Tom Brady’s suspension threw a weird kink into the New England Patriots’ season, but it seemed like one they could handle. They’d been grooming Jimmy Garoppolo for years. If he could be serviceable for four games and get to Brady’s return with three or even four wins, the Pats would be in wonderful shape to make the playoffs. And Garoppolo was serviceable — if not better.
But now Garoppolo is hurt and we have an even weirder kink in the Patriots’ season. On Tuesday, the team worked out two quarterbacks, but opted not to sign either. And on Thursday night, Garoppolo was officially listed as inactive.
That means that the Patriots will play the Texans with rookie Jacoby Brissett as the team’s only truly healthy available quarterback, a scenario teams pretty much never allow themselves to get into. What would happen if Brissett got hurt? The Patriots appear to have only other option:
The #Patriots have done extensive preparation over the past few days to get WR Julian Edelman ready as the backup QB. It may actually happen— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) September 21, 2016
Ahh yes, former Kent State quarterback/current Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman. We know he can throw the ball — he had a TD pass in the 2014 playoffs:
Of course, Bill Belichick is famously tight-lipped. He refuses to acknowledge anything about whether Edelman is prepping at QB. But NESN noticed that Edelman during Sunday's game against Miami, he tossed the ball alongside Brissett without wearing WR gloves — a sign he was taking the throws as a warmup rather than a simple throwing partner. Brady, for his part, says Edelman would be hyped about the prospect of playing QB, while Edelman himself has downplayed it, saying there’s a reason he isn’t an NFL quarterback.
The thing I admire most about Belichick as a coach is his dedication to crafting strategies around the weird skills his players possess, things other coaches might ignore.
Sometimes it works brilliantly. Some probably saw Jamie Collins as a position-less prospect on an 0-12 college team. Belichick saw him as a Swiss Army knife and now he's a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. I swooned over how Belichick messed with eligibility rules in the 2014 playoffs — sometimes setting linemen loose for receiving touchdowns, sometimes leaving wide receivers in to block. Receiver Troy Brown played cornerback for a while (as did Edelman for a second) and it worked out really well, as he picked off three passes during the season and the Pats won the Super Bowl.
Sometimes, it looks kinda dumb, like when he asked converted rugby player Nate Ebner to try a drop kick in an actual NFL game like it was 1937.
Edelman being forced into action at quarterback would be the ultimate test of Belichick’s craftiness.
I really hope Brissett doesn’t get injured. I liked him at NC State -- I didn’t like him at Florida, but that’s because Florida quarterbacks under Will Muschamp all universally looked like fartbuckets, but that's besides the point. He’s big, strong, and not slow. A lot of Pats fans probably assume he’s bad, because his entrance to Sunday’s game against the Dolphins coincided with a vicious Miami comeback, but I’d say that had more to do with the Pats’ defense than Brissett’s 6-of-9 passing performance.
But there’s a part of me that’s intensely curious to see how the Patriots would function offensively with Edelman at QB. It’s a situation entirely caused by the idiosyncrasies of Bill Belichick, the NFL’s weirdest — and probably best -- coach, and I’m fascinated by whether he could make it work.
So how soon until Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy?
The Patriots won’t say much publicly. Remember, this is the team that listed Tom Brady on their injury report for three years for no particular reason. They’re not exactly forthcoming with injury info and it's uncertain when Garoppolo will be able to return.
Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reported that Garoppolo can barely lift his arm, but that the team was still urging him to be available to play Thursday night. They reportedly told him about how Brady played through similar injuries — misleading, since the only time Brady has ever been reported as having an AC joint sprain, it was in his non-throwing arm.
From the outside, it seems like Garoppolo is nowhere near ready to play, especially after he didn't even dress Thursday night. But the Pats obviously don’t want anybody to know either way.
What typically happens when a team runs out of quarterbacks?
A team can live through almost any injury. A kicker gets hurt, the punter can do an okay job. Cornerbacks can slide in at safety. Running backs can fill in as slot receivers. Offensive guards can fill in as offensive tackles. Hell, blocking tight ends can even slide in at offensive tackle. A team has enough backups that it’s almost impossible for any single injury — or even group of injuries -- to cripple a team.
But if you run out of quarterbacks, you’re kinda screwed. (I have a similar theory about long snappers, but that’s another story.)
Think about the wildcat formation. You know how it ... well, how do I say this ... never ever ever works? The mere threat that a team can potentially throw the ball is hugely important for an offense. In the Wildcat, there is no threat, and teams clue in on the guy with the ball pretty quickly.
This is why on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard-line, a team still has a QB line up under center, hand the ball off, and run away, adding absolutely nothing to the team’s vital blocking efforts. The threat that he might throw is more valuable than an 11th blocker, even on a play where blocking is of the utmost importance.
