To Hoyer or to Zappe? Is it really even a question?


The Mac Jones-less Patriots might not necessarily be in as much trouble as old NFL offensive coordinator Tom Moore suggested the Indianapolis Colts would be without Peyton Manning when he issued the famous "We don't practice f--ked" quote.

But let's be real here: they might still be pretty screwed.

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With Jones trying to avoid surgery after suffering a "pretty severe" high ankle sprain against the Ravens last Sunday, New England now must turn to their backup quarterback crew of Brian Hoyer and Bailey Zappe to keep things afloat in No. 10's absence.

Here's the problem: they're 1-2 with a tough matchup coming up with the Green Bay Packers and a slate of games they were supposed to be able to win right after that. If they can't make up ground as they did last year, they're going to fall out of any hope of playoff contention rather quickly.

Still, since it is this early in the season, it's not full-on "embrace-the-tank" mode yet. There's enough reason to think the Patriots could complementary-football the month of October enough to keep them from going belly up until Jones returns and can lead them against a more grueling part of the schedule.

So the choice of backup quarterback here isn't perhaps as academic to some as it otherwise would be.

Should the Patriots go with the clear-cut answer -- the experienced Hoyer -- or the boom-or-bust option -- the rookie Zappe?

The case for Hoyer

No one besides Bill Belichick — probably not even Matt Patricia — is more knowledgeable about the Patriots offense in all its various forms than Hoyer.

He knows where everyone is supposed to be and when, and he has a history of taking care of the football — something this team badly needs to do right now. Believe it or not, he has 53 touchdowns versus 35 interceptions and has fumbled just once in his career.

Hoyer also shown the foresight in practice to anticipate openings down the field and win with timing and touch to make up for his extremely pedestrian arm.

The Patriots simply don't have a lot of margin for error if they want to win with Jones out. With Hoyer, the ceiling is very possibly lower than it would be with Zappe (though you have no idea what you're going to get from the kid yet). But the floor is almost certainly higher after what we've seen in training camp and preseason.

This team has been all about raising its floor at the expense of shooting for the stars in 2022, and starting Hoyer would fit with that philosophy.

The case for Zappe

No offense to Hoyer, but we all know what he is and isn't at this point in his career.

He's a game manager with below-average arm strength past about 10 yards, and he hasn't been an NFL-caliber starter in quite a while.

With Zappe, though, the preseason offered some glimpses of being more than that. Once he got past his early game jitters, he showed off more zip than either Jones or Hoyer on tight-window throws and a developing boldness to throw the ball downfield in his preseason outings. In three games, he had an average depth of target (aDOT) of 9.5 yards and completed 63.4 percent of his passes, according to Pro Football Focus.

Still, that happened against 2s and 3s on opposing defenses. Going up against top-line defenses -- something he only did on a limited basis in camp -- would probably still be a shock to the system.

Zappe also threw three interceptions in preseason, demonstrating the cost of being aggressive while struggling occasionally with accuracy issues.

On a more positive note, though, it seemed Zappe has a knack for improving with time, whether it was rebounding from an ugly second practice of training camp to make consistent strides in the following weeks or even shaking off tough starts to the preseason games to become notably more comfortable from drive to drive.

If the Patriots could survive a rough game or two to start things off, might it be worth it to see if Zappe could provide more big-play ability and more unpredictability than opposing defenses are counting on than Hoyer, who probably can't complete a pass longer than 20 yards?

The verdict

As exciting as it might be to roll with the rookie now that Mac Jones is out, the Patriots probably won't do that right out of the gate.

Even when the Patriots were rolling with a rent-a-roster in 2020 and had Cam Newton miss a game due to COVID, they still turned to Hoyer before Jarrett Stidham to start in Newton's stead. If they didn't go with the young gun then, it feels less likely they'll trot a rookie out there with a better roster in 2022, especially since Zappe hasn't gotten many reps with the starters.

They're 1-2 with an opportunity, in theory, to pick up some games in the middle of the season and stay in the periphery of a still-open AFC playoff picture. As frustrating as that is, it's still not panic time. Also, Zappe is nowhere near as NFL-ready as Jones was last year.

If Jones' recovery takes longer than expected and New England switches to tank mode, then you might see Zappe take the reins. At that point, why not?

But unless they think Zappe is both better than Hoyer at this exact moment -- he might be, but it's probably not glaringly so -- and ready to start an NFL game -- I don't think he is -- Hoyer will be the guy when the Patriots take the field against the Packers.