The long-running nonsense of Deflategate has robbed New England of Tom Brady for the first quarter of the NFL campaign. Everybody, therefore, is left to wonder whether Jimmy Garoppolo can fill the void. Was he worth the second-round pick New England invested two years ago? The answer could determine the fate of the Lombardi Trophy in 2016.
It’s half-time at Tennessee State’s LP Field and the home crowd are jubilant at an expected home win coming to pass. An Eastern Illinois team who were already underdogs sit in the locker room staring down the barrel. Battered. Bruised. Beaten?
“We were not a very good team,” Roy Wittke, the Panthers’ former offensive coordinator, tells Gridiron. “It was the eighth or ninth game of the season and we fell behind 28-7, but our first-year quarterback wasn’t having it. He brought us back amazingly in the second half. It was a spectacular performance as he led us to a come-from-behind win. We were on the road against a team who were favoured, and that was the game that confirmed what we had. We always thought we had something, and he’d shown flashes, but that was the game where he really showed how special he was.”
Those sentiments become understandable when you consider Jimmy Garoppolo had shredded TSU’s defense to the tune of 331 yards and four touchdowns, completing 20 of 33 passes. Wittke’s assertion, though, was about more than numbers. “The great quarterbacks have that trait, of being able to take a team on their back and win the game. A lot of the time you are not going to find out if that is there until the young man stands under centre and does it in that situation. It was as much his leadership and demeanour that was impressive. He grabbed hold of our football team, took charge and led us to a win.”
For Jeff Christensen, Garoppolo’s performance in Nashville was unsurprising.
It was 18 months previous that Christensen first told his prodigy, then going into his senior year at Rolling Meadows High School, what the future had in store. The quarterback whisperer had coached many kids over his career, but none quite like this. ‘You’re going to the NFL,’ Christensen told Garoppolo. ‘You’re going to be one of those kids that gets drafted and starts.’
To young Jimmy’s father, Tony, it was too much. “He wasn’t happy with me,” adds Christensen. “He was saying, ‘Don’t say things like that. We’re just hoping Jimmy can get a scholarship for college’. But I told him then that, at the pace he was developing, he was going to the NFL – and that they needed to start thinking that way. The more you start thinking that way, the more you visualise it, the more likely it is to become a reality.” Any scepticism could easily be explained, for Garoppolo Jr. was far from a high-profile recruit. Afforded just a two-star rating by Rivals, Jimmy was left disappointed as the offer he craved from a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) school did not come.
It was the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) that awaited as Garoppolo made the move unheralded Eastern Illinois. Despite being the home of a certain Tony Romo a few years earlier, this wasn’t the school that looked like fulfilling Christensen’s prophecy.
To learn of Garoppolo’s journey to where he is right now, standing on the brink of the national spotlight that comes with replacing arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time for a crucial four-game stretch, is to learn of a truly remarkable rise.
Just nine years ago, Garoppolo was a former baseball pitcher trying to excel on the football field, and doing so in the image of his brother by playing outside linebacker and running back. Even at the age of 15, he had never played a competitive down under centre. His quarterbacking experience amounted to, like all kids, spinning the ball before practice. Only his efforts were good enough to catch the eye of Mustangs head coach Doug Millsaps.
“He was 15 years old and Doug, who was a very good quarterback himself, called me and told me, ‘I think I have found my next quarterback’,” says Christensen. “He asked me to come and watch him, so I did. I watched him throw 12 balls and said, ‘I can work with that’. From that point forward, we just started working on his game.”
The early results were far from stellar; Garoppolo tossed 12 interceptions to nine touchdowns in his first full year with the keys. “He had a real flaw initially,” says Christensen. “He was a former baseball pitcher so his arm was really elongated. We had to educate him and get rid of that.” One thing never missing from Garoppolo’s arsenal was desire. “The thing with Jimmy is his work ethic is off the charts. He just gets it. He is a student of the game. I have two kids now who are better than Jimmy was at their age. Will they keep mentally and physically progressing at the same pace? It’s hard to say, but Jimmy’s ability to listen to everything you say and put it into action is extremely rare. Sometimes I tell kids stuff and they come back the next day and make the same error. If I told Jimmy he could never do something, he would go home, watch himself in the mirror and replicate the error in the mirror so he never did it again. And he didn’t.”
The hard work prior to his senior year that prompted Christensen’s aforementioned conversation with the Garoppolos bore fruits as the precocious passer took a major leap forward. “Through his senior year and going into college, he jumped to a whole other place in terms of his work ethic and the quickness of his release and I said, ‘Jimmy, you’re going to make $100million, be an NFL starting quarterback and win Super Bowls. You have the gift. If you keep improving at this pace, it’s going to be a scary situation’. I can remember the conversation like it was yesterday, and he just looked back at me and said, ‘Scared? Why would I be scared? That’s what we’re doing this for, right?’ We haven’t really talked about it a lot since then; he just comes and does his work, although I’m proud to say he doesn’t need me much anymore.”
Not since their 18-1 campaign in 2007 have the New England Patriots looked so formidable on paper. The offense is like 2011, when they rode Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to another Super Bowl berth, but potentially better. Everywhere you look, there are players perfectly suited to this quick-strike passing attack, from Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, to Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, to Dion Lewis. The combination of that group being led by Tom Brady, aided by a vibrant, young defense featuring studs like Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower is some proposition. The Patriots enter the 2016 campaign as the team to watch.
Except for one small problem. Deflategate. The never-ending saga nobody wants to talk about anymore reared its ugly head again in the off-season and Brady will miss the opening four games: @Arizona, v Miami, v Buffalo, v Houston. Suddenly, all eyes are on one man; over to you Jimmy.
The last meaningful action of Garoppolo’s career make for positive reading. That New England, despite having Brady, were willing to use the 62nd overall pick to nab him in 2014 is telling, especially given the competition he faced for Eastern Illinois. Garoppolo was transcendent in the college ranks, enjoying a run of four years so impressive that everybody had to take notice; he concluded with a senior campaign featuring a ludicrous 53 touchdown passes to nine interceptions.
Being a high draft pick as a quarterback is one thing… heck, being a solid NFL quarterback is one thing, but the question is whether, for a crucial four-fixture stretch, Garoppolo can fill the void of a man with more playoff wins than he has regular-season passes? “It’s quite surreal actually because Jimmy’s mechanics were actually modelled on Tom’s,” admits Christensen. “Nine years ago, I made the decision after watching Brady at that point in his career that he was the best in the game. His mechanics are incredible.
“So I started teaching my kids a lot of things that he does. I love the way he does things and have created my own drills around the things he does. It’s been funny because he was 90% tailored after Tom Brady and now he is in this position, sitting behind him and preparing to replace him for the first few games.”
So if it walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, is it a duck? Only time will tell.