Mac Jones vs. Bailey Zappe: Inside the Patriots' QB 'controversy' and who Bill Belichick will choose to start (2023)

When Brian Hoyer suffered a concussion in the first quarter of the Patriots' Week 4 game against the Packers, many assumed that New England was going to be in trouble. The Patriots had already lost Mac Jones to a high-ankle sprain, so all that they had left on the roster was third-string quarterback Bailey Zappe.

Zappe, a fourth-round rookie out of Western Kentucky, was successful in his lone collegiate season with the Hilltoppers, breaking the NCAA single-season record for passing yards and touchdowns. That said, he was thought to be a developmental project given his lack of high-end experience.

Instead, he proved ready to contribute to the Patriots' success. And as result, some thought that New England might have a quarterback controversy on its hands.After all, Bill Belichick is the coach who once decided to play the lightly regarded Tom Brady over Drew Bledsoe, so sticking with Zappe as he found success seemed possible.

But was there a controversy? Belichick never tipped his hand during Zappe's success, as he looked to prop up the rookie's confidence and send a message to his former first-round pick, Jones. But it appears that all along, he knew what the plan would be at quarterback.

Below is a breakdown of the Patriots' quarterback "controversy" and the case for starting either quarterback.

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The Patriots' case for starting Mac Jones

The case for starting Mac Jones boils down to two main factors, the most important of which is Jones' performance as a rookie.

Jones put together what was, statistically, a very strong rookie season. He led the Patriots to a 10-7 record and a playoff berth in his first season as a starter. He tallied the fifth-most passing yards by a rookie in NFL history (3,801) and his 67.6 completion percentage ranked second-best among rookies, trailing only Dak Prescott.

Below is a look at Jones' stats from his first season and where they rank all-time among rookies.

StatTotalNFL rank
Comp. %67.62nd
Passing yards3,8015th
Pass TDs22T-8th
Passer rating92.58th

Jones' performance wasn't just strong statistically. He also showed well on tape, demonstrating great ball placement and good accuracy. He had room for improvement on deep balls and did prove interception-prone against top-flight defenses — he threw 13 in total —but he showed more than enough to be considered a potential long-term starter for the Patriots.

The other lean for Jones in any conversation about Zappe starting is that Jones has a slightly better physical profile than Zappe. Jones stands at 6-3 compared to Zappe's 6-0 and has a stronger arm than the Western Kentucky product. That's part of why he was a first-round selection and Zappe was selected in the fourth round.

That physical profile should allow Jones to be a better downfield passer than Zappe over time, and that would give the Patriots' offense more explosive potential. That would prove valuable to the team, provided that Jones can cut down on his turnovers.

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The Patriots' case for starting Bailey Zappe

A case can certainly be made for starting Zappe given how he has performed through three games (two starts) with the Patriots.

Zappe has won each of his two starts and helped the Patriots keep things close against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in an overtime defeat. He has looked comfortable operating within New England's offense, and that's part of why the team is averaging 30.3 points per game when he is on the field.

Zappe has fared well in Matt Patricia and Joe Judge's system while avoiding some of Jones' pitfalls. He only has one interception on 71 passes and has posted a passer rating of 100 or higher in each of his three appearances.

So, while Zappe may not have the same upside as Jones, he appears to be a good fit for the New England offense. He is operating as an effective game manager and his accuracy has been top-notch, as his completion percentage of 72.9 percent ranks second to only Geno Smith among quarterbacks with at least 50 pass attempts.

If Bill Belichick has grown weary of Jones' turnovers, then he could stick with Zappe. After all, they are winning with the rookie and we have seen Belichick pull the plug on a highly-touted passer (Bledsoe) to trust a sixth-round rookie (Brady) who had the team playing better.

Zappe was a fourth-round pick and Jones isn't as proven as Bledsoe, so it's certainly something Belichick would consider if he thought it was the right move.

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Mac Jones stats vs. Bailey Zappe stats

In just looking at the 2022 stats, one would assume that Belichick would want to roll with Zappe. He has found more success than Jones overall and has been far less turnover-prone than the first-round pick.

Below is a look at their stats through three games thus far in 2022:

StatMac JonesBailey Zappe
Comp. %6672.9
Passing yards786596
Total TDs34
Interceptions51
Yards per attempt8.18.5
Passer rating76.2111.4

That said, it's worth noting that Zappe's action came against the Packers, Lions and Browns. The Lions have what is statistically the NFL's worst defense in terms of yardage allowed (412.2 per game) and scoring defense (32.3 points per game) while the Browns rank bottom-five in scoring defense.

Of course, Jones didn't exactly face any world-beaters in his three starts either. The Dolphins, Steelers and Ravens all rank middle-of-the-pack to below-average in yardage allowed and scoring, but the second-year quarterback still had trouble scoring because of his interceptions. That will need to change for him to hold onto the starting job.

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Will the Patriots start Mac Jones or Bailey Zappe?

Many assumed that there was a quarterback controversy brewing in New England given that Belichick wouldn't commit to Jones as the starter when he was out injured. Even ahead of Week 7, he wouldn't weigh in on the matter.

"Hypotheticals and all that, I'm going to stay away from those," Belichick said at a news conference Wednesday, per ESPN. "We'll see what we are actually dealing with here as we go forward."

But after all the debate swirling this week, Jones will reportedly get the start on "Monday Night Football" after being cleared to return from his high ankle sprain.

In case there was any confusion, the Patriots will start QB Mac Jones tonight, per source. It’ll be his first action since suffering a high ankle sprain four weeks ago.

Bailey Zappe will back Jones up.

— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) October 24, 2022

Some may be puzzled by this when looking at the statistical comparison between Jones and Zappe, but it's worth remembering that Zappe began the season as the third-string quarterback behind Jones and Brian Hoyer. Clearly, Belichick believed that he would need time to develop, so his performance in limited action was a pleasant surprise.

Additionally, it must be remembered that Belichick sang Jones' praises and cited his "dramatic improvement" in all areas during training camp.

"He's done a great job. He's worked extremely hard," Belichick said at a news conference in late July. "He's made tremendous strides, and he did a great job last year. He's starting from a much, much higher point this year than where he started last year. His offseason work has been significant. I think everyone recognizes how well he prepares and how much further along he was than he was a year ago."

"He's made tremendous strides...his offseason work has been significant."

Bill Belichick on the progression of Patriots quarterback Mac Jones. #Patriots | https://t.co/Ny4w3p7ptu pic.twitter.com/HKpGKIm80Q

— NESN (@NESN) July 26, 2022

It's unusual for Belichick to be that complimentary of any player, let alone a young quarterback. Thus, it's clear that he likes Jones a lot and believes he gives the team the best chance to win.

We'll soon see if his instincts are proven right.

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