By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — As most people would tell you nowadays, Jimmy Garoppolo has got it all. The starting job in San Francisco, the endless avalanche of cash, fancy date nights out on the town — the 26-year-old is truly living his best life this summer. The sky is seemingly the limit for the NFL’s next Golden Boy.
That’s all well and good, and, who knows, maybe Garoppolo truly will be the NFL’s next great quarterback. His 7-0 record seems to indicate that he has a bit of a golden touch — especially for going 5-0 with a Niners team that had previously been 1-10. His release is lightning quick, his eyes are always focused down the field, he’s springy in the pocket, and he appears to have earned the trust of his teammates in San Francisco. Kyle Shanahan may be the perfect coach to harness that skill and energy. There’s reason for the positivity. OK. All right. Wahoo.
But here’s the thing, folks: It’s still far too early to anoint Garoppolo as a surefire success in the NFL. But that seemingly hasn’t stopped anybody from doing exactly that.
It’s relevant here, at least, after taking a gander at the results from the Channel Media & Market Research polling of Boston sports fans. Those results — featuring opinions from more than 16,000 Boston sports fans — show that more than anything else, Patriots fans remained bothered by the trading of one Mr. James Richard Garoppolo.
According to the poll, fans believe trading Garoppolo was the second-worst thing to happen in all of Boston sports in the last calendar year, behind only the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. That’s in all of Boston sports, not just Patriots-related matters. (Twenty-five percent of fans voted for the Super Bowl loss, while 16 percent voted for the Garoppolo trade. Thirteen percent voted for Malcolm Butler’s benching in the Super Bowl.)
The poll asked fans to rank decisions on a scale of one (poor) to seven (excellent). On the Garoppolo trade, 58 percent of respondents voted on the poor side of the spectrum (34 percent marked down a one on their vote), while just 22 percent voted on the positive side. (Twenty percent of respondents voted with a four, boldly offering no opinion on the matter.)
Also in the poll, 84 percent of fans believe the Patriots did not receive enough in return for Garoppolo. Only 5 percent off fans disagreed with that notion. Additionally, 81 percent of fans voted that they agree with the idea that the Patriots should have kept Garoppolo on the roster. Only 9 percent of fans disagreed with that statement.
I even heard my dear, dear friend Anthony Massarotti state on the radio on Tuesday for the umpteenth time that “you can’t trade a franchise quarterback for a second-round pick.”
That’s the general picture of fans’ feeling toward the Garoppolo trade, and now thanks to the polling, there’s at least some data to serve as a basis for this general belief.
But let’s get serious for a moment here and state this as plainly as can be stated: There are two misconceptions that are driving the Garoppolo discussion. For one, the Patriots did not actually trade a franchise quarterback for a second-round pick. Secondly, the odds are actually strongly against Garoppolo being a franchise quarterback
Let’s start with the first. The Patriots absolutely did not receive enough in return for Garoppolo, but that’s because they didn’t trade him in the offseason prior to the 2017 season. Had the Patriots traded Garoppolo prior to the 2017 draft, it’s likely they’d have gotten a much better return. (Three teams drafted a quarterback in the top 12 picks of that draft, and three more drafted QBs in the following two rounds.) Teams would be willing to invest more in a quarterback who could participate in OTAs, minicamp, training camp, and a full NFL season than they would be willing to invest in a half-season of a quarterback who doesn’t know the playbook. That’s factual. The Patriots also could have kept Jacoby Brissett in that scenario, which further shows signs of bungling from Bill Belichick. For a team that smartly builds its roster every year, it was odd to see the Patriots hold on to an asset until the trade deadline, when they were forced to get whatever they could at the time.
Nevertheless, the notion that the Patriots gave up this future Hall of Famer for a measly second-round pick is an entirely disingenuous form of commentary, because it overlooks this crucial factor: At the time of the trade, Jimmy Garoppolo was nine NFL weeks away from hitting free agency. The Patriots had absolutely no control over Garoppolo’s future beyond 2017. Their choice in October was to either trade him for whatever offer might exist for a midseason QB pickup, or let him sit on the bench behind the league’s MVP before losing him to free agency.
