Mac Jones vs. Bailey Zappe: Dawn of Controversy

New England Patriots QBs Bailey Zappe and Mac Jones
New England Patriots QBs Bailey Zappe and Mac Jones
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 9 - Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe are probably not very good quarterbacks.

The New England Patriots and their fans need to embrace that simple fact as a first step on the path to wisdom. Jones and/or Zappe could someday develop into capable, second-quartile, "win-with" starters under the right circumstances. Jones appeared to be on track to become one in 2021, when he finished 12th in DYAR and was prematurely anointed as Tom Brady 2.0 and Anyone Who Claims Otherwise is a Hater. But right now, both are stopgaps who can only win games that the Patriots defense largely wins for them.

Bill Belichick is probably well aware of how limited his quarterbacks are. He just doesn't appear certain what to do about it.

Jones vs. Zappe: How We Got Here

Jones returned to the Patriots lineup on Monday night against the Chicago Bears after missing two starts with a sprained ankle; Zappe led the team to two victories in Jones' absence. Jones looked tentative in the first quarter. The Bears took a 10-0 lead, and the Gillette Stadium fans began a Zappe chant that the television announcers commented upon.

Belichick benched Jones after a winged-quail interception, the quarterback's sixth pick in just 103 attempts. Zappe led the Patriots to 14 points with three (3) meaningful passes:

  • A short hot-read floater to Rhamondre Stevenson which netted 20 yards;
  • An off-target deep throw against busted coverage that a wide-open Jakobi Meyers made a terrific play on for a touchdown; and
  • A 50-50 deep pass to DeVante Parker up the left sideline to set up a second touchdown.

You are free to interpret Zappe's three passes as a brilliant decision in the face of a heavy blitz, an alert throw to an open receiver, and a pinpoint pass to a playmaker. There's some truth to all of those statements. What's undeniable is that Zappe, handed the ball near midfield twice, scored 14 points on three and only three passes, one of which traveled about 20 Air Feet and a second that would have drawn guffaws if Taysom Hill threw it.

Anyway, the Bears came back quickly and the Zappe magic wore out: two interceptions, a fumbled handoff exchange, several passes (including one of the picks) batted at the line, lots of meaningless late-game dumpoffs to Stevenson.

Yet faced with the question of whether Jones or Zappe would start against the Jets in Week 8, Belichick muttered his signature dost thou question me? nonsense:

To really understand what's going on, perhaps we should back up a bit further.

The Patriots drafted Jones 15th overall out of Alabama in 2021. He outperformed a creaky Cam Newton in training camp and earned a starting job. He performed well in a heavily childproofed Josh McDaniels offense in his first six starts, then landed in an extremely smooth stretch of schedule. The Patriots outscored six opponents by a combined 211-53 score, then capped the winning streak by defeating the Bills in a wind-tunnel game where Jones threw three passes.

It was during that winning streak that Jones went from a promising rookie benefitting from a great defense/line/system to Belichick's "signal-caller for the next 15 to 18 years." Jones looked great at times during that span, but any NFL-worthy quarterback should look great when frequently given constant leads, great field position, strong protection, and turnovers and points from his defense.

Jones cooled off suddenly after the Airbender game in Buffalo: two interceptions each in back-to-back Colts and Bills losses, two more picks in the playoff rubber match with the Bills. McDaniels left for Las Vegas, Belichick replaced him with the Prodigal Failsons, and Jones entered 2022 as the unchallenged quarterback of the present and future. Zappe, who set a bunch of high-volume passing records against Conference USA competition in a wide-open Western Kentucky offense, was drafted as what appeared to be a fourth-round afterthought.

The Patriots struggled through training camp offensively. With no "official" offensive coordinator required to speak to the media weekly and Belichick cowing reporters with his "Because I'm BATMAN" responses, Jones was left to explain to the media each week why the defense (or opponents in joint sessions) kept stealing the offense's lunch money.

Neither Jones nor Brian Hoyer moved the first-team offense in preseason games. Zappe threw one touchdown and three interceptions in extensive preseason mop-up work.

