All eyes will be on the Patriots during that four-game stretch without Tom Brady, in which they face two other teams dealing with the suspensions of well-known players crucial to their success in 2015.
The NFL has upheld its ruling to suspend Tom Brady four games for his alleged role in the deflating of footballs to gain a competitive advantage. With that in mind, it's time to revisit the Patriots' plan without Brady for the first five weeks of the season, along with how the Steelers and Cowboys will get by in the absence of two other high-profile players in running back Le'Veon Bell and pass rusher Greg Hardy, both of whom had their suspensions reduced this month.
The fairness of the NFL's punishment of Tom Brady and the Patriots in the wake of the Deflategate scandal came under question at the start, and rightly so. Given Roger Goodell's wild inconsistencies in player discipline over the last year, the league hasn't exactly earned the benefit of the doubt. Suspending Brady four games, fining the Patriots $1 million, and taking a first-round pick in 2016 and a fourth-round pick in 2017 seems excessive to some, including many people with no rooting interest in the Pats.
But the news that Brady apparently ordered that his cell phone be destroyed as the Ted Wells investigation was gaining ground back in March was the primary reason that Goodell refused to consider a reduction in Brady's suspension. So, unless Brady can get a federal court to see things his way, he'll serve a four-game suspension at some point this season. And that puts backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo firmly in the crosshairs.
It's certainly a fortuitous coincidence for the league that Brady's first game back is set for Week 6 against the Colts—perhaps the ratings bonanza brought about by any New England-Indianapolis game with Brady at the helm informed the NFL's decision. All eyes will be on the Patriots during that four-game stretch, in which they face two other teams dealing with the suspensions of well-known players crucial to their success in 2015. New England's defense won't have to worry about facing the league's second-leading rusher from a year ago when the Steelers come to Foxboro on opening night, but the Cowboys' pass rush will not be shorthanded in its pursuit of backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo when the Patriots travel to Dallas in Week 5.
Here's how the Patriots, Steelers and Cowboys will most likely make do while their superstars are sitting out.
New England Patriots: Jimmy Garoppolo for Tom Brady
The Patriots selected Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 draft after the Eastern Illinois star broke all of Tony Romo's school records and won the 2013 Walter Payton Award as the FCS's top player. Garoppolo threw for 13,156 passing yards and 118 passing touchdowns in his career—fairly impressive numbers at any level of competition. The NFL was always going to pose a more advanced set of defensive challenges, but the Patriots clearly saw Garoppolo as a fine developmental option. The plan was for him to learn under Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, get some preseason and garbage-time reps, and perhaps develop into the kind of quarterback who could one day do the unthinkable and replace Brady as the starter.
"He’s got a lot of qualities that we admire in a quarterback," Belichick said of Garoppolo after making the pick. "He’s been a very productive player—little different level of competition, but hopefully he can make that adjustment. With the situation we have at quarterback, I think that we felt as an organization that we needed to address that to some degree in the future, so we’ll see how all that works out but I think you’re better off being early than late at that position."
Well, as Yogi Berra famously said, it gets late early out there. Garoppolo will be tasked with keeping the NFL's most complex passing offense on track. He did well in the 2014 preseason, and received most of his regular-season snaps in two games: New England's 41–14 blowout loss to the Chiefs at the end of September and the regular-season finale against the Bills, when the Patriots had their postseason seed set and pulled most of their starters entirely or in the second half of a 17–9 defeat. Garoppolo finished his rookie season with 19 completions in 27 attempts for 182 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Hardly definitive stats for the future, but the game tape shows some encouraging signs, along with some things in need of obvious improvement.
The obvious precedent for New England backups was set in 2008, when backup Matt Cassel helped the team to an 11-5 record after Brady suffered a torn ACL in the first half of the first regular-season game. New England's defense was better then, and Randy Moss was on the roster, but there was no Rob Gronkowski. Cassel had enough of an understanding of the Patriots' offense and its array of option routes to get things done, and from the way his coaches talk, Garoppolo is on the same path.
