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No QB controversy yet for the Patriots, but Bailey Zappe is making his case

New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe directs his teammates during the second half Sunday in Cleveland. (David Richard/AP)

CLEVELAND — After throwing a touchdown pass to tight end Hunter Henry midway through the third quarter Sunday afternoon, New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe turned toward the visitors’ sideline and shrugged.

With the score, his team took an 18-point lead, and Zappe was making it look easy as he tore apart the Cleveland Browns’ defense. In the Patriots’ 38-15 win, he completed 24 of 34 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns, and he became the first rookie in the Super Bowl era to win and record a passer rating of at least 100 in his first two starts.

When the season began, just seeing the field seemed improbable for Zappe. The 23-year-old rookie was New England’s third-string quarterback, but after Mac Jones and Brian Hoyer suffered injuries, Zappe ascended the depth chart to lead the Patriots (3-3) to blowouts of the Detroit Lions and the Browns in successive weeks, halting the team’s sluggish start.

“He’s making a ton of improvements,” tight end Jonnu Smith said. “Back there, he looks comfortable; he looks like he’s really settling in. He’s come in the past couple of weeks and has done a hell of a job. He’s been playing his [butt] off.”

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Since Tom Brady’s departure for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March 2020, New England has been seeking consistency — and a playoff win. Jones, a first-round draft pick in 2021, took over at quarterback after Cam Newton started 15 games in 2020; as Jones recovers from a high-ankle sprain, Zappe has made a case to remain the starter. Jones, 24, threw on the field before Sunday’s game but was ruled out about 90 minutes before kickoff.

Zappe had envisioned an NFL opportunity since he was young. Houston Christian University Coach Vic Shealy said most quarterbacks smirk when they share their NFL dreams with him. But Zappe’s face remained deadpan when he told Shealy during his junior year of high school that he would play in the NFL.

“I really felt like he would be a guy that could handle all that’s put on a quarterback in the league mentally,” Shealy said.

In 2017, Zappe earned the starting job as a freshman for the Football Championship Subdivision school previously known as Houston Baptist. In his first game, against Texas State, Zappe completed all five passes on his opening touchdown drive. The following year, the team expanded its playbook, which Zappe mastered. The Victoria, Tex., native soon began calling the plays.

After finishing classes, Zappe devoted the remainder of his days to training and studying film at the football facility. The team didn’t practice Mondays, and Zappe was the lone player who would spend those days at the facility.

“At his very core,” Shealy said, “he just cannot conceive how there’s ever an option other than winning the game.”

Following four seasons with the Huskies, Zappe emerged on the national radar last year as a graduate student at Western Kentucky. He set Football Bowl Subdivision single-season records with 5,967 passing yards and 62 passing touchdowns, and the Patriots drafted him in the fourth round.

New England was 1-1 when Jones sprained his ankle against the Baltimore Ravens on Sept. 25, and the Patriots went on to lose that game. The next week, Hoyer suffered a concussion on the team’s second drive against the Green Bay Packers. Zappe entered one of the NFL’s most hostile environments, Lambeau Field, and threw his first career touchdown pass to wide receiver DeVante Parker late in the third quarter. Still, the Patriots lost, 27-24, in overtime to fall to 1-3.

In his first start Oct. 9, Zappe completed 17 of 21 passes for 188 yards, a touchdown and an interception in New England’s 29-0 win over the Detroit Lions — its most dominant yet. He continued to progress Sunday.

Zappe’s major blemish against the Browns (2-4) came in the first quarter, when defensive end Myles Garrett strip-sacked him. Shealy said Zappe often revamped his performance after halftime while in college. Playing at South Dakota in September 2019, Zappe rebounded from an inconsistent start by leading his team on five second-half touchdown drives in a 53-52 win.

Zappe made a similar adjustment Sunday: The Patriots began the third quarter by marching down the field before Zappe’s two-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyquan Thornton gave them a 17-6 lead. It was the franchise’s first touchdown pass between rookies since 1993.

“We’re just playing football out there,” Zappe said. “It’s what we’ve been playing since we were 5 years old. It’s fun to play with those guys.”

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Zappe threw his 31-yard touchdown pass to Henry about six minutes later. Four Patriots recorded at least 60 receiving yards for the first time since 2017.

In the final minutes, Bill Belichick, whose 324th victory tied him with George Halas for the second most among NFL coaches, instructed Zappe on the sideline as he had his second victory in sight.

“He’s still a rookie, so we aren’t going to sit here and be like, ‘Zappe’s the GOAT,’ ” Smith said. “He definitely has impressed, man. He looks real comfortable.”

Smith paused before asking reporters, “Is he going to watch this interview?”

“He isn’t good enough,” Smith continued with a smile. “He has to be better.”

Zappe, who has long been one of his biggest critics, acknowledges that.

“We’ve definitely made some strides,” he said. “Of course there are some things we can fix on offense. Personally, there’s some things that I need to clean up. But that’s the great thing about football: You always get next week, and you always get practice to clean those things up.”

Whether Zappe will receive another chance to prove himself next Monday against the Chicago Bears remains uncertain. When Jones returns, the Patriots could face another difficult decision.