How Patriots’ Bill Belichick bungled Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe situation

The Patriots have made a mess of their quarterback situation.

Coach Bill Belichick made the unconventional decision Monday to rotate Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe during an embarrassing, 33-14 loss to the Bears at Gillette Stadium.

Let’s hit this decision from all angles to assess what it means for Belichick, Jones and Zappe.

Bill Belichick

Belichick did a disservice to Jones by benching him after three series, the last of which was capped by an inexcusable interception.

The home crowd had already been chanting Zappe’s name, which anyone — Belichick included — could have predicted based on the events of the past week. The crowd was a powder keg that Belichick ignited by making the QB change with a 10-0 deficit.

The decision had initially been justified, as Zappe rally the Patriots to a 14-10 lead, and the entire offense played better around him. But everything quickly crumbled afterward with five consecutive scoreless possessions, including three Zappe turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble).

Following the game, Belichick said he planned to rotate Jones and Zappe because Jones was still recovering from a high ankle sprain. However, Jones moved well last week during practice, to the point where the injury appeared to be an afterthought, according to league officials with knowledge of the situation. No, Jones still wasn’t 100 percent, but he was able to play through it, and that was in the early going against the Bears.

Belichick doesn’t need to rationalize each decision with the media. But it is a concern that the message wasn’t delivered to the locker room, as it was obvious after the game there were offensive players who had no idea that a quarterback rotation was in the works. It’s fair to wonder how the players’ 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 resulted in Zappe taking the majority of game snaps didn’t align with their usage in practice.

Belichick also said he intended to put Jones back on the field in the second half, but it didn’t happen because the game got out of hand. Since Jones’ ankle still isn’t fully healed and the weather conditions were wet and raw, that idea makes sense on the surface.

But let’s examine it a little further. Hypothetically, if the defense did n’t have its worst performance of the season and the score was closer in the second half, Jones would n’t have been put in the best position to succeed upon 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 while wondering if any given play 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 any sense to replace a hot quarterback in the interest of a rotation?

Belichick has also refused to name a starter for next week, which is the opposite of the way he handled the circumstances when Cam Newton struggled in 2020; or when Tom Brady got 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 the reps and the starting nod. So where’s the disconnect? There are certainly plenty of times when a team can maintain a competitive advantage by keeping the depth chart a mystery, but this doesn’t really seem to be one of those times. It didn’t throw off the Bears, anyway.

Last week, the Patriots’ three longest-tenured captains — Matthew Slater, Devin McCourty and David Andrews — praised Belichick’s consistency in the face of adversity. They noted how it played a role in their turnaround from a 1-3 start while losing Jones to the injury.

This week, Belichick stoked the fire of a quarterback controversy that shouldn’t exist. If he didn’t trust 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 was truly as short as a single turnover, was he really the right guy to start against the Bears? Was Belichick waiting to try and deliver a message?

That might not jibe, either. Reports of a likely quarterback rotation surfaced before kickoff, so that did seem to be the plan beforehand, even if neither Jones nor Zappe knew when the first hook would happen or if anyone else was aware a hook would happen at all.

go deep

Belichick routinely tells his players to ignore the noise — whether it’s hype or criticism or controversy — but he pumped up the volume this week. He has never shied away from making unconventional decisions involving coaching or personnel matters, with a quarterback rotation surely fitting under that umbrella. And even when those calls haven’t worked out, there has often been some consistency behind the logic that led to them.

That consistency is missing in this case.

Mac Jones

Jones has to play better. He knows that.

It starts with the turnovers, and his night ended with a turnover.

But don’t overlook the context from Monday night. Left tackle Trent Brown was flagged for two holds and a false start as the Patriots opened with back-to-back three-and-outs, and he wasn’t the only lineman with early protection issues, which were far more rampant in Jones’ first three starts than Zappe’s prior appearances.

It’s also completely normal for a quarterback to show some rust after a multi-game absence. That’s happened this season with Dak Prescott, Jimmy Garoppolo, Tua Tagovailoa and Zach Wilson, among others.

Jones sailed his first throw as a result and probably missed a couple of reads in his three series. He also had very little help around him.

The interception was inexcusable, as he didn’t see a rotating safety as he floated 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 security had to be a priority upon Jones’ return to action, because Zappe had been so clean in the previous three games.

Jones is no stranger to job competition or adversity from his time at Alabama, so his confidence shouldn’t be a concern in the fallout from Monday night. In fact, his self-assuredness and competitive fire were major appeals before the 2021 draft.

He’ll have to maintain those attributes for as long as this ordeal lasts.

Bailey Zappe

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.

It also must be acknowledged that Zappe got the help that Jones could have used. Meyers, who was wide open thanks to a busted coverage, adjusted when Zappe’s throw was off. Parker made a terrific, contested catch.

Zappe then crashed back to earth. It’s an inevitable hurdle for any inexperienced quarterback, as Cooper Rush could attest in his final start before Prescott’s return.

Zappe couldn’t counter the Bears’ adjustments and too frequently lived off checkdown passes. He was 6-of-6 for 40 yards while targeting Stevenson over the next five possessions while going 4-of-12 for 48 yards with two interceptions and three batted passes when throwing to receivers and tight ends.

Zappe dealt with protection woes, too. His first scoreless possession ended with a third-down sack. Brown’s tripping 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 surrendered five consecutive scoring drives.

Zappe’s two best performances against the Lions and Browns happened after he took the majority of starting reps in practice. It shouldn’t be a coincidence, then, that he struggled after primarily practicing as the backup.

Whomever Belichick names as the starter, the Patriots need a more defined plan at quarterback the rest of the way because the rotation created an unnecessary problem for a number of reasons.

(Photo: Brian Fluharty / USA Today)

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