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Patriots focus on Jimmy Garoppolo; Brady competitive as ever

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here we have the definitive statement on whether it is possible for Jimmy Garoppolo to supplant Tom Brady as the New England Patriots' starter during Brady's four-game suspension.

"Jesus Christ," Bill Belichick muttered in response.

And it's only Day 2. Belichick's exasperation may have sprung from the fact that he had addressed without prompting on Wednesday the issue of whether Brady could ever lose his job. And it's worth noting that one day after Garoppolo took the reps with the first team during 11-on-11 drills, it was Brady's turn, just as Josh McDaniels told us it would be -- the two quarterbacks splitting the reps about evenly, true to the Patriots' regular philosophy.

Still, there was an eye-catching moment in the middle of the Patriots' first practice of training camp this week. With fans still in their "Free Brady" T-shirts looking on, the Patriots lined up for their first 11-on-11 sequence, with Garoppolo steering the first-team offense against the first-team defense while Brady stood a few yards behind.

Belichick had stated the obvious earlier this week, that the priority of this camp is to get Garoppolo ready to start the first four games of the regular season while Brady serves his Deflategate suspension. The details of the prioritizing are still to be revealed -- who starts the preseason games is the most immediate one -- but this was a jarring snapshot of the oddity of the Patriots now. Garoppolo on the field with the first team, while Brady, having to kill time while the starters worked, chatted with his most faithful supporter, the team's owner Robert Kraft. For a few snaps, in the most important portion of practice, Brady was relegated to spectator.

As fleeting as this situation is, it can't possibly sit well with Brady, who, like all starting quarterbacks, jealously guards his snaps and his job. Brady has conducted himself over the last 15 years as if he is still a sixth-round draft pick constantly trying to stay on the roster. A measure of Brady's fierce competitiveness came Friday when he threw two straight incompletions in a 7-on-7 drill -- the last one of which was batted down by a team staff member waving an enormous paddle -- and he threw his helmet to the ground with both hands, sending the white ear pads flying like pieces of popcorn.

"Whatever circumstance you put Tom in, he's never going to change because he comes out to practice no matter what -- if he's suspended, if he's not suspended, if he's playing, if he's not playing -- no matter what the circumstances are I've never seen Tom Brady come out and not give it all in practice," Rob Gronkowski said earlier this week. "There's never any change in him. Whenever he's out on the field, he's giving it all and he's just such a competitor."

That Garoppolo is inevitably going to become the focal point of the team over the coming weeks has to be, at the very least, a further irritant in what has been the greatest trial of Brady's career. Brady's decision not to pursue the appeal of his suspension was a gift to the Patriots, who got what even Belichick admitted was important definition on Brady's availability. But don't mistake Brady standing down for him being at peace with what has transpired and what is still to come.

The Patriots are nothing if not pragmatic, and so Brady knows that he is about to be marginalized to a certain degree, as Garoppolo receives more and more of those first-team snaps the closer the opener draws, just as Brady gets cast out for a month. It is no wonder that when someone asked Garoppolo the other day for the best piece of advice Brady had given him, Garoppolo hesitated, couldn't summon an answer and said he'd have to get back to the questioner. There is nothing Zen about this situation.

Belichick has had two offseasons to contemplate how he would approach preparing Garoppolo to replace Brady. So far, Patriots practices have looked almost entirely normal. Brady spent some separate time working on red-zone passes with tight ends Martellus Bennett and Gronkowski, an early look at the nightmare scenario for opposing defensive coordinators. Brady and Garoppolo are alternating drills with various pieces of first-team units. But the pivot point is coming.

"It's a tough thing in camp that you've got to balance, and at some point you've got to turn the corner and get your players that are going to be ready to play, whoever those are, ready to play," Belichick said. "We're not there yet, but there comes a point in camp where you have to turn that corner."

The turn is approaching, and Garoppolo is going to take the wheel. In the meantime, the Patriots have to traverse this treacherous situation for a few more weeks. The counting of reps and the analyzing of drills will only grow more tiresome for everyone involved. But Brady chose this course to give the Patriots the best possible chance for another Super Bowl, to gain the assurance that he would not be suspended late in the season and that the Patriots would have plenty of time to get Garoppolo ready.

It may take a while for the raw anger to subside and the drama to dissipate, but the Patriots are in the process of making the best out of a bad situation. And in the first few days of camp, with both Brady and Garoppolo looking sharp and fueling hopes that this awkward handoff can keep the Patriots on course, it was even possible for Bennett to joke about the ease of juggling two important relationships.

"I've dated two girls at the same time before," he said. "That's the old Martellus, though."

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