Jimmy Garoppolo, this year’s 2nd-round draft pick already being hailed as Brady’s successor, was one of only a handful of bright spots in last week’s loss at FedEx field. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound rookie did everything Mallett didn’t do, completing passes, keeping plays alive, showing poise and firing an accurate deep ball, connecting on 9 of his 13 pass attempts for 157 yards and a touchdown. The lone score came on a 26-yard strike down the left sideline to receiver Brian Tyms, a long shot to make the roster who wound up with 119 receiving yards while paired for Garoppolo.
Perspective is helpful in times like this. Mallett, in fairness, faced taller odds having to open the game against Washington’s defense, however, it’s a defense in flux after finishing dead last in the league last year in passing yards allowed, so, to some degree, it’s hard to say whether a quarterback would be better off taking his shots against the Redskins’ starters or the guys with a chip on their shoulder going all out to make the final cut.
In any event, Garoppolo entered the game at the right time. Washington led big, most of the key players were already out of the game, and the final two quarters were merely an opportunity for those aforementioned fringe players to make a positive first impression as cut-down day looms.
Regardless of who you’re rooting for in this battle – if you even have a horse in the race at all – it’s impossible to ignore Mallett’s struggles or Garoppolo’s flashes of brilliance. Since Brady won the first of his three Super Bowls in 2001, the Patriots haven’t invested much in the backup position. The fact they went as high as the second round to draft a quarterback this year shows they’re cognizant of Brady’s age (37) and their potential future without him.
Throughout Brady’s dominance, there’s never really been much of a battle among the backups. There was the whole Rohan Davey-Damon Huard thing in 2004, and that one season when Doug Flutie played behind Matt Cassel and tugged at everyone’s heartstring by converting a drop kick in 2006, but for the most part the Patriots haven’t even needed a backup, except the one year when Brady blew out his knee and Cassel started 15 games. Other than that, you’d be hard-pressed to even remember the guy who backed up Brady before Mallett arrived (hint: it was Brian Hoyer).
That culture has somewhat changed. Make no mistake, it’s not as if the Patriots never cared who won the backup job all those years when Brady rewrote the record books, but they at least had the luxury of knowing their ace would be in the lineup barring a complete catastrophe. This year is different. They’ve invested a lot of money in free agents in hopes of taking advantage of whatever Brady has left in that magical right arm, and, to some extent, his legs, which might need to move faster than ever playing behind an offensive line with so many question marks.
Garoppolo was never considered an NFL-ready quarterback during all the pre-draft analysis and when the Patriots shocked everyone by grabbing him in the second round, most experts figured he was a couple of years away from being dependable enough to be trusted as the primary backup. That alone might by Mallett another season as Brady’s consigliere, but the clock is ticking.
Preseason performance weighs heavily on the coaching staff when making final cuts. Garoppolo looked awful at times in practice, but flipped the switch when it counted on the field. That almost sounds Brady-like, as if he’s showing some of the intangibles the Patriots figured they were investing in when they drafted him in April. Whatever happens, it figures to be a fun ride for the next three weeks until final cuts are made. It’s been a while since we’ve had anything that resembles a quarterback controversy in New England. Enjoy it while it lasts.
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