For the first time since he joined the New England Patriots as a first-round draft pick in 2021, a healthy Mac Jones will not be part of the starting lineup this week. After four in-game benchings already this year, the third-year quarterback has reportedly now been demoted for good: the Patriots are preparing backup Bailey Zappe as their QB1 this week.
The upcoming game against the Los Angeles Chargers will be Zappe’s third career start after he already filled in for an injured Mac Jones and Brian Hoyer last year. Back then, he looked good: despite his status as a fourth-round rookie, Zappe went 41-of-55 (74.6%) for 497 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.
Of course, his career performances outside of those two games have not looked the part. In his six appearances as a stand-in rather than a starter, he completed only 43 of 76 passes (56.6%) for 442 yards, two touchdowns and four picks.
So, which Bailey Zappe will show up on Sunday with a full complement of starter-level reps under his belt again? That remains to be seen. Based on what we know about him as a player, however, we can at least try to set expectations for the game versus the Chargers.
And let’s start off with this assessment, introduced by our friend Mark Schofield back in preseason: Bailey Zappe is a baker.
No, we’re not talking about former first overall draft pick Baker Mayfield. We’re talking about the profession, which relies on a meticulous following of the recipe in order to get the product you desire. Zappe can do that for you; he is at his best when he can play on schedule and follow the script.
Anything that goes beyond that, however, can become a problem and there are examples of that all over his tape. The most drastic is probably the game-ending interception he threw in Week 10 against the Indianapolis Colts, when he targeted Demario Douglass in triple coverage off a fake spike. But there are less prominent instances as well, such as the following play from last week’s loss to the New York Giants
Thornton's route does him no favors, but Zappe's gotta recognize the throw isn't there and move on faster— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 27, 2023
Gets stuck on his read here, giving the hole defender time to buzz into the window from the opposite hash
QB had room to escape for a conversion on 3rd & 4 pic.twitter.com/lzhOQSKy1Z
Zappe zeroes in on his initial read, and therefore allows for the play to break down. The script as it presents itself is not bound for success, and so he doesn’t succeed.
Zappe, after all, is no chef: he cannot consistently take the ingredients provided and turn them into something significantly greater than the sum of their parts. And that in itself will be the basis of how the Patriots will likely set up their game plan versus L.A. this week.
The game against the Giants might have been a glimpse of that. New England relied mostly on screen passes with him in at quarterback, and his average depth of target was a staggeringly-low 2.3 yards. That might be somewhat OK if the Patriots had some elite run-after-catch talent, but they don’t.
Playing it safe and with a reduced playbook is no different from last year, when Zappe performed reasonably well in such a setting. The Patriots allowed him to bake, and he did.
The reasonable assumption, based on all that, is that Sunday will be more of the same. A reduced offense compared to what Mac Jones was orchestrating, with fewer checks at the line of scrimmage, a focus on a quick/rhythm game, and a smaller overall scope from a QB perspective (obviously, though, it’s not as if the “bigger” version of that offense was all that successful to begin with).
Regardless of the plays the Patriots draw up for him, though, Zappe needs to look a lot better than he has so far this season.
But Zappe also has to do his part on plays designed to support him— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 30, 2023
Of his 4 play action dropbacks this season, 2 were inaccurate passes vs NO, and last week he took a risky checkdown over a tough-but-makeable throw to Pop, then got picked off on a bad read pic.twitter.com/OT7OiTIhYk
Zappe has had his ups and downs all year, going back to the summer when he had a rough time adapting to Bill O’Brien’s scheme before ending up on the chopping block ahead of roster cutdowns. His game action was more of the same, and while, yes, he was coming in cold all four times, he still had some questionable plays that have little to do with that.
Ball security in particular is a big question mark, same as with Mac Jones. Besides his two interceptions — both of which bad decisions — he also threw a risky check-down last Sunday against the Giants and had a few inaccurate throws sprinkled in as well.
That said, if Zappe can get those issues under control he should have some opportunities to move the ball against the Chargers. Their defense, after all, has not looked good so far this season.
Besides ranking 32nd in the league in yards surrendered, it also ranks 27th in the NFL in both points allowed (23.5) and expected points added per play (0.044). The passing defense in particular has been an issue which, in turn, might give Zappe and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien some chances to push the ball down the field more than they have so far this season.
The Chargers, after all rank 26th in pass defense EPA (0.103) and 21st versus the run (-0.062). And given how good the Patriots have looked in that second area recently, they might be able to set up a few play-action shots. If they do, Zappe might go for DeVante Parker who has proven himself a favorite target for the young QB.
I'd expect a go-ball target to DeVante Parker vs the Chargers' match-heavy defense— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 30, 2023
Zappe's shown confidence throwing them vs man, and while Parker isn't the same vertical threat, the QB delivered his only a go route catch this season pic.twitter.com/ZqGmj9E59M
Parker has not had the best season so far — a theme for the Patriots offense — but he might get some chances against the Chargers, and with a quarterback who if nothing else might at least be more comfortable delivering lower-percentage passes. This brings us to another topic that cannot go ignored when speaking about Zappe: his supporting cast.
It is no secret that Mac Jones’ performance was not the only thing holding the Patriots back offensively this year; every player also is a product of his surroundings, and New England’s have not been up to the required standard for most of the season. The same was true in the limited action Zappe has seen this year.
For Bailey Zappe to succeed this weekend, he'll need a better performance from his supporting cast— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 30, 2023
Pass protection quickly broke down on all 3 of his true dropbacks pic.twitter.com/6IADZRo4j4
Last Sunday against the Giants, he saw quick breakdowns up front on all three of his true dropback plays. For a player like Zappe, who as we described above is largely dependent on the structure around him staying intact, such breakdowns can lead to disaster.
In New York, they did on a bad sack he took and an inaccurate throw on 4th-and-4 that only moved the sticks because of wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster making an good adjustment to the ball. On both those plays the “baker” element shone through, and it likely will again come the matchup with the Chargers this week.
So, while Los Angeles’ defense does present a seemingly favorable matchup on paper, the Patriots offense suddenly turning into a bombs-away explosive unit due to a quarterback change should not be expected. More realistically, it will continue to look more of the same.
Whether that can lead to victory is questionable.