Every backup quarterback awaits his opportunity, and sometimes -- especially when you're playing behind one of the all-time greats -- that opportunity seems like it'll never come. But for New England Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo, the time is now.
After sitting behind Tom Brady for the past two seasons, Garoppolo will take the starting reins due to the four-time Super Bowl champion's four-game suspension.
Taking the place of an accomplished quarterback has its challenges. Back when I was playing for the Patriots in 2001, I saw firsthand how Tom, a sixth-round draft pick in 2000, handled assuming the top role when Drew Bledsoe, our team's starter for the previous eight seasons, was knocked out of our Week 2 game by a vicious hit.
Now, I don't want to act as though the 2001 and 2016 situations are the same -- because they aren't -- but there are some similarities.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has made it very clear that Brady will get the start when he returns in Week 5 -- no matter how well Garoppolo plays in those first four games. Meanwhile, in 2001, Bledsoe was the organization's all-time passing yards leader, had led the team to Super Bowl XXXI and had just signed a 10-year, $103 million contract in the preceding offseason. I'd be lying if I said that we, as a locker room, thought Tom was going to outright win the starting job, keeping Drew on the bench when he was cleared to play in Week 11. In Tom's first several games, he didn't light up the stat sheet, but we gradually saw him take the next step in his confidence, play and in the level of focus in his approach to work. As someone in that locker room, I didn't expect Tom to instantly become the man -- like Drew was at the time -- but to at least be consistent and not a significant drop-off. And Tom was a reliable quarterback because of his dedicated approach.
Jimmy is more than capable of being the signal caller New England needs early in the season. The next two months represent an audition for Jimmy to prove he belongs in this league. After watching Tom make the most of his opportunity 15 years ago, I'd like to supply three tips for Jimmy as he approaches his first NFL start:
1) Prepare, prepare, prepare. Any great quarterback -- any great player, for that matter -- will say success begins in the classroom. Since coming off the board as a second-round pick in 2014, Jimmy has been learning behind one of the best to ever play this game -- an ideal situation for any young quarterback. He's had two full seasons to learn the playbook, so he should be well-prepared heading into this season. From experience, I know Tom puts pressure on everyone around him to be better in every aspect of the game. When I played with Tom, he never took a day off and was always doing more strength and conditioning exercises than required. When it came to the film room, Tom was (and still is) always trying to understand the opposing defense better than the guys who play in it.
Jimmy has watched Tom work and learned what it takes to become a great quarterback. Now that this young player is running the offense through early October, he must take the necessary time to thoroughly prepare and digest the game plan. If he doesn't, it will show on game day.
2) Take a leadership role on the field. Without question, it's tough to manage and lead a locker room that belongs to the face of a franchise and a guy who is still around. However, Jimmy must be confident in his play and trust his preparation. Approaching every day with a This is MY team type of mindset, along with producing on the field, will help him earn respect. I don't think he necessarily needs to be a vocal leader in the locker room; however, it's essential that he is one in the huddle. If he is confident about his knowledge and ability, the Patriots' offense will rally around this young quarterback. If he is soft and doesn't demand respect, he's not going to get it -- and that could put the Patriots in a compromising position within the AFC East before Tom returns in October.
3) Be Jimmy G, not Tommy B. We've seen young players try to emulate veterans when they get an opportunity. Jimmy Garoppolocannot try to be Tom Brady. It won't work. When Tom stepped into the starting role, he maintained his relationship with Drew -- and I have a ton of respect for Drew because of this situation. Taking a back seat to a young up-and-comer isn't an easy thing to do, but Bledsoe continued to help. Tom rapidly improved and, after a while, we adapted to his leadership style (demanding excellence through his own work ethic and play) and his voice in the huddle, and we started to believe that he had what it took to lead our team to where it needed to be.
Jimmy can do the same by learning from Tom, finding his own leadership style and executing the game plan. The Patriots' offense will change a little bit with Garoppolo under center, as the 24-year-old is more athletic and mobile than Brady. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is good at game planning around the players he has, and I expect he and Belichick will put Jimmy in the best situation to succeed. In 2008 -- during McDaniels' first stint as the Patriots' OC -- he helped Matt Cassel lead New England to an 11-5 campaign after Brady went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 1. Cassel sat and learned behind Tom for three seasons, then put up a 2008 performance that set him up for a long and lucrative NFL career, one that has extended into the 2016 season (Cassel is Marcus Mariota's backup in Tennessee).
Other examples of QB2s who sat behind top-tier quarterbacks before taking advantage of opportunities: Aaron Rodgers (behind Brett Favre in Green Bay); Philip Rivers (behind Drew Brees in San Diego); and Steve Young (behind Joe Montana in San Francisco).
All eyes will be on No. 10 when the Patriots open their season against the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 11. By following the straightforward guidelines listed above, Jimmy can string together a successful audition.