Competition? Controversy? To steal a phrase from the hooded one, “it is what it is.” What Bill Belichick most assuredly knows, is that it matters little what any of the talking heads (me included) think, write or say and equally unimportant is how any of we the fans think or feel. What does matter, all that matters frankly, can also be borrowed from one of Belichick’s most overused phrases, “I’m doing what’s best for the team.”
Oftentimes, particularly in more recent memory, some rather curious decisions have been questioned to the point where many were left asking, ‘is that really what is best for the team or is it what’s best for you Bill?’ The appointment of Matt Patricia and Joe Judge as the new leadership of the offense comes to mind as something that may work for Bill but may not exactly have been what was best for the team. Those decisions ignited a long, ongoing and exhausting offseason narrative that awkwardly and publicly bled right into the season. Fans and media alike tired of it eventually. The offense has been “a process” as the coach himself said when repeatedly questioned about its ongoing struggles and the convoluted communication surrounding it throughout training camp, the pre-season and into the first three weeks of the season.
Reading between the lines of actual words Mac Jones once said regarding the offense in the early going, combined with the recent scuttlebutt and rumors of his questioning of the leadership, there’s enough there to reasonably think there could have been some tension between coach and player. As minimal or significant as that perceived situation may or may not be, it’s fair game to surface, even if the rumors were overblown or not perfectly interpreted. All that said, however, that entire conversation has taken a significant turn since the Mac Jones injury, particularly following the recent play of rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe. The Pats have won two in a row, have a great chance to get over .500 against a weak Chicago Bears opponent Monday night and the fan base is feeling energized. Fans are drunk with Zappe Fever for days after Sunday but as the new football weekend comes into focus you start to sober up.
So heading into this weekend are you still drunk on Zappe or are you sobering up? No judgment here. It’s a tough call.
To Zappe or not to Zappe, that is the question. To Mac or not to Mac, that also is the question and though many have tried and opined (me included), there’s only one man who can truly answer that one. One man who must answer that one. It is what it is folks and you know who it is.
As sober thinking goes, boy is he the right man for the job. I doubt emotion will have little to do with it. Momentum may, however. How the team reacts to its signal caller and leader on the field most assuredly will. The pulse of the locker room and the feeling on the sidelines are all tangible things. All things help to form an instinctive decision. Belichick’s been here before and has a documented history of making the right choice. This one is a little tricky though. I’ll admit it, I’m a little torn myself.
As I wrote recently here, I feel like the Mac Jones injury was oddly well-timed both to get his questioning mind settled and to let the Patriots' offense come to a boil in its most simplistic form. Zappe has benefitted from that. He’s played really well and looks both cool and composed on the NFL gridiron. He looks like he belongs and the offense has been fun to watch since he took the field in Green Bay nearly three weeks ago. If you think that a healthy and fully functional Mac Jones couldn’t have operated similarly and won those games you are most likely wrong. Without having actual proof, I’m confident he could have and would have won those games.
My feeling all along has been that with Zappe and the Patriots playing well, to let Mac heal to 100 percent health from a tricky and bothersome high ankle sprain. The initial diagnosis was 4-6 weeks on the sideline for Mac. Though it feels longer given the wave of sudden success, Monday night will be four weeks and one day; still on the earliest side of the medical timetable. So what do you do? If Mac is safely close to 100 percent I’m making the switch back and here’s why.
1. I want a fair fight:
For two weeks I’ve been writing about this Jones vs Zappe thing being a competition, not a controversy. During the first three weeks of the season, the Patriots' offense looked more like the offense we have come to know from past years, versus the much ballyhooed ‘zone blocking scheme’ that was said to be being integrated in August. The offense, though improved from preseason, too often still looked like a work in progress.
Part two of the 2022 offense also looked to add hints of a jump-ball passing attack where players with good 50/50 compete skills would be put in positions to make plays at the catch point. This led to some critical failures, many coming off of the throwing hands of Mac Jones. His two brutal 4th quarter interceptions versus the Ravens were vomit-inducing as he literally threw the game away. However, though those interceptions and others in the first three games are on Mac, I do put a little bit of blame on the convoluted coaching voices in his head. Mac had the misfortune of having an offseason filled with change and conflated messaging firmly in the front of his brain during the first three weeks of the season. September as we have come to learn in New England is ‘extended preseason’ and in the case of the 2022 Patriots, I think all the changes to the coaches, communication, scheme, play design, etc. worked against Mac.
Enter Bailey Zappe in game four versus Green Bay. The offense is simplified to its simplest form, Zappe is asked to manage the game, he does and does so well. Nearly three weeks later, the offense looks far more functional than it has since any point in 2022. I wonder though if Mac was given the same clean slate if the results would be the same? I’m thinking they would be. So as Zappe beat up on two lower-level opponents, with a clear mind and clear plan to execute, the results spoke for themselves. Two Patriots victories. Now, with the offensively challenged Chicago Bears coming to town, should Mac be ready to play, he should be given that same chance. A clean slate, a clear plan and again, a fair fight. That’s what a good competition is.
2. Timing & Schedule:
Timing. If Mac isn’t ready that’s ok for me and likely ok for the Patriots. I have full confidence that Bailey Zappe can beat the Bears. It’s not so great for Mac though, as the further he gets away from the winning, the harder it will be to supplant Zappe from the controls. Mac is the starting quarterback for the Patriots but the resume isn’t long. Moreover, the recent performance wasn’t great, so the sooner he’s back on the field, the better for Mac.
But wait, there’s more…
Think about the schedule. The Bears are a creampuff. Up next? The upstart New York Jets in New York. For a long time, this one was thought to be as laughable as the Bears, Browns and Lions but no longer. The Jets are 4-2 and beat Green Bay at Lambeau Field, something your Patriots did not accomplish. If Jones is going to come back, like any boxer after a couple of tough defeats, it’s always good to get a couple of handpicked fights to get the confidence back up. If Mac takes his first snap in five weeks in New York against the Jets, the stakes will be a lot higher and if poor play ensues, the leash won’t be long.
These are just some of the elements of this brewing competition that need to be considered by Belichick. Much of it hinges on Mac’s recovering ankle, his availability, his actual health and functionality. With any growing decision, the longer it lingers, the more complex it is. In this conundrum of health, timing and opportunity I guess it is what it is. I’m sure in this scenario however Belichick actually will do what’s best for the team.