New England Patriots

New England Patriots

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 12: Bailey Zappe #4 of the New England Patriots and Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots look dejected following the team's 10-6 defeat during the NFL match between the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots at Deutsche Bank Park on November 12, 2023 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. (Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

Sunday saw New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones benched for the third time this season. Unlike the previous two times, which came in blowouts, the hook the Patriots’ gave Jones in their 10-6 loss to the Colts was much more jarring.

Despite some more minor mistakes, Jones had the Patriots in the game in the fourth quarter. In that quarter though back-to-back drives ended on misfires, culminating in his interception on a 2nd & 12 from the Colts’ 15-yard line, underthrowing a wide-open Mike Gesicki for what would have been a late go-ahead touchdown.


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That ended up being the final pass Jones would throw in the game. After a defensive stop the Patriots got the ball back with 1:57 to go and no timeouts, and it was Bailey Zappe – not Jones – leading the huddle.

Outside of injuries, it’s very rare to see a team make a quarterback switch in that situation. After leaving Jones in despite his struggles throughout the game, they turned to Zappe for the game-winning drive. Intended or not, it felt like a statement (even wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster told reporters after the game he was “surprised” Jones was pulled in that spot).

“I just thought it was time for a change,” head coach Bill Belichick said when asked about the change after the game. “I made the decision. That’s what it was.” Belichick also confirmed the change was not made due to injury, despite Jones undergoing a post-game X-Ray.

“Yeah, they just told me I was out of the game, so I wasn’t playing very good, so I got taken out of the game before the two-minute drive at the end of the game,” Jones said when asked about the benching. “Yeah, that’s kind of what it was.”

“I’m not sure,” Jones continued, when asked his reaction to getting pulled. “It’s hard, right. It’s a difficult situation. But at the end of the day, I really did want the team to win. I’ll always be that person. I know that we didn’t win, so it’s hard for everybody, but I have to play better to not even be in that situation. It’s not ideal for anybody. No one is going to do good in that situation”

So Zappe came into the game cold. Not only was he coming into a defensive-driven game with no room for error, he was playing his first meaningful snaps of the season and first snaps at all since Week 5 – over a month ago.

Zappe was able to move the ball close to midfield, but appeared flustered when the Patriots tried to turn a 4th & 1 run with the clock running and under a minute to go into a fake spike. After a scramble getting lined up, Zappe fired a ball over the middle of the field into triple coverage for an interception, seemingly expecting a flag on the play.

“I mean, can’t say what I want to say,” Zappe told reporters after the game, in reference to the officials on the play.

As for the play itself? “We figured the play that we had – fake spike, trying to catch the defense off guard, not get the rush going,” he recalled. “That worked, but that was just me trying to force it and make a play, get us ahead on time. Looking back at it, I’d probably just say, throw it incomplete, move on to the next down, try to see if we could take another shot.”

The question from here will be, where do the Patriots go from here at the quarterback position? “We’ll worry about next week, next week,” Belichick told reporters when about the starting quarterback job moving forward.

In reality, the team will actually have two weeks to worry about ‘next week,’ with the bye week ahead before they face the Giants in New York the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend.

If the Patriots are truly going to open up the competition in practice the next two weeks, there are four in-house contenders for the job. Let’s look at the case for each guy moving forward…

  • Mac Jones

    Nov 12, 2023; Frankfurt, Germany; New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) looks on during a time out against the Indianapolis Colts in the second quarter during an International Series game at Deutsche Bank Park. Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 12, 2023; Frankfurt, Germany; New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) looks on during a time out against the Indianapolis Colts in the second quarter during an International Series game at Deutsche Bank Park. Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

    On one hand, it feels like if the Patriots haven’t made the official starting QB change yet, they’re not going to. We know Belichick will stick with a starting quarterback for the duration of a season despite struggles, as he did with Cam Newton on 2020.

    At the same time, the circumstances of Jones’ benching this week are jarring. The Patriots needed the game won on that drive, and they made the decision to pull Jones in that spot. It also comes as his mechanics and decision-making have visibly regressed.

    Asked after the game if he still has faith in Jones as his starting quarterback, Belichick replied, “I have faith in all our players.”

    Jones himself was also asked if he believes Belichick still is confident in his standing as the team’s starter. “At the end of the day, I’ve got to play better,” he replied. “To make people believe, you’ve got to be better. I’m not sure. I don’t know.”

    Despite that external doubt, Jones said he still believes in himself. “Yeah, I do I put a lot of work into it. I’ve got a lot of faith in myself. But there’s just things that got to get fixed, and just learn. Just keep learning and figure it out.”

    If the Patriots still believe Jones, their first-round pick less than three years ago, is the future of the franchise, it’d be hard to turn away from him. But if they’ve determined he’s not ‘the guy,’ now makes as much sense as any time to move on.

  • Bailey Zappe

    FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 12: Bailey Zappe #4 of the New England Patriots looks to pass in the fourth quarter during the NFL match between the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots at Deutsche Bank Park on November 12, 2023 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. (Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

    FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY – NOVEMBER 12: Bailey Zappe #4 of the New England Patriots looks to pass in the fourth quarter during the NFL match between the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots at Deutsche Bank Park on November 12, 2023 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. (Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

    If the Patriots are going to bench Jones, Zappe is the logical next man up. He filled in while Jones was hurt last year, and has been the backup for most of this year’s game as well.

