Bill Belichick praised rookie third-string quarterback Bailey Zappe Monday morning, a day after Zappe led the offense in the Patriots’ overtime loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. But he was measured in his comments.
“He was well-prepared,” the coach said. “I thought, generally, he handled himself well. Certainly, things he can improve on, we’ll work on. But I thought he did a solid job.”
But in rewatching Sunday’s game, a picture emerged of Belichick and the coaching staff really taking a liking to Zappe, their fourth-round pick out of Western Kentucky. CBS’s Jim Nantz noted that Belichick spent a lot of time talking about Zappe in the Saturday production meeting, even though Brian Hoyer was scheduled to start.
The broadcast also showed Zappe giving Matt Patricia a giant bear hug following a touchdown pass, and Zappe playfully shoving a smiling Joe Judge while the two sat on the bench.
Zappe completed only 10 of 15 passes for 99 yards, and the Patriots lost the game to drop to 1-3. But Zappe played with notable poise, made a few nice throws, and proved that he can keep the Patriots competitive if he has to substitute for an injured Mac Jones. Zappe showed enough that he should replace Hoyer as Jones’s backup whenever Hoyer is recovered from his concussion.
The coaching staff also displayed an impressive ability to prepare and manage their rookie quarterback … until getting too conservative in crunch time, whichprobably cost the Patriots the win.
Here is a review of how the Patriots utilized Zappe and what to expect from him moving forward:
▪ It was an interesting tale of two halves for Zappe. After entering with 2:25 left in the first quarter, he operated almost exclusively out of the shotgun in the first half. The play calls were all pretty basic: swing passes, screen passes, and handoffs.
He made a couple of nice throws when stepping up in the pocket, finding Rhamondre Stevenson on a checkdown for 8 yards and a first down, and throwing one over the middle that was dropped by Nelson Agholor.
But Zappe and the offense did nothing in the half — three punts and a lost fumble (thanks to another poor block attempt by right tackle Isaiah Wynn).
After halftime, Zappe went almost exclusively under center — noteworthy because the Patriots hadn’t done nearly enough from under center in their first three games, and because Zappe almost never took a snap from under center during his entire college career.
But Zappe handled it well and didn’t have any issues with ball security, though a couple of handoff exchanges weren’t totally clean.
▪ With Zappe under center, the offense got moving. Stevenson had runs of 12 and 17 yards, while Damien Harris ripped off a 14-yarder. This opened up opportunities in the play-action passing game.
Zappe used play-action to hit Kendrick Bourne for 16 yards to open the third quarter, to hit DeVante Parker for a 25-yard touchdown, and to hit Agholor for a 21-yard gain. The Patriots had only four completions over 10 yards, and all four were on play-action (Hoyer hit Agholor for 27 yards on the opening drive).
▪ The Patriots averaged 3.25 yards per play with Zappe in the first half, 6.3 in the second half. If Zappe has to play this Sunday against the Lions, it seems the Patriots need to keep him under center to run the ball and throw with play-action.
▪ The Patriots weren’t exactly dominant in the second half, but their performance was impressive given that they were severely limited in their personnel.
They marched down the field on two touchdown drives with their third-string quarterback, without their most reliable receiver (Jakobi Meyers), and with just one tight end (Hunter Henry) after Jonnu Smith left in the second quarter with an ankle injury.
This forced the Patriots to go “Jumbo” for much of the second half, with Marcus Cannon serving as a sixth offensive lineman and Zappe going with one fewer receiver on many plays. But the offensive line was dominant against the Packers’ defensive front, and Zappe made a few nice throws when he had to.
▪ Zappe will never be confused with Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson, but he showed good pocket mobility and hit Henry for a nice 8-yard pass on the run.
He also zipped a nice dart to Bourne for 16 yards over the middle and showed good patience in the pocket to wait for Parker to come open across the field for the 25-yard TD. The Packers defense was so messed up on the play that Agholor was wide open, too.
▪ But the Patriots called only five passes for Zappe in the second half, and he went 4 for 5 for 68 yards. And Belichick and Patricia got conservative at the end of the game, and it cost the Patriots.
The careful play-calling was understandable at the end of regulation when the Patriots were backed up on their 2-yard line. Still, they could have called a pass play on third and 3 from the 9 to move the chains instead of running Stevenson into a brick wall.
▪ And the coaches got really conservative in overtime, wasting an opportunity at midfield by going run-run-incompletion and punting the ball back to the Packers.
They either should have called a play-action pass on second down or called four straight runs to try to muscle their way to a first down and get in range for a field goal. A running play on third and 5 would have been more effective than a drop-back pass.
Belichick is a conservative, play-for-field-position kind of coach by nature, and he’s going to be really conservative with a third-string quarterback. But he needs to learn how to cut it loose.
▪ As poised as Zappe looked in his first NFL action, the passing game is definitely more limited with him at the helm, and at times he looked exactly like a rookie fourth-round pick making his NFL debut.
Zappe’s feet got a little happy in the pocket, and he almost always rolled to his right when he felt trouble. He didn’t always see the field well, missing Parker on a big one-on-one opportunity in the second quarter. On the crucial third and 5 in overtime, Zappe held onto the ball too long and missed Henry streaking open on a slant.
And managing the line of scrimmage is going to be a battle for a young quarterback. Zappe should have been called for delay of game on back-to-back plays, but somehow all seven officials and the entire Packers sideline missed it when the clock hit “0″ on the Parker touchdown pass. Not only that, but the officials missed Wynn false starting by a millisecond on that play as well.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.