The New England Patriots passing game is a complicated one, filled with so many reads by the receivers on the fly that it could make even some experienced quarterbacks look silly at times — just not Tom Brady.
One misread in the system could mean a pick-six the other way and lead to questions about the quarterback and his ability to see things.
That doesn’t happen much at all with Brady. He is outstanding in his pre-snap decisions and even better after the snap, picking apart defenses over the years with his quick release and quicker mind.
But Brady won’t be around for the first four weeks of the season as he serves out his Deflategate suspension. That means it’s Jimmy Garoppolo time.
The third-year player takes over as the interim starter with four mop-up-duty, regular-season games on his resume and a total of 32 passes thrown in his career. That’s not counting preseason, but we all know that’s a different animal.
Garoppolo has impressed in the preseason in his three years with the Patriots, including this season. But that’s at a time when defenses are pretty vanilla and the exotic blitz looks are on hold until the regular season. He was just OK against the Carolina Panthers Friday night in a game that saw Brady come off the bench for his first preseason work and look like, well, Brady.
Working against the Carolina first team, Garoppolo completed 5 of 9 passes for 57 yards and was almost picked when there was miscommunication with Julian Edelman in the red zone in the first half.
So far in the preseason, Garoppolo has completed 36 of 54 passes for 406 yards, one touchdown and — most importantly — no picks.
Now comes the real challenge. He will open the regular season against the Arizona Cardinals, a team that throws as many different blitzes at a quarterback as any team in the league. You can bet they will come after him with a lot of looks that night, trying to fry his brain in front of a national television audience accustomed to seeing Brady cool in the face of pressure.
Studying Brady has rubbed off on Garoppolo
In the preseason, Garoppolo has shown a lot of growth as a passer from the games that I’ve studied. He has improved in every facet of the game from his mop-up stints of 2014 and 2015.
The confidence is really starting to show.
It’s interesting to watch his mannerisms and techniques to see where they might originate. It’s clear that watching Brady has rubbed off some.
He has a lot of Brady’s style now, with the way he handles the football and his ability to play-fake, turn his back, and then come back around to fire a strike. But he also has a little Tony Romo in him, which is interesting since he’s from the same school, Eastern Illinois, and he also is built more like Romo.
Brady is 6-4 and slender, while Romo and Garoppolo are both 6-2 — maybe — and have squattier builds. Like Romo, Garoppolo can move better than Brady.
What’s really stood out this preseason for Garoppolo is his growth in the pocket. He is patient and is willing to stand in and make a throw. That wasn’t always the case in his mop-up stints, which can be expected of a young passer.
There was a play in 2014 against the Buffalo Bills where he passed on two open receivers, one in the flat and then one in the middle of the field for a big play because he dropped his eyes down to the rush and decided to move around. He ended up getting sacked.
Fast forward to the end of the half in the Week 2 of the preseason this year against the Bears. Garoppolo drove the Patriots 57 yards to a touchdown in the two-minute drive. He was almost flawless, except for one incompletion.
He quickly got the team to the line of scrimmage after completed passes and he made the right reads and the right throws.
He also stood in against the rush and twice did a really nice job of climbing the pocket to make a throw. One of those throws came on a first-down throw from the Chicago 47. He took the snap in the shotgun and looked to his right. But with the Bears in a two-deep look, he waited patiently, climbed the pocket and fired a strike to tight end A.J. Derby for 11 yards. He oozed of calmness on the play, but also had the Brady look as he took the snap and dropped to throw.
Later on that drive, he fired a shot to Derby for a 16-yard touchdown, squeezing it in between two defenders. It was a chance throw, but one the good passers have to make. It got on top of Derby in a hurry.
In Week 1 of the preseason against the Saints, he took a snap in the shotgun, opened to his right, but there was nothing there. So he came back to the other side on the far left and fired a strike to Malcolm Mitchell for 24 yards in between two defenders in zone coverage. Garoppolo again did a nice job of staying in the pocket on that play.
In studying Garoppolo’s games the past three years, real and fake, other major improvements have come with timing and the ability to get the ball out.
He also used to aim more than he does now, which a lot of young passers do. That leads to incompletions. But now he’s confidently throwing the football to his receivers. There are times when he isn’t as accurate as he should be, but that’s from inexperience.
On the first series against the Bears last week, he correctly read a throw to Aaron Dobson on the left side but threw behind him for an incompletion. That would have been a first down. Chain movers are important in the New England offense, especially when they lack the big-play threat outside.
Then again, he’s been playing without Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski for much of this preseason, which has to hurt. They are the go-to guys on the New England offense.
Garoppolo looks like the heir apparent to Brady
Even so, he’s done a lot of really good things. He hasn’t been asked to do as much outside the pocket, but he does keep his head up when he does get out there. The curse of some young passers is to just take off, which he could have done on a few plays but didn’t. I like that for this reason: Ball always goes faster through the air than under your arm. It’s safer, too.
When he does move, he sometimes had a tendency to speed things up, lose focus of his throwing fundamentals, which leads him to force the ball. It isn’t as clean as it is when he’s in the pocket.
When he came out of Eastern Illinois, there were some who doubted his arm strength. That’s because his college offense was a quick-throw system that relied on getting the ball out. It’s not unlike what the Patriots do. His deep ball isn’t great yet.
He has a tendency to underthrow it. That should get better as he gets more comfortable playing. The issues can sometimes be mechanical because his arm is plenty good enough to hit the deep passes.
To sum it up, Garoppolo has grown immensely from the player we saw in the 2014 season playing in three games. He is confident. He understands the passing game and he’s improved getting off his first and second reads.
For too many young passers, it’s one read and run. That can bring problems. You have to get through the progressions, and he’s improved in a big way in that area.
Too often the first two years — in both the regular season and preseason — he stayed on his first read too long. Now he’s getting off it quicker and having success doing so.
This is the preseason. When the Cardinals throw all those exotic looks at him in two weeks, will he still get to his second and third reads quickly? Will his eyes come down at the rushers? If so, the Patriots will have big troubles with Brady out.
But judging from the way Garoppolo has grown this preseason, I think the Patriots not only have a guy who can win with Brady out, but they also have a passer who just might be the heir apparent to the throne that Brady has held for so long.
If New England doesn’t go 3-1 with Garoppolo, I will be shocked.
Just don’t expect him to be Brady. Then again, who is?