FOXBORO -- The Patriots made Malik Cunningham their backup quarterback in Las Vegas last weekend, but they're not committing to him in that role. At least not publicly.
When asked about Cunningham's place in the offense moving forward, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien's answer was essentially, "TBD."
"I think that'll be week-to-week," O'Brien said Tuesday. "That'll be week-to-week, depending on what different things go on. You could see him at different spots throughout the offense, obviously, other than offensive line. He could play a lot of different places. It'll be week-to-week based on the game plan. We're pretty early this week, so I'd say I don't have any idea what that'll be this week. It'll be week-to-week."
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The handling of the quarterback room at One Patriot Place this year has been messy. Before the season began, the team released No. 3 passer Trace McSorley. Then as rosters were cut down to 53 plays, No. 2 quarterback Bailey Zappe was let go, not claimed on waivers, and brought back on the practice squad. Bill Belichick has brought in Matt Corral, Ian Book and the latest free-agent add, Will Grier. Zappe has re-signed to the active roster.
Then on Sunday -- less than a week after O'Brien made it clear to reporters that Cunningham had spent most of his time working at receiver in Patriots practices -- the undrafted rookie out of Louisville was the backup to Mac Jones.
Would O'Brien have been OK with Cunningham taking over for Jones if needed, particularly with Zappe designated as the emergency No. 3 option? ("Emergency" quarterbacks don't count against the game-day roster limit, but they can't play unless their team's top two passers have been ruled out due to injury or following an ejection.)
"Yeah. For that week, for that game, that's what we decided to do in that game," O'Brien answered. "I think it's week-to-week. I think what maybe you're asking is, have we lost confidence in Bailey? We haven't lost any confidence in Bailey.
"We felt like that was the best way to go about it for the Raider game based on where we were from an injury standpoint and things like that. 'How do we get Malik Cunningham into the game?' And that was the best way to get him into the game."
Getting an athlete into the game and figuring out how to use him is one thing. But putting Cunningham in a position where he was a snap away from having to lead an offense -- particularly when he's been juggling multiple offensive and special-teams roles since he joined the Patriots -- with his team's season hanging in the balance is entirely different.
Cunningham ended up playing six total snaps and three at quarterback. He was sacked once, he handed off to Rhamondre Stevenson once for a short gain, and he motioned out of the backfield once on Ezekiel Elliott's touchdown run.
"You put together a package of plays; you try not to overload him," O'Brien said of the team's handling of Cunningham. "They're plays within our system. They're not brand new plays. They're plays within our system. We try to do a good job. He's a very bright guy. He does a good job. He knows the plays, and he's gotten better every week."
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But had Jones been injured early in that game, or had he been removed for poor play, that would've theoretically forced Cunningham onto the field in a difficult spot as the team's trigger man, perhaps with some Wildcat snaps leaning on Patriots running backs mixed in. And had that not gone well, the results could not have been laid at the feet of the rookie. It would've spoken to a lack of preparation by the team, and a lack of insurance behind a tenuous starter at the game's most important position.
The Patriots avoided that scenario by Jones staying healthy, thanks in part to a plan that had him releasing the football faster and attacking in shorter bursts down the field than the vast majority of his fellow quarterbacks across the league in Week 6.
The question now is whether or not the team will commit to Cunningham in that same role as the season progresses. With only more practice time available to Cunningham moving forward, it'd be logical to assume that, yes, he'll remain Jones' backup. And that would make sense given his athleticism and the porous nature of the team's offensive line. Seeing what you have in a young quarterback with unknown upside seems like a reasonable approach.
But maybe the Patriots only liked Cunningham as the backup in the Raiders game specifically -- and they might've, since Las Vegas allows, on average, the third-most yards in the league (8.8) on designed quarterback runs and option plays this season, per Sports Info Solutions, Maybe Zappe or Grier will be allowed to take on the No. 2 gig against the Bills in Week 7. It's my understanding that while Grier has his supporters within the organization, he hasn't been able to do enough in practice to show his value as Jones' backup.
But O'Brien said on Tuesday that there are plenty of reps to go around for all four of his potential quarterbacks.
"The reps, they are limited in a way," O'Brien said when asked if he had to commit to a No. 2 just to get that player enough practice time to get ready.
"But we have a lot of reps here. We have post-practice things. We have ways to get three, four quarterbacks reps. We do that on a weekly basis. We'll do that today, tomorrow and for the rest of the time that we're here. These guys get a lot of reps. I don't think that's as big an issue as much as just, 'How are we going to use these guys in a game plan, whatever that game plan might be?' "
Anyone watching the Patriots and how they've handled the quarterback position this season would be justified in asking themselves the same thing. Because as up-and-down as Jones has been in his third season -- O'Brien said Tuesday that he would remain the starter this week -- there's nothing but question marks behind him on the depth chart.