As they stood together during training camp, dressed in their handle-with-care red jerseys, Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo reminded you why one quarterback received a scholarship from Michigan, the other from Eastern Illinois. The 6-foot-4 Brady seemed to tower over a replacement listed only two inches shorter, and yet their physical presence, side by side, projected a varsity-JV vibe.
Maybe that’s why the New England Patriots struggled to divorce themselves from a perfectly healthy Brady, who won’t suit up for the team’s first four games because of what the NFL said was his role in Deflategate. Coach Bill Belichick used his franchise player for the entire first half of the fourth preseason game, normally an occupational hazard too dangerous for high-end talent. The team slapped Brady’s oversize image on its Gillette Stadium lighthouse. And Julian Edelman likened the quarterback’s forced departure to “one of your buddies going to jail.”
When’s the last time a Patriot gave you a quote like that?
But the good New England news is that Belichick confronted this challenge once before, on the fly, when Brady wrecked his left knee in the first game of the 2008 season. Belichick was forced to turn to Matt Cassel, who had thrown 39 passes in his first three seasons in the NFL and a mere 33 in his four seasons at USC. Cassel led the Patriots to an 11-5 season, and in one of the greatest pro football injustices of them all, still didn’t do enough to earn a place in the playoffs.
Now a backup for the Tennessee Titans, Cassel told ESPN.com during training camp that observing Brady for three years “definitely benefited me when I took over for him. … It was his leadership and how he didn’t just speak to be heard. When he spoke there was a purpose to it. Some guys he’d pull over to the side in the locker room, other guys he’d get after on the field to make sure he’d push them that way.
“Tom really understood the different personalities on the team, and that there were different ways to lead them. Tom would also meticulously pick out plays and ask the right questions about them, up until right before the game, and I think his preparation helped me through my entire career. … It was amazing to see that. When I first got in the league I had no idea about his level of preparation. He doesn’t leave any stone unturned.”
Starting Sunday night in Arizona, where the Patriots open against the Arizona Cardinals without the injured Rob Gronkowski, we’ll begin to find out if Garoppolo has been the same kind of honor student in Brady’s classroom. Garoppolo is already on record saying that practice has been “a smoother operation” with Brady no longer hovering about. The kid clearly felt he needed every practice rep he could get.
So what to expect? Cassel said that during the 2008 season, Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels “did a great job tapering back [the game plan] and then adding things as we moved forward in the season when they became more comfortable with me and discovered what I was as a player.
“So I’d tell Jimmy, ‘Don’t try to be Tom. Obviously take things from Tom and incorporate some of the things you’ve learned by watching him, but understand there’s only one Tom Brady, and you’ve got to be yourself.’ Jimmy’s got great coaches around him, and they’ll put him in a great position. I remember Bill as being very consistent through my four years. We had bad injuries to key players, and throughout it all he stayed consistent and coached the same and wasn’t a different personality one way or another if a certain guy went down. He’s a coach who will tell you what you need to do to be successful.”
More than anything, Belichick is a coach who will neutralize your strengths, and cover his weaknesses, better than anyone in the league. If it’s unclear whether Garoppolo represents a weakness — he looked pretty good, not great, during the preseason — this much is certain: He is a weakness when measured against the alternative, Brady, who now fades to black.
Garoppolo isn’t going to Wally Pipp Brady the way Brady Wally Pipped Drew Bledsoe in 2001. But for these four games, the evidence suggests Belichick will simultaneously protect and elevate his backup-turned-starter enough to hand Brady a 3-1 record in Cleveland on Oct. 9, when Brady will surely make it 4-1 and start the Patriots rolling in an AFC East that for 15 years hasn’t produced a long-term quarterback who could challenge him. Thirty-eight different men have started at least one game for the Dolphins, Jets and Bills since Brady took over for an injured Bledsoe in 2001, and 37 of them failed to help their teams win a division title (Chad Pennington won for the 2002 Jets and 2008 Dolphins).
Brady is one of the division’s two indomitable forces, and it’s on the other one, Belichick, until he makes it back. Yeah, that could be a pretty good thing. “What I’ve always admired about Bill and the Patriot coaches is they have an answer for everything, and if they don’t have the answer that day they’ll have it the next day,” said Stephen Neal, the former Patriots lineman who now works as alumni relations coordinator in the wrestling program for Cal State Bakersfield, where he was an All-American wrestler and NCAA champion who defeated, among others, Brock Lesnar. Neal never played a down of college football, and yet Belichick developed him into a Super Bowl champ who started 81 regular-season games over eight years.
“So I’d tell Jimmy, ‘Don’t try to be Tom. Obviously take things from Tom and incorporate some of the things you’ve learned by watching him, but understand there’s only one Tom Brady, and you’ve got to be yourself.’ Jimmy’s got great coaches around him, and they’ll put him in a great position.”
Matt Cassel, former Patriots QB (2005-08)
“Football is a game of chess with live pieces,” Neal said, “and if you have your pieces do what you’re telling them to do, you’re going to win the game. It doesn’t matter if the pieces are the best. It matters if the pieces obey the coaches, and the Patriots have the best coach.”
Belichick has had quite a chess-board run with personnel over the years, and Neal’s story stands among his personal favorites. The Patriots coach used a fourth-round pick to replace an all-time great kicker (Adam Vinatieri) with someone who turned out to be just as good (Stephen Gostkowski). He molded a running college quarterback, Edelman, into a star NFL receiver, and, when injuries made it necessary, converted Edelman and Troy Brown into temporary defensive backs.
He’s not asking Garoppolo to do anything of the sort here. In fact, Belichick is merely asking his quarterback to do something he has done his entire football life; Garoppolo did break Tony Romo‘s records at Eastern Illinois and did become a second-round pick in 2014. He knows what he’s doing, and so do his coaches. Given Belichick’s history with Cassel, and McDaniels’ comments on how the Patriots won’t overextend their new first-stringer, the Patriots might start out with an approach as conservative as Ann Coulter.
Will it work, especially without a healthy Gronk? Hey, life would be so much easier with Brady under center rather than under suspension. Though the Patriots believe that they can replace his leadership by committee, and that Garoppolo has the requisite toughness to survive and even thrive in his first career starts, they know No. 10 won’t match up with No. 12, not even close.
But they still have Belichick, and a system of crisis management that seems to weather all storms. The Patriots were 18-1 and Super Bowl runners-up in their Spygate season, and they are 14-5 with a Super Bowl championship and AFC title game appearance since the dawn of Deflategate.
If you’re looking for a read on what the Patriots will do in the first quarter of 2016, here’s another place to look: Belichick started 3-1 without Brady in 2008, when the quarterback wasn’t coming back. The best bet says New England will lose in Arizona on Sunday night, beat the Dolphins, Texans and Bills at home, and then hand the ball to the tall, dimpled guy who knows how to take it from there.