When you've spent as much time as Patriots fans on top of the world looking down on creation, you miss out on certain experiences that are common with other fanbases. Abject failure. High draft picks. Empty seats at home games. Paper bag masks. Coach firings and hirings. Signs and even banners towed by airplanes demanding the owner sell. If you're old enough to remember any of these in New England, you're already getting junk mail from AARP and your TV viewing of choice features a lot of ads for investing in gold and silver.
And that includes the most common of common experiences in the life of an NFL fan: The quarterback controversy. It's a tradition just about everywhere else. But we haven't had one in 20 years and 11 months. Specifically, Week 11 of 2001. With the Patriots at 5-5 and coming off a close Sunday Night game against the Greatest Show on Turf Rams, Drew Bledsoe was cleared by doctors to play. And Bill Belichick quickly, directly, and unequivocally declared Tom Brady was going to be his starter for the game against New Orleans.
Which divided the public, who had invested a ton of money into No. 11 jerseys over the years. And the media, which was lousy with people who were either loyal to Bledsoe or simply despised Belichick. Though mainly it was both.
With the highest paid player in NFL history at time wearing a sideline hat and looking over his shoulder with his jaws clenched, Brady engineered a 34-17 win, with a stat line of 19-for-26, 258 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, 143.9 passer rating, and never looked back.
That performance and the fact the Pats didn't lose a game the rest of the way very much took the air out of controversy. That is, until Super Bowl Week. After an ankle injury took Brady out of the AFC championship game in Pittsburgh and Bledsoe threw the Pats only offensive touchdown in the win, there was some thought Belichick would make the switch back. Which led to one of my favorite quotes of his, to this day:
Q: You admitted the other day that there is going to be a lot of questions about this did you talk to the team about how to handle it when we are down there peppering them?
BB: Sure. I know we are going to poll the coaches, we are going to poll the fans, we are going to poll the fourth graders, the barbers. We'll poll everybody.
And so it was that Shecky Belichick, one of my Top 10 favorite Belichicks, was born.
All of which I bring up because there are already people trying to get in on the ground floor of claiming that, not only is there a quarterback controversy brewing between Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe, but that Belichick is intentionally being non-committal on the question of Jones return, just to lay the groundwork for Zappe remaining his starter. Or something.
I love it. Lord help me, how I love it so. The pure clickbaity insanity of it. And I'm convinced Belichick does as well, because he's been feeding oxygen to these flames. First, by setting his Deflector Shields to maximum when asked if Jones was going to start against Cleveland answering, “We’ll see where he is today. I don’t know.” And:
Leading to headlines like this:
Since then, he's been sending both quarterbacks out for the very limited media portion of practice and having both throw passes. Then he sent Zappe out to work with the offensive line on the blocking sled, calling out the cadences for them to fire out, which is Jones' thing. All of which has added more layers to this parfait of confusion.
It's masterful. It's theater. Performance art. And yet the world is going along with the fiction. Everyone knows damned well that Mac Jones will be under center as soon as Mac Jones' ankle allows him to be under center. In fact, everyone knows that they know it. But they still willingly participate in getting played. It's like going to see a magician or a psychic medium. We're all in on the ruse, but still can't grasp that it's a trick.
Why is he bothering? What's the endgame to all this? Well for starters, he's not answering questions on his quarterback because he's not required to. Little things like which of his highly capable young QBs will start is strictly on a need to know basis. For the reporters asking the question. For fans. For gamblers. And most especially, for Kevin Stefanski and Joe Woods. Even though Jones and Zappe are pretty much the same style of quarterback, why not plant a seed of doubt in Cleveland's gameplanning? You don't necessarily need two diametrically opposed QBs - say Cam Newton vs. Brian Hoyer - for teams to have to spend precious meeting and practice time prepping for both. Which Dan Campbell admitted his staff did last week. It's very Sun Tzu of Belichick to make them waste time and effort getting ready for someone they'll never face.
Secondly, he's playing the Long Con. It's never too soon to add value to one of your investments. Even if Zappe goes back to the bench and stays there, eventually his rookie contract will be up. And what other personnel departments will remember is how he played the past two weeks, and what Belichick thought of him. The more you pump his tires now, the more ROI you'll get for him when you do trade him. To one of those franchises that is constantly having actual QB controversies. Not made up ones like this.
So sure, let's keep this up. It's said if you have two starting quarterbacks, you actually have none. I say, "Tell that to the San Francisco 49ers of the mid-90s. Let's get everyone believing Belichick thinks he's got the Joe Montana and Steve Young of the 21st century. Or the Bledsoe and Brady of the 2020s. He handled that to perfection. And at last he finally gets the chance to handle another one. Bring it on.