FOXBORO -- The question had barely tumbled out of my mouth before Bill Belichick jumped on it.
“Absolutely,” Belichick said emphatically when I asked if Jimmy Garoppolo was still improving as a player going into his fourth year.
“Yeah, without a doubt,” he said. “Especially just the position of quarterbacking. If you’re not improving, you either have the wrong mindset or you’re just not getting any better. I think with quarterbacking, it’s a unique position where it’s not always the same for everybody. Everybody has a different path of how they get there and what works for them, so I think it’s just a constant state of improving and when you stop improving something is wrong.”
I felt the question was pertinent considering this weekend’s trade of Jacoby Brissett, leaving the Patriots with just two quarterbacks once again -- Tom Brady and an understudy who has learned enough and proven enough to have his own team.
But instead of Garoppolo getting dealt for a cadre of picks and/or players this offseason, when his value was the highest, it was Brissett, just a year removed from being a third-round pick, who finds himself in cram mode, trying to learn the Andrew Luck offense in Indianapolis.
When asked when asked why the Pats moved on from Brissett, Belichick said simply, “To acquire Dorsett.” Enlightening.
For Garoppolo, seeing a friend traded stung a bit.
“The last 24, 48 whatever hours is always tough, you know? You lose guys you get to know pretty well,” Garoppolo’s voice trailed off. “That’s the business side of it.”
The business side is something Garoppolo has become all too familiar with. His value around the league is high and may have been at its peak this spring. There was a ton of talk surrounding him during that period -- some of it very real. Yet, in the end, Garoppolo is left to do exactly what he’s done since the day he was drafted out of Eastern Illinois: Watch Brady play.
“It’s a weird situation,” he said. “This whole offseason. Rumors were happening. You never know what’s going to happen. You always have to be on your toes, I guess.”
Entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract, Garoppolo didn’t appear to close the gap this summer between him and the 40-year-old Brady, at least to the untrained eye. The view of him elsewhere, including in the upper reaches of Gillette Stadium, remain as they were. His beginning to camp was -- at times -- eerily reminiscent of his rookie year. Erratic throws, dangerous decisions. Of course, there is a portion of camp to experiment, to see if this throw can make it into that window, or this receiver can pluck that back shoulder toss or let the cornerback outfight him for the football. That is acknowledged not just by Garoppolo, but by Brady and Belichick. How can you know unless you try?
The one downside to this experiment is that many of these throws happened during practices open to the public, and a tent full of media members playing quarterback coaches.
“Look, I think that there's not one player that hasn’t had their ups and downs through training camp and preseason games, or coaches for that matter,” said Belichick when asked about Garoppolo’s preseason. “I think that this isn’t a straight line for anybody, for any of us, as much as we want it to be. That’s just totally unrealistic. So you look at it from a broader stretch. You look at it from three weeks, or the first two weeks of preseason, or all four preseason games, or this preseason compared to another preseason that is comparable. And again, there are still factors there that are variable. They're not all the same. You do the best you can to make that evaluation but I’m sure we'll have varying opinions on different players and their performances. I understand that.”
Garoppolo has publicly stated he has improved, that he has made the most of his reps. He certainly appeared to turn the corner once the Jaguars came to town for joint practices, and he had a primo preseason opener. But then there was the what-the-hell-is-he-doing interception against the Texans, the last he would make in that game. Garoppolo lobbied to stay in the game, to clean up his mistake, but was told no, that his night was over, as scheduled.
In his postgame press conference, the 25-year old was noticeably unhappy with himself. His facial features were contorted. He owned every mistake, even a strip sack that happened earlier in the game which, upon further review, belonged to someone else. Garoppolo wanted you to know -- his teammates to know -- that can’t and won’t happen again.
“It sucks,” he told me of the pick. “You make a guy miss and I’m trying to throw it away but didn’t get enough on it. It’s one of those things that upsetting because -- I don’t know how to describe it -- it’s not a bad decision, but physically I didn’t put enough on in. That’s why it’s upsetting. You know exactly what happened and you wish you could go out and redeem yourself, but it’s the preseason. That’s what happens. Jacoby went in after and did his thing.”
If all goes according to plan, Garoppolo won’t get another game the rest of the way. That means another season wearing a baseball cap and an earpiece, unable to compete at the highest level, except on those days when practice really ramps up. And now that camp is over, those days are few and far between. That doesn’t mean Garoppolo can’t continue to improve, but it will be on him.
That was a question raised by 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Scott Zolak, the team’s radio color commentator and an NFL quarterback for eight seasons. He questioned Garoppolo’s approach during some of the training camp practices, saying it didn’t appear as though the backup was doing as much as Brady himself was, and when he did, it was just in response to Brady remaining on the field, working. Garoppolo was surprised by those comments.
“I mean, I’m never coming off the field early,” he said. “I think that’s the last thing. I’m putting in just as much time if not more this year. It’s a big year. A big year. It is what it is.”
As a savvy veteran would do, Garoppolo turned the attention to this team.
“There’s big opportunity for [us] and I think we’re trying to take advantage.”
I also asked him about his body language. Was he emoting less this summer? Was there an air of inevitability about his place on the team and what he was doing here, especially with Brady still acting and performing like, well, Brady?
“No, not so much,” he told me. “My body language . . . I’m pretty consistent. I try not to get too high or too low. I try to always be in the middle. I think as a quarterback you need to do that, you can’t get too emotional about that. I think I did a good job of that in camp and now we’re in the regular season and things switch up a little bit. It’s not different than any other year.”
Except it is. It could very well be the last year for Garoppolo in Foxboro. Or it could be the continuation of his growth and eventual succession of the man considered the greatest of all-time. There’ll be money. Lots of money, whether it’s here or somewhere else. Just like it was with the last signal-caller to get significant run as the Patriots quarterback.
“Matt Cassel -- when he played his fourth year after not playing at all his first three years -- performed at a very high level in the 2008 season, right?” said Belichick. “Yeah, so he was a fourth-year player. Some guys do it in the second year. Some guys do it in the third year. Some guys do it in the first year. I don’t know. I don’t think there’s any book on that.”
Maybe no book, but it’s rare to see a player this deep into his career finally get the keys and turn into a franchise quarterback. Oh sure, there are examples. Aaron Rodgers is atop the marquee. Kirk Cousins was a fourth-rounder who ascended to the throne after three seasons as a backup to injury-prone Robert Griffin, but even Cousins had nearly 400 pass attempts in his career prior to getting the starting gig.
Garoppolo doesn’t have that luxury.
“I think as long as a player is improving then that’s a good thing,” said Belichick. “You always want the rate of improvement to be a little bit faster, but if the player is improving day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year then I'd say generally speaking you want to continue to work with that player because he’s continuing to get better. Once they’ve leveled off and they’ve reached the level that they’re going to play at on a consistent basis, then you have to decide how you feel about that level of play. Do you like it? Then great. If you don’t like it then you try to find somebody who can move ahead of him. If it declines then you replace it if you can. If you can’t then you manage it until you can replace it. I mean, it’s not that hard really. In terms of making the judgement of what to do, it isn’t that hard. Identifying the player’s progress and improvement, rate of improvement or lack of it, sometimes there are a lot of circumstances that surround that. Like for example, opportunity, that you don’t always have control over. You have to do the best that you can.”
That part is all on Garoppolo now, as he works and waits for an opportunity that may never come with the Patriots. Meanwhile, his buddy Brissett may end up starting games in Indianapolis as Luck’s body heals. Tough to digest, but there’s nothing normal about this situation. Or, for that matter, the player in front of him.