In his three previous title defense seasons, Bill Belichick has consistently said that the New England Patriots don't have to "defend" anything. They get to keep their championship rings. He loves to remind us all that every season, every team starts from scratch.
That will be especially true in 2015. When Belichick addresses his players before facing the Pittsburgh Steelers on September 10, things will certainly feel different. Jimmy Garoppolo will be the team's starting quarterback. Tom Brady and the team's starting running back LeGarrette Blount will be suspended. Darrelle Revis will be playing for the Jets.
Brady's four-game suspension for violating the league's integrity of the game policy -- that was upheld Tuesday by Commissioner Roger Goodell -- is a new kind of challenge for a team that has proven expert over the years at overcoming personnel losses. They famously won 11 games with Matt Cassel at quarterback in 2008, and will surely use the NFL's steep punishment as a private rallying cry in the offseason. (And the regular season. And the postseason.) The team's surprise 2014 second-round selection of Garoppolo out of Eastern Illinois now looks monumentally fortunate. The Patriots want to start planning for life after Brady, and never imagined they would get a sneak preview so quickly.
So is Garoppolo up to the task?
It's never a good time for the Patriots to see Brady suspended, but it's uncanny how the Patriots have Garoppolo in place now to take the helm. He showed more promise in last year's preseason action than previous backup Ryan Mallett showed in four preseasons with the team. Garoppolo also had significant regular-season action.
Before the Super Bowl, Belichick cited the second half of the blowout loss to Kansas City as the team's turning point. Garoppolo was at the helm for the stretch run of that game.
We watched every single one of Garappolo's preseason and regular season snaps for a feature we did ranking the class of 2014 quarterbacks. While it wasn't a huge sample size, Garoppolo was remarkably consistent. He looked like a professional. He has a quick release and was mostly decisive.
Unlike a lot of young quarterbacks, Garoppolo showed an ability to go through his reads. He stayed in the pocket and often bought time. Unlike Brady, he sometimes created something out of nothing by evading free rushers.
Different skill set
The Patriots have all offseason and training camp to prepare Garoppolo for the first four starts of the season. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will tailor his game plan to Garappolo's strengths, which are certainly different than Brady's.
To put it another way: The Patriots ran a read option play with Garoppolo at quarterback last year. They also called a quarterback run to the outside later in the game. Those aren't calls you'd ever make with Brady at the helm.
Garappolo's private quarterback coach Jeff Christensen relayed a conversation with Belichick this offseason that was telling.
"I talked to Bill (Belichick) at the combine, and I asked him how Jimmy was doing," Christensen told WEEI. "He said '(Jimmy) looks like a linebacker. He works out like a linebacker. He acts like a linebacker. I really like him a lot, coach. You did a great job with him. Thank you.'"
This is not 2001, when Brady replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe in Week 2 of the season. The Patriots brass had already started to lack faith in Bledsoe then; no one is coming for Brady's job. It is fair to say, however, the Patriots are high on Garappolo, and will be confident that they can win games with him. He played like a guy that will have a long future in the league. He just can't be expected to carry the team at a time when the secondary has also undergone a dramatic overhaul.
The Patriots traditionally play their worst in September, figuring out what they do well as they go. The opening four-game run of the season is challenging. This is an organization that has largely been defined by its ability to adapt in any situation. It's on Belichick and Garoppolo to make the best of another bad situation.
If they do it well enough, perhaps the Patriots can someday recover that first-round pick lost in the NFL's punishment by dealing Garoppolo away.