Almost four months removed from the AFC Championship game between New England and Indianapolis, and the subsequent investigation by Ted Wells, the NFL has laid down a punishment. Tom Brady has been suspended four games, and the team has been docked a 2016 first round draft pick, a 2017 fourth round draft pick, and fined $1 million.
The biggest story here, of course, is that the team will be without Brady for the first quarter of their title defence. It leaves them with second-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo during this period, whose selection in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft now appears to be a circumstantial masterstroke.
Garoppolo has had a year to sit and learn behind Brady since he was selected out of Eastern Illinois, and the team will now have a considerable amount of time to plan for their opening night matchup against Pittsburgh. This time, which should also include taking the majority of snaps in the four preseason games, will prove crucial to the young quarterback’s development.
The task facing him and the Patriots in the first month of the season is no easy one, though. Despite being the defending Super Bowl champions, they are, without their starting quarterback, underdogs in perhaps three of their first four games. After opening up to the Steelers, they travel to Rex Ryan’s Bills, return to Foxboro to face the Jaguars, and close out the ban with a trip to Dallas. The Patriots, at this stage, can only be considered favourites for the home game versus Jacksonville. The rest are coin-flips or a considerable test.
Though they have time on their side with regard to getting Garoppolo as prepared as possible to start, the team will have to adapt offensively. In the limited view we have had of him in the NFL (pre-season 2014; 19/27 182 yards, 1TD throughout regular season), it’s clear that he has different strengths to Brady. He’s athletic, for one.
Against Kansas City in week 4, albeit in just seven passes, he went through reads and showed poise in his decision-making. Against the Bills in week 17, his next notable appearance, he faced a lot of pressure. There were instances in which he escaped and showed good athleticism, and instances in which he was overwhelmed or tried too hard to keep a lost play alive. There will be play calls tailored to his athleticism (as seen in a read-option play against Buffalo), and a passing game which utilises his quick release. At the very least, he showed signs that he can be a viable starter for this period.
One key factor to watch is how much he is asked to do; he won’t have the luxury of a running back carrying the offense. It’s a weak position group, which features Jonas Gray, LeGarrette Blount (suspended for week one) and Brandon Bolden. This puts more pressure on Garoppolo and offensive co-ordinator Josh McDaniels to be creative in moving the offense.
Bill Belichick and his staff showed in 2008 that they can adapt to life without Tom Brady. If the franchise can weather this rough patch effectively, with a well-coached Garoppolo at the helm, then there’s still a very good chance they can continue and win their seventh straight AFC East crown. After all, division rivals New York and Buffalo will likely have mid-low level starters at quarterback for an entire season, not just the four games the Patriots are dealing with.