The Patriots offense continued to sputter in Jones' first three starts. Jones sprained an ankle against the Ravens. Hoyer suffered a concussion early in his lone start against the Packers. Zappe entered and used his telekinesis to force Aaron Rodgers to throw a pick-six. OK, Zappe doesn't have telekinesis. But he kept the overtime loss to the Packers close by handing off a lot, throwing low-protein RPOs, and finding wide-open receivers now and then while the Patriots defense frustrated the easily frustrated Rodgers.

Belichick spent the week leading up to the Lions game hinting that Jones could still play on an ankle that the organization did not deign to acknowledge was sprained. Jones even hobbled onto the field for Friday's practice that week to toss a few passes, standing perfectly stationary, about 100 yards from where the media could get a brief gander at him before being hustled off the field.

It was an embarrassing little pantomime, but it illustrated that less than three weeks ago, Jones was so indispensable that the Patriots acted as if they were in denial about his injury.

So what changed over the course of two games that led to Jones' quick hook on Monday night? Zappe played well in two blowouts of horrendous teams in which he benefited from defensive touchdowns, outstanding field position, gash runs on third-and-long, and all the other stuff that made Jones look like a hero last year. The Patriots appear ready to scrap a year's worth of planning because this year's rookie has done a few things that last year's rookie did to prompt the team to make a year's worth of plans around him.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool Belichick twice? Shame on him.

Bailey Zappe By the Numbers

Let's pause for a few statistics that help explain the Zappe-Jones phenomenon.

The Patriots have enjoyed the third-best average starting field position in the NFL in 2022. They start their average drive at the 30.5-yard line, behind only the Vikings and Ravens.

Jones also enjoyed excellent starting field position in 2021, when the Patriots ranked third in the NFL with drives starting at the 31.2-yard line. Belichick's defenses generally force a high percentage of turnovers. His special teams are typically as optimized as possible. And Belichick still plays "field position football," unpopular as that might be, by punting in situations where analytics say the Patriots should go for it.

The correlation between field position, scoring, and the perception of quarterback play should be obvious.

Zappe has rarely been asked to convert third-and-long. Here are his numbers on third-and-7-plus: 7-of-12, 56 yards, and just two first downs. Per Sports Info Solutions, Zappe has thrown for 53 total air yards on those 12 third-and-long attempts. When you lead the Lions by three scores thanks to a strip-six touchdown and the like, you can afford to just toss a receiver screen on third-and-10, then punt.

Zappe has done most of his damage on first downs: 23-of-31, 333 yards, 10.7 yards per attempt, three touchdowns. This is what you would expect from a novice quarterback executing highly scripted game plans: play-action "take a shot" first-down throws against defenses expecting the run. Incidentally, the Patriots have rushed 65 times on first downs since Week 4, scrambles excluded, which should help put Zappe's 31 first-down passes in better context.

Jones is 9-of-12 for 143 yards, 98 air yards, one interception, two sacks, and five first downs on third-and-long. Jones has struggled in these situations, but he has also been tasked with actually accomplishing something.

Zappe is getting lots of mileage out of one play: the deep left-sideline bomb to DeVante Parker. Parker has caught two deep passes along the left sideline for 72 yards on four targets in Zappe's four games, adding two defensive pass interference penalties (both against the Lions) for 47 yards. For the season, Parker is 4-of-9 for 133 yards on deep-left passes (16-plus air yards, outside the numbers), with those same two penalties.

Parker is a fine boundary jump-ball target. But these are "lottery ticket" plays, usually on early downs: protect the quarterback, give him one read, let the receiver who looks like an action figure make a play. There's nothing wrong with that once in a while, but it's dangerous to build a quarterback hero narrative around running the same play to get the ball to WR1 over and over again and hoping for the best or a flag.

We'd dig deeper into Zappe's numbers, but inevitably we would come face-to-face with this…

… and this (look how long the receiver has to wait for the ball)…

… and who can forget this fine defensive effort…

Zappe's small-sample stats are chock full of productive plays which look suspiciously like high school highlights.

Zappe also makes some sharp throws and good decisions. And Matt Patricia and Joe Judge are doing something right to create these open looks. But come the heck on. If you don't see the mirage here, it's because you have chosen to drink sand.

