FRANKFURT — With the game on the line Sunday evening, with talk of a potential coaching change picking up steam, and with the morale of the team teetering, the two-win Patriots trotted out Bailey Zappe to lead them on their final two-minute drive against Indianapolis.
The reeling Patriots, in a crucial situation, elected to give Zappe his first snaps of the game over starting quarterback Mac Jones — the player they drafted with the 15th overall pick 2½ years ago, and the player coach Bill Belichick had said exhibited “dramatic improvement” in all areas just 16 months ago.
With the game on the line, the Patriots entrusted Zappe — the player they felt comfortable subjecting to waivers three months ago, and the same player they benched four weeks ago in favor of a quarterback-turned-wide receiver on the practice squad.
For a few moments at Deutsche Bank Park, the decision appeared to pay off. Zappe converted two first downs to bring the Patriots to their 40-yard line with 36 seconds to go. But on what would be the final play of the game, Zappe faked a spike and proceeded to launch a deep pass down the middle into triple coverage.
Colts safety Rodney Thomas intercepted the throw, sealing the 10-6 victory.
The first 58 minutes showed enough to foresee another Patriots loss, their eighth of the season. The final two minutes, though, confirmed something that has been bubbling under the surface amid the offense’s unabating struggles: The Patriots no longer believe in Jones.
The 25-year-old Jones had been benched twice earlier this season, in Weeks 4 and 5, but those games were already blowouts at the time of his removal. Sunday was different. The Patriots had a chance to win and still kept Jones on the sideline.
“I just thought it was time for a change,” Belichick said.
Jones entered the X-ray room at the conclusion of the game and said later he suffered a bruise. Belichick wouldn’t say if injury influenced his decision. Asked if he still has faith in Jones, Belichick wouldn’t offer a full-fledged endorsement.
“I have faith in all our players,” he said.
The Patriots have their bye week up next, before traveling to MetLife Stadium to face the lowly New York Giants. Asked if Jones will remain the starter, Belichick characteristically stayed mum.
“We’ll worry about next week next week,” he said. “The game just finished a half-hour ago.”
For Jones, Sunday’s benching certainly marked the lowlight in his young career. A future that once seemed bright as a rookie is now murkier than ever. Throughout his woes, Jones has stressed repeatedly his confidence will never waver. The question is, however, will the Patriots (or any team across the league) still have confidence in him?
“At the end of the day, I have to play better,” Jones said. “To make people believe, you got to do better.”
Jones’s last snap Sunday was by far his worst. With the Patriots in the red zone, driving to take the lead, Jones severely underthrew tight end Mike Gesicki for a back-breaking interception. Gesicki appeared open in the end zone, but Jones’s limp pass only made it to the 3-yard line, where safety Julian Blackmon picked it off.
“It was a terrible throw,” Jones said. “I knew where to go. I just didn’t do it.”
The turnover, Jones’s 12th of the season, ended New England’s comeback bid and prompted the coaching staff to make the change.
“It’s hard, right?” Jones said. “It’s a difficult situation, but at the end of the day, I really did want the team to win. I’ll always be that person. I know that we didn’t win, so it’s hard for everybody. I have to play better to not even be in that situation. It’s not ideal for anybody.”
Even before benching him, the Patriots started to show signs of doubt in Jones. In the third quarter, Jones decided to fling the ball in the direction of Rhamondre Stevenson while getting brought down. The ill-advised decision easily could have resulted in a turnover. Then, with the Patriots at the 5-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Blackmon almost picked off Jones in the back of the end zone on another poor throw.
Jones finished the day completing 15 of 20 pass attempts for 170 yards and no touchdowns. His longest play was a meaningless 30-yard catch-and-run by Demario Douglas at the end of the first half.
The Patriots clearly made an effort to rely on the run game, given the passing attack’s deficiencies, as Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott combined for 33 carries and 142 yards.
At one point during the second half, offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien gave Jones an earful on the sideline. The message, according to Jones, was about the importance of going through his reads and finding his receivers.
“I’ve got to do a better job of that,” Jones said. “There were a lot of open guys out there that I could have hit.”
Jones said he’ll use the bye week to evaluate both himself and the team. Although his level of play has been unsatisfactory, the same can be said about the rest of the offense.
The pass protection, which has remained inconsistent all season, left much to be desired, allowing five sacks, including four on third down. Starting tackle Trent Brown missed his second straight game, because of a combination of injury and personal reasons, which does not bode well for the future.
New England’s receiving corps, perhaps one of the least talented groups in the league, continued to struggle, too. Douglas, a rookie, caught six passes on nine targets for 84 yards, but the other four receivers (JuJu Smith-Schuster, Tyquan Thornton, Kayshon Boutte, and Jalen Reagor) combined for two catches on two targets for 20 yards.
Perhaps a change at quarterback could jump-start the sputtering offense. Or a change will yield the same results, given the lack of dependable pass protection and top-end receivers. Players stayed neutral on the topic, deferring to the coaches.
But regardless of what Belichick decides for the remainder of the season, the Patriots made their feelings clear in the final two minutes of Sunday’s game: They do not believe in Jones.
Read more about the Patriots:
- How it happened: New England hits new lows in Germany, falls to 2-8
- Bill Belichick is noncommittal about Mac Jones’s future — and his own — after loss to Colts
- David Andrews speaks up for embattled Bill Belichick in wake of another difficult defeat
- Mac Jones on a bad interception and getting benched in loss to Colts: ‘I wasn’t playing very good’
- What comes next? Mistake-filled loss sends Patriots into bye week with questions swirling.
- Amid the misery, a few Patriots deserve better than this 2-8 futility
- Christopher L. Gasper: For the Patriots, the setting and environment were new, but the end result was the same