The greatest draft pick during BIll Belichick’s ongoing tenure In New England is still plying his trade for the Patriots some 17 seasons after he got his first crack at the job. Arguably the second-best draft choice Belichick made barely played during his 3 1/2 seasons and is now a member of the San Francisco 49ers. Tom Brady's legacy was cemented long before Jimmy Garoppolo arrived, but it was the young quarterback’s presence that caught Brady’s attention like no player before and maybe no player will ever again.
“He’s a talented individual, was a great person to coach. I met with him weekly and, again, have a tremendous amount of respect for him.”
-- Bill Belichick on today's conference call
Belichick’s conference call Tuesday began with a preemptive strike. He officially announced the trade of Garoppolo for San Francisco’s second-round pick in the 2018 draft. He then went on to speak in glowing terms about the soon-to-be 26-year-old and included the nugget about meeting with Garoppolo weekly. The Pats' on-field boss is no stranger to spending extra time with players. He tutored former running back Laurence Maroney for the entirety of a single season, watching film, trying to coach up Maroney to get more from the first-rounder. It didn’t appear to make a lasting impact; Maroney washed out of the league a year shortly thereafter. But Belichick has always been willing to go the extra mile . . . with stars, middle-of-the-roster vets or the last guy on the practice squad. It’s part of what makes the coach elite.
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With Garoppolo, the relationship was different in part because of the shadow cast by the incumbent. Brady is intensely competitive and it has served him well. But for his backups, that competitive streak can make it difficult to operate. Jacoby Brissett recalled during one of his first days in the meeting rooms getting asked a question only to have Brady jump on it with the right answer. The explanation from Brady was simply that you’ll need to be quicker to play quarterback on this team -- his team being the real implication. Good luck trying to outfox the signal caller who is considered the greatest of all-time and who has spent so many years in the offense he “has all the answers to the test.” Brissett wasn’t the only one to experience moments like that . . .
“We probably had, in my opinion, the best quarterback situation in the league for the last -- let’s call it two-and-a-half years . . . ”
Before Brissett’s arrival, it was just Brady and his understudy Garoppolo, who arrived in Foxboro with considerably more fanfare than previous quarterbacks selected or signed. He also drew an unusual amount of interest from the coach. Belichick was invested. This was his choice and Belichick’s comments after drafting the former Eastern Illinois star drew scrutiny league-wide. Did he really just mention Brady’s age and contract situation? That didn’t sit well with those in Brady’s camp. They likely didn’t form that opinion on their own. Plus, there were whispers about Brady’s performance. Some of the metrics used to evaluate quarterbacks inside the important offices at Foxboro indicated some decline as the 2014 draft approached. Maybe Brady’s time as an elite player were growing short. Or maybe Brady himself recognized it and was bound and determined to fight off his new and fiercest challenge. That led Ito an uneasy truce at first between star and backup. Brady did what was best for him, preparing for the season. Meanwhile Garoppolo was trying to find his footing as a rookie in a very complex and demanding system. He managed, but it wasn’t easy. There were more eyes on him than any backup in the Brady era.
As that season progressed, however, teammates recognized the talent this kid QB had. His work on the scout team drew rave reviews and was singled out in the original “Do Your Job” documentary by NFL Films. The piece highlighted Garoppolo’s TD pass to Josh Boyce during the week leading up to Super Bowl 49 versus the Seahawks. Boyce beating Malcolm Butler. Seattle tried to run that same play from the one-yard line in the fourth quarter a few days later; I think we all remember how that ended.
But Brady wasn't about to be supplanted. He responded to a rugged start to the season by turning back the clock and playing as well as he ever had. His performance in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl was flawless. As good as it gets.
