When the New England Patriots selected quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft many wondered if that signalled the approaching end of Tom Brady's career. Brady instead showed little sign of slowing down last season, winning his fourth Super Bowl last season, while Garoppolo got a valuable year learning the ropes behind one of the greatest to play the game.
Now, with Brady's pending suspension for Deflategate, Garoppolo could be called to action earlier than many predicted, once again proving that you can never have too many good quarterbacks on your roster. New England has developed a number of backups behind Brady, and while most have yet to achieve significant success, all have gotten a fair shot at starting in the NFL.
Like Matt Cassel, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett before him, Garoppolo had the luxury of not being thrust into the fire, but unlike his predecessors, Garoppolo is the best and most promising fit to replace Brady, whether it's just filling in during the suspension or as the heir apparent.
New England's offensive evolution over the course of Brady's career has led them to a key philosophy that some might call the "dink-and-dunk", while I call it "The Scalpel." It's a precision short passing game that maximizes Brady's biggest strengths — to read defenses and get the ball out quickly. Many pundits might dismiss this offense as a gimmick, it's nearly indefensible when clicking on all cylinders, especially if defenses aren't making every pre-snap effort to disguise their coverages.
While Cassel and Hoyer were raw but given enough time to develop, and Mallett was a big arm and a better fit for more of a downfield passing game, Garoppolo's strengths closely resemble Brady's. In fact, his release is so quick and mechanically perfect, he might even be a better fit for "The Scalpel" than Brady.
Add in Garoppolo's smarts, athleticism and work ethic, and there's little doubt he'll be ready to step in and allow New England to maintain the core philosophy on offense. The fact that he was a Patriots practice player of the week seven times only reinforces the fact that Garoppolo was "getting it" in his rookie season behind the scenes.
In the 2014 season, Garoppolo saw action in six games but showed promise, completing 70.4 percent of his passes with a 101.4 passer rating. Perhaps most impressive was his decision making, specifically not being afraid to take a sack or throw the ball away instead of forcing something that wasn't there.
Garoppolo's lack of experience and size are still question marks and if he's called on to replace Brady for any length of time the challenges will be huge. The rebuilding, but always respectable, Steeler defense and Rex Ryan's new Buffalo Bills monster defense will be looking to attack Garoppolo, and with questions still surrounding the guard spots on New England's offensive line, it's far from a lock that the Patriots' offense doesn't miss a beat.
Still, even if Garoppolo has a rough go of it for a few games to start the season, the starting experience he'll get in his second year will be invaluable down the road. Or, it will be even more interesting if Garoppolo lights it up in those games, giving the Pats the same question they faced when Brady replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001 and performed well.
That has to be Tom Brady's worst nightmare, as he knows that when Bill Belichick finds a cheaper and at least near-equal option, even the Hall of Fame quarterback will be discarded.
Either way, the Patriots should benefit in the long term from getting Garoppolo some game action, no matter how long Brady's suspension ends up being after appeal. The biggest challenges facing Garoppolo will be reading the defensive fronts that are thrown at him, as all four potential opponents will look to confuse the inexperienced signal-caller.
With a full summer to prepare, Garoppolo should be ready for however long he's asked to step in, but it would take a near-perfect performance to keep Brady on the sidelines once he returns.