The mirage faded in the second half on Monday night. The game was close, the defense was competent, and Zappe was forced to do real quarterback things.

So why is Belichick waffling between Zappe and Jones?

We're back to the worrisome proposition at the start of this column: Jones was a mirage too, Belichick knows it, and he's not sure how to proceed.

Jones vs. Zappe: The Importance of Messaging

Bill Belichick despises the media. He loves secrecy. And he does anything he can to get a 0.004% competitive edge. So maybe he's just pretending there's a Jones-Zappe controversy to throw the Jets off-guard somehow. Oh no, now we must prepare for two relatively inexperienced pocket touch passers!

All of that tracks, and it explains all the corny stuff before the Lions game. But there's a difference between Belichick assuming that he and the organization are above the media and Belichick assuming that his young quarterbacks are.

Are we pretending that the 24-year-old Jones is ready for the Passion Play-level nonsense that has been going on this season? The home crowd chanting for his replacement? The don't hurry back from the sprain, but be quick messaging? The August of being thrown to the press pool like an assistant shift manager fielding complaints at a Starbucks? All after a rookie year full of Brady 2.0 Hosannas?

Maybe Jones really did become that media savvy at Alabama. Is Zappe supposed to be ready for the same meat grinder?

Belichick may honestly not realize that young quarterbacks aren't robots who can simply "switch off" external noise. The last time he dealt with a young quarterback, social media didn't exist yet.

But perhaps Belichick has always been as skeptical of Jones as, say, Walkthrough has been. The Patriots drafted Zappe, after all. And that three-pass game against the Bills last year may have been evidence of how much stock Belichick really put in Jones' performances during his hot streak. Ditto the Patriots' penchant for fourth-and-short punts and field goals: Belichick is telling us without telling us what he really thinks of his quarterback's chances of executing in crunch situations.

OK, maybe the Patriots were crafting a long-term contingency plan for if/when Jones crashes back to earth. But what we have seen in the last three weeks is not a long-term contingency plan. It's a kneejerk reaction on the fly. Zappe didn't even get serious backup reps in training camp. Jones didn't even get the Dak Prescott we're fine for another week treatment. There is zero evidence of careful Belichickian planning here.

The Patriots look like they are just going with the "hot hand." if that's the case: uh-oh. The Patriots are likely to end up with two "win despite" starters, one of whom cost them a first-round pick, both of them wondering from week to week what First Take will say about Belichick's latest vote of no-confidence in either of them.

Jones vs. Zappe: Clarity and Solutions

Here's Walkthrough's take on what's going on:

  • Belichick was indeed skeptical of Jones' success and didn't want to get caught without a failsafe. Hence Zappe.
  • When the offense sputtered throughout training camp, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge began casting doubts on Jones behind the scenes as a CYA tactic. Please don't pretend this is in any way out of character for them.
  • Belichick, stretched very thin these days, relies heavily on Beavis and Butt-Head for insight about what's going on day-to-day offensively, so Jones' rough camp and any skullduggery confirmed his skepticism.
  • Jones is pressing and hesitant because he's expected to truly operate the offense, which is of dubious quality due to the Derpy Boys coaching tandem and a complete lack of pure speed at the skill positions. Zappe looked great executing custom game plans designed around remedial passing concepts, which was all the Patriots needed in his two starts.
  • The Derpy Boys, who suddenly started looking smart when they got credit for every Zappe completion, are incentivized to press their advantage when advising the boss.

Belichick must now make his first meaningful long-term quarterback decision in 21 years. He is almost certainly aware that neither Jones nor Zappe is Brady. He may not be aware of how much pressure Jones is under to be Brady, or how much pressure Zappe will be under to be Jones. His Patriots are tone deaf to that sort of thing. They're making the kind of mistakes the Jets and Browns have made with young quarterbacks for 20 years: getting caught up in hot streaks, playing backroom politics, letting the crowd sway Caesar's hand. They don't realize they're doing so, because they don't believe they are organizationally capable of such mistakes.

