It was Jimmy Garoppolo Time last night. A lot of it. And it was a long night for Jimmy Garoppolo. Taking over at the tail end of the first quarter, after Tom Brady had managed just 7 snaps and was clearly frustrated that his receivers couldn’t catch the ball, Garoppolo didn’t have much more luck. A combination of poor receiver play and errors led to a sub-par performance for the young backup, and the Patriots only managed to put 11 points on the board, its only touchdown coming on a 55-yard rumble by running back Jonas Gray. That being said, it’s also preseason week one; there were bound to be some hiccups. So, as Patriot Nation looks towards the regular season with the real possibility that Garoppolo Time will last through the first four regular season games, let’s see what we can gleam from his first extended action on the field.
The Good: Poise. Poise is an important part of being a quarterback; all champions have it. The ability to take a sack, pop up, and throw a completion against the next blitz you face. The ability to not let drops and the mistakes of those around you get into your head. The ability to take on every play, make mostly smart decisions, and attempt to play a mistake free game. Garoppolo has poise in spades.
The arm. Garoppolo has a fantastic arm and a very natural throwing motion that reminds me of a combination of Russell Wilson and Philip Rivers. He doesn’t quite have the cannon that Wilson has or the pinpoint accuracy of Rivers, but he has a beautiful deep ball and a very quick release. If he can hone these skills, he can be a very good QB.
The feet. Garoppolo offers an element at quarterback that Patriots fans haven’t seen in a long, long while: the ability to make plays with his feet. He is a much better athlete than Brady and his ability to stretch defenses with his legs will be an interesting facet to watch moving forward. I could see the Patriots using him the same way the Packers use Rodgers or the Seahawks use Wilson, with lots of play action roll-outs that get him out of the pocket and into space.
Accuracy. Garoppolo was 15-17 in the second half, albeit with no TDs and an interception (that was his fault, not Boyce’s, more on that later). At one point he hit 9 in a row. Once again, we are seeing that the building blocks are there – he just needs to put them together. And given that he has, at least, 2 more seasons before he has any shot of taking Brady’s job, that’s totally fine.
The Bad: Jimmy Garoppolo is still learning the offense; that much is clear. As the announcers repeated a painful number of times last night, Garoppolo played his college ball at 1-AA Eastern Illinois, and despite putting up huge numbers there (57 touchdowns his final year), he played in a spread-style offense where he usually threw to his first or second read, and wasn’t required to make adjustments based on the defense, or even learn a playbook. So the complicated Patriots offense, in which most plays contain multiple option routes, motions, and audibles, is a big step up for him. It’s not surprising to see him still struggling with this, and he looks every bit as competent as, say, former Heisman-winner Johnny Manziel (who came from a similar offense), so let’s not get too down about it. He has a month and three more preseason games to hone his command of the offense.
What goes along with that is decision-making. Garoppolo did a good job of progressing through his reads, often finding his second-or third look open. The problem is that he was often forcing balls into windows that were too tight, and he had Boyce open a number of times downfield and missed about four throws that could have gone for touchdowns. At least one of them was Boyce’s fault, but another two were nearly picked if Boyce hadn’t made a defensive play. One thing I think to look for is for McDaniels to institute a small-ball offense moving forward, with more checkdowns and fast reads, getting the ball out faster and allowing Garoppolo to get a bit of a rhythm going. They did that at the beginning of the second half and he managed to complete nine in a row and create some nice movement on offense, albeit without any scoring plays.
Just for Garoppolo, I’ll include his supporting cast in here. The O-line was terrible, the wideouts left a lot of plays on the table (looking at you, Josh Boyce), and James White, for whatever good he did with the ball in his hands, was a complete disaster in pass protection. I think it’s fair to speculate that we would have seen a much better overall performance if he had the starting O-line and was throwing to Gronk, Edelman, and Lafell.
