The Patriots are turning the page to the Browns ahead of Sunday's matchup in Cleveland, and for the first time in a few weeks, head coach Bill Belichick might have a decision to make at quarterback.
Although Belichick continues to take a day-by-day approach, today's latest is that Mac Jones (ankle) was a limited participant in Wednesday's practice. Jones was also limited all last week but was ultimately inactive against the Lions.
Mac's official practice status was limited. However, the eye test at Wednesday's session suggests that Mac is nearing a return. The second-year quarterback was moving better and beginning to look more like his usual self throwing the football during the portion of practice open to the media.
With Jones nearing a return, the question is, do you play Jones or ride things out with rookie Bailey Zappe to give Mac as much rest as possible?
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday afternoon, Belichick said that the decision to return to Jones is "totally independent" from Zappe's performance.
"They are totally independent. No, it doesn't have anything to do with it," Belichick said. "We'll see what it looks like today and just go from there."
Since Zappe's performance is not a determining factor in Jones's return, it becomes a medical, player, and head coach decision.
"If there's no decision to be made medically, then I'm out of it. But if there's a decision to be made, if a player's at 'X' percent, he can do this. The player feels like he can do this. He's ready to play. Then I'll make a decision."
"Do I want this player at 'X' percent? Or somebody else at, let's call it, less than 100 percent? But a lot of times, it never gets to that point. Occasionally, it does. If it does, then that becomes my decision, in consultation with the player, and usually his position coach," Belichick explained.
After notching a win in his first career start, Zappe's competent play has offered optimism for the team if Jones cannot return this week. The Pats rookie is looking to build on last week's victory and make the most of his opportunities in practice.
"I'm just taking advantage of my reps at practice and doing what my coaches tell me and doing it to my full ability and giving my team 100 percent," Zappe said Wednesday. "I'm preparing to do what my coaches tell me that I'm supposed to be doing. Right now, that's to take practice reps and do everything that I can to help the team."
The first-year quarterback feels more comfortable running an NFL offense, but he pointed to the mental side of the game when asked where he's trying to improve.
"I think every day I continue to get more and more comfortable. Every day getting reps, before and after practice, with my teammates during practice. Just continue to get better every day," the Western Kentucky product said. "There are a few things that I feel like I've improved on a little bit, but there are some things that I continue to work on. Pre-snap recognition and post-snap seeing coverage are some stuff that I've gotten a little better at, but there's a lot more improvement I can make in that area."
Zappe also believes that the Patriots playbook with him under center is growing as he builds confidence and gets more reps in practice and games.
"I guess that comes with more and more reps, especially with everybody as the weeks go on. You continue to grow your playbook whether it's open field or red area, whatever you have to do to win games," the Pats quarterback told Patriots.com.
It's currently unknown who will start at quarterback for the Patriots this week, but Zappe, with a grin, confirmed that he is aware of #ZappeFever.
"I've heard a little bit about it. I don't really pay attention to any of that. I'm just focused on what's going on right now, and that's the Browns," he said. "I appreciate the support. But honestly, right now, I'm focused on this Sunday with the Browns."
The decision on who will start at quarterback against the Brown might ultimately come down to the wire this week, with Jones's high-ankle sprain improving each day.
Although it's Jones's job when everyone is on board with him returning to the field, Zappe's steady performance gives the Patriots a solid backup for the rest of the season.