots released him during final cuts, allowing every other NFL team an opportunity to claim him. The Patriots then spent the next month cycling through different third-string QBs, clearly trying to find something that Zappe wasn’t providing.

After Sunday’s game, Zappe said he’s “100%” confident he can succeed as the Patriots’ starter. But if his play on the practice field hasn’t improved, starting him could be difficult to justify to the locker room.

That brings us to Option No. 2: Will Grier. The last of the aforementioned third-string fliers, Grier has been with the Patriots since late September. He’s 28 years old and hasn’t appeared in a regular-season game since 2019. Would he be an upgrade over Jones? Most likely not. But the Patriots could give him a look as they play out the string and prepare for the search for a new long-term answer this offseason.

Some fans will call for Malik Cunningham to replace Jones, and seeing what the athletic undrafted rookie can do in an expanded Taysom Hill-esque role would be entertaining. But he didn’t look close to ready to lead an NFL offense in camp and splits his practice reps between QB and receiver. It would be very, very surprising if Belichick tabbed the practice squadder to start against New York.

There’s always the possibility of an external addition, but it would be extremely difficult for, say, Colt McCoy to come in and be ready to start the next game, even with the bye week in between. And it wouldn’t make sense for the Patriots to invest any real resources for a short-term fix in a lost season.

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Belichick didn’t tip his hand in his postgame news conference, declining to say whether he planned to make a permanent quarterback change. Perhaps he’ll be more forthcoming when he meets with the media this Monday or Wednesday. We wouldn’t hold our breath.

It’s now clear, though, that Jones is fully and irreparably broken. The poise, pocket presence and sound decision-making that made him one of the best rookie signal-callers in recent memory is gone. (Remember, Jones was a Pro Bowl alternate and runner-up for Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2021.) Before the throw that got him benched, he had another would-be INT dropped by a Colts defender in the end zone and got vociferously chewed out by Bill O’Brien after a missed third-down read.

Belichick and the Patriots deserve a large portion of the blame for that for sticking Jones with three offensive coordinators in three years — including one in Matt Patricia who had no play-calling experience — and flat-out refusing to surround him with high-end talent up front and at wide receiver. All four of the budget-minded additions they made on offense this offseason (JuJu Smith-Schuster, Mike Gesicki, Riley Reiff and Calvin Anderson) backfired.

Perhaps another team can salvage Jones in time. His second and third seasons likely would have played out much differently if he’d won the roster-talent lottery like Brock Purdy did in San Francisco. But that is not going to happen in New England. The Mac Jones era is dead.