The Ugly: There are two points of “ugly” for Garoppolo in this game. The first is the seven sacks. Anytime you see an absurd sack count like that, you can’t just blame it on the O-line. It’s Garoppolo’s job to recognize an incoming blitz and have a quick slant or similar type route to get the ball out within two seconds of the snap. It’s little details like that which make Tom Brady who he is, and that’s the scary part of looking at 4 games without Brady. I commend the Patriots for giving Garoppolo a lot of rope to make his own mistakes here, and I expect that, in a regular season game, McDaniels will call more plays with those types of quick reads in order to have Garoppolo get the ball out faster, but it was good to throw him in the fire and force him to do it himself – like any good starting QB in the NFL does. Again, it’s a learning process, and there’s a long way to go.
Secondly, you could argue that the interception wasn’t his fault (because Boyce could have made a better play on the ball), but I disagree. The throw was in a poor location – on a comeback route like that the ball needs to be out on the sideline where only the receiver can make a play, and it was far too inside. It also was way too late, and that illustrates another problem Garoppolo has. Those “anticipatory throws” that an NFL QB needs to make (i.e. releasing the football before a WR is out of his break so the ball is delivered with perfect timing) are not quite there yet. Again, a result of his college offense. He also should have had two more picks on sorely underthrown fade routes along the right sideline to (you guessed it) Josh Boyce, both of which would have gone for easy touchdowns if Garoppolo had put more air under them. In those situations Boyce actually made good plays to stop what could have been easy picks.
Overall Takeaway: I don’t want a quarterback controversy in New England. I am completely fine with the stage of development that Jimmy Garoppolo is at and I think he is right on schedule. There’s a reason he wasn’t a top-5 pick coming out of college, and it’s because he has a lot of work to do to be a good NFL quarterback. Luckily, the Patriots have this guy named Tom Brady to come in as the unquestioned starter, so it’s not worrying. The takeaways from this are: there’s a lot of good here, but it needs to be honed and refined. It’s a learning process, and Garoppolo is learning. I expect him to get a lot of reps during the preseason (especially because he is the undisputed #2, and we’re unlikely to keep a #3 on the roster), and to improve there. If he has to start 4 games, he’ll be serviceable.
Quick Hits and Other Thoughts: I thought it was interesting how much work Josh Boyce got last night. It seems clear to me that he’s a bubble candidate for a roster spot, and a player they think could be a valuable deep threat for this team. They want to see him make plays. Overall, he was extremely disappointing on offense but showed more than enough to make the team as a kick returner. It will be interesting to see his opportunities once Dobson and Tyms are back. Super Bowl Hero Malcolm Butler (that’s now his full name) looked quite good for the two possessions he played, getting beat on one quick, well designed slant, but otherwise staying in perfect position and making some nice plays on the left side of the field. He’s not Darrelle Revis, but he shows the makings of a very solid #1 corner, which is good news for the Patriot’s decimated secondary. There was some nice speed shown by Jonas Gray on his 55-yard touchdown run. He’s lost some weight, worked hard, and picked up some speed. We could see a lot more of him this year, depending heavily on Blount’s knee. Trey Flowers and Jabaal Sheard both looked like great pickups, showing a nice mix of power and agility on a couple sacks of Aaron Rodgers. Flowers left the game with a mysterious injury, but the replay made it look like he just got kneed in the gut, so hopefully there is no lingering effect there. James White made some very nice plays with the balls in his hands. Vereen-esque, I’d say. But while his quickness and speed are there, he is much smaller than Vereen and his pass protection is abysmal. At one point he straight up missed a block that led to a sack, and multiple times I saw him get bowled over by an oncoming lineman, so that is still a work in progress and I’d expect to see Branden Bolden serving a bigger role to start the season (he was injured and out last night). There isn’t much else worth commenting on. After all, it was just the first preseason game, and we only got to see the players that matter really for the first quarter. I’ll reserve any team judgment until real games start happening.