Can Jimmy Garoppolo Handle the Heat?
While most of the country reacted to Tom Brady’s suspension with applause, guffaws or rage depending on the viewpoint, pockets of the Midwest loyal to Jimmy Garoppolo, pride of Eastern Illinois University, quietly rejoiced. If Brady’s four-game suspension holds, and even if it's reduced, Brady's second-year backup will get a shot to justify the second-round draft choice Patriots coach Bill Belichick spent on him in 2014.
The situation is unrivaled in the game’s short history—a former I-AA quarterback without a start to his name, filling in for a banned all-time great in a season opener. “There’s no precedent for this,” says Roy Wittke, the former EIU offensive coordinator who recruited both Garoppolo and Tony Romo to the school, “but I believe in him and his work ethic, and I believe in that organization’s ability to support him.”
A key component of that support will likely include the 6-2, 226-pound Garoppolo getting the lion's share of practice reps over a three-time Super Bowl MVP who is accustomed to being the only show in town. If it's true, as ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported in Week 5 last year, that there was friction between Brady and the Patriots staff concerning his future with the club, the new dynamic this year brought on by Brady's own malfeasance won't help. There's a potential for tension that no one could have imagined when the Patriots made the insurance-policy selection of Garoppolo 12 months ago.
Belichick has a delicate choice to make: Just how much work will an inactive Brady get as he enters his 16th season? In the past the coach has afforded backup quarterbacks minimal practice reps in a league that has curtailed offseason practices under the terms of the 2011 CBA. Said one former Patriots offensive player: “In the offseason, two-a-days are gone. Backups have to keep themselves ready by practicing on the scout team. But in season, backups would rarely get reps. Like, rarely."
It bears repeating: We're in uncharted waters.
Here’s a look at the mountainous challenge in front of Garoppolo, the 23-year-old from Arlington Heights, Ill.
- Garoppolo, who didn’t have a playbook in college, is now charged with commanding one of the most complex systems in football, heavy with option routes. "There's not much simplifying," Garoppolo said last year. "You gotta know what you gotta know.”
- He has little game experience—27 regular season passes with 182 yards and a touchdown.
- He’ll play behind an offensive line that in 2014 relied heavily on the 37-year-old Brady’s quick release to appear competent, allowing only 21 sacks while grading out as the fourth-worst pass blocking unit in football by Pro Football Focus. (Brady was the league's fourth-fastest passer from snap to attempt.)
- He faces the Steelers (11-5 in 2014) in a pressure packed Thursday night opener, then division-challenger Buffalo, Jacksonville, and finally Dallas (12-4 in 2014).
So what experience will Garoppolo draw from as he prepares for the professional challenge of a lifetime? The last time Jimmy was thrown into the fire he was an 18-year-old freshman on an 0-3 team fresh off a conference title. Garoppolo beat out a JUCO transfer sophomore for a Sept. 25, 2010, home start vs. Jacksonville State at Eastern Illinois’s 10,000-seat stadium in Charleston, Ill. (It’s a far cry from Thursday night at Foxboro, but it will have to do).
“At that point we were not doing so well,” says former EIU coach Bob Spoo, now retired, “and we could see the potential in Jimmy, so we started him. He had a remarkable quick release. That’s what he had that the others did not—that was the deciding factor.”
The two-star pocket passer with offers from Illinois State and Montana State struggled early, tossing a second quarter interception against the Ohio Valley Conference favorites. And the woes continued throughout a 2-9 season.
Garoppolo’s first four starts:
Coaches stuck with him, refusing to burn the redshirt year for nothing, and he finished that first year with 14 touchdowns and 13 INTs. “He was a reps guy,” Wittke says. “He needed reps in practice. He was a guy who was going to benefit by playing. For fear of sounding disrespectful to him, some guys can see things from an abstract standpoint, but he does better when he sees things on the field. That was just my experience with him, but that was four or five years ago.”
“He made some good plays, but we were not a very good football team and we did not have a good cast around him. It was a tough situation to put a freshman in, but he showed poise and didn’t panic.”
Coaches finally saw the light flip on halfway through Garoppolo’s sophomore season. He went on to start all four years, improving incrementally and peaking with 53 touchdowns and nine interceptions as a senior. But instead of four years, he’ll have four weeks to prove his salt in the NFL.
If it works out, and Brady returns to a .500-or-better club, Belichick looks smart for spending the 62nd pick of the 2014 draft on a quarterback. If Garoppolo struggles, and the Patriots go, say, 1-3, it would be the second time Brady took a losing record into the Patriots’ fifth game. (The first time, in 2001, he led New England to a Super Bowl XXXVI victory).
Those who know Garoppolo are optimistic that it won’t come to that.
“In college, he took things in stride,” Wittke says, “didn’t show a lot of emotion, wasn’t a guy who would come off the field and throw his helmet. He had a great sense of calm. This will be a hell of a lot bigger stage, but he’s grown and he’ll handle it.”
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