Tom Brady’s suspension and Jimmy Garoppolo’s injury forced rookie Jacoby Brissett to start his first career game against the Houston Texans Thursday night. It’s a nightmare scenario for a team: A third-stringer with zero career games, starting against a frightening defense with a wide receiver as his backup on only three days of practice time.
New England, of course, did not win entirely because of Brissett. They won because their defense absolutely humiliated a Texans team that spent big on offense this offseason. Brock Osweiler looked more like a third-stringer than Brissett. Osweiler struggled to get the ball to DeAndre Hopkins, which is pretty much the easiest thing an NFL quarterback can be asked to do. They scored zero (0) points, so the Pats could’ve won if Brissett led the Pats on one field goal drive and farted around the rest of the time.
But Brissett did okay. He went 11-of-19 for 103 yards with no turnovers. If you'd like to come to your own conclusions about his play, every one of his throws and runs is in his video. He also ran for 48 yards, more than Tom Brady’s career high.
19 throws for 103 yards isn’t particularly efficient. That’s a Trevor Siemian-esque line. The Pats mainly set him up with slants and passes to the line of scrimmage. He missed on most of his difficult throws, and missed on a few of his easy throws too.
He looked about as good as a rookie QB drafted in the third round to be a third-stringer should look in their first game on a short week. If you had low expectations, he exceeded them. If you had high expectations, well, that was your problem. He’s got a strong arm and lots of potential, but he wasn’t a superstar Thursday night.
What amazed me wasn’t necessarily Brissett’s play, but the way the Patriots put him in a position to win. The first thing they did was put him in an enormous safe against a ferocious pass rushing team:
Cameron Fleming checked in as an extra OT 17 times. Lots of double teams with Bennett on Watt. (Clowney facing three blockers here.) pic.twitter.com/aeaJMJCdLJ— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurke_SI) September 23, 2016
With J.J. Watt on one side and Jadeveon Clowney on the other, the Patriots frequently played six offensive linemen and left Martellus Bennett in to block. On this play, Watt was facing two blockers and Clowney three.
The Patriots didn’t want Brissett to make bad decisions. You know what causes a rookie QB to make bad decisions? J.J. Freakin’ Watt running full-speed at them. It’s okay if that leads to guys not being open downfield. The Pats didn’t need that.
And the Patriots ran some plays designed for Brissett’s skills as a runner. Brissett isn’t fast -- his 4.94 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine was the second-slowest of any QB -- but he’s a lot better at running than Brady, who is statuesque in appearance and in his running capabilities. He’s big and hard to tackle, and showed he knew how to make smart decisions on option-style plays at NC State.
This is not a play the Pats normally run.
Imagine Brady running this play! It’s a triple option play, and it wasn’t the the only time the Pats ran it Thursday night. This play was by far the most successful, resulting in 13 yards and a first down.
Brissett had the option to pitch to Julian Edelman on the left, but ran right and faked a pitch to Brandon Bolden before cutting upfield for a big play.
This play is as simple as just asking the QB to run a certain way. Every player on the offense has a different responsibility on a play like this, compared to the dropback passes that usually form the backbone of the Patriots’ offense.
Brissett’s touchdown was another running play that forced the Texans to guess whether the ball would be going to the left or right side of the field. They guessed wrong:
It was the Patriots’ longest TD run by a quarterback since 1967. By halftime, Brissett had more rushing yards than Brady has ever had in any game in his entire career.
So, there are two options here. Either Bill Belichick designs plays for his third-string QB just in case, or he installed completely different philosophies from the Patriots’ typical offense in just three days of practice time.
Either option is ridiculous. But whichever one is the case, Belichick managed to get the Patriots good enough at running the plays well enough to beat a good NFL defense. And that’s even more ridiculous.
Belichick’s career will be defined by his handful of Super Bowl rings, but I’m more fascinated by smaller scale things like this. A lot of people dislike the gruff dude in the hood. But you can’t deny the brilliance of a guy who invented a gameplan for a third-string rookie in three days.
Without Brady, the Patriots are 3-0 with wins over two playoff-quality teams, and have 10 days to prepare for a dysfunctional Bills team. There will be Buffalo blood, and the Pats will likely emerge from Brady’s suspension unscathed.
Let us never forget that Brady’s suspension stems from an (alleged) equipment violation in a game New England won by 38. A team that good wasn’t winning because of any ball inflation tomfoolery, and a team that good won’t stop winning because of any punishments on them.