And — and! — there are two more factors that seemingly never get considered on this trade. For one, people still get on Belichick’s case for not fielding more offers on Garoppolo, but the reality is that very few teams would be interested in giving up much of anything for the rights to a quarterback for eight weeks. Secondly, at that point in time, Garoppolo had thrown a grand total of 94 passes in his three NFL seasons. He was very good in very limited action, but it’s wrong to even remotely suggest that his value in the middle of the 2017 season was significantly greater than a second-round pick.
So that’s that on the trade. But let’s move on to the much larger issue: Is Garoppolo actually going to be an excellent, franchise quarterback for the 49ers for the next decade? He’s certainly going to get paid like one, but will he play like one?
Let’s examine a few areas. First and foremost, you just about never hear this, but here are Garoppolo’s stats as a starting quarterback for San Francisco:
1,542 yards, 8.76 Y/A
6 TDs, 5 INTs
That’s an excellent number for yards per attempt, to be sure. And mind you, this was a lousy Niners team overall. So the 5-0 record as a starter is certainly impressive. Likewise, his work against the potent Jaguars defense on Christmas Eve (21-for-30, 242 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) was pretty great.
But never before in the history of sports has there been a coronation for a quarterback who threw six touchdowns and five interceptions in five starts. Based on the coverage and discussion about the kid, you’d never know that’s what he did. Nevertheless, those are the stats. Extrapolated out over the course of a full 16-game season, that would end up being 19 touchdowns to 16 interception.
Nineteen touchdowns last season would have been good enough to rank 18th in the NFL — tied with franchise QBs like Jay Cutler, Jameis Winston, and Eli Manning. Blake Bortles threw more touchdowns than that. So did Andy Dalton.
At the same time, throwing 16 interceptions would have tied Garoppolo with Cam Newton for second-most picks in all of the NFL. Only DeShone Kizer and his 22 picks would have had them beat.
Obviously, the yardage totals are no joke. But even Garoppolo’s passer rating of 94.0 would have been the 12th-best mark in the league, just behind Josh McCown (94.5) and well behind Case Keenum (98.3), Jared Goff (100.5) and league leader Alex Smith (104.7). (Admittedly, Smith’s ranking atop that list is reason to perhaps throw that entire stat in the trash can. Alas, it exists.)
Garoppolo was clearly good in his five starts for San Francisco, just as he was very good in his 1.5 games as a starter for New England. But lost in the celebration of the 5-0 record last year and the roughly $70 million of guaranteed money are some of the more unflattering portions of Garoppolo’s game. And it’s clearly led to some assumptions about Garoppolo’s certain greatness.
That just seems like a stretch. For as shiny as Garoppolo was in 2017, he’s not the first player to flash.
Nick Foles went 8-2 as a starter for Philadelphia in 2013, setting an NFL record for TD-to-INT ratio with 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions. We know that he re-emerged in a big way in 2017, but he spent 2014-16 going 11-9, completing less than 59 percent of his passes, throwing 23 touchdowns to 20 interceptions, and posting a passer rating of 77.4. The league figured him out. (Until 2017 … when Belichick didn’t use Malcolm Butler against him and honestly the fact that fans in that poll voted for the Garoppolo trade being worse than the Butler benching is utterly insane but I do suppose that’s a story for another day, now isn’t it?)
Robert Griffin III “changed the NFL” as a rookie in 2013, when he went 9-6, threw for 20 touchdowns and five interceptions, posted a 102.4 passer rating, and also rushed for 815 yards and seven touchdowns. He was a monster. But the league figured him out. And he got hurt. From 2013-16, he went 6-19 as a starter (6-19!) with 22 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions, an 81.7 passer rating, and just three more rushing touchdowns. He’s now QB3 on the Ravens’ depth chart after being out of the league for all of last season.
Patriots fans no doubt distinctly remember Matt Flynn waltzing into Foxboro and nearly beating the Patriots on a Sunday night game in 2010. That season and the following year, Aaron Rodgers’ backup got a very small opportunity to shine, but he made the most of it. Flynn threw for three touchdowns and one pick on the road in Foxboro, which raised his profile. The next year, he started the Packers’ Week 17 game at Detroit, and he threw for a ridiculous 480 yards, a ridiculous six touchdowns, and one interception. Those two performances got Flynn a big-money deal with Seattle, where he lost the battle for the starting job to rookie Russell Wilson. Flynn has since thrown eight touchdowns and nine interceptions, compiling a 2-3 record as a starting quarterback. He’s only 33 years old, but he hasn’t played in an NFL game since 2014.
