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New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) stands on the sidelines on an offensive drive during the second half of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The first clue came two weeks ago, when Bill Belichick was asked what seemed to be a reasonably run-of-the-mill question and gave a cryptic answer.

Instead of affirming to reporters that second-year quarterback Mac Jones would reclaim his starting role from rookie Bailey Zappe once he recovered from a high-ankle sprain, the New England Patriots head coach replied, “We’ll see. I don’t know.”

While Belichick, in addition to being one of the greatest coaches the sport has known, can be notoriously prickly and unhelpful in such contexts, this wasn’t merely a case of him being dismissive or difficult. As it turned out — and as improbable as it seemed at the time — Belichick was keeping it real.

On Monday night at Gillette Stadium, Jones returned to the starting lineup, only to hear the home crowd chanting the last name of the fourth-round draft pick from Western Kentucky who began the season as New England’s third-string QB. The name rhymes with “happy,” an adjective which was about to describe the mood of the fan base.

Early in the second quarter Belichick benched Jones — the 15th overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft — with the Patriots trailing the Chicago Bears by a 10-0 score. Then the fireworks began.

Zappe completed his first three passes, including a 30-yard touchdown strike to Jakobi Meyers. On the first play of the next New England drive, Zappe went deep down the left sideline for DeVante Parker, who hauled in a 43-yard reception to set up a go-ahead TD.

And suddenly, there was bedlam, and everything we thought we understood about the Pats’ post-Tom Brady future had become murkier than the Foxborough fog.

Jones’ potential demise reaffirms the capricious nature of quarterbacking in the NFL, as teams grapple with the proper way to manage the sport’s most important position amid an increasingly impatient landscape.

It’s certainly not news to Jones, whose emergence as New England’s starter was conjoined with the surprising release of former league MVP Cam Newton during last year’s final roster cutdown.

And heaven knows it’s nothing novel to Belichick, who famously rode with Brady, a former fourth-stringer, less than a year after the Patriots had signed decorated veteran Drew Bledsoe to the largest contract in NFL history.

In 2022, job security for NFL starting quarterbacks appears to be at an all-time low — largely because so many jobs are on the line when one of them fails to perform, and owners (like fans and journalists, for what it’s worth) are less willing to let things breathe than ever before.

Earlier this month, we witnessed a prime example of what happens when a franchise can’t get it right at quarterback: Matt Rhule got the boot in Carolina, two seasons and five games after signing a seven-year, $62 million contract.

On Monday, Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich — in what looks like a Hail Mary attempt to save his job — benched 2016 NFL MVP Matt Ryan in favor of Sam Ehlinger, a 2021 sixth-round pick. Ryan had thrown an NFL-high nine interceptions and fumbled 11 times, losing three of them. The plan, Reich said, is for Ehlinger to start for the remainder of the season.

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Oct 23, 2022; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Sam Ehlinger (4) and quarterback Matt Ryan (2) stretch before the game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Since reaching the divisional round of the playoffs in his first season in Indy with Andrew Luck at quarterback, only to have the former No. 1 overall pick abruptly retire the following summer, Reich has rolled with Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz and Ryan without earning a postseason victory. Ehlinger will either emerge as a surprising solution to the Colts’ woes — or go down as the desperate last gasp of a drowning man.

As for Wentz, heralded as the Washington Commanders’ salvation after they acquired him from Indy last March? Well, the fact that Taylor Heinicke just replaced the sidelined starter (Wentz is currently on injured reserve after finger surgery and will miss at least three more games) and led Washington (3-4) to an upset victory over Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field may not bode well for Wentz’s reinstatement prospects. After all, Ron Rivera is also worried about his job security, and if Heinicke keeps giving the Commanders a spark, Wentz will be relegated to back-burner status.

Who’ll be the next fallen star? Russell Wilson’s brief Denver Broncos tenure, after a decorated decade in Seattle, has been a hot mess — but the organizational commitment to the 33-year-old quarterback is wholehearted. Not only did Denver trade a boatload (three players and five draft picks, including a pair of first- and second-round selections) to acquire the nine-time Pro Bowl selection last March, but it also proceeded to sign him to a five-year, $245 million contract extension shortly before the start of the season.

If Wilson and the Broncos can’t turn it around quickly, the team’s new owners will likely pin the blame on coach Nathaniel Hackett, general manager George Paton or both. Wilson — like a ref in need of a Snickers — won’t be going anywhere for awhile.

It should be noted that Wilson’s former backup, the almost universally written-off Geno Smith, is quietly thriving in Seattle. Smith boasts an NFL-best 73.5 completion percentage — the fifth-highest ever by a quarterback through a team’s first seven games — and is among the league leaders in passer rating (107.7, third), touchdown passes (11, tied for sixth) and yards (1,712, seventh).

Embattled as a first-year offensive coordinator in 2021, Shane Waldron is now receiving heaps of praise. The Seahawks (4-3) have been the NFL’s most prolific offense since Week 3, averaging 31.8 points per game during that span, and are atop the NFC West.

None of that is flattering to Wilson.

