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Resetting the Patriots Quarterback Room Ahead of Sunday's Showdown With Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs

Although the Patriots are expected to start Bailey Zappe coming off last Thursday night's win, Malik Cunningham's departure remains a top storyline in New England. 

Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4).
Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4).

With four games remaining, the Patriots seem to be settling on a starting quarterback for the duration of the season.

After weeks where head coach Bill Belichick was non-committal about his starting quarterback, a win in Pittsburgh appears to have solidified Bailey Zappe as the team's starter for the foreseeable future. On Wednesday, Zappe spoke to reporters about his growth in the Patriots offense and confidence level heading into a showdown with Patrick Mahomes and the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.

Although it's only one win, Zappe going from a surprise roster cut at the end of the summer to throwing three first-half touchdown passes in a 21-18 win over the Steelers is quite the series of events. The second-year quarterback went from struggling to grasp Bill O'Brien's system to arguably the best offensive half of the season last Thursday night. At his weekly press conference, Zappe acknowledged his growth in the system from the summer till now.

"There's some things that I've grown as far as the offensive terminology and the way we run the offense operation. I think there's things I can still learn from as far as that – getting to the ball, making the right checks, seeing the right coverages, things like that. There's some things that I felt like I've improved on, but I've talked to OB [Bill O'Brien] every day on certain things that I need to still be better at. So, it's always a learning process every day," Zappe said.

During training camp, it was clear the intricacies of O'Brien's offense were a difficult transition for Zappe. In college, he ran a modified West Coast offense with air raid principles, then was in a simplified Patriots playbook as a rookie. Going back to his Houston Baptist and Western Kentucky days, Zappe's coordinator, Zach Kittley, was an assistant coach at Texas Tech when Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes played for the Red Raiders.

"[Kittley] talks about Pat a lot. Pat is one of the top quarterbacks in the league, of course. Kittley was able to coach him whenever he was at Texas Tech. So, there was always certain things that I would mess up and be like, hey Pat tried this, let's try that. It was awesome for him to coach a guy like that and to be able to pick his brain on what Pat used to do, how Pat learned, and what Pat used to like," Zappe told reporters on Wednesday.

New England hopes Zappe's confidence level that teammates gravitated toward in the win over Pittsburgh carries over to a showdown with Mahomes on Sunday. The Patriots quarterback's confidence comes from being doubted throughout his football career.

"I only had one [college] offer and just always having a chip on my shoulder to kind of prove to everybody that I'm able to play quarterback in this league," Zappe said. "I think as far as going into every game, I think it's just as far as the preparation and things you do throughout the week that can lead to that confidence going into the game. The coaches, teammates, they help out a lot as well."

Although Zappe is expected to start for the third consecutive game, the bigger quarterback news in New England this week is undrafted rookie QB Malik Cunningham's departure. Cunningham signed to the Ravens 53-man roster from the Patriots practice squad, bringing into question another roster decision at the quarterback position.

With the undrafted rookie on the Patriots practice squad, Cunningham could sign to another team's active roster anytime. On Wednesday morning, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said the team tried to keep Cunningham. However, the Ravens sold him on joining forces with fellow Louisville product Lamar Jackson in a perfect offensive system for his skill set.

"They [the Ravens] sold him on the opportunity, the offense, he and Lamar. Certainly, their offense suits Malik better than probably any offense in the league," Belichick said.

After the former Heisman trophy winner left Louisville, the Cardinals eventually passed the torch to Cunningham to run the same offense they were running with Jackson at quarterback. In Baltimore, the Ravens have continued to feature Jackson's strengths in one of the NFL's most unique and productive offenses.

This season, Jackson ranks first in designed quarterback runs (53) and run-pass option plays (90). Under new offensive coordinator Todd Monken, the former NFL MVP is also third in the league in average target depth (8.8), while that number increases to 10.6 air yards per attempt when you remove screen passes. So, along with the quarterback run schemes, Monken's passing system is a more vertical-based scheme than Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien's offense.

Baltimore's offense will allow Cunningham's mobility and arm talent to shine if he's called upon as an injury replacement for Jackson. In New England, Cunningham was backing up stationary pocket passers in Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe, while the Patriots offense is more timing-based with quick, rhythm-based throws. Overall, it's a relatively seamless transition for Cunningham into the Ravens offense, making him a better stylistic backup for a quarterback like Jackson than Zappe or Jones. With backup quarterbacks, there's some element of having similar players in the room so that you aren't reinventing your entire offense if you have to turn to the backup for any reason.

Although the fit in Baltimore is better for Cunningham, losing a young offensive player with upside because he wasn't protected on the 53-man roster is a fair second guess. Earlier this season, Cunningham spent ten days on the Patriots active roster, but he was waived again before re-signing to the practice squad. In fairness to the Patriots, Cunningham cleared waivers twice, both on roster cutdown day in August and late October, so the Ravens swooping in now is a bit of a surprise.

From this perspective, the bigger second guess was the spring and summertime experiment with Cunningham as a wide receiver. Before you say it's revisionist history, my view after reviewing Cunningham's film at Louisville in May was that the Patriots should develop him at quarterback. Reports immediately surfaced when he signed that he was switching positions to wide receiver, to which I wrote at the time: why? Along with having modern-day mobility, Cunningham ran a pro-style passing game at Louisville at a high enough level to view him as a project quarterback.

With uncertainty surrounding Mac Jones's ability to bounce back from a shaky second season and not much faith in Zappe, adding a toolsy QB to the room a la Jalen Hurts to Carson Wentz was a discussion all draft season. Those discussions mostly were about Tennessee's Hendon Hooker and UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Still, Cunningham fits the mold, but the Patriots wasted valuable offseason practices working him out at wide receiver.

It wasn't until Cunningham impressed everyone in the preseason opener against the Texans that he got any time at quarterback in camp practices, mostly on designed runs. Then, in-season, Cunningham bounced back and forth between the receivers and quarterback, only committing to quarterback once things went south with Jones. If the Patriots had Cunningham practicing at quarterback since the spring, he might've been further along to push for playing time. Instead, it felt like Cunningham was playing catch-up at quarterback without the foundation from the initial installation period in the spring and summer.

The Patriots now have three quarterbacks in the building: Bailey Zappe, Mac Jones, and practice-squad quarterback Will Grier. To that end, Belichick didn't sound like the team is in a hurry to add another quarterback after losing Cunningham to the Ravens.

"We'll see how it goes. I'll talk to Matt [Groh] and the personnel staff and see what our options are. I don't think it's an absolute necessity, but we'll see how it goes," the Pats head coach said.

The Patriots and Bailey Zappe will square off against Patrick Mahomes's Chiefs with kickoff at 1 p.m. ET at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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