Jimmy Garoppolo is a 24-year old, former second-round draft pick who has thrown 31 passes in his NFL career to this point. Save for a Supreme Court ruling, Garoppolo will open the season as the New England Patriots starting quarterback in place of Tom Brady.
That should terrify the Patriots.
Even though the Patriots have precedent when it comes to succeeding with a backup quarterback — Matt Cassel threw for 3,693 yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 15 starts back in 2008 — it’s hard to be optimistic about Garoppolo’s prospects over the first four weeks of the season. Cassel kept the Patriots on track by relying on Randy Moss and the league’s fourth-ranked rushing game by DVOA.
The 2016 version of the Patriots offense will mitigate the pressure on Garoppolo by relying on their version of Moss, Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, with Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount, will allow the Patriots offense to dictate the game and put their quarterback in more favorable situations. At least, in theory they will.
The Patriots will face four defenses who should be able to get pressure on Garoppolo regardless of the gameplan that the Patriots employ.
Winning in Arizona against the Cardinals in Week 1 would be difficult even with Brady. The Cardinals will likely be playing with a limited Tyrann Mathieu, but the additions of Chandler Jones and Robert Nkemdiche to an already excellent defense will significant improve their pass rush. Not to overlook defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s aggressive philosophy in disguising his coverages. According to Football Outsiders, Bettcher sent a defensive back after the quarterback on 17 percent of the Cardinals snaps last year, fourth-most often in the league.
After facing Arizona, the Patriots will face a Miami Dolphins defense that still has a very talented defensive line. That Dolphins defense should be much improved with a presumably competent coaching staff. In Week 3 Garoppolo will face J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney. Week 4 offers another talented defensive front but also the creativity of a Rex Ryan defense, something that will be daunting to an inexperienced starter.
For as much as the Patriots will feel confident that they can protect Garoppolo, they will still need him to be competent in his role. Competence wasn’t the word that came to mind while watching Garoppolo’s preseason tape from last year.
Garoppolo first appeared in Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers. He completed 20 of 30 passes for 159 yards, 5.3 yards per attempt, with two of his biggest plays coming from the YAC of James White. Garoppolo’s completion percentage on its own is fine but the accuracy he exhibited throughout this game was startlingly bad. He repeatedly attempted to push the ball downfield and showed off an inadequate NFL arm in the process.
The first thing that should be noted in the above gif is the pocket Garoppolo gets. He has time and space to hold the ball. He doesn’t have to move his feet or deliver the ball over defenders in front of him. He is essentially in a seven-on-seven situation. Garoppolo locks onto his intended receiver downfield and stares him down. That receiver gets outside of his defender but despite having space and time to release the ball comfortably, the quarterback’s pass dies long before it can reach its intended target.
After showing off his ability to completely miss his intended target, Garoppolo responded with two throws that should have been intercepted. Both of the above plays highlight how his arm strength limits his ability to throw with precision downfield. He is throwing in the general direction of his intended target and hoping that it lands in a spot that favors his teammate. When passes float the way his do, it’s impossible to lead receivers away from defensive backs. You inevitably create more jump-ball situations than the receiver’s work requires.
Garoppolo wasn’t punished on either of the above plays, but as is generally the case with quarterbacks who continue to throw downfield with an inadequate arm….it was only a matter of time.
This play is the kind of play that makes you turn off the tape when watching college prospects. It’s awful. First note the pocket Garoppolo is throwing from. The play fake completely foolwed the Packers front with multiple defensive linemen chasing the running back after he had reached the line of scrimmage. Garoppolo has a huge amount of space and time to settle in his dropback and deliver the ball unopposed. Despite this, he throws the ball way too late and way too far infield.
Garoppolo needs to release this pass before the receiver turns out of his break. Instead, the quarterback has to wait and see the route his receiver is running before he can release the ball. This allows the cornerback to tighten the space between he and his assignment. Having made that crucial error, Garoppolo absolutely has to push the ball outside, towards the sideline to give his receiver a chance at catching the ball. He needs to throw with velocity and precision, high and outside so his receiver has to reach away from his body to catch the ball.
With an inadequate arm and a slow mental process, this kind of play is inevitable. Garoppolo throws the ball inside, straight to the defensive back who can comfortably catch the ball.
Garoppolo made a similar play two weeks later against the Carolina Panthers, he wasn’t punished on this occasion though.
A weak arm and slow process will transcend through everything that you do. In the above play, Garoppolo attempts a more traditional Patriots type of throw as he is making a quick read before releasing the ball quickly to a short route. Garropolo predetermines his throw, something he could get away with if he had a stronger arm. By predetermining his throw he allows Quentin Rollins to break on his intended target. Rollins is able to blow up the play by arriving with the receiver and the ball.
Garoppolo had to read Rollins’ actions on this play if he wanted to throw the ball outside. The ball had to go to the sideline route after initially looking at the underneath route though. The easier throw against this Cover-2 look was the tight end infield who was wide open.
You can’t expect to run a normal offense with Garoppolo under center. You need to heavily incorporate screesn and clearly defined throws, a lot of pick plays in other words, to keep the offense moving against first-team defenses. Even then, Garoppolo could struggle because he missed reads and throws on those types of plays in these preseason games also. The Patriots will be able to do that if they are able to dictate how the game goes, playing with a lead and winning matchups around the quarterback to stay ahead of the down-and-distance.
If they aren’t in those situations, major problems will emerge.
Quarterbacks who play in the NFL for an extended period will inevitably face pressure. The best quarterbacks need an extended period because they do such a good job avoiding pressure if they are put in a good situation. Bad quarterbacks find pressure so four games will feel like a very long time for Garoppolo. Pressure will render him useless. Garoppolo’s priority when there is a hint of pressure is to turn and protect himself. He won’t stand in and deliver the ball to maintain the integrity of the play. He won’t keep his eyes downfield and show off a clean throwing motion. He will panic.
Maybe his mindset will change in real games with the world watching but playing against pressure is typically the toughest aspect of being a quarterback.
Manage the game. That phrase or some variance of it will be uttered a lot when Garoppolo fills in for Brady. Managing the game is all about situational football, making decisions that give you the best opportunity for the given down-and-distance. Against the Green Bay Packers, Garoppolo took a bad sack in field goal range, a precursor to this awful decision on Fourth-and-4 when he failed to read the coverage and threw his receiver into another hit short of the line of scrimmage.
Garoppolo stared down his receiver from the beginning of the play, He should have recognized the underneath routes wouldn’t have been available as soon as the linebackers dropped into space at the snap.
Backup quarterbacks are bad. It’s extremely rare that one is worth investing in to develop because the only way you can truly develop is once you step on the field. This tape for Garoppolo is horrible, but more than 12 months will have passed between it and the quarterback stepping on the field at the beginning of this season. The Patriots have the best head coach in the NFL and months to prepare, they will put Garoppolo in the best position to succeed but they can’t make the plays that he needs to make for him.