In Pittsburgh, life after Ben Roethlisberger has been predictably choppy, though the Steelers (2-5) have been competitive in most of their games. Not all coaches grappling with quarterback drama can come off as chill as Mike Tomlin, who on Tuesday insisted that first-round rookie Kenny Pickett’s approach to pressure situations is “exciting and refreshing” — despite the fact that Pickett has thrown seven interceptions in 13 quarters.

Then again, Tomlin has already benched Mitchell Trubisky, the man Pittsburgh signed as its ostensible QB1 back in March, so his patience with Pickett makes sense. Eventually, Pickett will pick up his performance level, or that patience will dry up.

Jones isn’t the only member of the marquee 2021 QB class who has learned this lesson, either. Before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2, Trey Lance — selected third overall in the 2021 by the San Francisco 49ers after they’d traded three first-round picks for the privilege — was feeling the heat from Jimmy Garoppolo, who the Niners had stunningly re-signed in late August as a hedge.

Fellow top-15 picks Trevor Lawrence (Jacksonville Jaguars), Zach Wilson (New York Jets) and Justin Fields (Chicago Bears) and third-rounder Davis Mills (Houston Texans) are entrenched as second-year starters — for now — but everything in today’s NFL is fluid and fleeting.

Zappe got a taste of that Monday, too — he threw a pair of second-half interceptions in a 33-14 defeat to Fields and the Bears, turning the feel-good story into a more nuanced situation.

It’s not as though Belichick is committing to him, either. In fact, it’s not at all clear what Belichick is doing, even to some of the people in New England’s locker room. The Pats coach later insisted that the in-game switch from Jones to Zappe was all part of plan to which his players were privy; many of them subsequently contradicted that.

If Belichick isn’t keeping his players in the loop, how much can we expect him to reveal to the rest of us? Asked once again on Tuesday if Jones would be the starter upon his full return to health, Belichick replied, “That’s a hypothetical question.”

Here’s the real answer, as Jones can attest: If you’re a QB1 in the NFL, life comes at you fast.

Zebra business

When video surfaced of Bucs receiver Mike Evans scrawling something onto a piece of paper for an NFL official following the team’s 21-3 defeat to the Panthers last Sunday, it was a bad look for the league, with many people speculating that the official in question had collected an autograph. Not since then-NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino was spotted on Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ party bus in 2014 — five months before the Cowboys won a playoff game on a controversial picked-up flag — has there been such a public outcry over suspected coziness between the rule enforcers and those who stand to benefit from their decisions.

In typically shady fashion, the NFL came out with a statement Tuesday declaring that the officials in question (side judge Jeff Lamberth and line judge Tripp Sutter) had not, in fact, asked Evans for an autograph — while declining to provide any further explanation. That left Evans to speak on the league’s behalf, and he was similarly vague: “I wasn't signing my autograph, I'll tell you that. I talk to a lot of officials, we're all human beings. He's a nice guy, so we (were) talking about golf. That's all we (were) talking about.”

NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported Tuesday that Lamberth was getting Evans’ phone number so that he could pass it along to a golf pro from whom Evans sought lessons.

Um … OK?

I still have questions, none of which is more important than this one: IF THAT WAS INDEED THE CASE, WHY DIDN’T THE NFL JUST COME OUT AND SAY IT????

Pretty, pretty good

Getting the Bears’ most famous fan to appear on Monday’s Manningcast was a massive win for Peyton and Eli Manning, and it apparently stemmed from a golf rendezvous with President Obama and Larry David at the Riviera Country Club last May.

Now, can we please have the hair-challenged member of that foursome on a future broadcast? And can we also get Seahawks chief communications officer Dave Pearson to make a cameo, provided he tones down his reproachful rejoinder to “Jimmy”?

Rip and run

I have a lot of thoughts about the 49ers’ blockbuster trade for Christian McCaffrey, many of which I laid out in the San Francisco Chronicle. The short version is that it was a move born of desperation and arrogance, with major risk-reward overtones.

There was another, much less celebrated deal involving a running back that happened four days later, and I’d like to weigh in on that, too.

As brutal as it was for the Jets to lose promising rookie Breece Hall to a torn ACL, acquiring third-year back James Robinson from Jacksonville for a conditional sixth-round pick (it becomes a fifth-rounder if Robinson runs for 600 yards in 2022) was a lifesaver. Give general manager Joe Douglas credit for making the most of a tough situation and getting great value in the process. This could be the steal of the season.

Urban decay

Speaking of the Jags, I had veteran receiver Marvin Jones on my “Open Mike” podcast last week, and we talked about the team’s disastrous 2021 season under not-even-one-and-done coach Urban Meyer. Jones said he knew Meyer’s NFL adventure was star-crossed in the second week of training camp, based on the coach’s penchant for BS-ing his way through meetings.

“Everybody in the league — we all have phones,” Jones said. “We can all fact-check.”

The fact is that Meyer had one of the most embarrassingly horrific coaching stints in NFL history. Naturally, he got his old TV gig back and is BS-ing his way through that.

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