It’s all fun and games until you get blown out 33-14 by the worst team in football. In prime time. With your quarterback of the future getting booed off the stage. And his understudy turning into a pumpkin too right around midnight.
Phrasing it diplomatically? I think Bill would like to have this one back.
Patriots Talk: Figuring out the ‘why’ of Belichick’s quarterback shuffling | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube
This murky, misty Monday night in October 2022 will go down as one of the most puzzling of Bill Belichick's Hall of Fame coaching career. On the threshold of passing George Halas to become the second-winningest coach in NFL history, Belichick did one of the following:
He either sent out a less than 100 percent Mac Jones so Jones could knock the rust off against a crappy Bears team.
That's uncharacteristic in that it’s basically treating a regular-season game like a preseason dress rehearsal.
And uncharacteristic in that Belichick has indicated in the past he doesn’t deal in "degrees of readiness" or percentages. If a player is cleared to go medically, it’s a green light. After the game, Belichick alluded to the fact that Jones’ ankle injury figured into his decision to give him the hook after three lackluster (at best) possessions even though Jones ran around pretty effectively during his brief stint.
OR, Belichick sent Jones out there in part to appease Jones, and in part to knock the rust off, figuring, "What’s the worst that could happen?"
That scenario would seem exceedingly bizarre were it not for a pregame report from Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk.
Jones, wrote Florio, took "the overwhelming majority of the first-team reps in practice" last week.
Florio added that "Jones was feeling close to 90 percent, and he was pushing to play. He continues to be in the 90-percent range. The team, we’re told, has some concern about aggravation of the injury. But Jones persuaded Belichick to give Jones a chance to play."
Given that report and Jones’ postgame remarks in which he was accepting of the way the night played out (19-point loss and mind-bending interception notwithstanding), Jones sounded almost ... appreciative of the chance to get out there?
"I think Coach Belichick obviously did a really, really good job explaining it to me," he said. "I knew what the plan was, and the timing is the timing; but we were on the same page, and there's no hard feelings or anything. I wish I played better while I was in there, but hopefully I'll have a chance to do that in practice and kind of earn that back and then apply it in the game. We definitely want to play better as a team, and we're going to do that and work together and put our best foot forward."
Either way, what was the point? You go into the night thinking you have two good and capable young quarterbacks, you come out of it worried about both. And you lose badly to a team that was a punchline for the first month of the season.
This development doesn’t kneecap the Patriots' entire 2022 season. But it is a harsh record scratch. Now, the inspiring performances against the Packers, Lions and Browns lose a little luster. The Patriots had seemingly separated from the league’s morass of mediocrity where performances wildly fluctuate week-to-week. There was a level the Patriots could be expected to play to, it seemed.
This kind of loss and the bizarro nature of the quarterback deployment slows momentum. And it revives the reality that the team is 4-8 since its bye last season and 2-7 in games Jones starts. He’s thrown nine touchdowns and 11 picks. The only teams Jones has started against and beaten since that bye are the Jaguars last December and the Steelers in Week 2.
That’s a harsh reality for those of us who believe Jones is potentially a perennial Pro Bowl-level player and that the Patriots got it exactly right when they took him 15th last year.
His regression continues and -- rust or no rust -- the shanked punt-looking thing he threw that preceded him getting yanked had nothing to do with his ankle, Bailey Zappe looking over his shoulder, Josh McDaniels going to the Raiders or Matt Patricia being in his first year as a play-caller.
That was unilateral idiocy by Jones and -- if the plan all along was to pull him there -- the worst possible time for it. Because Jones then had to listen to the giddiness of the crowd that accompanied his benching and Zappe’s insertion.
Somewhat predictably, the Patriots offense sputtered to life with Zappe in the form of a four-play touchdown drive and a three-play excursion. The next three drives combined consisted of nine plays, one fumble, two punts and a basket of batted balls. Zappe's two drives after that were longer and both ended in interceptions.
He was playing about how you would expect a fourth-round rookie from Western Kentucky to play when confronted for the first time with a deficit and no running game to speak of.
Meanwhile, the Bears were taking mercy knees at the Patriots' 1-yard line as the game expired. That was a lot to process. All of it was a lot to process.
And Tuesday dawned with a whole lot of unanswered questions.
Would Jones have been pulled if he’d led the Patriots capably on the first three drives?
Would Belichick have re-inserted Jones (as ESPN’s Lisa Salters said Belichick planned to do) even if the game was tight and he knew the crowd would collectively pan that decision?
How much have Jones’ performances cooled the team’s July enthusiasm for where he was then and where they figured he was headed?
Is it now full-speed-ahead with Jones after the Zappe crash-landing? Or is there a quarterback competition unfolding with the Patriots chasing the Jets, Dolphins and Bills in the AFC East?
Are the Patriots good, not good, building toward something, spinning their wheels, regressing? Monday night was a spectacle for all the wrong reasons. On a night he was supposed to pass George Halas, Bill Belichick got Eberfloosed.
And now he’s got some digging out to do.