Just 70 pass attempts into his NFL career, Bailey Zappe has riled up the Patriots fanbase and Boston sports media. The rookie 4th rounder found himself on the field as an NFL QB in just his 4th game on the roster and now is the starting QB for the New England Patriots at 23 years old. Zappe unexpectedly broke onto the scene following a Mac Jones sprained ankle and a Brian Hoyer concussion and now in 3 games (2 starts and a 3+ quarter effort off the bench) he has raised significant questions about the future at QB1 for the Pats. We’ve seen it in New England before in the most memorable surprise QB takeover of all time. Is this second once-in-a-lifetime QB move for Belichick? All the ingredients are there for a changing of the guard at QB1.
First let’s look at the case for Zappe as QB1. The most obvious is that he’s stepped in under difficult circumstances and had very few “rookie” moments. You expect a young QB to make some bad reads, hold the ball too long, or in general just be indecisive. While there have been a few isolated moments, Zappe has shown that nearly every single series he is able to make good decisions. He’s made smart throws and committed very few turnovers in 11+ quarters of play, something Belichick loves to see. For the most part, he hasn’t tried to force passes into bad situations (double coverage) and has done a nice job of managing the offense on longer, sustained drives. Beyond just being a game manager, he’s made some big throws and reads on important drives in the past 2 games against the Lions and Browns. He has an average QB rating of 111.4 and has been at 100+ in all 3 of his appearances.
A noticeable characteristic of Zappe’s game is his confidence. It feels like he is in control of the game and is able to forget mistakes and move on extremely quickly. He has the goldfish mentality of short-term memory loss. A great example of this was a drive in the 3rd quarter of Sundays game vs the Browns. Zappe had a tough 3-and-out thanks partially to a 1st down holding call on Trent Brown. He threw to Tyquan Thornton for just 2 yards on 1st, then on 3rd and 15 he missed a wide-open Hunter Henry with a terribly thrown ball. He seemed frustrated walking off the field and frankly, he looked a lot like a rookie QB during the series. Then after getting the ball back, as if the previous drive hadn’t happened, Zappe threw for 8 yards to Jonnu Smith followed by a 31-yard strike to Hunter Henry for a TD. He shook off the bad series and moved on immediately, showing confidence in his arm while throwing for a critical TD in a relatively close 9-pt game.
Since I unironically and unintentionally keep calling him Brady Zappe, let’s take a quick look at how the 2 QBs compare after nearly 3 games under their belt. After taking over for Drew Bledsoe on September 23, 2001, Brady was 30 for 57 (53%) for 300 yards in his partial game and next two starts, throwing for 0 TDs and 0 INTs. By comparison, Zappe was 51 for 70 (73%) for 596 yards with 4 TDs and 1 INT (100% Nelson Agholor‘s fault) over a similar span of time. That’s a pretty dramatic difference, despite it not being a perfect 1-for-1 comparison given the era, a small sample size, etc. To take it one step further, looking at Mac Jones’ first 3 games (all starts, so more snaps), he went 81 for 120 (68%) for 737 with 2 TDs and 3 INTs. The completion percentage and yardage is strong, but it’s hard to argue that Mac’s 3 INTs (all against the Saints week 3) and just 2 TDs aren’t as impressive and Zappe’s start.
The positives are clearly there for Zappe and he has earned the praise and head-turns, but I’m not yet convinced he should Brady-takeover Mac Jones. Zappe has had the privilege of a top-tier defense in his 2 starts, never trailing in either game and honestly the games were never that close. That’s allowed him to play relaxed and with less pressure, which is obviously hugely beneficial for a young kid. He did have a few high-pressure drives in Green Bay and was fine, but he clearly had a limited playbook given the circumstances and it is really tough to judge that performance after being thrown into the game unexpectedly. Additionally, he’s yet to play a really good defense in his young career, facing the Packers, Lions, and Browns. A lot of QBs can look good against average or below average defenses, so a bigger test against a better D would help in evaluating his long-term potential. I’ve heard a lot of narratives about how bad Mac was to begin the year and how good Zappe is in comparison, but the competition-level and time of season make it an apples to oranges comparison. Would Mac be having a similar level of success as Zappe against these opponents? It’s possible.
I was convinced there would be no official Zappe takeover during this past week, but have begun to shift my feelings thanks to a factor not related to performance. Boston sports teams and media have a bad habit of running a “smear” campaign to justify a big move or a big benching, among all of the major sports in town. For Red Sox fans, we’ve seen the a LOT of this nonsense over the years. This week began that campaign against Mac Jones. There were multiple reports that the Patriots and Jones had a “serious” rift over how to handle his high-ankle sprain, some claiming that the relationship has been damaged “beyond repair”. In these situations, I always wonder who the “sources” of the information really are. Is it coming from within the Patriots organization in an effort to justify a future Jones benching? Is it a media-fed story to add fuel to the fire of a QB controversy? Either way, where there is smoke, there is usually fire and that leads me to think that a Zappe QB1 scenario may not be as far-fetched as initially thought.
I’m not sure we’ve reached a clear tipping point in the QB1 controversy just yet. I think a longer look at Zappe is not out of the question and would be adventitious. The Patriots could easily keep delaying the return of Mac with his questionable ankle (high-sprains are notoriously tricky) and continue to get a look at the rookie in other scenarios and against better opponents. This week the Pats play on Monday night at home against the Bears who have allowed the 4th fewest yards per game and are tied for allowing the 2nd fewest touchdowns this season. They are solid and should provide an interesting opportunity for Zappe, especially in primetime (assuming he starts). Regardless of who is QB1 going forward, the emergence of Zappe is an extreme positive for the Patriots, because it increases his trade value and/or opens the door for a Mac trade in the future. Young QBs who have proven they can play in the NFL are extremely valuable and the Pats may have two of them. Additionally, some serious competition at a critical position usually pushes both guys to get better and play at the top of their game.
Now it’s up to Belichick to make a potentially franchise-altering decision at the arguably most important position in football. No pressure.