The best way out of this for the Patriots is to reaffirm Jones' status as starter, commit fully and publicly to him, and see what happens for the rest of 2022. Then, for the love all that's sacred, hire a real offensive coordinator. Finally, if not fully satisfied with Jones, trade him while his stock is still high and find someone else to compete with Zappe so the franchise doesn't get stuck in a spiral that leads them further and further from relevance.

Whoever starts in Week 9 and beyond, good riddance to the Jones = Brady storyline. Let's hope we don't just transfer the poised-and-mature gibberish to a youngster even less prepared to cope with it. Everyone—especially the Patriots—will be better off accepting the reality that the quarterback of the future might not be on the current roster.


39 comments, Last at 28 Oct 2022, 2:11pm

#1 by JS // Oct 27, 2022 - 10:52am

Nice job, Mike. This is truly a 2QB = 0QB situation, or "A man with one watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches isn't sure."

And that's on the coaching staff.

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#2 by Aaron Brooks G… // Oct 27, 2022 - 11:03am

The Patriots look like they are just going with the "hot hand." if that's the case: uh-oh. 

That's Ryan Fitzpatrick's music!

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#3 by BJR // Oct 27, 2022 - 11:49am

*Shock* as this particular author regurgitates his 'kick the Patriots while they're down' article. 

Back to reality: Belichick and co. managed to extract 3 decent starts (and 2 wins) from a 4th round rookie QB, who was the 3rd stringer coming into the season. Nobody in their right mind was expecting him to now be the long term solution. That is still Mac Jones, who nobody in their right minds expects to become the next Brady, but still had an accomplished rookie season before suffering whilst adjusting to a new offense (and getting injured). Then they might have screwed the pooch re-inserting him before he was ready. If Jones is still playing poorly in weeks 17/18 then there will have to be some serious evaluation, but I'm pretty sure Belichick is not panicking yet.



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#4 by Pat // Oct 27, 2022 - 11:53am

That is still Mac Jones, who nobody in their right minds expects to become the next Brady,

Well, yeah.

But there are a lot of Patriots fans.

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#8 by Aaron Brooks G… // Oct 27, 2022 - 12:33pm

So long as they keep winning.

\when they win, Golden State is San Francisco's team. When they lose, it's Oakland's team. It's sort of like Andy Murray.

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#33 by coboney // Oct 27, 2022 - 9:52pm

They screwed the pooch somewhere last week on it. Either they rushed someone back, or they really were that much on a quick trigger to pull him.


I deeply respect Belichek as a coach and his knowledge about football but something there was going wrong and weird.

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#34 by JonesJon // Oct 28, 2022 - 9:10am

Mac Jones was ready. He was scrambling and moving in the pocket just fine before he got benched.

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#6 by MJK // Oct 27, 2022 - 12:27pm

"The best way out of this for the Patriots is to reaffirm Jones' status as starter"

I agree with you.  Fortunately, that seems to be what they are doing, and the whole "controversy" seems to only exist in the media.  Same thing happened in 2001... the Brady-Bledsoe debate raged crazily in the media and among fans, but Belichick quietly did what he did and played the QB he though was best for the team.  

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#17 by Led // Oct 27, 2022 - 2:00pm

The "controversy" is 100% due to Belichick stonewalling yesterday, including saying that whether Jones was healthy enough to go back in Monday night was a "hypothetical" question he would not answer.

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#23 by dmb // Oct 27, 2022 - 2:39pm

Agreed, this is not solely a product of the media; if Belichick gave a straightforward answer then this topic would be getting much less attention. When the starter gets pulled as quickly as Jones did against Chicago, it would be negligent for the press to not ask about what the future plan is. And when the answer is obtuse, it's inevitably going to invite a lot of extra attention, speculation, and scrutiny. 

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#26 by halfjumpsuit // Oct 27, 2022 - 2:57pm

And he says he told the QBs he was going to play both of them. Apparently not everyone on the Patriots knew that. Belichick built the bed he is laying in this week. What a shame.

