ARLINGTON, Texas — With 3:41 to go in the third quarter Sunday in Dallas, Bailey Zappe trotted onto the AT&T Stadium field to take over at quarterback for the Patriots. From his very first snap, a handoff to running back Rhamondre Stevenson that went for a 2-yard loss, Zappe played the part of sacrificial quarterback, playing out the string of a 38-3 blowout loss that cynics agree was not as close as the score would indicate.
Zappe’s very appearance was but one more reminder of just how plodding and ineffective the Patriotsoffense has been through four games this season.
What it wasn’t, if you believe coach Bill Belichick, was an indictment of the starting quarterback Zappe replaced, the starting quarterback who’d been responsible for two Dallas touchdowns before heading to the bench (a fumble that went for a scoop and score and an interception turned into a pick-6), the starting quarterback who’d failed to convert a sneak on a crucial fourth and 1, the starting quarterback who’d completed just 12 of his 21 passes (to his own teammates, that is) for a paltry 150 yards, the starting quarterback on whom the Patriots used their first-round draft pick three years ago.
Mac Jones is still the guy, Belichick insisted after the game, explaining Jones’s ouster not as a benching for poor performance, but as some sort of concession to a game gone wildly out of hand. With many repetitions on the same theme, Belichick basically said, “I didn’t think there was any point in leaving him out there, so I took him out.”
But no matter how many times or how many ways he repeated similar words — “Yeah … I just said there was no point in leaving him in the game,” Belichick said about Jones still being the starter next week against New Orleans — there are serious questions about the long-term viability of Jones as the leader of this offense, questions that only multiplied in the wake of the worst performance of Jones’s three-year tenure, the low point of his time in New England.
Where it goes from here determines what the Patriots do next May, when they have to decide whether to pick up Jones’s fifth-year option.
Right now? He doesn’t look worth the extra $4.95 million in 2024.
Jones had a strong rookie season, helping the Patriots to a 9-4 start, reaching that plateau with a win at Buffalo. But that December upset is best remembered for being played in historically high winds, when Belichick’s brilliant game plan limited Jones to three pass attempts. They won in spite of him, and were blown out by those same Bills in Jones’s only playoff appearance.
From there, he regressed. We all know there was more going on last season than just his own skill set, with the coaching malpractice by Belichick to put Matt Patricia and Joe Judge in charge of the offense well dissected by now. But here came Bill O’Brien to save the day, and while there were still allowances for injuries along the offensive line and the ongoing lack of a big-threat receiver, there were glimpses of progress across the first three games.
Not on Sunday, when Jones couldn’t outrun a tackler or hold onto the football, resulting in the second Dallas touchdown, or when he foolishly tried to throw across his body and across the field and couldn’t avoid an interception return for a third Dallas TD.
Like his coach before him, Jones came prepared to the postgame conversation with variations on a theme for what went wrong, his being “it just wasn’t my day.” For a quarterback, when that bad day keeps coming on Sunday (or Monday, or Thursday), that’s a tough sell.
“I’m very competitive and I put a lot into it and I feel really bad,” said Jones, a first-time captain as elected this season by his teammates. “I let my teammates down, I let the coaches down, the whole organization, everybody, fans, we’ve got a great fan base. I’ve got to put a better product out there to beat good teams. I’m going to take the positive route the best I can and hopefully it brings the best out of me.”
For now, he maintains the support not only of Belichick, but of those teammates.
This was tight end Hunter Henry, saying, “Yeah, that’s my guy, I’ll support him and I think everybody will.”
Or this from defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr., who said, “I’m very confident in Mac. He’s a worker. He’s a competitor. He tries to make plays. Sometimes when you try to make plays it doesn’t always go your way. He’s been here three years, he’s made some great plays since he’s been here. His game, it’s one of those games that just happens, but we’re still behind him, we’ll still be behind him tomorrow, the day after that. I believe in him a hundred percent.”
He’s still getting the benefit of the doubt, at least publicly. And with 13 games to go in the season, why wouldn’t he? It’s too soon for anyone to throw in a towel, no matter if the offense is averaging a mere 13.75 points a game (compared with say, the Bills and Dolphins, who might still be trading touchdown drives up in Buffalo), or if the defense looks to be moving forward with neither Matthew Judon nor Christian Gonzalez, both injured Sunday.
But games like Sunday’s are the ones that erode that benefit of the doubt.
“Definitely disappointed but at the end of the day I’m going to keep grinding and hopefully the guys will come with me,” Jones said. “It’s hard, right, for me to come up here and say that? I’m definitely disappointed in myself but I’ve got to bounce back.”
His future with the Patriots is on the line.
Read more about the Patriots’ loss to the Cowboys
- Cowboys 38, Patriots 3: Nothing goes right in worst loss of Bill Belichick’s career
- Bill Belichick said the Patriots are better than their 1-3 record. Against the Cowboys, they didn’t show it.
- Instant analysis: Patriots’ blowout loss to Cowboys is what happens with a physically limited quarterback such as Mac Jones
- Bill Belichick backs Mac Jones as starter despite benching him
- Patriots’ defense takes some huge hits with the losses of Christian Gonzalez and Matthew Judon