Thanks to a four-game suspension for tampering with footballs, the Patriots are expected to start the season without their star quarterback, Tom Brady. Brady is fighting the suspension hard – he has already appealed, and reports indicate that he’s even ready to sue the NFL over the punishment – but it’s not clear that he can win this battle off the field. That leaves the Patriots in the unique position of having to use their backup quarterback in the season’s opening games. That quarterback’s name is Jimmy Garoppolo, and he’s a second-year player out of Eastern Illinois.
Patriots fans tend to be pretty optimistic about Garoppolo’s chances, and why not? The last time they had to go without their star was 2008, when Brady was injured in Week 1 and could not return. The team went 11-5 with backup Matt Cassel, though they missed the playoffs. Brady himself was a backup behind Drew Bledsoe before he became a star. Patriots fans have been conditioned to expect great things out of their backup QBs.
But how good is Garoppolo, really? Are these high expectations reasonable? Let’s get to know the Patriots’ backup and probably Week 1 starter.
Garoppolo is from Illinois. He played college ball at Eastern Illinois, the same school that Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo once attended. Romo set a record for career pass completions at Eastern Illinois, but Garoppolo beat it in 2013, as a senior. At Eastern Illinois, Garoppolo’s role in an up-tempo offense earned him praise for his accuracy and football IQ.
Garoppolo’s college career and status as a passing prospect were good enough to make him a second-round pick when the Patriots snagged him in 2014 with the 62nd overall pick. That’s the highest they’ve drafted a quarterback since Drew Bledsoe, who was the team’s first pick and the first pick overall in the 1993 NFL draft.
We’ve seen Garoppolo play at the NFL level, but never in a very close game. The quarterback got to see some action during his rookie season last year, starting with an appearance in Kansas City (a loss that was out of reach before Garoppolo ever got in the game). All told, Garoppolo attempted a total of 27 passes over the course of 6 games. He completed 19 of them, for a total of 182 yards and one touchdown (to Rob Gronkowski, against Kansas City). His passer rating for the season was 101.2. Those aren’t mind-blowing numbers, but Garoppolo looked pretty good, and it’s hard to fault him for a performance off the bench in blowout games.
Garoppolo’s strengths include his quick release and precise accuracy, two traits that make him a good fit for the NFL in general and the Patriots in particular. At Eastern Illinois, he tended to throw a lot of quick, short passes. His arm strength has been questioned, but the current iteration of the Patriot’s offense doesn’t rely on very long routes. It goes without saying that Garoppolo won’t be as good as Brady – he probably never will be – but he will be a legitimate starter next year, especially if the Patriots can use their running game, bolstered by last year’s mid-season reunion with LeGarrette Blount, to take some of the pressure off.
The Patriots’ first four games are against Pittsburgh, at Buffalo, against Jacksonville, and at Dallas. The Pittsburgh game should be winnable – like New England, Pittsburgh has a major star (Le’Veon Bell) missing the game because of a suspension. Facing a much-improved Buffalo team will be tough, however. Expect Garoppolo to take care of Jacksonville, and mark your calendars for the Dallas game. If Brady’s suspension stands, that game will be a showdown of great former Eastern Illinois quarterbacks.
[Photo by Darren McCollester / Stringer / Getty Images]