There is no need to bury the headline; there is currently no quarterback controversy for the New England Patriots. As much as some people want there to be one now, creating one is premature at best. Mac Jones is the starting quarterback for this team. He will continue to fill that role moving forward.
In Sunday’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Mac Jones played absolutely awful. He was astonishingly bad with his decision making, which was supposed to be a strength of his. It cost the New England Patriots dearly.
Jones was careless with the football. This resulted in two first half turnovers by him which directly led to defensive touchdowns for Dallas. He also threw a second interception on New England’s opening drive of the second half. The final turnover from Jones turned the Patriots chances of mounting a comeback from slim to nearly none. After a final possession with Mac Jones under center ended in a punt, Bill Belichick gave him the hook.
The mistakes Mac Jones made on Sunday cannot be attributed to his offensive coordinator. Nor should they be blamed on his offensive line or the New England Patriots other skill position players. The costly errors belong to Mac Jones.
But for those people willing to place Mac Jones on the sidelines, what is a viable alternative?
Questioning whether Jones is the right quarterback to lead the New England Patriots moving forward is nothing new. Last year when Bailey Zappe replaced an injured Jones, Zappe Mania broke out all over New England. There is no debating that Zappe was excellent in his two starts for the Patriots last season. It was also easy to see that he was awful in relief of Mac Jones the following week against the Chicago Bears.
Zappe did not see the field again in 2022 following the loss to the Bears in Week 7. In training camp, Zappe looked like he had regressed. Nobody watching Patriots camp walked away believing a quarterback competition still existed between Bailey Zappe and Mac Jones.
But on cutdown day Bailey Zappe hadn’t just lost out on pushing for a starting job, he lost out on any job at all. Bill Belichick proved on Aug. 31 that he was willing to part ways with Zappe, as the second year QB failed to make the New England Patriots original 53-man roster. Zappe made his way back to Foxboro on the practice squad, and was elevated to the active roster when waiver pickup Matt Corral went AWOL.
Is it likely Bill Belichick will hand the reigns over to a player he was willing to lose for no return just five weeks ago to replace Mac Jones?
The other two quarterbacks currently under contract with the New England Patriots are Will Grier and Malik Cunningham. Are either of these players a realistic replacement for Mac Jones?
Grier was drafted in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Panthers. He stayed in Carolina for two seasons, getting two emergency stars as a rookie. Grier struggled as a starter, completing 53.8% of his passes for total 228 yards. He threw no touchdowns and four interceptions. Those two starts are the only NFL game action Grier has seen to date.
After being cut by Carolina before the 2021 season, Grier signed with the Dallas Cowboys. He remained on their roster for two seasons, bouncing between the practice squad and 53-man roster. At the end of training camp this season, Grier was waived by the Cowboys and signed with the Cincinnati Bengals practice squad. After the opening week of the 2023 NFL season, Grier was signed off Cincinnati’s practice squad by the New England Patriots.
Again, Will Grier has not played in an NFL game since 2019. Is this who is replacing Mac Jones?
The New England Patriots signed Malik Cunningham as an undrafted rookie free agent following the 2023 NFL Draft. In training camp Bill Belichick gave Cunningham looks at both quarterback and wide receiver. He had played quarterback exclusively in college at Louisville.
In New England’s first preseason game against the Houston Texans, Cunningham was the star of the show. He completed three of four pass attempts for 19 yards. His only incompletion was a drop in the end zone. Cunningham also rushed for 34 yards and an impressive touchdown.
.@MalikMalikc10 breaking ankles.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) August 11, 2023
But as was the case with Bailey Zappe, the New England Patriots opted to release Malik Cunningham when rosters were trimmed to 53. He also was signed back to the Patriots practice squad and has remained there since the start of the season. He has yet to dress for an NFL game, never mind get a start at quarterback.
Is this undrafted rookie free agent who people expect to start over Mac Jones?
This brings us back to the current QB1, Mac Jones himself. There is no excuse for how poorly he played on Sunday, as reflected by the “F” he received on this week’s Patriots Report Card. But let’s not forget that Jones has not played four terrible games in a row. Just one week earlier the Patriots had defeated the New York Jets.
Through the first three weeks of the 2023 NFL season, Mac Jones was not awful. He ranked among the top ten of NFL quarterbacks in both passing yards and passing touchdowns. Only two quarterbacks in the entire league had thrown as many touchdowns while throwing fewer interceptions. The worst that anyone could say about Mac Jones heading into Dallas was that he had been average.
So, after a very solid rookie season in 2021, Jones undeniably took a step backward last season. This season he was supposed to get back to his rookie form, largely on the heels of new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. During training camp things looked better, during the first three weeks things looked somewhat better, but during the Cowboys game things looked a million times worse. Letting that alone dictate what happens moving forward is bad business.
Zappe, Grier and Cunningham are not the answers at the moment, and Tom Brady is not working through that door. And, as we learned last week, “no one is coming.”
For his part, Bill O’Brien sounded like he was still in Mac Jones’ corner, but also acknowledged that things need to get better.
“Mac is a battler. He is a competitor. When you play quarterback in this league, you have to limit the mistakes and you have to limit the bad games you have, obviously,” said O’Brien. “He has to do a better job of making good decisions for us. He knows that.”
Mac Jones was the New England Patriots first round pick in 2021. Having a quarterback under a rookie contract is the time to build around him and determine if he is worthy of that next contract. The New York Giants restructured QB Daniel Jones deal a month ago to give him four-years and $160 million. Just four games into the season, Giants fans are already checking out 2024 NFL Draft boards for his replacement.
So for now there is no quarterback controversy surrounding Mac Jones with the New England. He knows what needs to improve and now it is a matter of whether or not he does it. If he is unable to, he will be replaced. This will likely be a free agent such as the Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins, or through the 2024 NFL Draft.
Since neither outside solution can happen for months, the plan for now has got to be for Mac Jones to figure out how to limit mistakes and make better decisions. It is a must. If not, the only discussion or controversy surrounding the New England Patriots quarterbacks will revolve around Mac Jones’ replacement for next season.