Bill Belichick’s been here before.
Two decades ago, long before anyone considered him the greatest head coach of all time, he had to make a difficult decision that ultimately changed the course of NFL history and made the New England Patriots the most successful franchise of the new millennium.
Fast forward to 2022, and Belichick once again finds himself facing questions about who should start at quarterback for a 2-3 team that ranks 19th in scoring at an uninspiring 20.8 points per game.
But does that necessarily mean Mac Jones should be worried about reclaiming his place atop the depth chart?
Bailey Zappe’s first NFL start couldn’t have gone much better for the Patriots
With both their starter and top backup hurt, the Patriots had no choice but to start a rookie quarterback in Week 5.
However, Bailey Zappe showed veteran-like poise during a rock-solid performance against the Detroit Lions. The fourth-rounder completed 17-of-21 attempts for 188 yards, one touchdown, and an interception as a result of a drop by Nelson Agholor.
Most importantly, Zappe led the Patriots to a 29-0 victory over a Lions team that entered the game with the league’s highest-scoring offense. Although his final stat line won’t blow anyone away, the fact the undersized signal-caller fared well under pressure and demonstrated the ability to step up in the pocket certainly stood out.
Of course, it helped that the game plan relied heavily on establishing the run–a feat the Patriots accomplished thanks to a dominant day by Rhamondre Stevenson.
Still, Zappe’s first NFL start gave fans, coaches, and teammates plenty to smile about, especially coming off a tough three-point loss to the Green Bay Packers.
Bill Belichick is suddenly in a position that should feel all too familiar
The irony of the Patriots’ current quarterback situation is that Bill Belichick has already lived this experience.
In fact, his career path changed forever because of it.
So, while the names may be different, it’s hard to ignore the striking similarities between what happened in 2001 and what’s going on at the moment in New England.
With a ferocious Mo Lewis hit forcing franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe to miss time, Belichick relied on little-known Tom Brady–and stuck by him. That decision didn’t sit well with everyone at the time–especially the incumbent starter with a $100 million contract—and it raised warranted questions about the future of the franchise.
Of course, Belichick made the right call to leave Bledsoe on the bench in favor of Brady.
And depending on how fast Mac Jones recovers from his ankle injury and how consistently Bailey Zappe performs, it could be a repeat of 2001 all over again.
To be fair, Jones hasn’t done anything to lose his job. As a first-rounder rather than a sixth-rounder, he has the draft pedigree (and contract) that should give him the upper hand over a rookie fourth-round pick. Plus, he has a stronger arm and a slightly sturdier frame than the former Western Kentucky standout.
But that doesn’t guarantee anything.
After all, hasn’t the Belichick era taught us that anyone is replaceable?
This is the same coach who said goodbye to longtime stalwarts like Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, and Chandler Jones over money. This is the same coach who traded Randy Moss and Jamie Collins in the middle of the season. Oh, and this is the same coach who went from putting all of his faith in Brady to essentially forcing him out the door.
If Zappe plays turnover-free football for another week or two and the team starts stacking success, will Belichick want to disrupt that momentum? Considering how the season started, will he simply go back to Jones out of principle? Or could Zappe actually make the idea of a quarterback controversy a real topic?
Does a healthy Mac Jones make New England a legitimate Super Bowl contender?
At the end of the day, the odds fall in Mac Jones’ favor of regaining his role as QB1. And as much as Patriot Nation may be experiencing some Zappe Fever, the fact remains that the team’s best odds of making the playoffs again rest on the right shoulder of No. 10.
Sure, Jones hasn’t made the all-important year-two leap many expected.
However, it’s fair to point to the downgrade from Josh McDaniels to Matt Patricia/Joe Judge, an offensive line that got off to a rough start, and a group of receivers and tight ends that doesn’t scare any defensive coordinator in the league. Throw in a severe high ankle sprain, and it’s easy to see why Jones would feel down about the way the 2022 season has gone.
Ultimately, though, he should take over the huddle again when he’s at full strength. Not only does Jones have better arm talent than Zappe, but he has experience and a sharp mind that simply makes the Patriots more dangerous on offense.
That being said, if New England rattles off a few wins with Zappe under center, Jones’ margin for error will undoubtedly be slimmer upon his return. After getting off to a slow start, he’ll need to avoid turnovers, improve in the red zone, and prove he can stay healthy.
Don’t underestimate that last component, either.
Out of all the things Bill Belichick believes in, availability is just as important as ability.
And Mac Jones may be learning that lesson right now.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference
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