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christopher l. gasper

With Patriots in soft part of the schedule, is Bailey Zappe the QB who can take advantage?

Rookie Bailey Zappe had his moments against Green Bay, but it may be a reach to expect a lot out of him at this point.Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

With a quarterback situation murkier than the Muddy River, the 1-3 Patriots represent a personality test. Are you an optimist or a pessimist? On the plus side, they’re embarking on the soft underbelly of their schedule. On the negative end, there could be a third-string rookie under center.

Maybe Mac Jones can dip his balky left ankle in the healing waters of Lourdes. Or venerable backup Brian Hoyer, knocked out of Sunday’s loss in Green Bay, can bounce back quickly from his head injury. Until then, it’s not Next Man Up at quarterback. It’s Last Guy Left, rookie Bailey Zappe.

Is Bill Belichick sliding into Cam Newton’s DMs, sending Cam a “You up?” message? An encore for Newton in a Patriots uniform is a juicy story line, but it feels unlikely for multiple reasons. Newton struggled to pick up the old Patriots offense, now he’s going to dust off his arm and learn the new one on the fly? Plus, the Patriots reportedly are on the verge of signing Garrett Gilbert to the practice squad as an emergency option.

The Legend of Zappe (sounds like the Legend of Zelda) being born at Lambeau Field as he came off the bench and nearly steered the Patriots to an upset over Aaron Rodgers and the Packers sounds like a Hallmark Channel movie. But not every backup quarterback is a Tom Brady fairy tale waiting to happen.

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Zappe is not Brady 2.0. Let him take the mantle of best Patriots quarterback with a Z surname from Scott Zolak first before we start daydreaming about Brady Redux.

Back here in the real world, the Patriots have to figure out their quarterback situation for Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium against the Detroit Lions. The Lions are the NFL’s most prolific team at scoring points — and allowing them.

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Did Zappe do enough to merit consideration as a starter when it comes to this weekend's game against the Lions?Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

This kicks off a stretch of five games before the bye in which the Patriots must imitate Zappe last Sunday and seize the opportunity.

After the Lions, the Patriots travel to Cleveland to face old friend Jacoby Brissett, host the Chicago Bears, play the New York Jets on the road, and come home to battle the Indianapolis Colts. There’s not a team with a winning record in the bunch.

The Patriots can’t afford to lose to those teams or lose ground regardless of who is under center. It’s a pivotal part of the season. These are games the Patriots have to win by any means necessary, with anyone available.

Zappe earned the respect of his teammates and acquitted himself well in Green Bay. He finished a modest 10 of 15 for 99 yards with a touchdown pass and a fumble while taking three sacks. He didn’t cripple the offense and he showed poise.

“Very impressed,” said Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater. “For him to come into this situation in this place with all the mystique and Aaron Rodgers being on the other side of the field, he just controlled the controllables.

“He stayed poised. He did what he was asked to do, and it speaks volumes of him being a professional, being ready to go. This is his first time he has been active all season, and you throw him in that situation, and he doesn’t flinch. I’m really proud of the way he came and competed.”

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This was supposed to be a redshirt year for Zappe, a fourth-round pick out of Western Kentucky, in which he got nowhere near the huddle.

Not anymore.

The Z Man lit it up at Western Kentucky after transferring from FCS school Houston Baptist. He set FBS season records for passing yards (5,987) and passing touchdowns (62) for the Hilltoppers.

The kid can sling it.

But so could plenty of other prolific college passers who racked up outrageous stats. Remember Timmy Chang, Graham Harrell, or Colt Brennan? None of those college flyboys amounted to much in the pros.

Maybe Zappe breaks the mold. That would be the ultimate in 21st century Patriots propitiousness.

But the Patriots have to do everything possible to help Zappe if Jones and Hoyer can’t go.

That brings us back to Sir Newton, whose stint here as the starter in 2020 was underwhelming.

Bringing him back to Foxborough would represent a reversal of logic. The team declined to keep him as a backup when Jones beat him out for the starting job last season, in part because of his persona.

The same power-of-personality concerns that led to them releasing him rather than keeping him as a backup last season factor into pairing him with Zappe. Newton’s aura, popularity, and cult of personality don’t make him ideal for a backup role.

But you can never rule anything out with Bill Belichick, and desperate times call for desperate measures. According to one report, Newton turned down at least one offer from an interested team this offseason.

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As part of a QB tandem, Newton could add a design QB run element to help manufacture points in the red zone.

Cam Newton (above) went 7-8 as the Patriots starter in 2020, then was beaten out for the starting job by Mac Jones last summer and released.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Last season provides a template for the Patriots. Newton tolerated a similar role with a former team in a quarterback bind, the Carolina Panthers, joining them last November.

He began as a backup and situational substitute. Newton played nine snaps in his first game, a 34-10 victory over the Arizona Cardinals last Nov. 14. He ran three times for 14 yards and a score and threw a 2-yard touchdown pass.

Newton and P.J. Walker were used in tandem by Carolina coach Matt Rhule, who pulled Newton during starts against Miami and Atlanta for Walker, yo-yoing between the two in-game.

Newton started five of the eight games he played. He was benched for good after Sam Darnold relieved him in a blowout loss to Brady and the Buccaneers in Week 15.

Whatever the Patriots do at quarterback — ride Zappe, get Hoyer back, wait for Jones to hobble back, go back to an old flameout — they can’t afford to pass up the opportunity that the schedule is serving them.

There’s no ideal time to have a QB crisis, but this is the best time the Patriots could ask for.


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.