    So why haven’t they turned to him yet with Jones struggled? It’s been reported throughout the season that the Patriots didn’t believe Zappe gave them a better chance to win than Jones. The 2022 fourth-round pick struggled for most of training camp, and the two mop-up spots he got in blowouts early in the season. He may have had a chance to prove otherwise on Sunday, but ended up throwing the interception.

    Despite his own struggles, Zappe said he’s confident he could take over the Patriots’ offense if called upon. “100 percent” he replied when asked that question after Sunday’s game.

    Simply benching Jones for the sake of benching him would likely mean Zappe takes over. At the same time though, if the Patriots are looking for a quarterback to outright ‘win’ the job, it’s tough to say Zappe has done that.

  • Will Grier

    EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - SEPTEMBER 24: Will Grier #19 of the New England Patriots warms up prior to a game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on September 24, 2023 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

    EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – SEPTEMBER 24: Will Grier #19 of the New England Patriots warms up prior to a game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on September 24, 2023 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

    The Patriots’ revolving door of third quarterbacks seems to have come to a close with Grier, who was signed off of the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad in mid-September. He’ll be entering his eight week with the team this week, and to this point has been the inactive ’emergency third quarterback’ for most of his games.

    A third-round pick by the Carolina Panthers in 2019, a coaching change led to him being an odd man out on that roster to start the 2021 season, and he was traded to the Dallas Cowboys. Grier bounced between the Dallas active roster and practice squad before being waived prior to final roster cuts this year.

    His only regular season NFL game experience came in 2019, when he started two games for the Panthers. He went 0-2, completing 53.8 percent of his 52 pass attempts for 228 yards, with no touchdowns and four interceptions.

    Grier would give the Patriots a fresh face and fresh voice at the position. He has a big arm, and brings more athleticism than Jones or Zappe. But is he ready for a starting role, in terms of his familiarity with the Patriots’ offense?

    Belichick’s last real comments on Grier came on Oct. 13. While complimentary, he noted how tough it can be to get a new quarterback integrated in-season.

    “The opportunities he’s had, he’s done well with,” Belichick said at the time. “It’s hard to get that position a lot of reps. He’s a smart kid, throws the ball well, he’s got a good arm. He’s learned things, picked up things, so we’ll see. Just kind of keep going here, keep feeding him as much as we can. But, there’s only so many snaps out there. Obviously, everybody needs them.”

    That was a month ago, so it stands to reason that Grier is more comfortable with the Patriots’ offense now than he was then. Comfortable enough? That is part of the question it’s tough to answer from the outside. But if the Patriots really are going to open up the quarterback competition, and have a week off before having to prepare for their next opponent, the team now has more flexibility to expand his involvement and prepare him for a potential in-game role – either as the new starter or even as the active backup.

  • Malik Cunningham

    Aug. 10, 2023; Foxborough, MA: New England Patriots quarterback Malik Cunningham (16) against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. (Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

    Aug. 10, 2023; Foxborough, MA: New England Patriots quarterback Malik Cunningham (16) against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. (Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

    Since the summer, it’s been clear that while he’s listed as a quarterback on the roster the Patriots’ long-term plan for Cunningham – a UDFA dual-threat quarterback from Louisville who is currently on the team’s practice squad – is to develop him at wide receiver. At the same time, they’ve used him as a package quarterback going back to the preseason.

    Undoubtably, Cunningham would add an athletic element to the Patriots’ offense that they’re lacking not only at quarterback, but offensively as a whole. He’d step in and right away be one of their most dynamic ball-carriers.

    To make that change though, the Patriots would have to be comfortable with his development as a passer. There’d also be a question about how extensive their playbook is to suit his play style, which doesn’t have much overlap with Jones or Zappe.

    Back in mid-October, offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien was very complimentary of Cunningham. “He’s probably one of the most improved practice squad players that we have,” O’Brien said at the time. “Malik did a good job in the preseason. Malik works very hard.”

    That same week, Belichick spoke highly of the rookie UDFA as well. “Malik’s really worked hard and made a lot of improvement,” he said. “He’s a smart kid, works hard, and the opportunities he’s had, he’s shown a lot of improvement. It’s a little too early for an induction ceremony here, but definitely a lot of improvement.”

    At the same time, both coaches noted that improvement is at a number of different spots, not just quarterback.

    “He never really played in the kicking game at Louisville, so he’s started to show up there,” Belichick noted in that same October press conference. “Never played receiver – didn’t look very good either, in the spring, but he’s really improved there. He can catch the ball, but just route running and finding zones and things like that. But, it’s come pretty naturally to him. He plays a good amount of quarterback. He’s competent there.”

    “He does a good job on the practice squad, plays a lot of receiver,” O’Brien said that same week. “He played some quarterback last week with mimicking Taysom Hill. But yeah, he does a really good job, and he’s continued to improve.”

    Since those comments the Patriots added Cunningham to the active roster, only to waive him the next week and re-sign him to the practice squad. If they thought at the time there was a chance he’d be taking over at quarterback, they likely wouldn’t have subjected him to waivers. At the same time if they believe he can continue to progress quicky, they certainly could have him take part in an open QB competition.

  • Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.

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