Playing quarterback as a rookie is not easy, and doing so as a third-stringer who spends most of his time running the scout team makes the task even more daunting. But Bailey Zappe has made the transition from obscure bench player to the starting spotlight look seamless.
He came off the bench in Green Bay under the worst of circumstances and did enough to give his team a chance to pull off an upset before falling in overtime. He wasn't asked to do much that afternoon, mostly handing off to his running backs and executing a handful of play-action passes while relying on his defense.
A week later, with starter Mac Jones still unable to return, Zappe prepared for his first start as the Detroit Lions came to town. With a week to prepare as the starter rather than worrying about giving the defense a good look in practice, Zappe was asked to do a little bit more.
And he performed a little bit better.
The game plan was largely the same as against the Packers, lots of runs with a sprinkle of play-action passes in an effort to avoid obvious passing situations. But against the Lions Bill Belichick and his offensive coaching staff allowed Zappe to throw on first down occasionally and had him throw more than just the short, quick stuff he leaned on in his debut.
The results were solid, and Zappe impressed with his poise and patience in the pocket. He consistently waited for his receivers to clear the underneath coverage and generally delivered accurate balls that allowed his receivers opportunities to pick up some yardage after the catch.
Jakobi Meyers was the most frequent recipient with seven catches for 111 yards and a touchdown in his return to the lineup after missing two games with a knee injury. Some of the throws to Meyers were the most impressive, particularly an early one on third down.
With the Patriots leading 3-0, they faced a third-and-5 from their own 8 after taking over at their 3 following Jack Jones' interception. A quick three-and-out would have given the Lions the ball right back, likely with solid field position and a chance to get on the board.
Instead Meyers ran an effective route with a quick move inside before breaking back toward the sideline. Zappe read the situation perfectly, delivered a well-timed pass to Meyers' outside shoulder by the sticks and watched his wideout turn upfield for a 12-yard pickup. The drive eventually ended with the second of Nick Folk's five field goals,
It was one of the rare pressure plays Zappe faced on an otherwise stress-free day, and the rookie was up to the task.
Later, Zappe showed excellent patience while climbing the pocket before finding Meyers on a shallow cross for a solid gain, and shortly thereafter on a beautifully executed touchdown when Meyers got in the seam between a pair of defenders.
Yes, it was the Lions and their 32nd-ranked defense on the other side and yes, the Patriots failed to convert in the red zone while settling for far too many field goals. But the progress Zappe showed in one week was quite impressive.
So, what does it mean in the big picture? In terms of impacting Jones, probably very little. Jones is in his second season, and while he got off to a rocky start he also has been asked to do much more than Zappe. The Patriots offense was making an effort to push the ball downfield and perhaps be a little less reliant on the running game. And unlike Zappe, Jones was forced to operate while trailing by multiple scores against Miami and Baltimore, and that's when the mistakes piled up. Any calls for Zappe to take the reins over a healthy Jones are quite premature at this stage, but that doesn't mean he doesn't deserve a ton of credit. More importantly, Belichick might also be learning that the rookie is more than capable of serving as the main backup moving forward, and that's no small thing.
Rather than tying up valuable cap dollars on a veteran backup like Brian Hoyer, Belichick might turn it over to Zappe in 2023 and save a roster spot in the process.
All of that is well down the road, but for now most everyone seems to be enjoying Zappe hour.
May the fourth be with you
The Patriots defense was the story in the 29-0 whitewashing of the Lions, pitching a shutout while blanking Detroit on six fourth-down attempts. There were a lot of snickers in Lions coach Dan Campbell's direction following the abundance of fourth downs, but in reality the only real questionable call came in the second quarter.
Trailing just 6-0 and facing a fourth-and-9, Campbell passed up a 50-yard field goal and rolled the dice. The decision backfired bigtime when Matthew Judon's strip sack allowed Kyle Dugger to pick up the scoop and score for the 59-yard touchdown.
If Michel Badgley connected on the kick, Detroit would have cut the deficit to 6-3 with about 3:30 to go in the half. There was a fair chance that would have been the halftime score, but Campbell felt otherwise and Judon's heroics completely changed the game. Momentum swung wildly and eventually the teams went to the locker room with the Patriots leading 16-0.
That one move all but forced the Lions to pass up easy field goals in the second half, and all four times the Patriot defense made them pay. There were a lot of critical comments citing Campbell's penchant for talking about grit and toughness, but trailing by three scores throughout the second half meant field goals would be useless. Rather than trying to show toughness, Campbell was simply desperately trying to get back in the game.
But his choice to pass up three early was the reason he had to do so late.
It would be difficult to find a worse penalty call than the one made by Jerome Boger that all but ended the Bucs win over Atlanta. The Falcons rallied from a 21-0 deficit and climbed within 6 at 21-15 when Grady Jarrett raced in and sacked Tom Brady on third down. With just over three minutes left, the Falcons were poised to get the ball back with a chance to win. But unfathomably Boger decided that Jarrett had thrown Brady to the ground forcefully, despite the fact that replays showed nothing of the sort.
"What I had was the defender grabbed the quarterback when he was still in the pocket, and unnecessarily throwing him to the ground," Boger said after the game. "That is what I was making my decision based upon."
Jarrett never threw Brady to the ground, and claiming any sort of takedown was unnecessary seems comical since Brady had possession of the ball at the time. Jarrett didn't throw Brady down and he didn't land on him either. It was simply a terrible call at the worst time for the Falcons.
Bad calls happen but what's was equally pathetic was Boger's explanation. He had to have seen the replay prior to meeting with the pool reporter, and rather than taking responsibility he instead doubled-down and tried to sell everyone something that clearly didn't happen.
It's hard not to wonder if the recent handling of Tua Tagovailoa's apparent concussion perhaps led to the over-protective nature of Boger's call. Tagovailoa's second concussion came when he was violently slung to the turf by the Bengals, a situation nothing like what happened to Brady in Tampa.
Somehow, the Monday night game featured a call that was almost as egregious when Kansas City's Chris Jones had a strip sack negated by a roughing the passer call. Jones sacked Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and knocked the ball loose. As he was corralling the loose ball, Jones landed on Carr, drawing the flag. The Raiders ended up booting a field goal instead of losing the ball, and the league now seems to have a legitimate problem on its hands with regard to player safety that is impacting games.
1. Buffalo (4-1) – Josh Allen, Gabe Davis and the Bills offense got back to business against Pittsburgh.
2. Philadelphia (5-0) – The Eagles are finding ways to win without their best effort, but that's a dangerous way to live.
3. Kansas City (4-1) – Trailing 17-0 and fighting through some highly questionable officiating the Chiefs still found a way.
4. Dallas (4-1) – Very impressive stuff from Cooper Rush and the Cowboys defense.
5. San Francisco (3-2) – The Niners defense is frightening, and if Jimmy Garoppolo shakes off the rust watch out.