By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There’s a lot of strange things about this little, lovable town we call home. Among them is the way in which so many people spoke about the random man out of Eastern Illinois as someone who could obviously and easily take over for the greatest quarterback of all time.
I mean … that’s just a weird thing to do, people.
We’re talking, obviously, about our former sweet prince, Jimmy Garoppolo. For whatever reason, in the midst of the Patriots reaching the Super Bowl in four out of five seasons and winning three of them, some people — fans, media members … coaching staff members — weren’t happy having Tom Brady, aka the greatest winner in the history of football, taking snaps for the team.
For many people — even after Brady’s near-perfect fourth-quarter comeback vs. the Seahawks, even after his unbelievable comeback from the 28-3 deficit vs. Atlanta, even in the middle of his unanimous MVP season of 2017 — it was time for Brady to go.
The Patriots of the future? That was Jimmy’s team.
It was a truly bizarre phenomenon.
It’s hard to sort out the actual truth from reality, based on the way certain Boston sports talk radio hosts have colored the picture, and there’s no need to go through everybody’s past statements to itemize exactly where everybody stood on the matter. But there is no doubt that some people outside of and within the organization lamented the spooky Halloween trade of Garoppolo in 2017.
Even after Brady threw for a Super Bowl-record 505 yards that season in a game the Patriots only lost because Malcolm Butler was benched, and even after Brady threw a picture-perfect pass to win the Super Bowl a year later …
… people still thought the Patriots would have been better off if they had kept Jimmy, who at that point had thrown 94 passes in the NFL and had started two games, getting injured in the second one. He was good, yeah, but people spoke of him as if it was a foregone conclusion that he could easily perform at the game’s highest level after ousting the greatest quarterback of all time.
Anyways. Jimmy obviously headed to San Francisco, where the Niners promptly made him a very, very rich man.
And on Sunday, those same 49ers instructed Garoppolo to get off the field and sit on the sideline so that … C.J. Beathard could play quarterback for them.
Garoppolo was just 7-for-17 for 77 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions while taking three sacks and fumbling once in his return from an ankle injury. It was ugly, prompting Kyle Shanahan to make the move to Beathard in what turned out to be a blowout loss at home against the 1-3 Miami Dolphins.
Shanahan being a man of honor, the head coach blamed Garoppolo’s ankle injury for the poor performance.
“Watching how we were playing as a whole, watching how he was playing, you can tell he was affected by his ankle,” Shanahan said after the 43-17 loss. “I know he doesn’t normally throw the ball that way and I think he was struggling a little bit because of it. The way the game was going, I wasn’t going to keep putting him in those positions knowing we were going to have to throw it a lot to come back. I think it hurt him from being at his best.”
Hey, maybe. Sure.
But Sunday’s benching against the Dolphins merely provided the latest reminder that thriving as an NFL quarterback is extremely challenging. Very few men can really do it and sustain it, and it remains bizarre that so many in the New England region assumed that Garoppolo would have no issue doing it for a decade in Foxboro.
(Here’s where the retort of “he’d be doing better under Belichick” would come in. For one, Shanahan is an incredible offensive coach, so it’s not as if Garoppolo is in bad hands. Secondly, how is Jarrett Stidham doing under Belichick?)
To be fair, Garoppolo’s record as a starting quarterback in San Francisco remains sterling. Sunday’s loss dropped his overall record to 20-7 since 2017. Add in the 2-1 playoff record, and take a look at the overall stats (67 percent completion rate, 8.3 yards per attempt, 43 touchdowns, 23 interceptions), and Garoppolo is seemingly the quarterback of everybody’s dreams.
Really, though, Garoppolo has been good, not great. He has also missed 15 of the Niners’ 37 games since the start of the 2018 season due to injury. They made it to the Super Bowl last year, sure, but Garoppolo was merely along for the ride, throwing just 27 total passes in the team’s two wins, as the Niners racked up an absurd 471 rushing yards in two games.
And when the Niners did need him to be decent — like, say, just off the top of the dome, the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl — he’s been outright bad. Garoppolo completed three of his 11 passes for 36 yards with no touchdowns, an interception, and a fourth-down sack with the Super Bowl on the line last February.
Back to Sunday: How much the ankle injury — which cost him two and a half games — affected him is impossible to quantify. Perhaps as it heals, the poor decision-poor throw one-two combos like this one will fade from existence:
But the point, really, is that during his injury absence, some media members and 49ers fans legitimately wondered if Nick Mullens might be a better option at QB for San Francisco than James Garoppolo.
That’s … Nicholas Clayton Mullens, people.
Mullens ultimately proved those folks terrifically wrong by flopping against the Eagles with two picks and four sacks, but that brief episode shows how fickle everyone can be and serves as a blunt reminder that projecting greatness for backup QBs is often a waste of everyone’s time.
Of course, none of this really affects the current-day Patriots all that much … aside from the reality that the Niners could cut Garoppolo after this season, because they’ve already paid all of his guaranteed money. And Belichick could go back and grab The One Who Got Away and the two could work together the way they dreamed back in the day. That may be a remote possibility, but it is a possibility nonetheless.
Belichick may find himself in the QB market because his post-Garoppolo succession plan for Brady hasn’t quite panned out. If not for lucking into the availability of Cam Newton on cheap money in late June, the Patriots would have entered the 2020 season with Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer at quarterback. Last Monday’s loss in Kansas City painted a bleak picture of how that might have looked.
Stidham, 24, received some of the same hype that was placed upon Garoppolo after he was drafted, but his performance thus far — a seemingly impossible 41.2 percent completion rate with one touchdown and three interceptions for a brutal passer rating of 34.6 (!!!) — has certainly dampened any “heir to the QB throne” types of talks in New England. (Losing the backup job to Hoyer did a number on that quest, as well.)
Maybe Newton will end up being the long-term solution. Maybe Stidham will magically figure it out. Maybe there’s a Garoppolo reunion in the future. Nobody knows. Predicting the future is impossible.
But just in terms of looking back over history and remembering how many people truly and deeply thought that the Patriots should have gotten rid of Brady in favor of keeping Garoppolo? It was crazy then. It remains crazy now.
Jimmy G. may end up being a fine NFL starting quarterback. But he’ll never be Tom Brady. If you ever thought that he would be — for even one second — then you need to go run a lap. It’s OK. We all make mistakes. There is no shame. Even the most focused individual could get caught up in the charm and looks of football’s version of Prince Ali Ababwa. The man can make quite an impression.
Perhaps by the time you get back, Garoppolo will be the Niners’ starting quarterback again.