NFL

Film Room: Do the Patriots Have a Starting Quarterback?

The Patriots’ quarterback situation is as dire as ever after yesterday’s 10-7 loss at MetLife. Despite the Giants missing their best player in nose tackle Dexter Lawrence, Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe combined for a 33.4 passer rating, struggling to do the bare minimum in a watered-down script.

But did either signal-caller establish himself under the lights of the All-22? And if so, are there options elsewhere? I ventured into the swamps of the Meadowland tape to find out.

Mac Jones

While inconsistent pass protection has played a significant role, Mac Jones’ inability to protect the football has led to dwindling responsibilities in the offense. At least 50% of his passing yards have come after the catch in each game since Week 5, with that rate spiking from a then-season-high 74.7% against the Colts to a mind-boggling 102% against the Giants. Jones’ average depth of target has only eclipsed 6.0 yards once since Week 6 (5.2 in Week 12), and his average time to throw of 2.16 seconds in New York was the fastest of his career.

Of the quarterback’s 22 dropbacks, all but five fell in the bucket of play-action, screen, quick game, RPO, and/or screen.

Jones completed just 3 of 8 quick game attempts. Two were RPO smoke screens, which act as extended handoffs by exploiting soft coverage on isolated receivers. While it’s tough to know how accurate or inaccurate Jones’ was on a rocky day, these issues seemed to stem from poor execution his from receivers.

Four of these quick throws targeted slants, one of Jones’ bread-and-butter routes going back to college.

He squeezed one pass through a keyhole for an improbable 3rd & 15 conversion, his only plus throw of the day, but three others hit the turf. Parker was responsible for two misfires, slipping at the top of one route and slowing down inexplicably on another. Tyquan Thornton appeared to be at fault on the other incompletion, unsuccessfully attempting to fake out Adoree’ Jackson from several yards away, then failing to make a contested grab. These plays also showed how predictable New England’s scheme has become, as Jackson sat on and attacked two slants because he knew what was coming. This wasn’t the only display of poor route precision from Thornton, who has a bad habit of adding extra steps to patterns and taking a while to make himself available.

Jones’ other failed quick throws went to Mike Gesicki on what looked like the same quick out. The first attempt came on a two-man concept the Patriots call “Hook.”

Both receivers run 6-yard out routes, with the outside receiver converting to a fade against press coverage and the inside receiver sitting down against zone coverage. Gesicki’s second target featured the #2 receiver running a stop route over the ball, but Gesicki’s assignment appeared to be the same.

Gesicki didn’t seem to convert his route against press-man coverage on either attempt, leading to uncatchable passes.

Jones may not have been the main culprit behind the offense’s quick game woes, but his performance on traditional and play-action dropbacks led to four turnover-worthy plays and got him benched for the second consecutive week.

After missing two big-play opportunities play-action, he seemed to overcompensate by forcing downfield passes and throwing into bad looks. Xavier McKinney and Deonte Banks deserve credit for their efforts on Jones’ first interception, which wasn’t quite as bad as it looked from the broadcast angle (but still quite bad).

McKinney forced a deeper throw after recognizing the concept from a few plays earlier and running under the crosser, while Parker’s route caused Banks to speed turn into Jones’ throwing window. It didn’t help that Cole Strange missed his assignment and gave up instant pressure, though Rhamondre Stevenson did a great job picking it up.

Demario Douglas is also partly responsible for Jones’ second pick, as he took forever to make himself available when an unblocked rusher fired off the edge.

But regardless of outside factors, there’s no excuse for a third-year quarterback to make those decisions, especially on early downs and in scoring territory. Despite giving the ball away twice, Bill Belichick stuck with Jones for the rest of the half. The quarterback went on to commit a pair of turnovers during an aggressive two-minute drive. He was nearly intercepted on a failed double-move despite audibling to a slot fade for Douglas, then lost the ball on a sack two plays later to force a punt.

