Seven Things We Learned About Patriots’ QB Situation From Bill O’Brien

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Who will start at quarterback for the New England Patriots this week? We still don’t know, and it sounds like they don’t, either.

Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien met virtually with reporters for more than 17 minutes Monday morning, fielding question after question about New England’s unsolved QB mystery. Here are six takeaways from what he had to say:

1. It sounds like a quarterback competition
O’Brien confirmed Jones took first-team reps during the Patriots’ lone bye-week practice last Wednesday, with backups Bailey Zappe and Will Grier both rotating in. He repeatedly stressed that players must “earn” their spots through how they perform on the practice field, seemingly setting the stage for a quarterback competition ahead of Sunday’s matchup with the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium.

“I think what I’m saying that’s really important is that — and I’ve said this, and I know that people may scoff at this — but one of the reasons why I really enjoy coaching here is you have to earn it on the practice field,” O’Brien said.

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Will that battle feature Jones, Zappe and Grier? Most likely not. O’Brien said there aren’t enough reps to go around to have three QBs competing for one job in the middle of the season. But he said it’s certainly possible with two.

“The way that we practice here, there’s plenty of reps to go around,” O’Brien said. “Now, can you do it with four guys? Three guys? No. But for two guys, there’s enough reps to go around where everybody gets a shot at it. So I don’t think that’s an issue at all. These guys run the same offense. They’re in the huddle with the same guys. I don’t think that’s that big of an issue.”

Jones has been benched three times this season and ranks near the bottom of the NFL in most passing categories. His latest removal came with less than five minutes remaining in a game the Patriots lost by four. A team source recently told the Boston Herald that Jones had lost “80%” of the locker room, though teammates have continued to support him publicly.

Zappe was cut out of training camp before re-signing, and he struggled in all three of his relief appearances, including last week’s 10-6 loss to the Colts in Frankfurt, Germany. Third-stringer Grier hasn’t seen regular-season game action since 2019 and was unable to leapfrog Zappe on the depth chart during his first two months in New England.

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Head coach Bill Belichick told “Patriots All-Access” last week that Grier hadn’t received many practice reps outside of his scout-team work, so his odds of starting Sunday probably are the longest of the three.

2. Bill Belichick will make the final decision
“For me, I basically get everybody ready to play,” O’Brien said early in his Monday call. “What we try to do is, every week, regardless of this week, two weeks ago, three weeks ago, get Mac ready to play, get Bailey ready to play. That’s what we do. And so at the end of the day, Bill will make that decision at some point, and we’ll go from there.”

O’Brien later added, while answering a subsequent question about practice squad QB/receiver Malik Cunningham, that “assistant coaches make recommendations and head coaches make decisions.”

3. O’Brien wouldn’t reveal his recommendation
Asked which QB he’s backed in his conversations with Belichick, O’Brien said he strongly believes matters like that should be kept in-house.

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“I really believe this and I think this is important to say,” O’Brien said. “I think that anything that’s spoken about within the organization in football (operations) — this is just me — stays within the organization, within the staff. I definitely appreciate the question and I know why you would ask the question. But I think that anything that’s spoken about between myself, the quarterbacks, Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft, whatever, stays in the in the organization. I have a strong belief in that.”

4. O’Brien has no regrets about reaming out Jones on the sideline
One of the defining images of New England’s most recent loss was O’Brien excoriating Jones on the bench after a botched third down. It was the most fiery reaction we’ve seen from the veteran OC this season, and O’Brien stood by it, saying it was indicative of his demanding coaching style.

“I think that was just coaching in the moment,” O’Brien said. “That’s kind of the way I coach. Sometimes, the way to get a point across is to be very demanding and very intense about it. That’s just the way I coach. That’s who I am. That’s how I’ve always coached.

“Sometimes, that rubs certain players the wrong way. Sometimes, players want that. I don’t want to speak for Mac, but I think Mac wants to be coached. He wants to be told, ‘Hey, look, this can be better.’ And I look for the same thing from the players. ‘Hey, Coach, you need to explain that better,’ whatever it might be. That’s just the way I coach. That’s coaching, in my opinion.”

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5. O’Brien doesn’t believe Jones is beyond saving
Jones was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year runner-up and a Pro Bowl alternate in 2021. He hasn’t looked like nearly the same player in the two years since, but O’Brien said the first-round draft pick still is “fixable.”

The coach also didn’t buy the idea that Jones, who’s been plagued by the same poor decisions and mechanical breakdowns all season, is battling the “yips.”

“Everything’s fixable,” O’Brien said. “I think at times, Mac’s played really well. I think that’s what we have to remember. I think at times this year, Mac has played really well. And I also think it’s really important to point out that there’s 10 other guys on the field. Everybody’s got to play better, and the coaches on the sideline, we’ve all got to coach better. That’s the truth.

“I don’t believe in yips or anything like that. Mac has played well. Mac will play well again.”

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Jones threw at least one interception in all eight of the Patriots’ losses so far this season.

6. O’Brien praised Malik Cunningham
It would be a major surprise if Cunningham landed the starting job this week, but O’Brien again had nice things to say about the athletic undrafted rookie.

“Malik has done a really good job,” O’Brien said. “… He’s made a lot of improvement. He’s a great guy to work with. He’s played in a lot of different spots. He’s played wide receiver, he’s played in the slot, he’s played quarterback, he’s played in the backfield. He’s done a lot of different things, and he’s really improved in all areas.”

Whether that improvement leads to playing time down the stretch is “up to Bill (Belichick),” O’Brien said. Cunningham served as the Patriots’ primary backup QB against Las Vegas in Week 6, playing three snaps as a gadget-play quarterback and three at receiver. He was a healthy scratch the next week and subsequently returned to the practice squad.

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Though the Louisville product likely isn’t ready for a starting role at either of his positions, dialing up some packages for him would at least add some excitement to New England’s struggling offense.

7. Adrian Klemm is improving
This wasn’t quarterback-related, but O’Brien did share a positive update on offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, who’s been away from the team since before the Germany trip while he deals with an unspecified health issue. O’Brien said he’s kept in contact with Klemm and that the 46-year-old assistant is “doing a lot better.”

As for how the Patriots have replaced Klemm, O’Brien said assistant O-line coach Billy Yates, tight ends coach Will Lawing and Belichick all have pitched in.

“But any time you lose a guy off your staff, it’s hard,” he said. “… We have enough hands on deck, but it’s not ideal, that’s for sure.”

It’s hard to say how much Klemm’s absence affected his unit last week, but New England’s O-line was awful in pass protection against Indianapolis, allowing five first-half sacks and pressure on 40.7% of Jones’ dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus.

The Patriots also were without starting left tackle Trent Brown for that game. Poor O-line play and a lack of talent at wide receiver — especially with top target Kendrick Bourne out for the season — have been undeniably detrimental to Jones and New England’s offense.

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