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#35 by JonesJon // Oct 28, 2022 - 9:11am

Doesn't help that he said Mac Jones would play in the 2nd half to Lisa Salters and then just left Zappe in the entire time

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#7 by MJK // Oct 27, 2022 - 12:32pm

It is true that the Judge and Patricia deserve most of the vitriol and lampooning that Mike heaps upon them.  Zappe is succeeding because they design plays that help him succeed; Jones is flailing because they are asking him to do things that either he or the rest of the team can't do.

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#9 by Aaron Brooks G… // Oct 27, 2022 - 12:35pm

It's interesting to observe that what NE is doing now is basically the platonic ideal for how Chicago wants to work.

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#11 by KnotMe // Oct 27, 2022 - 1:16pm


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#12 by KnotMe // Oct 27, 2022 - 1:16pm

It's working about as well as it did for Bears.


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#13 by KnotMe // Oct 27, 2022 - 1:31pm

Belichick was indeed skeptical of Jones' success and didn't want to get caught without a failsafe. Hence Zappe.

Nah. Zappe is just a backup. Belichick drafts QB every few years in the late rounds.
This produced Jacoby Brisset, Jimmy G and Matt Cassel...none of which are good, but all produced value relative to their draft slots. Zappe pretty much follows the pattern. You could call him a failsafe but it's more for injury rather than Jones being bad, but that also works. The biggest probably with Zappe is he won two games that probably prevent them from taking another shot in the draft.

There are clearly some sort of coaching issues (I've hear Billy B keeps trying to delegate his son and it's not working) as it's hard to explain the defense suddenly being bad vs Chicago. Who knows however. 

Mac Jones hasn't really made a second year jump although the Judge/Patricia duo isn't doing him any favors. 

Really, the team is probably bottom 10 in talent so the team isn't good enough to win even with a win-with QB so the question is pretty much moot. 

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#18 by Aaron Brooks G… // Oct 27, 2022 - 2:06pm
This produced Jacoby Brisset, Jimmy G and Matt Cassel...none of which are good, but all produced value relative to their draft slots. 

Brady was that guy, once upon a time.

Andy Reid did this for ages, too. Although he's gone to UDFAs since drafting Mahomes.

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#19 by Aaron Brooks G… // Oct 27, 2022 - 2:08pm

There are clearly some sort of coaching issues (I've hear Billy B keeps trying to delegate his son and it's not working) as it's hard to explain the defense suddenly being bad vs Chicago. Who knows however. 

There is some history of NE struggling on D against running QBs. Which may be just that guys who freelance effectively once structure breaks down are hard to stop for structure-uber-alles coaches.

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#31 by takeleavebelieve // Oct 27, 2022 - 7:35pm

He did it in Cleveland as well, drafting Eric Zeier even though Tesatverde was entrenched as the starter. 

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#14 by tsmonk // Oct 27, 2022 - 1:36pm

Belichick benched Jones after a winged-quail interception, the quarterback's sixth pick in just 103 attempts.

Sure looked like that throw hit the sky cam wire, in which case it should've been a dead ball. It was easy to miss in real time but might be best to temper that description.

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#15 by Pat // Oct 27, 2022 - 1:45pm

It didn't. ESPN's already come out about that, and it's an easy debunk - the skycam wires are way higher up, it's just a projection effect.

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#20 by KnotMe // Oct 27, 2022 - 2:11pm

The ball looked like it changed trajectory and ESPN lying to avoid an issue wouldn't surprise me.  Even if the endpoints are higher the wires could sag in the middle.  Doesn't really matter however, other than they should tighten the cable.  

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#21 by Pat // Oct 27, 2022 - 2:30pm

There's no way a spinning ball hitting a cable would deflect like that. It can't. It'd start tumbling. And if the wires were like, sagging dramatically, they'd deflect too.

It's just apparent due to the angle. I mean, if you look at it closely enough, it's pretty clear it's in front of the wire.

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#27 by BigRichie // Oct 27, 2022 - 3:26pm

The pass didn't even go all that high. This is a QAnon-level theory, methinks.

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#29 by Pat // Oct 27, 2022 - 4:09pm

I also don't understand "ESPN could be lying" - like... why? I mean, the wires are always there, so there's always a possibility for something to happen. If it would have happened (which it didn't), it's the referee's job to notice it.

