clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Adding some context to the Mac Jones-Bailey Zappe discourse

Related: Patriots quarterback ‘controversy’ will be over once Mac Jones is able to return

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

New England Patriots Practice Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Do the New England Patriots have a quarterback controversy on their hands? No, they do not, even though some outlets appear willing to push the narrative.

Fact is, however, that the situation is a lot more nuanced than just looking at the easily-available statistics. Those obviously favor backup Bailey Zappe over starter Mac Jones. Based on a roughly equal sample size, Zappe has a higher completion percentage (72.9% to 66.0%), more touchdown passes (4 to 2) and fewer interceptions (1 to 5).

Of course, numbers can be deceiving without proper context added to them. So, let us do just that and expand the discourse a bit to see how the Patriots offense as a whole has changed with Zappe compared to Jones.

The Patriots started calling more play-action: The first three weeks of the season, before Jones went down with a high ankle sprain, New England hardly used any play-action to stress opponents. A mere 10.8 percent of Jones’ dropbacks against Miami, Pittsburgh and Baltimore fell into that category, according to Pro Football Focus, with that number never exceeding 13.2 percent in any single game.

After Zappe took over for Jones and his initial backup Brian Hoyer, who went down with a concussion early in Week 4, the Patriots’ usage of play-action increased significantly. In what is essentially 12 quarters of play, 31.6 percent of dropbacks resulted in a fake handoff; that rate never dropped below 25 percent — still a marked difference compared to how seldom the offense used it while Jones was still available.

The Patriots incorporating more play-action with Zappe compared to Jones does make some sense; teams were investing more resources to stop the run with the rookie under center, which in turn created openings for the passing game to exploit. It did just that, with Zappe is posting a perfect 158.3 passer rating on play-action attempts.

The question is whether or not that rather successful approach will continue once Jones returns.

The depth of target has decreased: Through the first three weeks of the season, the Patriots and their sophomore QB aggressively targeted the deep areas of the field. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Mac Jones’ average pass attempt traveled an intended 10 air yards — the second highest such number in the league. His average completion went 7.5, which is good enough for third.

To find Bailey Zappe’s name on that list, one has to scroll down quite a bit. His intended air yards of 6.4 are ranked 34th, with his completed air yards of 53 checking in at No. 25.

Another way to look at it is this: while 57.7 percent of Jones’ passes targeted an area either behind or within nine yards of the line of scrimmage, that number stands at 67.2 percent for Zappe.

Target area is not a sign of better or worse quarterback play, but it is a reflection of approach — both by the player in question and by the person sending in the calls. The Patriots with Zappe under center are, for one reason or another, less aggressive than they were when Jones was still running the show.

Contributing to all of this is the number of screen passes called by offensive assistant Matt Patricia. He used the screen game on 10.4 percent of plays with Jones in the lineup; that number spiked to 16.8 percent with Zappe.

New England was forced to adapt its protections: One of the biggest challenges for young quarterbacks in the NFL is handling pressure; the game is a much faster one than it is in college with the defensive looks more elaborate and harder to decipher. The Patriots therefore decided to maximize their pass protection in order to make Zappe’s life easier, especially against the defenses they were facing.

New England used extra blockers on 48.3 percent of Zappe’s dropbacks. For comparison, that number was just 18.9 percent with Jones on the field. What stands out, though, is that Jones was still pressured at a lower rate: 26.1 percent compared to Zappe’s 27.6.

One of the reasons why the Patriots had to employ extra blockers at a higher rate with Zappe under center is how defenses attacked them. Zappe was blitzed on 43.4 percent of his dropbacks between his games against Green Bay, Detroit and Cleveland. Jones, on the other hand, saw extra rushers coming his way only 27.9 percent of the time.

The Patriots, frankly, had to keep extra protectors in to help account for defenses going after Zappe. While that meant fewer receiving options available, it did not matter so far: Zappe has been deadly against the blitz, completing 67.7 percent of his throws for 314 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Receiver openness has improved: The Patriots offense and its opponents have evolved over the first six weeks of the season, and one statistic illustrating this is the openness of passing targets. While targets were deemed open on 43 percent of Mac Jones’ passes through three games, Zappe has been working with a 49 percent rate thus far.

Those numbers cannot be evaluated in a vacuum, though, but rather are a result of various factors — from Jones potentially being more willing to give his receivers chances, to defenses playing differently against the two QBs, to the wideouts themselves simply becoming more comfortable in the system. Whatever the reasons, Zappe has generally distributed the ball to players slightly more open than those Jones targeted.

The question now becomes what this and the rest means in the grand scheme of things and regarding the Mac Jones-Bailey Zappe discourse.

For starters, the Patriots offense with Bailey Zappe under center has been a more conservative one. Zappe does not play as aggressive a brand of football as Jones when it comes to pushing the ball down the field, and the offense as a whole actually has looked much more than its 2021 version with the rookie running the show (which makes perfect sense given his lack of experience in the system).

Jones, meanwhile, was seemingly given a pretty long leash to be aggressive early in the year — a time when the offense as a whole, plus its new-look coaching staff, where still very much in a state of self-scouting, trying things out, and getting a feel for each other. Those processes looked different and more streamlined once Zappe took over.

The aggressiveness was toned back a bit, while the play-calling and general operation became more consistent. The secret moving forward might just be finding a middle ground between the first three weeks of the season and the Zappe era.