Garoppolo though, was undeterred. He grew as a player, not just in confidence, but stature, even though his opportunities were few and far between. We wouldn’t get an extended look at Garoppolo’s quick feet and hair-trigger release till his third year in the league. This, while fellow members of the 2014 draft class were starting or -- in the case of Derek Carr -- developing into up-and-comers at the position. The summer of 2016 was an odd one, for sure. Belichick had to balance getting Brady ready to play despite the four-game suspension he’d accepted to start the season, all the while working his backup into the mix as often as possible to prepare Garoppolo for the bright lights of the regular season. The mechanics of it were clunky at best, and neither quarterback was all that pleased with the way it was run. In Belichick’s defense, one player asked simply, “What the hell is he supposed to do?” Even teammates knew both players wanted the ball more often, but Brady’s wishes had to be met first. Meanwhile, Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels spent extra time prepping their young charge, and the consensus was they appreciated the amount of work Garoppolo had put in away from the field. While others -- especially media -- wondered if Jimmy G was ready, the coaches knew and were summarily rewarded for it, at least for the first six quarters of the season.
“There were many things involved in this whole process and, again, on a number of levels; way too many to get into at this time .”
Garoppolo’s injury and the ensuing fallout -- was the player unwilling to return to the field even though the team leaked that he could?-- were just another piece to the Brady/Garoppolo puzzle. The constant chatter of ‘Brady would have played through this’ was heard loud and clear, not just by those in Garoppolo’s inner circle, but by his teammates as well. They rallied around Brissett and credited him for his toughness playing through a thumb injury that required surgery. Garoppolo just keep his head down and plowed through the noise. It was a tough blow for a player who had waited for his chance. The way he handled himself didn’t go unnoticed by the coaching staff, nor did his continued attention to detail long after Brady returned.
“It’s definitely not something that we wanted to walk away from . . . ”
Despite his meticulous preparation and maniacal approach to his own health and wellness, Brady had to be managed by the Pats down the stretch of what turned out to be a second Super Bowl season in three years. During those missed practices, it was Garoppolo who seized control of the huddle, and his work during those sessions helped prepare a football team on the cusp of another Lombardi Trophy. In the grand scheme of things, it was a mere fraction of what went into the title, but it was important nonetheless to both player and those who coached him.
Garoppolo also grew more at ease with Brady during this period. He appreciated all that Brady poured into the game and his intensity for everything it entailed: practice, workouts, prehab and rehab, and of course, Sundays. Their relationship softened. Of course, it was easier to get to that point because Garoppolo figured he was as good as gone in the offseason. And he wanted that. Wanted to play. With Brady once again turning back the clock -- or making it seem like the clock didn’t exist for him -- it made sense. There was the non-stop chatter about Garoppolo moving on. Would it QB-needy Cleveland? His hometown Bears? There was also buzz that Kyle Shanahan had long ago taken a shine to Jimmy and would want to acquire him in his new stop in San Francisco.
While Adam Schefter proclaimed to the world that the Pats wouldn’t trade Garoppolo for “not one, not two, not three, not four . . . ” first-rounders, the player wasn’t sure. He had conversations with Belichick and his agency, headed by Don Yee, also spoke multiple times with the Pats. The team wanted him to stay. Enough to make multiple attempts at getting something done. Money and contract length were discussed, and it may have been closer than anyone will ever let on. But the Pats couldn’t offer Garoppolo the most important thing: Playing time. So, despite being a member of the most stable franchise in the NFL, with the best coach and an unprecedented track record of success in the salary-cap era, Garoppolo was on his way out.
“We, over a period of time, explored every option possible to try to sustain it, but just at this point felt like we had to make a decision.”
The words sounded somewhat pained coming out Belichick’s mouth. He wanted the player to remain in place, to be the eventual successor. It was to the point where Garoppolo felt comfortable enough with his situation that he didn’t expect anything to happen at the NFL trade deadline. He assumed he was here until the offseason and then this dance would continue: Get tagged, sign and trade, sign and stay. Three months of football is an eternity. Garoppolo felt that first-hand with the injury.
But Belichick did what he always claims to do (and usually does): What’s best for the team. And keeping Garoppolo was no longer the right thing, though it has and will be argued for days, weeks and -- who knows? -- maybe years to come.
Now Garoppolo is part of San Francisco’s future, while the shadow of Brady remains omnipresent at Gillette Stadium. This -- maybe more than ever -- is Brady's team, the best draft pick of the Belichick era, pushed to renewed heights by the man who was supposed to replace him but now will carve his own path in the Bay Area for the team Tom Terrific once rooted for.