There’s also Colin Kaepernick. He was absolutely electric in his first two years as a starter, when he led the 49ers to a 17-6 record and got a team with a busted receiving corps all the way to a Super Bowl. In those 29 games (23 starts) in 2012 and 2013, he completed 59.8 percent of his passes, averaging 7.9 yards per attempt and throwing 31 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions. He beat the Patriots in Foxboro, he had a 93.9 passer rating, and he also rushed for 939 yards and nine touchdowns. He was unstoppable. The Niners were excited. But then he was stopped. In the three seasons that followed, Kaepernick compiled an 11-24 record as a starting quarterback. He did still have decent overall numbers (59.7 percent passing, 41 touchdowns, 19 interceptions) but his yards-per-attempt dropped by a full yard, and his passer rating dropped from 93.9 to 85.9. He still rushed with efficiency, but after rushing for nine touchdowns in two seasons, he would rush for just four touchdowns in the three seasons that followed. He’s now out of the league, for various reasons, but there’s no questioning that he was unable to maintain that excellent level of play from 2012 and 2013.
Going back a bit further, Derek Anderson emerged as a pleasant surprise in 2007, his first full season as an NFL starting quarterback. That year, he threw 29 touchdowns with 19 interceptions, leading the Browns (the Browns!) to a 10-5 record. He made the Pro Bowl. Due to all the picks, his passer rating was a modest 82.5, but the 24-year-old showed promise. But his career never really progressed after that. Since 2008, Anderson has gone 10-19 as a starter, and he’s thrown 26 touchdowns to 33 interceptions. His passer rating during that decade: 65.8.
This isn’t even the first time a Patriots backup has lit the world on fire a bit. In 2008, when Brady went down to injury minutes into the season, Matt Cassel threw an efficient 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while leading the Patriots to a 10-5 record as a starter (really 11-5, as Week 1 should be his win). His performance was enough to convince the Chiefs that Cassel was worth tens of millions of dollars. Spoiler alert: he was not. Cassel threw 16 TDs and 16 INTs in 2009, leading the Chiefs to a 4-11 record. He was better over the following two seasons, going 14-10 with 37 touchdowns and 16 interceptions but he was terrible in 2012, throwing six touchdowns and 12 interceptions while leading the Chiefs to a 1-7 record. Since then, he’s started just 19 games, losing 12 of them, while throwing 22 touchdowns and 24 interceptions.
Heck — HECK! — even Tim Tebow caught fire for a brief spell. Despite the fact that he really couldn’t throw footballs very well, he led the Broncos to an improbable 7-4 record as their starter in 2011. He even won a playoff game, throwing for 316 yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers. His numbers stunk out loud (46.5 percent passing, 12 TDs, 6 INTs, 72.9 passer rating), but he was nevertheless an international phenomenon. He followed up his magical season by … getting traded away by his team, throwing eight total passes for the Jets in 2012, getting cut by the Patriots in 2013, doing nothing in 2014, then getting cut by the Eagles in 2015, before moving on to a career in broadcasting and minor league baseball.
(There’s another matter of FCS/Division I-AA quarterbacks in the NFL. We all know Tony Romo did well, but the list of successes is quite short. Joe Flacco has been … okay. And Carson Wentz looks pretty great. But the FCS hasn’t exactly been a breeding ground for NFL quarterback greatness. That doesn’t disqualify Garoppolo from reaching greatness, but it is nevertheless an oft-overlooked factor.)
You get the idea: A quarterback may be excellent for a time, but that gives absolutely no guarantee that the quarterback will remain excellent for multiple years. Yet the way Garoppolo is discussed — especially in New England — you would think that he’s already reached the pinnacle of quarterbacking and that he’s knocking on the door of being a perennial MVP candidate. That’s just a bit of a leap at this moment in time.
This recent history of flash-in-the-pan QBs does not, obviously, guarantee that Garoppolo will also fall off the proverbial cliff. Surely, there’s enough evidence that shows he may in fact be pretty good.
It’s just worth pondering, at least for a moment on a sunny August day, what life might be like for all involved if Garoppolo doesn’t end up turning into an unstoppable combination of Joe Montana and Tom Brady. It’s a possibility that seemingly doesn’t ever get discussed, but it’s a scenario that actually has better odds than most people want to admit.