Doubt there's any sag in any of the wires, too - there's only 4 of them, so it's not a heavily-constrained system. Maybe if it was close to one of the corners of the field, but it wasn't. It's just perspective.

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#30 by scottw // Oct 27, 2022 - 4:26pm


Just a terrible decision on the throw  -- RB was open for at least an easy 5-6 yards on the play.  it was 2nd down, not 4th down -- just check it and reset for 3rd and short in fg range.



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#36 by JonesJon // Oct 28, 2022 - 9:18am

Not to mention the WR would have seen that happen and reacted the way baseball outfielders do when something hits a flyball.  

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#22 by jheidelberg // Oct 27, 2022 - 2:33pm

Thanks Mike for an excellent article, it is so good that the usual suspects have not criticized you for being anti-Patriots, you used so many facts.

As for QB controversies, they are never good as it means that you have a problem at starting QB.  As I said on the Discord app during the Monday night game, I went to the first Jets home game this year and the Mike White chants began in the second half.  Now the Zappe chants.  If Josh Allen fails on the first two drives and Buffalo falls behind 10-0, I am not expecting to hear the Case Keenum chants

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#24 by Tutenkharnage // Oct 27, 2022 - 2:47pm

If either of those guys is the answer, you’re asking the wrong question. 

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#25 by dmb // Oct 27, 2022 - 2:57pm

I have a couple minor nitpicks below, but first: I do wonder if Belichick's internal QB evaluation process has been warped by having a standard set by Brady for all those years. My impression after last year was that getting Jones to the level of, say, Kirk Cousins by the end of this year would be a reasonable stretch goal, even if that might be close to his ceiling. However, Kirk Cousins on a rookie salary is a really valuable thing! It would be understandable to gradually lose patience for less-than-perfect QB play if you've rarely needed such patience for 20+ years; I have to wonder if Belichick may just be undermining himself (and Jones!) because he's no longer accustomed to "acceptable starter"-level play from a QB being... well... acceptable.

Anyway, onto nitpicks!

The last time he dealt with a young quarterback, social media didn't exist yet.

Jimmy G started a couple games for them in 2016, when he was 25 -- only a year older than Jones is currently. I know it's not quite the same as being the long-term starter, but Garoppolo certainly wasn't flying under the radar.

Belichick must now make his first meaningful long-term quarterback decision in 21 years.

I would argue that the decision to trade Garoppolo was a meaningful long-term QB decision. Brady was ~40 at the time, and only the stanniest of Brady stans expected him to show virtually no drop-off into his mid-40s. It was certainly a very different type of decision than the one Belichick faces now, but the choice then was certainly one with long-term ramifications, and one that was not a foregone conclusion.

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#28 by anthonytwotimes // Oct 27, 2022 - 3:59pm

You mean a QB with one of the weakest arms in the league and can’t throw deep can’t sustainably put up numbers consistently? 

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#32 by mehnsrea // Oct 27, 2022 - 8:27pm

Jones was a mirage too, Belichick knows it, and he's not sure how to proceed.

‘Absolutely. He knew it last year. But you know what BB will NEVER do? Sign a big name veteran QB. Why? Because no way he wins “because of the quarterback.” He’ll be damned if he doesn’t mold his next chiseled chin golden boy. 

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#37 by Rory Hickey // Oct 28, 2022 - 10:37am

If Jones and/or Zappe struggle against the Jets this week, Brian Hoyer is eligible to come off of IR followui/ng this week (I think)! I would not put it past Patricia to think he needs a veteran QB to execute his amazing scheme...

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#38 by KnotMe // Oct 28, 2022 - 1:38pm

It's just media boredom.

It's pretty obvious Zappe isn't the answer and would be exposed over a larger sample size(and started to happen with CLE).  Their only real hope is play Mac and hope he can get back to last year or that he is bad enough to give them another roll. Mostly likely result is something in the middle, which is the worst one. 

Points: 0

#39 by ImNewAroundThe… // Oct 28, 2022 - 2:11pm

Oh well, lesson learned.

Points: 0

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