There was an air of uncertainty around the New England Patriots’ quarterback situation heading into Monday night’s contest against the Chicago Bears. But it would have been impossible to predict what transpired in the 33-14 drubbing New England ultimately took.
Mac Jones, New England's 2021 first-round pick, started the game. He was pulled in favor of rookie fourth-rounder Bailey Zappe after an interception and three scoreless drives. Zappe immediately elicited a spark in New England’s offense (and defense), but it was short-lived.
Belichick said that replacing Jones with Zapper after three series' went according to his plan. And it’s not that outlandish to believe that the head coach planned a QB rotation based on what was being said before the game.
Sources had indicated to PFF that Jones was going to be active but wasn’t necessarily going to play the entire contest. Joe Buck and Troy Aikman said on the ESPN broadcast that both Jones and Zappe might play. ESPN’s Adam Schefter hinted at the scenario in a tweet before the game, as well.
Here’s what Belichick said after the game:
• Jones’ high ankle sprain, which he suffered in Week 3, was a factor in his decision to play both quarterbacks on Monday night.
• The decision to pull Jones after the interception was not based on health nor performance.
• Jones was aware he was only going to play part of the game.
• Jones would have returned to the game, but the “score got out of hand.”
• He can’t envision the Patriots running a QB platoon in the future.
Jones called Belichick’s scheme to play both quarterbacks “a good plan” that the head coach “did a really, really good job explaining it to me.” Patriots players seemed caught off guard, however, as both wide receiver Jakobi Meyers and guard Michael Onwenu told reporters they were surprised when Jones was pulled from the game.
“It’s tough, as a man, to see somebody who worked so hard kind of get that kind of treatment, but at the end of the day, we’re all trying to feed our families,” Meyers told reporters about Jones after the game. “So we’ve got to go out there and make plays for whoever’s throwing it.”
Onwenu told reporters he didn’t expect Zappe to play but also didn’t know who was going to start. Zappe told reporters he found out Jones would start “about the same time y'all did.”
What Belichick would not say was who is going to start on Sunday against the New York Jets. The plan heading into Monday night’s game was that Jones would be New England’s starter moving forward. Whether what transpired in Monday’s bizarre approach to the quarterback position is going to change that plan is another question. And it's certainly worth noting that Belichick wouldn't explicitly name a starter after a game in which Jones started.
Jones went 3-of-6 for 13 yards with an interception and carried the ball three times for 24 yards. His average depth of target was 10.9 yards, but he finished with zero big-time throws and one turnover-worthy play.
Zappe started his performance by going 4-of-4 for 97 yards and a touchdown for a perfect 158.3 passer rating. After engineering the Patriots to two scoring drives and a 14-10 lead over the Bears with fans chanting his name, it appeared Zappe had created an actual quarterback controversy in New England. Jones and the Patriots' offense was booed after three-and-outs and turnovers. Zappe was the hero.
— NFL (@NFL) October 25, 2022
But the Western Kentucky product finished 14-of-22 for 185 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He made one big-time throw and one turnover-worthy play to go with a 9.8-yard average depth of target. He also had three passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. Zappe Fever had subsided by the final whistle.
The Patriots’ defense was anemic, and New England lost in embarrassing fashion to a Bears squad that was 8.5-point underdogs. Belichick's men were gashed for 243 rushing yards at 5.4 yards per clip. Bears QB Justin Fields showed poise even after throwing an interception by finishing 13-of-21 for 179 yards with a touchdown.
And it raises questions about what Belichick was thinking Monday night and, really, all week. He declined to name a starting quarterback for the fourth straight week. He felt that Jones’ ankle was healthy enough to start but not to play an entire game. And by pulling Jones after an interception, the obvious perception to those not in the know — apparently including Patriots players — was that Jones was getting benched. All in all, it was one of Belichick's more confounding decisions in his 22-year tenure in New England, and one that would be scoffed at if a lesser coach had made a similar decision to seemingly manufacture a quarterback controversy out of thin air by keeping the starter's name a mystery and pulling him at first err.
Belichick told ESPN’s Lisa Salters at halftime that both quarterbacks would play in the second half. It’s understandable that Jones didn’t re-enter the game once New England was down three scores, but that further cemented the idea that Jones had been benched and not simply rotated out of the game.
It’s easy to say in hindsight that New England should have simply started Zappe if their second-year quarterback wasn’t ready to play a full game. But even at the time, Schefter’s report that both quarterbacks could play was met with skepticism. Planning to play two quarterbacks in one game is not common at the pro level, especially when you’re not inviting a quarterback competition.
The situation would have been cleared up post-game if Jones and/or Zappe had played well. But their performances — and Belichick’s decision not to name a starting quarterback — only further muddies the water for what is expected moving forward in a matchup against a surging 5-2 Jets team.
When Jones was asked after the game if he anticipates starting against the Jets, he answered, “I guess when Sunday comes, we'll know.”
If the decision is easy or obvious, it will be made before Sunday.