The New England Patriots have not visited the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., since Feb. 1, 2015, the night they won Super Bowl 49 against Seattle. Quarterback Tom Brady strolled off the field with his right thumb lifted, his helmet raised in his left hand, a towel draped over his shoulder, and with a fourth Super Bowl victory and third MVP trophy.
The Deflategate investigation, even then, loomed.
It took a circuitous, bizarre full season afterward to culminate in Brady's NFL suspension for this season's first four games.
On Sunday night against the Cardinals, the Patriots are in Arizona once again -- minus Brady.
As peculiar about the symmetry in that is the avenue it created for Patriots third-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's first pro start. As an NFL player, you wonder when it will come, how it will come, what it will look like, how it will smell. This is what people inside the tent of the NFL mean when they talk about the wacky, fickle, astonishing nature of the league.
It is part of the beauty and beast of it -- stay tuned and you are not only going to see things you have never seen before, but often with a twist of torture and thrill.
I have been watching Garoppolo closely since he was drafted from Eastern Illinois in 2014 in the second round, the 62nd pick, the highest quarterback selection coach Bill Belichick has made entering his 17th season as Patriots head coach. Garoppolo turns 25 on Nov. 2. He walked through the door two years ago eager to watch and learn. Wide-eyed yet present. We would visit after Patriots games at his locker often while Brady was holding court over another prime performance and victory. Garoppolo was taking it all in. His mental note taking was specific. His ability to share his Patriots views was succinct and notable.
Brady was so good and entrenched and the Patriots were still winning so big that it looked as if it would take forever for Garoppolo's first New England start. Maybe it would never come, considering the way the Patriots wheel and deal players. Maybe an offer would come that Belichick could not ignore and ship him out.
But it is near. It's a four-game audition for Garoppolo since Brady returns for Game 5. It's still Brady's team, only, it is not for the next four games. It's Garoppolo's beginning on Sunday night in Arizona.
One foot in, one foot out.
An NFL starting quarterback -- until he isn't.
A chance to show he is Brady's deserving heir apparent. Or become the apple of another team's desire. Or bomb and blow it and drop off the NFL radar.
"You never know what the big man upstairs has in store for you," Garoppolo said after New England's final preseason game at the Giants on last Thursday night.
And you never quite know what the "big guy" who runs nearly all things Patriots has in store for you, either.
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That would be Belichick, who like Patriots owner Robert Kraft, is likely still fuming, still hot over the league's Deflategate discipline and decisions.
Each recent NFL season seems a Patriots renewed battle of us vs. them, a constant tugging at their integrity and a relentless labeling of them being consummate cheaters.
I know the Cardinals are not residing in that view. And while some Cardinals may feel that way, that is not their overriding view.
There is feeling among the Cardinals of respect for the Patriots' consistent winning. New England has what the Cardinals aspire to have -- a year-in, year-out presence as a team and franchise always in the Super Bowl conversation.
Arizona has averaged nearly 12 victories in each of the last three seasons. It reached the NFC Championship last season. But the Patriots in the season opener offer Arizona another measuring stick -- how do they stack up against the Patriot Way?
They expect the Patriots to pound them with inside runs and try to wear them down. They expect Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski to be a monster in this matchup. They look for crossing routes from the Patriots receivers and for that group to continue to be among the league's best at gaining yards after catches. They know the Patriots will take deep strikes on offense and that the Patriots defense will be firm.
In Garappolo, they see a quarterback who has arm strength, moxie and, most importantly, one who understands the Patriots system. Most of all, they know that he is chosen by Belichick and that this young quarterback would not be in this position if Belichick did not believe he was more than adequate. Their answer is to hit him and hound him. Their approach will be to make him think more than play free. Arizona knows that quarterbacks are human, too. That pressure diminishes them.
I look for the Patriots to use Garoppolo's fresh and young legs more, roll him out more than Brady, let him throw more on the move and even run more for first downs.
It's a team game, the Patriots insist, and Garoppolo doesn't have to do it all.
But everyone knows that, especially in the pro game, if your quarterback fails to execute, you are often cracked beyond repair.
So, just how will Garoppolo do?
People wonder. The startling thing is just how much the Patriots do, too.
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A survey of the Patriots locker room last Thursday night revealed how much the Patriots players are looking forward to Garoppolo answers just like the rest of us.
A sampling included ...
Safety Patrick Chung: "He's a good player, a smart dude. We've got to have him take care of the football. It's the first game, so no matter what happens, we all have to build off that. We're playing a good team. There are some things you just aren't going to find out until you take the field."
And this from cornerback Malcolm Butler: "This is a good team we've got to go play. This is a time to be on the field there for each other. He (Garoppolo) competes. He's in the NFL. That alone means something. But actions speak louder than words. It's not about talk, it's about looking to find out and see. Time will tell."
Who does that sound like?
Belichick, of course. He has long been a prove-it coach. He does not readily dispense crowns.
We all want to know just how Jimmy Garoppolo is going to do.
But not any more than the Patriots. They want to know.