By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — You can’t shake a stick in New England these days without hitting somebody who’s talking about Jarrett Stidham.
OK, that’s an exaggeration. You actually can’t be around human beings these days, so shake-sticking with the intent to make contact is by and large a fruitless endeavor.
But as far as football is concerned, in these uncertain post-Tom Brady times, more than a few folks in the region are turning their hope to the second-year QB out of Auburn, by way of Baylor, the one and only Jarrett Stidham.
Maybe those people are right to believe that Bill Belichick has already found his next franchise quarterback. It’s possible. It’s more likely that those people are wrong, just based on the number of quarterbacks that enter the league every year only to not become Hall of Famers or even Pro Bowlers or even starters.
What’s most likely, though, is that nobody will get a chance to even get a whiff of that answer until the 2020 season is well underway. Instead, they’re most likely to get a heaping dose of Brian Hoyer.
HoyerMania, baby. Feel the excitement.
Now, obbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbviously, players aren’t even allowed to go to work right now, so that forecast has nothing to do with coaching evaluations being made on the practice field right now. Because nobody’s on the practice field. It has more to do with being realistic.
And for as much as Bill Belichick doesn’t mind challenging players to do their job while ignoring all outside noise, even he would have to admit that throwing an inexperienced second-year QB onto the field to replace TOM BRADY in New England is a bit much to ask of anyone.
Do you know what’s a whole lot easier than that? Rolling out Hoyer for the first few weeks, knowing he can do a competent job as the new-look offense in New England begins to take shape. Hoyer’s learned eight different playbooks during his NFL career, so whatever changes Josh McDaniels and Belichick have in store for 2020, he should be able to adapt quite quickly.
In the meanwhile, Stidham will be able to try to gain a mastery of the playbook while observing someone who can ably steer the ship to safe waters. After a certain number of games, when it feels right, then Belichick can tap No. 4 on the shoulder and send him in to the huddle. A soft landing of sorts — not necessarily because Belichick has doubts about his young QB, but because it will be the scenario which puts him in the best position to be able to perform his job.
That wouldn’t mean that Stidham will spend the whole year on the sideline. But let’s play it out.
First, here are Hoyer’s stats over the last four years: 58.6 percent completion rate, 6.5 Y/A, 14 TDs, 8 INTs. Pretty mediocre. So, assuming he averages some mediocre NFL quarterback play to start the year, the Patriots figure to be capable of going 2-2. They could be better. They could be worse. Here’s their schedule:
Week 1: vs. Miami
Week 2: at Seattle*
Week 3: vs. Las Vegas
Week 4: at Kansas City*
Week 5: vs. Denver
Week 6: Bye
Week 7: vs. San Francisco
Week 8: at Buffalo
*These road games become much less daunting if fans are not allowed to attend. Though playing against the Chiefs remains daunting in and of itself.
If Belichick and the coaching staff were to map out the spot for Stidham’s first start … wouldn’t that Week 5 spot vs. Denver look appealing? The Broncos’ defense isn’t quite the intimidation machine that it once was, and the bye week afterwards would provide an opportunity to evaluate and prepare for two massively challenging games in Weeks 7 and 8.
Perhaps the specifics don’t play out quite so cleanly, but you get the idea. Let the veteran who’s been there for championship seasons and won’t carry the weight of REPLACING TOM BRADY start the season, assuring that the QB who actually has potential to be the long-term solution starts only when he’s fully and completely ready.
Some of us with mouths have been espousing this idea for the past couple of months. Yet we don’t have the audience (or luscious beard) that Rob Ninkovich has at ESPN. The former disciple of Belichick said on “Get Up!” last week that Hoyer is the obvious choice to start the season.
“I think Brian Hoyer will be the starter Week 1,” Ninkovich said, drawing a surprised look from host Mike Greenberg. “They’re not practicing right now. There is no mini-camp. There’s no offseason. There’s no training camp — we don’t know when that’s gonna happen. So if you have a veteran quarterback who has been in the system, understands what to expect what an NFL season is like, you’re gonna wanna go with the guy that has veteran leadership and also understands what it takes to be in that building.”
Ninkovich accentuated his point with a flourish: “Brian Hoyer will be the starter Week 1.”
The lack of an offseason as buildings remain mostly closed during this coronavirus pandemic surely is a factor. But even in normal times, handing the reins to a QB who will be 24 years old with zero NFL starts and just 15 NFL snaps to his name in a market that’s become solely focused on winning championships while getting some of the best quarterback play in the history of the sport? That would be … potentially imprudent.
There’s evidence that Belichick thinks this way, too. Once upon a time, in a stadium far, far away (like just a couple of punts away from Gillette stadium), Belichick supposedly really liked the second-year QB out of Michigan. Some reporters who covered the team swear that Belichick gave serious consideration to starting that kid over the established starter, Drew Bledsoe, who had just signed a 10-year contract worth a record amount of money.
That part’s likely true. But what’s also true is that Belichick did not pull the trigger on sending No. 12 onto the field in Week 1 in Cincinnati. Likewise, when football returned two weeks later after 9/11, Belichick started Bledsoe in Week 2 against the Jets. It was only after Mo Lewis sent a seismic blast to the history books that Belichick finally got to see what Brady was made of.
The rest is history, of course, but it still wasn’t perfectly smooth. Brady was OK in a win over Indy, but then bad in a loss in MIami. He was dynamite in wins over the Chargers and at Indy, but he then threw four picks in a loss at Denver. He rebounded with an excellent performance vs. Atlanta, before a somewhat lackluser performance vs. Buffalo: 15-for-21 for 107 yards with a touchdown and a pick. (He also almost lost his head and his career that day, thanks to Nate Clements.)
At that point, Brady had completed a tick under 64 percent of his passes, averaging under 200 yards per game while throwing 11 touchdowns and five interceptions and leading the Patriots to a 5-2 record. Belichick could have gone back to Bledsoe when he recovered from injury in time for the big Monday night showdown with the Rams in Week 10, but the head coach liked his guy — enough to let him start 317 of the Patriots’ next 336 games.
So, for as much as Belichick liked what he saw out of Brady in both his rookie season and his 2001 preseason work, he still didn’t put the kid in an uncomfortable position right out of the gate. (Some reporters likewise swear that Belichick would have made the switch from Bledsoe to Brady in 2001 even if Mo Lewis hadn’t intervened so early in the year.)
You could argue that now, 19 years later, Belichick is a different coach in a different place with some different job security. You’d be right. Yet the principles of Belichick the coach have always remained pretty consistent.
It’s why, when the Patriots take the field on Sept. 13, and the roar of the fake crowd blasts through the Gillette Stadium speakers, it seems rather likely that the in-stadium announcer will be declaring to 68,000 empty seats that No. 2, Brian Hoyer is the starting quarterback. The piped-in roars for Jarrett Stidham may have to wait a little bit longer.