The Patriots‘ internal processes throughout the years have left them largely immune to the hot take community, which was unable to penetrate a strategy that was based wholly and painfully on common sense throughout a two decade run of unparalleled success.
But what if those same processes have almost created the perfect hot take of the Bill Belichick era, now that Bailey Zappe has played incredibly well over the course of three games (two starts), including this Sunday in a 38–15 win over the Browns ?
Call this historically informed speculation, the kind of hypothesis that is as obvious as any truism in Belichick’s book: He has been largely unfazed by the politics of the quarterback position throughout his career. This was the case when it came to Bernie Kosar, a franchise legend whom he released in Cleveland, and Drew Bledsoe, a franchise legend whom he benched en route to a Super Bowl in New England. Tom Brady’s career trajectory may not have existed with most other franchises, because almost any other coach would have kowtowed to the pleas of an owner to start the player on a track for the Hall of Fame instead of the seventh-round draft pick. Most coaches would also be too afraid of losing their jobs to disagree.
The Patriots sit at 3–3 through six weeks, still well behind the Bills in the minds of most football analysts, in a division that looks much tougher moving forward with how the Jets and Dolphins have played this season.
It’s safe to say starting Mac Jones once he’s healthy might make the most sense for the overall course of the franchise, but we shouldn’t be surprised if Belichick continues to avoid the question and play Zappe while Zappe is winning games. Coaches and general managers push first-round picks to save their jobs and look like they’re properly in control of the franchise’s direction. Belichick is already widely considered the greatest head coach in modern NFL history (on Sunday he tied George Halas for second-most career wins between the regular season and playoffs) and couldn’t care less about the optics of a player drafted three rounds beneath the guy he tabbed the franchise’s future just a year ago outplaying the rest of his depth chart.
It’s not nearly the time to start dreaming about the Patriots course correcting toward another dynasty by way of some unknown quarterback (relatively, considering the fact that at Western Kentucky he did become FBS’s all-time single-season leader in passing yards and touchdowns), although one could argue that over the years the Patriots’ offensive system has produced more capable quarterback play when starters are injured or suspended than any other franchise in the NFL. Matt Cassel, Jacoby Brissett, Brian Hoyer and numerous others have enjoyed a fruitful career thanks to the overwhelming competence with which they performed in New England. The scheme deserves credit for that.
It is time to wonder what Belichick will do at a critical hinge point in this chapter of his coaching career. It is no secret that he was able to sustain greatness by treating Brady like any other player (some, including Brady, may argue that he got it far worse than any other player on the roster). Will he come to the conclusion that Jones may not be comprised of the same neurons and, thus, may not be motivated in a similar way, and reach out with a tender hand during a time of doubt? Jones, after all, has struggled mightily this year, having thrown three interceptions in his final start against the Ravens to just two touchdowns in 2022. Our Albert Breer noted some internal discomfort.
Or will Belichick not care, which is the same logic that brought him the most spectacular riches and praise that a coach will likely ever receive in the NFL?
As we’ve seen with other overperforming backups, coaching staffs and executives are more than thrilled to have a kind of “Cooper Rush problem.” It validates their entire existence that a backup is so well prepared and talented that he plays as well as, or sometimes better than, the starter.
But the Patriots are obviously different in that they’re trying to build something new on excavated land. In most cases, the political decision-making earns a seat at the table. The optics are a concern because they have to be. Belichick has more than the next handful of games to worry about, given that his previous successes have hinged on incubating a team and a system together underneath an infallible belief structure. Having the same person under center week after week is an incredibly significant part of that process.
Unless, of course, it isn’t. Time and time again in the post-Brady era, those of us who appreciate living history in the NFL have watched to see what Belichick does under circumstances that don’t include stability at the quarterback position. Whether or not he sees it that way, the next few weeks in Foxborough will involve his most consequential actions since Brady left. Will he bet on what brought him here, or will he admit, in some small way, that what happened to him more than 20 years ago was a once-in-a-lifetime gift?
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