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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

It’s time to let Malik Cunningham compete for the Patriots’ starting QB job – Hartford Courant

Bill Belichick allowed his assistants roughly 36 hours of vacation over the bye week.

Maybe a little more time could have helped clear their heads.

Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien indicated Monday that Belichick has yet to decide on a starting quarterback. You’ll remember Belichick pulled Mac Jones near the end of the Patriots’ last loss, a 10-6 international embarrassment that Jones’ replacement, Bailey Zappe, capped with a mind-numbing interception. O’Brien hinted this week’s starter may not be named until the staff sees who performs best in practice. But, be honest: how much do you care?

What more tired topic is there than the Patriots’ quarterback situation, a morass of bad passers handcuffed to one of the NFL’s least talented rosters?

Jones has been benched three times. Zappe is the least accurate quarterback in the league this season, per Pro Football Focus. Third-stringer Will Grier might have less game than the 40-year-old virgin, considering the Panthers, Cowboys, Bengals and now Patriots haven’t handed him a regular-season snap since 2019. And then there’s Malik Cunningham, an undrafted rookie who’s also dabbled at receiver and on special teams.

Staging a competition in practice makes sense. O’Brien insinuated there are enough reps in practice for two quarterbacks to complete for the job. Let’s make this easy for him.

Jones and Zappe are the Pats’ top options, so go ahead and pick one. I’ll take another: Cunningham.

If Cunningham was good enough to serve as the Patriots’ No. 2 backup in a mid-October loss at Las Vegas, he’s good enough to earn consideration now. He’s a dual-threat who can buy time behind a porous offensive line and afford his receivers another second or two to uncover, something none of the other quarterbacks can offer.

New England Patriots quarterback Malik Cunningham scrambles out of the pocket during the second half of an Aug. 10 preseason game against the Houston Texans. (AP Photo/Greg M. Cooper)Cunningham is widely heralded as a smart player, and has been since the summer. With Jones, the Patriots have already stripped their passing attack down to Day 1 concepts: screens, slants, shallow crosses, curls and deep shots almost strictly off play-actions. Cunningham can handle that.

“Malik’s done a really good job. … Whether that leads to playing time and all those things again, that’ll be up to Bill (Belichick),” O’Brien said. “I think assistant coaches make recommendations and head coaches make decisions. And so that’ll be up to Bill. But (Cunningham)’s made a lot of improvements.”

Sure, his accuracy is erratic. And he’s inexperienced. And perhaps the most pertinent fact when weighing Cunningham’s prospects as an NFL quarterback is that he went undrafted last April.

Nevertheless, if he can heed one instruction most quarterbacks can follow, Cunningham should get the keys. That instruction? Play it safe.

Fender-benders are fine, but don’t get into a car wreck. Because Jones, even after resting over the bye, has risked more turnovers than any other quarterback in the NFL, per PFF. He flinches at the mere sight of pressure. The Patriots simply cannot live like this any longer.

Unlike Jones and Zappe, Cunningham has a plan B against pressure: scramble or work to extend the play. And if he takes a sack, how is that different from what Jones is doing? Jones absorbed five in Germany.

Meanwhile, Cunningham dances around defenders like he’s standing on hot coals and clocks a 4.5 when running in a straight line. That ability can unlock new run-game wrinkles and amplify the Patriots’ one offensive strength — their rush offense ranks third in Expected Points Added (EPA) and second in success rate since Week 5. If the Pats intend to play ground-and-pound against the Giants, pick a quarterback who can power that plan.

That’s Cunningham.

A quick aside: O’Brien believes Jones is fixable. Let’s hope so. Jones is a hard-working kid focused on the right things who’s willing to toe the company line and pour himself fully into the organization. He’s accurate and smart. Jones deserves better than the situation Belichick crafted around him, arguably the worst for any quarterback in the NFL.

But that situation is not changing. And even if O’Brien is right — Jones can be fixed — that’s a project that cannot and will not be completed in the next two months within this environment.

Jones would likely beat out Cunningham in a head-to-head competition this week. But at the very least, the coaches owe it to their players to force Jones to prove himself. If he fails, turn to the kid, and cut him loose.

Because if the Patriots must endure rookie mistakes from the quarterback, like Jones’ last pass against the Colts, his sacks or Zappe’s pick, shouldn’t it at least be a rookie holding the ball?

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