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Patriots mailbag: Fans are curious about coaching culpability — and looking ahead to the draft

Bill O'Brien's offense has been punchless for much of the season.Maddie Meyer/Getty

Another week, another loss. This week, we have questions about the Patriots’ quarterback situation (this time, it’s more Zappe than Mac), the coach, and his future, and the stellar play of the defense. Plus, a little optimism about the direction of the team? Yes sir. We’ve got it all, so let’s get to it.

When the team cut Bailey Zappe prior to the start of the year, why didn’t they go with a veteran like Matt Ryan? You have to think he would have fared better than anyone else on their roster.

— Bob B., San Diego

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Why not Nick Foles or Matt Ryan in for a tryout? Both are available, and have NFL experience.

— Chip O’Brien, via Twitter

In hindsight, I’m sure they could have found someone better than Zappe to handle things. That being said, I know they were encouraged by Zappe’s relatively small sample size he submitted last season. They had time and energy invested in him, and I think they wanted to see if it could pay off in some form or fashion, whether as a starter or a backup.

In addition, there’s the very real possibility that if they did reach out to a veteran like Ryan, he wouldn’t have wanted a situation where he was a backup or had to vie for playing time. In other words, they were walking into a situation where there were no guarantees.

And now, I’m not sure either one would be interested in jumping on board with a team headed for a lost season. All in all, probably not an ideal place to be if you’re a veteran looking to hang on at the end of your career.

In bringing back Bailey Zappe following his release, the Patriots opted to stick with what they had instead of going after a veteran free agent.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

Can one of the Globe reporters please ask the following question to Bill Belichick after the game against the Steelers: “Bill, you have said in the past how it is better to cut players a year too early than a year too late. Do you think Bob Kraft should fire you a year too early rather than a year too late, based on your performance since Tom’s exit in early 2020?”

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— Raj Lele, Palo Alto, Calif.

Raj, you are on the right track when it comes to accountability and holding him to the same standard he holds his players. But I can tell you the type of response that I’d receive: “Yeah, I’m just looking to do the best possible job I can coaching the team.”

I do think that at the end of the season, there’s room for a question regarding how he handled the quarterback position in the post-Tom Brady era.

Watching Bryce Young is evidence taking a quarterback in the first few picks is not always the solution. Would they be better off taking a tackling machine, a punishing offensive tackle, or a dominant wide receiver?

— Tony Perna, via e-mail

Fair point on the quarterback. History is littered with first-round quarterbacks who turned out to be busts. (The Patriots made the right call the last time they were in this situation with Drew Bledsoe over Rick Mirer.)

I guess the answer to the question is that it depends on the player. If you’re taking a quarterback in the top three, you’re going all-in on him and his development. You have to be absolutely sure, or it’s going to set you back even more.

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There’s a slightly larger margin for error at the other positions, but not much. You also need to take free agency and who might be available there into account. But if you’re looking strictly at position, given who might be available in free agency, I’d go (in order) quarterback, wide receiver, offensive tackle.

Drake Maye or Caleb Williams?

— Dan, Manchester, N.H.

I love the consistency and steadiness and good technique of Maye, and if he gets with the right coach, he’s going to have a really successful NFL career. While I occasionally worry about Williams and the baggage he could end up dragging with him to the NFL — stories like him wanting partial ownership of whatever team drafts him — he consistently does things that no other quarterback in this draft is capable of doing.

Clip this and send it to “Old Takes Exposed” if you want, but to me, Maye’s ceiling feels a little Kirk Cousins-ish, which isn’t necessarily bad. It’s just that Williams is more like Patrick Mahomes. I believe if Williams gets with a quarterback-friendly coach, he’ll be a great player. And if he ends up with the right pieces around him, he can be a generational talent.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams could be a generational talent if he lands in the right situation.Ryan Sun/Associated Press

Do Bill O’Brien and Adrian Klemm get a pass this year, or should they be fired already?

— Matthew Byrd, via Twitter

From my viewpoint, they get a pass — especially Klemm with his health issues. The offensive line also has had a terrible run when it comes to injury. It’s been a rough year all around, and if you’re doling out blame pie when it comes to the coaching staff, they probably end up with two of the biggest slices. But given what Klemm had to work with this year and O’Brien’s past track record, if Belichick is back in 2024, they will be as well.

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Could the recent success of the defense save Belichick’s job?

