The Patriots messed up their quarterback situation.
Coach Bill Belichick made the unconventional decision Monday to rotate Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe in an embarrassing 33-14 loss to the Bears at Gillette Stadium.
Let’s take this decision from all angles to assess what it means for Belichick, Jones and Zappe.
Belichick did Jones a disservice by benching him after three series, the last of which was capped by an inexcusable interception.
MAC JONES SELECTED 👀
(Going through @ChicagoBears)pic.twitter.com/Fcj554e3eS
—ESPN (@espn) October 25, 2022
The home crowd had already been chanting Zappe’s name, which anyone – including Belichick – could have predicted based on the events of the past week. The crowd was a powder keg as Belichick ignited by making the QB switch with a 10-0 deficit.
The decision was initially justified, as Zappe had rallied the Patriots to a 14-10 lead, and the entire offense was playing better around him. But everything quickly collapsed thereafter with five consecutive scoreless possessions, including three Zappe turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble).
After the match, Belichick said he planned to rotate Jones and Zappe because Jones was still recovering from a sprained ankle. However, Jones moved well last week during practice, to the point where the injury appears to be an afterthought, according to league officials with knowledge of the situation. No, Jones still wasn’t 100%, but he was able to play, and that was early against the Bears.
Belichick doesn’t need to rationalize every decision with the media. But it’s concerning that the message didn’t get through to the locker room, as it was apparent after the game that there were offensive players who had no idea a quarterback rotation was in the works. It’s fair to wonder how player confusion impacted their performance in the team’s most lopsided regular-season loss in two years.
During the week, Jones took the majority of starting reps in practice for the first time since the injury against the Ravens. So a rotation that allowed Zappe to take the majority of in-game snaps didn’t match their use in practice.
Belichick also said he intended to put Jones back on the pitch in the second half, but that didn’t happen as the game got out of control. Considering Jones’ ankle is still not fully healed and the weather conditions were wet and raw, this idea makes sense on the surface.
But let’s examine it a little further. Hypothetically, if the defense hadn’t put on their worst performance of the season and the score was tighter in the second half, Jones wouldn’t have been in the best position to succeed on his return. He would have been out of rhythm – an even bigger factor after also missing three games. And based on the quick hook in the first half, he would have played wondering if any given game could be his last.
Or in another hypothetical situation, let’s say Zappe was playing well and the game remained close. How would it make sense to replace a hot quarterback in the interest of a rotation?
Belichick also declined to name a starter for next week, which is the opposite of how he handled circumstances when Cam Newton struggled in 2020; or when Tom Brady was benched against the Chiefs in 2014; or when Drew Bledsoe was healthy enough to return in 2001.
Jones did enough last week in practice to earn the majority of reps and the start sign. So where is the disconnect? There are certainly many times when a team can maintain a competitive edge by keeping the depth chart mysterious, but this doesn’t really seem like one of those times. That didn’t deter the Bears, anyway.
Last week, the Patriots’ three longest-serving captains — Matthew Slater, Devin McCourty and David Andrews — praised Belichick’s consistency in the face of adversity. They noted how that played a role in their turnaround from a 1-3 start while losing Jones to injury.
This week, Belichick stoked the fire of a quarterback controversy that shouldn’t exist. If he hadn’t trusted Jones to play a full 60 minutes, it would have been easy to wait another week and stick with Zappe after his impressive starts against the Lions and Browns. No one would have blinked.
Or, if Jones’ leash really was as short as a single turnover, was he really the right guy to start against the Bears? Was Belichick waiting to try to deliver a message?
It might not stick either. Reports of a probable quarterback rotation surfaced before kickoff, so that seemed to be the plan ahead of time, although neither Jones nor Zappe knew when the first hook would happen or if anyone else was aware that a catch would occur at all.
Belichick regularly tells his players to ignore the noise – whether it’s hype, criticism or controversy – but he’s turned up the volume this week. He’s never shied away from making unconventional decisions regarding coaching or personnel matters, with a quarterback rotation that surely fits under that umbrella. And even when those calls didn’t pan out, there was often some consistency behind the logic that led them.
This consistency is lacking in this case.
Jones needs to play better. He knows it.
It starts with turnovers, and his night ended with a turnover.
But don’t discount Monday night’s context. Left tackle Trent Brown was flagged for two strikes and a false start as the Patriots opened with three straight hits, and he wasn’t the only lineman with early protection issues, which were much more prevalent. at Jones. first three starts than Zappe’s previous appearances.
It’s also completely normal for a quarterback to show rust after being out for several games. It happened this season with Dak Prescott, Jimmy Garoppolo, Tua Tagovailoa and Zach Wilson, among others.
Jones hit his first pitch as a result and likely missed a few reads in his three series. He also had very little help around him.
The interception was inexcusable, as he saw no spinning safety as he threw a pass to Jonnu Smith. It was Jones’ seventh turnover (six picks, one fumble) of the season. While some of those giveaways were circumstantial or a byproduct of a bad pocket, ball safety had to be a priority when Jones returned to action, as Zappe had been so clean in the previous three games.
Jones is no stranger to professional competition or adversity since his time in Alabama, so his confidence shouldn’t be an issue in Monday night’s fallout. In fact, his self-confidence and competitive fire were major assets heading into the 2021 draft.
He must maintain these attributes as long as this ordeal lasts.
Zappe came out on fire.
He made an impressive decision to hit Rhamondre Stevenson for 20 yards on third-and-5 before his 30-yard touchdown pass to Jakobi Meyers, and Zappe opened his second series with a confident 43-yard throw to DeVante Parker.
ZAPPED DIMED PARKER 🎯
(Going through @NFL)pic.twitter.com/0cqMKCG5MK
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) October 25, 2022
It’s also worth acknowledging that Zappe got the help that Jones could have used. Meyers, who was wide open thanks to broken coverage, adjusted when Zappe’s throw was disabled. Parker made a formidable and contested catch.
Zappe then crashed to earth. It’s an unavoidable hurdle for any inexperienced quarterback, as Cooper Rush could attest on his last start before Prescott’s return.
ARE YOU NOT FUN?!
📺: #CHIvsNE on ESPN pic.twitter.com/w3HXtNSnzd
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) October 25, 2022
Zappe couldn’t counter the adjustments of the Bears and too often lived on control passes. He was 6 of 6 for 40 yards while targeting Stevenson on the next five possessions while going 4 of 12 for 48 yards with two interceptions and three slaps while throwing to receivers and tight ends.
Zappe has also faced protection issues. His first scoreless possession ended in a third sack. Brown’s trigger penalty thwarted the next drive. Cole Strange’s hold preceded Zappe’s first interception. Of course, it’s also less than ideal for a young quarterback to be forced into passing situations as the defense has given up five straight drives.
Another takeaway for defense! 😈
📺: #CHIvsNE on ESPN pic.twitter.com/mFqiwBDm2B
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) October 25, 2022
Zappe’s two best performances against the Lions and Browns came after taking the majority of the starting reps in practice. So it shouldn’t be a coincidence that he struggled after practicing mostly as a substitute.
Whoever Belichick names as the starter, the Patriots need a more defined plan at quarterback the rest of the way, as the rotation has created an unnecessary problem for a number of reasons.
(Photo: Brian Fluharty/USA Today)
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