By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The trick with sports is that despite the thousands of people who are paid to dissect, analyze and forecast sports, nobody actually knows anything.
Hyperbole? Sure. Some folks are educated. But the point is this: The reason we watch these games live, the reason they dominate television ratings, the reason we fork out hundreds of dollars to see it in person is because we don’t know what will come next. Nobody can.
So when the Patriots entered their Week 1 game Sunday night in Glendale, the expectations for first-time starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo ran the gamut. Some believed he’d be a game manager at best. Others felt he’s the heir apparent to future Hall of Famer Tom Brady. Most others fell in between.
But — again — nobody knew. How could they? He played his college ball in front of high school-sized crowds, and his only work in the NFL had come in garbage time.
Yet there he was, marching onto the field in front of 60,000-plus raucous fans, facing a ferocious Cardinals defense that was looking to break him in half. And sure enough, his first pass — thrown to Chris Hogan — was errant, flying high over the intended target’s head. If he was feeling nerves, nobody could blame him.
If there were any worries inside the 24-year-old, they dissipated quickly. He smartly looked the way of Julian Edelman for three straight passes, connecting on all three, picking up 38 yards. It set up a second-and-4 from the Cardinals’ 37-yard line. Realistically, a field goal would have been a positive ending for the kid’s first drive as a starting quarterback in the NFL, but it was at that point that he really let it rip.
Garoppolo found Hogan in single coverage streaking up the left sideline, and the quarterback lobbed it up and let the Patriots’ newest receiver haul it in and waltz into the end zone. Touchdown.
“[Hogan] had a great release,” Garoppolo explained, “and that makes it an easy throw for me.”
The night continued for Garoppolo, who like any quarterback experienced his highs and lows throughout the game. He looked to have lost his sense of pocket awareness when he was stripped of the ball in the second quarter, a turnover that led to the Cardinals’ first touchdown of the night. He also caught his own pass, which was batted at the line, and he set up another touchdown with a pass to rookie Malcolm Mitchell on the left sideline.
But the play of the night — heck, one of the best plays in the whole league this week — came in crunch time. Trailing by a point and facing a third-and-15 from the Patriots’ 20, and looking at the prospect of punting the ball back to the Cardinals, Garoppolo faked a screen pass to Edelman and then stood in the pocket and bought time. He never panicked. His clock was set perfectly. And most importantly, his eyes remained locked down the field.
He sprinted toward the line of scrimmage, abruptly pulled up, and quickly released a floater 30 yards downfield, dropping it perfectly between the hands of Danny Amendola.
First down, Patriots. And message sent to the league: This kid can play, too.
“That’s a big play,” Bill Belichick understated after the heart-pumping 23-21 victory.
Garoppolo, for his part, showed how well he takes coaching when he offered his own thoughts on the third-down conversion.
“It was a big play,” he downplayed.
It wasn’t the last play Garoppolo had to make. On a third-and-3 later that drive, he managed to fit a bullet into a tiny window to complete a chain-moving pass to James White. Arizona safety Tony Jefferson was draped on White in coverage but found himself apoplectic that the running back made the catch.
Garoppolo put the finishing touches on the drive with a three-yard run to set up what proved to be the game-winning field goal.
Of course, the win was far from secured. The statline of 264 yards and one touchdown didn’t light up the scoreboard. The Patriots needed to make some plays on defense, and they needed the fortune of a low snap on the Cardinals’ field-goal attempt, to walk away from that stadium with a 1-0 record. And if anything in that final drive went differently, and if that record were instead 0-1, the story would perhaps be different regarding the starting quarterback.
But that wouldn’t have been right. What Garoppolo did early on and then again late in a tight game against that defense in that stadium was no small feat. His physical skills have been apparent since he was drafted, but he showed Sunday night the traits which can’t show up unless he was tested.
And after his first career win, he said that part came easily.
“Just having confidence in your teammates. When they have confidence in you, you have confidence in them. It’s easy to stay poised out there,” Garoppolo said. “You’re in the huddle, you’re all looking at each other, and it’s a good feeling.”
To be clear, this one performance guarantees nothing going forward. Those expectations placed upon Garoppolo heading into Sunday’s game remain just as scattered for next week, and the week after that, and beyond.
But next Sunday, the Patriots return to their home stadium to face what should be a less daunting opponent in the Miami Dolphins. It’ll be a whole new game plan, a different set of circumstances, and a new series of challenges. How Garoppolo responds will go a long way in determining whether the Patriots will jump to 2-0 or fall to 1-1 in the first half of their time without Tom Brady.
Admittedly, we have no idea how he’ll respond to the challenge. But we at least learned on Sunday night what Garoppolo is capable of doing.
It’s a lot more than anyone could have rightfully expected.