— John Kalife, Fairhaven

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the play of the defense, particularly over the last month. It’s easy to dismiss the punchless Giants, but they held the Colts and Chargers — two teams in the top 10 in scoring average — to one offensive touchdown in eight quarters. They have steadily whittled down their scoring average since mid-October. And on Sunday, the Patriots became the first team since the 1938 Chicago Cardinals to lose three straight games despite allowing 10 or fewer points in each one.

Ultimately, to answer your question, I don’t know if it will save his job. But it’s certainly part of the conversation when you tell the story of the 2023 Patriots defense, a group that should have back issues all offseason because it has spent the better part of the last five months carrying the load.

How can the Patriots bring back Belichick in the same position as GM and HC after this disastrous embarrassment of a season? I don’t see how.

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— Ariel Aguilera, Paraguay

Ariel, I agree with you. I’m still of the opinion that the most palatable option for all concerned is for Belichick to agree to a general manager at the end of the season. If he doesn’t, then that would likely start the process of his departure.

If the Pats can draft a top quarterback, they’ll have plenty of cap space to sign better offensive linemen and playmakers, so couldn’t they turn things around rather quickly for next year?

— Mo Maher, Brunswick, Maine

Ah, some positivity. Excellent. Yes, Mo, that’s the belief. Let’s say they nail the draft at quarterback and tackle, and get a couple of wide receivers from this list. They’re right back in the mix for 2024.

The issue here is the fact that they have very little margin for error. Their last free agent shopping spree a few years back netted them one real lasting impact player in Matthew Judon. But to answer your question, yes — having a high draft pick and expected gobs of cap space is a step in the right direction. The key is executing the game plan.

Different segments of the Patriots fan base seem torn on if they'd like the franchise to stick with Bill Belichick.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The Internet/commentator crowd mostly treats it as a foregone conclusion that Belichick is out after this season. Meanwhile, every fan I know in real life wants him to stay and waves away all the talk as ridiculous. Are the sports intelligentsia out of touch and getting over their skis, or is misguided fan loyalty on a collision course with reality?

— Matt Ricketson, Westford

This could be the letter of the year, Matt. Smart, well-written, and lots of nuance. A couple of things to consider here:

▪ The Internet is not real life. I spend way too much time online, and I always have to remind myself emotions and passion are always turned up to 11 on the web, especially when it comes to sports and Twitter/X. Good on you for acknowledging that.

▪ That being said, I think both things can be true in this case. I think there’s a scenario where he comes back in 2024, but it’s one that starts with him accepting that he needs a forceful GM. I still believe Belichick is a good coach; if he were kicked out the door tomorrow, roughly one-quarter of the teams in the NFL would hire him in an instant. But he needs a counterpoint in the front office.

Could the best option for the Patriots be to take a knee on every play on offense, and rely on their defense to score points? (Say, by running back an interception or a fumble?)

— Doug Aker, Lunenberg

Doug, I kind of get where you’re going here, but I don’t think that’s feasible. One thing that I have noticed (after talking to some guys in the locker room this past week) was that the scoring woes this year stand in real contrast to last year.

In 2022, the Patriots’ scoring defense was the best in the league. They scored seven touchdowns — three of them from Kyle Dugger — which partially camouflaged the fact that they had trouble scoring on offense. This year, they’re not getting the same sort of takeaways in bulk like they did last season. Eight of their 10 losses this year have been by 7 points or less. You toss a few pick-6s in there or a fumble recovery for a touchdown, and this team is closer to .500 than many people probably realize.

How do you expect the Patriots will change their QB room? And who do you predict will play in the Super Bowl?

— Miguel Benzan, via Twitter

A lot of how they approach the quarterback room depends on whether Belichick will be around next season. If he is, I’d expect them to add two new quarterbacks, one through the draft and one as a free agent.

If they do end up with the No. 1 overall pick, I’d take Williams. (Like I said, I believe he’s worth every piece of baggage that could end up coming with him.) I’d also expect them to get a lower-priced, dependable veteran who could theoretically start if they believe Williams (or whoever is drafted) isn’t ready to open the season.

With the understanding that Belichick loves positional battles, I’d have the two of them compete with either Mac Jones or Zappe, while I’d keep Malik Cunningham around in some form or fashion as a developmental prospect who could eventually evolve into a Taysom Hill-type.

As for my Super Bowl pick, at the start of the season, I predicted it would be the Eagles and the Bills, so for consistency sake, I’ll stick with those two. (Even though I don’t feel that good about Buffalo, at least at this point on the calendar.)

Does anyone really have any more questions?

— Scott S., Ayer

Not this week, anyway. Until next time.


Christopher Price can be reached at christopher.price@globe.com. Follow him @cpriceglobe.