"I think Jimmy’s worked hard," Belichick said last December of his backup's work in practice. "He’s been consistent, he’s improved every week. He’s running different offenses for the scout team and having to keep up with what we’re doing in our installation and our game planning on a weekly basis, but he’s, again, been durable, been healthy, been out there every day, keeps getting better. He’s worked on a lot of things that we’ve identified for him to do. He’s gotten better. He certainly has, I think, a much better understanding of the league; these last three weeks have been good for him and probably a lot of the other rookies, too, just in terms of the second time around.
"So, kind of where we were the first time we played Buffalo to where we are now and sort of the better familiarity that he has, not only with the league, but in this team in particular, since we’ve already been through them once, I think that they can start to see, and as a coach you can see, that there’s a growth of understanding and the ability to process a lot of information. Same thing with the Jets last week or even Miami the week before; kind of the second time around. It’s not that same unfamiliarity as it was the first time. It’s been good."
Garoppolo's one touchdown pass came against the Chiefs when he connected with Gronkowski on a short crossing route against Kansas City's base defense. His day against Buffalo in Week 17 was a bit more difficult. Garoppolo came in for the entire second half and was sacked on three of New England's first eight offensive plays. Playing in front of an offensive line filled with scrubs had something to do with that, but it was also evident that Garoppolo is still developing the ability to make quick reads and get the ball out in time. That's not unusual at all for young quarterbacks.
The difference between Garoppolo and either Brady or Cassel—really, the difference between Garoppolo and any quarterback Belichick has coached in Foxboro—is that Garoppolo operates best when he has a moving pocket. He showed this with a 20-yard completion to Brandon LaFell in the third quarter.
You won't see a lot of slice play-action with Brady under center, which brings up an interesting schematic point. If the Patriots are able to expand the pocket with Garoppolo, it will make things far more interesting in the future whenever Brady hangs 'em up for good.
The other primary issue with Garoppolo's game is that he's not a great deep thrower, but as I detailed in an All-22 piece before Super Bowl XLIX, the Patriots have been dialing down the deep throws with Brady over the last few years. If Garoppolo can take command of New England's advanced route concepts and find composure in the pocket, Brady's suspension could be a relative positive in the long run.
Pittsburgh Steelers: DeAngelo Williams for Le'Veon Bell
Bell was hit with a three-game suspension in early April for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, which was subsequently reduced to two games on appeal, and that's bad news for a Steelers offense that was at a loss in the 2014 postseason after Bell hyperextended his knee in the regular-season finale. Pittsburgh was one-and-done in a 30–17 loss to the Ravens in the wild-card round, totaling 68 rushing yards on 19 carries without Bell in the game. Josh Harris led the Steelers with 25 yards on the ground on nine carries, and Ben Tate was equally. It's not easy to replace the guy who led the NFL in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage, but if the Steelers want to start the season hot, they'll have to find a way. Pittsburgh opens against the Patriots, 49ers and Rams—three stout run defenses in 2014.
As a contingency plan for Bell's injury status and possible suspension, the Steelers signed veteran free agent DeAngelo Williams to a two-year, $4 million deal in the off-season, and head coach Mike Tomlin projected him as Pittsburgh's primary reserve right away.
"I think his experience lends itself to our team makeup because we have a guy of the caliber of Le’Veon Bell, and DeAngelo has expressed his excitement about coming alongside Le’Veon and working with him and even helping him grow and develop as a player and a man," Tomlin said in March. "DeAngelo has some experience in that area, and I think there’s an intrinsic value in that."
Williams has been a productive back in the past, but the last season in which he topped 1,000 yards was 2009, and his yards per carry average has dropped in each of the last four seasons. He played in just six games last year due to injury and turned 32 in April. It's not wise to expect too much from a back on the wrong sides of the age and injury curves, but Tomlin believes in Williams from a historical standpoint—especially since Williams shared the load with Jonathan Stewart over the last few years.
