During the first week of Patriots training camp, Bill Belichick made it clear there will be no quarterback controversy once Tom Brady returns from his four-game DeflateGate suspension. When he was asked if there was a chance Brady would lose his starting job, Belichick rolled his eyes and muttered "Jesus Christ."
But even though backup Jimmy Garoppolo doesn’t have a chance to supplant Brady as the Patriots’ starter, all eyes will be on the third-year quarterback this month. With Brady on the sidelines for the first quarter of the season, Garoppolo will be tasked with leading perhaps the most explosive offense in the league.
New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was asked recently about how the offensive game plan may be different with Garoppolo on the field. Though significant alterations are unlikely, he hinted the Patriots will probably change up some of their playbook to suit Garoppolo’s strengths better.
"I would think that we try to do the best job that we can do as a staff of trying to do that each week no matter who’s playing," McDaniels said, via NESN.com. "Whether that’s different tight ends playing this week, because we had some injuries, or a different running back, different offensive lineman or different quarterback. It’s smart football and good coaching, I think, to try to play to the talents that the players on the field have."
Garoppolo has attempted only 31 passes in his career, all when the game had already been decided. The last year Brady missed a start was 2008, when he blew out his ACL in the season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs. Matt Cassel stepped in at quarterback, and the Patriots were just hoping for a salvageable season at that point.
They finished with an 11-5 record but narrowly missed out on the playoffs, the only time in the last 13 seasons they haven’t won the AFC East. Garoppolo will be starting only four games and has a far different skill set than Cassel, but reviewing how the Patriots’ offense operated in ‘08 could serve as a glimpse as to how it will look through the first quarter of this season.
For the first six years of Brady’s career as a starter, the Patriots featured a relatively balanced offensive attack. But ever since they added Randy Moss and Wes Welker prior to the 2007 campaign, they’ve consistently been one of the most high-powered aerial shows in the league.
Over the last eight seasons, the Patriots have finished out of the top five in points scored on only one occasion. During that time frame, Brady has averaged roughly 37 passes per game, which is almost five more than he threw from 2001-06.
Though Eastern Illinois frequently ran four-receiver sets while Garoppolo played there, the Patriots probably won’t ask him to air it out nearly 40 times per contest. Cassel averaged a little more than 32 passes each game as a starter, which is likely closer to where Garoppolo will be.
Make no mistake: Garoppolo put up big numbers in college. He broke Tony Romo’s school record for completions in a single season in 2013, when he connected with his wideouts 375 times. In a recent interview with ESPN Radio, his college coach, Dino Babers, even compared him to Dan Marino.
"You take that accuracy and put it with someone who has the second-fastest release I’ve ever seen. The only release I’ve ever seen faster was Dan Marino’s," Babers said. "He has [the] second-fastest release I’ve ever seen. And you’ve got an outstanding quarterback."
The Marino comparisons may be a little much, but it’s clear the Patriots think highly of Garoppolo’s ability, too. Despite a closing championship window with Brady and far more pressing needs than a backup quarterback, they still selected him in the second round of the 2014 draft.
But even if Garoppolo does play well immediately, there’s little doubt the Patriots will feel Brady’s absence. Even at 38 years old, he was arguably the most productive quarterback in football last year, finishing with a league-leading 36 touchdown passes and the lowest interception percentage out of all starters.
With Cassel leading the way in 2008, the Patriots still managed to finish eighth in points scored. But they put up less than 20 points in four of his first five starts, so it took a while for the offense to jell. Given that Garoppolo is set to face three tough defenses — Arizona Cardinals on the road, Houston Texans and Buffalo Bills at home — it wouldn’t be surprising if the Patriots fail to eclipse the 20-point plateau at least a couple of times.
With Brady averaging around 37 passes per game over his last eight seasons, it’s not surprising that the running game has been an afterthought in New England. When perhaps the best quarterback in league history is under center, there’s no reason to hand the ball to somebody else.
But the number of rushing attempts could increase significantly with Garoppolo as the starter. Since 2007, the Patriots have averaged more than 30 rushes per game on only one occasion. Last year, they ran the ball an average of 23.9 times each week, their fewest since Brady took over as the starter.
A big reason why the Patriots were averse to running the ball last year were the injuries they suffered in the backfield. Dion Lewis, who was fourth in the league in yards from scrimmage at the end of September, was placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL in November. With him out of the mix, the Patriots were forced to rely on the unimpressive trio of LeGarrette Blount, James White and Brandon Bolden. Blount also got hurt, suffering a season-ending hip injury against the Texans in early December.
With Cassel in 2008, the Patriots averaged 32 carries per game. They may not reach those numbers this year — the only noteworthy acquisition they made at running back was bringing aboard reclamation project Donald Brown — but they’ll probably have a more balanced attack while Garoppolo is the starter.
Another area to watch is how often Garoppolo runs himself. Though he doesn’t have blazing speed — 4.97-second 40-yard dash time at the Combine — he did attempt 70 rushes during his senior season at Eastern Illinois. The Patriots could have Garoppolo scramble a little bit more in the pocket to add another dimension to the offense.
How much would an offensive downturn matter?
The Patriots are fortunate that other than a tough road game against the playoff-caliber Cardinals, three of their first four games are at home. They’ve won 83 percent of their games in Gillette Stadium.
It’s reasonable to expect the Patriots to win at least half of their contests without Brady. The key will be a blossoming young defense, which allowed the 10th-fewest points in the league last year.
With Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins at linebacker alongside emerging No. 1 cornerback Malcolm Butler and safety Devin McCourty, the Patriots have a defensive core that can carry it to victory. If they pick up where they left off, Garoppolo should just have to focus on managing the game in Brady’s absence rather than lighting up the scoreboard.