In the immediate aftermath of the Patriots Week 5 loss to the Saints, Bill Belichick spoke of the need to start over. The following week as the team headed to Las Vegas, the lone significant difference in the lineup was the addition of Malik Cuningham to the active roster as the backup quarterback.
It was a curious decision by Belichick, putting an undrafted rookie from the practice squad in a potentially important position as the Patriots main layer of insurance behind Mac Jones. Bailey Zappe, who served as the backup during the first five games, was listed as the emergency quarterback and therefore was unavailable to play unless both Jones and Cunningham were unavailable.
So, if Jones went down with an injury during the first series of the game, it might have been Cunningham for better or worse. Given Cunningham's lack of experience, and the fact that he's spent the bulk of his time with the team trying to transition to wide receiver, Belichick likely would have used Zappe in that scenario and therefore lost both players for the remainder of the game.
But what if Jones was forced out temporarily with a minor problem and had to miss a couple of series? In that case Cunningham would have had to handle things because using Zappe then would have eliminated the possibility of Jones or Cunningham returning.
The choice, coupled with an NFL Network report indicating that Jones was "on a short leash" after being pulled from consecutive losses in Weeks 4 and 5, seemed strange. While Jones was not as ineffective as he had been in those prior defeats, he failed to muster much offense in the first half and tossed another ill-advised interception while rolling to his right and throwing back to the left, overthrowing an open Hunter Henry on his final attempt of the opening half.
If he were indeed on a short leash, surely that would have been a spot that Belichick would think about making a move. Only given the pregame lineup choice, he didn't really have that option. If Belichick went to Zappe, that would have meant Jones and Cunningham would no longer be available for the rest of the game. That's the way the emergency quarterback rule is designed. If he went with Cunningham, it's hard to imagine the rookie would have been sufficiently prepared to run the entire scope of the offense.
Had Zappe been the backup, Belichick could have simply had Cunningham active in place of another player (Jalen Reagor saw 14 snaps at wide receiver and Mike Onwenu did not play at all as he recovers from an ankle injury) and not necessarily serve as the emergency QB. That way Cunningham still could have been included in the package of plays the team designed with him in mind (he took six snaps).
Instead, if Jones got injured the Patriots would have had to finish the game with either Cunningham at quarterback or played the rest of the way without both players while Zappe finished up. It all but eliminated the notion of Jones being on a short leash before the game even began.
In the end Jones remained healthy throughout and aside from those who may have wanted to see a quarterback change it had no bearing on the outcome of the game. Still, it seemed like an unnecessary risk to take for a team desperately searching for a win as the season is crumbling.
"We'll continue to evaluate that going forward," was all Belichick had to say on the topic of Cunningham's ascension the day after the Raiders loss. But how he might have handled an adverse situation had it arisen remains unclear.
What also is unclear is the backup quarterback spot as a whole. Belichick clearly wasn't satisfied with Zappe coming out of camp given his choice to release the second-year pro before bringing him back after he cleared waivers. Since then, he's brought in Matt Corral, Ian Book and Will Grier, and now he's tinkering with an expanding role for Cunningham.
As Jones continues to struggle and his future is further discussed, it's hard to envision Belichick having any true options in his place.
Another strange one …
Belichick also made a curious call late in the game following the Raiders sack of Jones for a safety. With 1:47 left and the Patriots out of timeouts, most expected the ensuing play to result in an onside kick. Belichick chose to have Bryce Baringer punt the ball rather than use a traditional approach. The short kick arced high in the air and traveled just 16 yards before Vegas' Hunter Renfrow immediately called for a fair catch, making the "recovery" a routine play.
Teams are allowed to use a tee on a free kick and the Patriots could have opted to have Chad Ryland, Baringer or anyone else roll one along the ground in an effort to get a recovery. Instead, the choice seemed to make it quite easy for the Raiders to control the ball and subsequently run out the clock.
Tremendous wins for the Jets and Browns knocking off the league's last two unbeaten teams the Eagles and 49ers, respectively. Both pulled off the home upsets with defense, but both also made things tougher on themselves in the game's final moments than need be.
The Jets were more egregious in their missteps than the Browns, but both could have and probably should have been more cognizant of killing the clock on offense while needing just field goals to take the lead. Cleveland had a first down at San Francsico's 14 coming out of the two-minute warning and the Niners had all three timeouts. Kevin Stefanski rolled the dice with his backup quarterback P.J. Walker, who struggled mightily in place of Deshaun Watson, and chose to throw the ball on second down. The resulting incompletion allowed Kyle Shanahan to maintain one of his timeouts and the Niners had 1:40 left to drive for the winning field goal. Fortunately for the Browns, Jake Moody's 41-yarder leaked to the right and Cleveland pulled off the upset.
The decision was marginal considering the Niners could have stopped the clock on their own and faced a similar situation only without timeouts, which they ultimately wound up not needing anyway. But it wasn't ideal clock management.
Jets coach Robert Saleh's choice not to burn clock was less defensible. Tony Adams' interception gave the New York possession at the Eagles 8 trailing 14-12 with 1:50 left and Philly holding two timeouts. Had Saleh called for three Zach Wilson kneel downs, the first two would have burned about 10 seconds off the clock assuming Nick Sirianni stopped the clock after each. With roughly 1:40 then remaining, another kneel down would have taken the clock to about a minute before a Greg Zuerlein field goal would have given New York the lead. At that point the clock would have been under a minute.
Instead, Breece Hall raced virtually untouched for the touchdown with 1:46 left, leaving the Eagles plenty of time to regain the lead. In fact, it's possible the Eagles let Hall score easily in order to preserve time. The Jets defense responded with a four-and-out to preserve the lead, but their job was made more difficult by the decision to go for the touchdown. Neither situation was automatic, and certainly getting the touchdown made New York's life easier in the final moments, but an argument could be made that time was more of a factor at that stage than anything else.
Interesting game unfolded in Orchard Park, N.Y., where the Bills outlasted another upset bid, this one from the Giants. The game ended with an untimed down following a pass interference called on Terrel Bernard in the end zone, giving New York a final play from the 1. The first half ended the same way with New York at the Bills 1, only to come away with no points when backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor checked to a run play and Saquan Barkley was stuffed for no gain and time ran out.
This time Taylor opted to stick with the call and tried to hit Darren Waller in the back of the end zone. Taron Johnson was draped all over the tight end, holding his left arm as the ball sailed in their direction. The flag stayed in the official's pocket and the Bills escaped with a 14-9 victory.
Watching the replays it looked like Johnson should have been whistled for holding at the very least, but the call on Bernard that created the final play seemed questionable. The inconsistency with the calls got a lot of attention, and the Bills probably should have been forced to fight off yet another untimed down. It certainly didn't lack for excitement, however.
1. San Francisco (5-1) – Keeping the Niners on top but injuries to Deebo and CMC are worth monitoring.
2. Miami (5-1) – Dolphins offensive machine just keeps rolling.
3. Philadelphia (5-1) – Like San Francisco, the Eagles are allowed a mulligan.
4. Kansas City (5-1) – The Chiefs still don't look like themselves but that's five straight Ws.
5. Detroit (5-1) – Who had Lions as having the best road fans in football?
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