"He’s always been a guy that’s been able to stick his foot in the ground and change directions," Tomlin said. "I still see that in his play in my tape study and I’m looking forward to getting around him on a day-to-day basis and developing it within our offense and team concept."
Williams is more of a between-the-tackles sustainer at this point in his career, while Bell has special agility and ability to move between gaps and separate from contact. But maybe there's enough life left in his legs to keep Tomlin's team on an even track. Pittsburgh didn't take any running backs in the draft, so it's clear that there's a lot of faith in Williams's potential.
Dallas Cowboys: Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory for Greg Hardy
When the Cowboys signed Hardy, the former Panthers star defensive end who missed all but one game of last season due to his own domestic violence issues, team owner Jerry Jones made it clear that he saw the transaction as a rehabilitative effort as much as a talent grab.
"We have spent a great deal of time over the last two days in meeting with Greg directly and gaining a solid understanding of what he is all about as a person and as a football player," Jones said in March. "A thorough background review of him, involving many elements of our organization, has been ongoing for the last few weeks. Obviously a great deal of our study was dedicated to the issue of domestic violence, and the recent events that associated Greg with that issue. We know that Greg’s status remains under review by the National Football League. Our organization understands the very serious nature of domestic violence in our society and in our league. We know that Greg has a firm understanding of those issues as well."
Of Hardy's one-year, $11.3 million contract, $9.25 million is tied up in how many games he plays in 2015. So when Hardy was handed a 10-game suspension that took the Cowboys off the hook for millions of dollars, the question remained: How were the defending NFC East champions going to establish consistent pressure on enemy quarterbacks? The Cowboys amassed just 28 sacks in 2014 after letting DeMarcus Ware walk in free agency before last season, and 2014 second-round pick Demarcus Lawrence amassed no sacks, one quarterback hit and nine quarterback hurries in just 17 pass-rushing snaps. Lawrence didn't play until November due to a broken foot, and although head coach Jason Garrett has said that he views Lawrence as a cornerstone player for the team, Jones wasn't averse to addressing the pass rush in the draft—especially when one particularly talented player started to drop due to personal issues.
The good news for Hardy and the Cowboys was that the league reduced his suspension to four games on appeal on July 10. But until he hits the field in Week 5 against a Brady-less Patriots team, Dallas will still have to make do.
The Cowboys selected Nebraska pass rusher Randy Gregory with the 60th pick, though Gregory clearly had first-round talent on tape. There were questions about Gregory's drug use, especially after he failed a test at the combine, and some teams were turned off by the fact that the 6'5" Gregory frequently played at under 230 pounds. Factor in the high number of edge-rushers in this draft class, and some guys were bound to drop.
"We had him very high on our board," Jones said after the pick. "He certainly represents a position of need. He’s an outstanding pressure player. All of that is very attractive. From the standpoint of risk, usually one way or the other, whether it’s going high in the draft, whether it’s taking some extra risk, you’re overpaying in one way or the other for what he has the potential to bring to the table. We got very comfortable in our discussions with him. He communicated well and communicated thoroughly with Coach Garrett. He communicated with [defensive coordinator] Rod Marinelli. I personally had some great visits with him.
"The bottom line is, we’re comfortable with that pick. If things work out, we have a support system in place. For a player of his caliber, that support system goes all the way to the top of our organization. We invest a lot in that support system, of our own assets and energy and time. I’m talking about individual time. I think we are better today than where we were in this area of support several years ago. I think it gives us enough confidence that we can work through some of the issues that have caused him to drop and maybe improve on that."
The real bottom line is that Jones, as is his wont, is taking risks and trying to balance character with talent. If it all works out, the Cowboys' defense could propel them far deeper into the playoffs. If not? Well, things are always interesting in Big D, win or lose.