The Patriots are back to work following the bye week with a big question hanging in the balance for head coach Bill Belichick heading into Sunday's trip to the Meadowlands to face the Giants.
After benching starter Mac Jones in a loss to the Colts before the bye, Belichick is playing things close to the vest regarding who will be his starting quarterback this week. With the Patriots driving to take the lead in Frankfurt, Jones threw an interception that sent him to the bench for the offense's final possession, where backup quarterback Bailey Zappe followed that up with an interception of his own with the game ending in a 10-6 loss to Indy.
On Tuesday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was non-committal about the quarterback situation, telling reporters we'll find out who will start against the Giants on Sunday.
"I told all the players the same thing: be ready to go, so hopefully they will be," Belichick said. "It will be based on what I think is best for the team." The Pats head coach then indicated that all three quarterbacks on the roster will get reps in practice, "I want everybody to be prepared."
During a brief viewing for media at Tuesday's practice, quarterbacks Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe alternated throwing to the Patriots pass-catchers. Jones led off the drill that lasted roughly three and a half minutes, and the Pats incumbent starter took slightly more reps than his current understudy. However, the reps were pretty evenly split, and we wouldn't make grand proclamations from a short practice window.
Although there weren't any obvious frontrunners based on the beginning portion of practice, the one detail that is worth noting is that it appeared to be a two-horse race between Jones and Zappe, with third-string QB Will Grier and undrafted rookie Malik Cunningham as spectators. Starting left tackle Trent Brown (ankle/personal) also returned to practice on Tuesday.
Earlier this week, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien indicated that the Patriots would determine a starter based partially on practice performance while admitting that getting more than two quarterbacks ready to play in the game would be difficult due to a limited number of practice reps. In other words, our eyes at practice saw Jones and Zappe competing, which resonates with the Pats OC's explanation on Monday.
"The way we practice here, there's plenty of reps to go around," O'Brien began. "Now, can you do it with four guys? Three guys? No. But for two guys, there's enough reps to go around where everybody gets a shot at it. So I don't think that's an issue at all. These guys run the same offense. They're in the huddle with the same guys. I don't think that's that big of an issue."
According to Belichick and O'Brien, the lone bye week practice allowed the Patriots to practice their core concepts offensively rather than working on a game plan for a specific opponent. In that practice, all three quarterbacks, including Grier, got reps. But the Pats head coach explained the reasoning behind that in his Tuesday press conference.
"Last week, we had an opportunity to kind of give the guys that didn't play as much as an opportunity to run more of our stuff. Less stuff off cards and scout-team things. That was pretty much true for everybody across the board. We didn't work on any scout-team plays. We just ran our plays, so everybody got to run what we ran," Belichick explained.
Ultimately, the Patriots quarterback decision is a mystery to almost everyone in the build, with key contributors on offense such as starting center David Andrews and tight end Hunter Henry saying they haven't been informed who will start against the Giants on Sunday.
Based on the information from Tuesday's press conference and brief snapshot at practice, Jones seems to have a slight edge to remain the starter this week. The Pats follow a diligent routine that includes early-down work on the first day of practice, third down and red zone on day two, before wrapping up the week with goal line and other unique situations. All this goes on for the first-team offense while the backup quarterbacks run the opponent's plays on the scout-team offense.
Given Jones's struggles, a quarterback competition is warranted. Still, it would be challenging to hold an in-season competition with how practices are structured this time of year, meaning the decision is probably close to finalized even if Belichick doesn't want to declare a starter publicly.
As the Patriots head coach proclaimed, we may not definitively find out who is starting for New England until the offense runs on the field for the first time on Sunday, adding another layer of uncertainty in a season that has not gone as planned for the Patriots.
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