This was Mac Jones’s worst performance since Dallas. Despite playing his smallest role to date, he couldn’t escape the turnover monster and had even fewer positive flashes. But as is the case every week, Jones’ supporting cast makes his crumbling mental state understandable. He was pressured on nearly every dropback that wasn’t a screen or immediate throw, and open receivers were hard to find. Jones exacerbating these with giveaways and missed opportunities should land him on the bench, but he’s also the only quarterback they seem to trust on straight dropbacks.

Bailey Zappe

If Mac Jones’ average target depth of 5.2 yards seems rough, you might want to brace yourself. Bailey Zappe averaged fewer than half his predecessor’s, a staggering 2.3 yards, with 111% of his yards coming after the catch. Nearly all his attempts past the line of scrimmage came in obvious pass situations where running wouldn’t have been a competitive call.

The supporting cast issues that plagued Jones also manifested for the backup, taking a sack after David Andrews was flattened on a spin move. Miscommunication also led to immediate interior pressure on a 3rd & 8 shot attempt that Zappe checked into. It had potential with the Giants in a brave zone blitz with the deep safety dropping from the line, but heat derailed the play. Zappe did a great job escaping pressure and found his checkdown for a near conversion.

But frankly, the positive signs didn’t flash very often. Zappe threw an interception nearly identical to Jones’ first pick but arguably worse because the safety was daring him to make the throw.

After getting hit with the same play-action crosser a few times, the Giants switched their backside corner to man from a Cover 3 defense, allowing McKinney to hunt down anything intermediate over the middle. After the game, Zappe admitted it was a bad decision, saying he should’ve hit an open Thornton in the flat.

Outside of that, he passed up a couple of tough-but-makeable throws downfield, and his accuracy was inconsistent, including a 4th & 4 conversion where JuJu Smith-Schuster had to make a tough adjustment. He also hung on Thornton for too long on a slant, allowing the hole defender to make a play from the opposite hash.

Zappe is still a young player who lacks experience in live-action. There’s always a chance things click for him, and he changes the narrative that he’s a mid/low-end backup. That said, reports indicate he was turning the ball over in practice, which is the only place you can gain trust. Bill Belichick also told The Greg Hill Show that Jones got most of the practice reps despite reports they were split, which showed in the team sticking with the starter until they gave him no choice. Zappe seems stuck in neutral, which started in the summer when he consistently struggled in Bill O’Brien’s demanding scheme. Watching him recognize coverages and change plays at the line was encouraging, but he couldn’t capitalize on those adjustments. As much as I want to praise Zappe for his growth, it was more of the same.

Conclusion

With just six games left in the regular season, it’s hard to see the Patriots pivoting from Jones or Zappe. The trade deadline passed weeks ago, and bringing in a free agent wouldn’t do much good this late in the season. The Patriots will have to take the rest of this season on the chin while rotating between different flavors of bad.

Malik Cunningham and Will Grier are the Patriots’ only options to seize the starting job. But as much as the team needs new blood at quarterback, putting either in with so little experience would do more harm than good. Will Grier could be the next Josh Dobbs, but his inability to see the field (and recent waiving) signals he isn’t the answer. Malik Cunningham was used in a brief role suited to his strengths, but both of his snaps went for negative plays. It would be incredibly unfair to ask an undrafted free agent, who has trained almost exclusively at receiver, to play significant snaps against the Chargers, Steelers, Chiefs, Broncos, Bills, or Jets defenses.

I know fans, and maybe even players, don’t want to hear this, but nothing has changed. Mac Jones is still their best option despite being a shell of himself on the field. He reads defenses and executes more layered reads more consistently, and in all of their split performances, the disparity has been faintly obvious. Bailey Zappe will be the top option when he implodes under impossible circumstances.

Taylor Kyles

Taylor Kyles is the lead NFL Analyst for CLNS Media covering players, schemes, and tendencies through a New England Patriots-centric lens.

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