So teams make sure they have two or three quarterbacks: They're incredibly important, nobody else can replicate what they do, and most importantly, they're fragile.
In college, teams sometimes run out of quarterbacks over the course of a season. It happened to Baylor last year, and they ended up running the single wing with a wide receiver under center in against Texas . (The single wing is pretty much the only football thing older than the drop kick. I’m sure Belichick loved it.)
But unlike college teams, NFL teams can add players to their roster. And they know even a bad QB is better than no QB. That’s why Cleveland signed Charlie Whitehurst this week to ensure the team had an insurance plan should third-string-turned-starter Cody Kessler get hurt.
So far as I can tell, the last time a true emergency quarterback was forced into play was in 1990, a game known as "The Body Bag Game." The team’s starting QB, Mark Rypien, was hurt before the game, and backups Jeff Rutledge and Stan Humphries got hurt during the game. That left them with no available quarterbacks. They turned to RB Brian Mitchell, a rookie who had played QB in college. He completed three passes! But the team lost, 28-14.
That game caused the NFL to add a rule allowing teams to let a third QB enter the game if necessary even if the player wasn’t listed as one of the 45 active players on the roster. In 2011, that loophole was eliminated, and teams can now have 46 active players. Normally, teams ensure they have enough guys suited up that they can last through a QB injury — or two.
I can't think of a team going into a game with just one QB like the Patriots are set to do. It's very, very, very risky.
Why don’t the Patriots just add another QB?
The quick answer is that the Pats probably doubt they can integrate a QB into their game plan in just two days. Maybe they figure Edelman, with a base understanding of the system, would be more suited at QB than a replacement-level guy who has no idea what's going on. But there's a longer answer about Bill Belichick's opinions on roster math, and how the Brady suspension messed with them.
Remember when the Patriots brought Tim Tebow in to preseason camp in 2013 and he didn’t make the cut? Remember who beat him out for the third-string job?
That’s right — it was nobody. The Patriots’ quarterbacks that year were Brady, Ryan Mallett, and not Tim Tebow.
Belichick hasn’t carried three quarterbacks on his roster since 2011. The last two years the Pats only carried Brady and Garoppolo. The two years before it was just Brady and Mallett. And in 2010 and 2009, it was just Brady and Brian Hoyer. That's six of the last seven years. If it wasn’t for Brady’s suspension, it seems probable the Pats wouldn't have even added Brissett.
The Patriots clearly view using roster spots on backup quarterbacks as a negative. For every QB they keep to sit behind Brady, they have to release a player at another position. They’ve determined to be valuable. It would pain Belichick to get rid of somebody to carry a fourth quarterback for two weeks.
So is Julian Edelman a good quarterback?
As mentioned, Edelman did play QB at Kent State. Here’s his highlight reel:
Not bad, huh!
But, remember: That’s a highlight reel. Edelman threw more interceptions than touchdowns in college. He completed just 54.5 percent of his passes. His Kent State squads went 15-23 in his three years at QB, and that was in the MAC. Edelman was a great playmaker with an OK arm who excelled enough at running the ball that his teams were sorta competitive in a mid-tier conference.
Edelman is better throwing the ball than most of us. But even watching his highlight video, you can tell his most effective asset was never his passing ability. His strengths were his speed and his ability to make good decisions on whether to give or keep the ball on reads and options.
He’s not better at throwing the ball than most quarterbacks. His height and lack of throwing capability saw him go unrecruited out of high school. He went to the College of San Mateo, where he ran for more touchdowns than he threw and earned a scholarship from Kent State. Playing in junior college is not a sign that a QB can’t play in the NFL -- Aaron Rodgers loves to talk about how he went to Butte Community College before he made it to Cal. But in Edelman’s case, the same reasons teams passed on him out of high school are reasons he probably wouldn’t work as a full-time NFL QB.
As currently situated, there aren’t a whole ton of plays like the ones Edelman ran at Kent State in the Patriots’ offense. They mainly bank on Brady (or Garoppolo) completing passes from the pocket. Their run game has historically been an afterthought to their elite air attacks, a slew of semi-interchangeable running backs taking advantage of big holes created by the fact that defenses focus their attention on stopping Brady from destroying them. Nobody would be intent on stopping Edelman from destroying them through the air.
Could the Patriots win a game with Edelman at quarterback? It’s unlikely. He wasn’t a great quarterback in college, and that was playing with a system drastically different from the one the Patriots use.
But Bill Belichick is a football genius. He’s done weirder things, and I wouldn’t totally rule out his ability to make this one work if given a few days to think about it.