Patriots

Before leaving for San Francisco, Jimmy G. brought out the best in Brady

Before leaving for San Francisco, Jimmy G. brought out the best in Brady

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 . . . ” 
-- Belichick

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 .” 
-- Belichick

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 . . . ” 
-- Belichick

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.” 
-- Belichick

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.

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Brady: 'I thought . . . my season can't end on a handoff in practice'

Brady: 'I thought . . . my season can't end on a handoff in practice'

FOXBORO -- There was a point in time during the week that Tom Brady wasn't sure he'd be able to play in the AFC title game. Because of a hand-off. In practice. 

Imagine that? Imagine if Brady had to check out of the biggest game of his 40-year-old season because of a botched exchange with a running back? Doesn't exactly scream "warrior spirit!"

PATRIOTS 24, JAGUARS 20

"I wasn’t sure on Wednesday," Brady said. "I certainly didn’t think -- I thought out of all the plays, my season can’t end on a hand-off in practice. We didn’t come this far to end on a hand-off. It’s just one of those things.

"I came in the training room and just was looking at my hand and wasn’t quite sure what happened, and everyone did a great job kind of getting me ready and the training staff and the doctors and Alex [Guerrero]. It was a great team effort. Without that, I definitely wouldn’t be playing."

One of the logical concerns, when it came to Brady's hand, was how it might hold up. Would he be able to take snaps under center? Would he be able to drive the football down the field for four quarters? Might a flukey hand-off rip him open again? 

But he played his best in the fourth quarter, going 9-for-14 for 138 yards and two touchdowns to Danny Amendola. For the game, Brady went 26-of-38 for 290 yards.  

Brady indicated that he should be able to have his stitches out mid-week, "and then I can just get out there and get normal treatment like I always do and be ready to go." Though Brady played well enough to orchestrate his 54th career fourth-quarter go-ahead victory, he did hint at some discomfort created by his cut, the stitches, and the wrap on his hand to protect it. 

"I’d rather not do anything with my hand . . . that’s kind of what I had to deal with," he said. "So, I just wrapped it up and tried to cover it up and see if [I could] go out there and play and be effective.

"I’d rather not wear it. But, I think it sounds kind of arrogant to say, ‘Oh yeah, it bothered me,’ when we had a pretty good game. So, I wouldn’t say that. Doesn’t that sound arrogant if I said that? It’s like when Tiger Woods said, ‘That was my C game,’ and he won the tournament."

But that's essentially what happened. The Patriots couldn't get anything going in the first half until the Jaguars gave away two huge chunks of yardage just before the end of the second quarter to put the Patriots in scoring position. Brady was accurate at times, but at others he sailed easy throws high, and even when he completed the short ones, the Jaguars speedy defense was swarming. 

Through three quarters Brady had an 87 rating and his team had rushed for a mere 25 yards -- including a 1-yard Brady run and a three-yarder from Amendola. They were one-for-eight on third down. It wasn't pretty. 

Then came the fourth quarter, when Brady did what Brady has done so often in his career. It was 11th postseason win when facing a fourth-quarter deficit or tie.

On his first fourth-quarter scoring drive, he drilled a deep comeback to Brandin Cooks, he hit Amendola for 21 yards on a third-and-18, he got Phillip Dorsett for 31 on a flea-flicker, and he hit "Steady Eddie" Amendola (as Matthew Slater calls him) on a shallow cross for the touchdown.

On Brady's second fourth-quarter scoring drive, he flipped a screen to James White that went for 15, he fit a squint-your-eyes-to-see-if-it-was-complete laser to Amendola over the middle, and he found Amendola for a toe-tapping touchdown to take the lead. 

"We played a lot better in the second half," Brady said. "We just couldn’t get the drives going, and obviously it wasn’t very good on third down and just got into a little tempo stuff in the second half and played a little bit better. So, it was a great win. Happy for our team and just a great, great game. So proud of all the guys, coaches, everyone. Amazing."

Brady's teammates were posed a relatively simple question about their quarterback after the fact: How? 

"Tommy’s the best," Amendola said. "He’s the toughest guy I’ve ever met physically, mentally. If there is anything that happens to Tom, I know he can handle it. It was unfortunate to see him get injured mid-week. I know mentally it probably stressed him out a bit and physically I know it’s hard to throw a football with stitches in your thumb.

"Everybody knows how tough he is. Everybody knows that he’s our leader. It’s a testament to his career, his personality, the man he is. Not only is he the best player in our locker room, but he gets everybody else to play well and step their game up and that’s why he’s the best.

"Tom Brady," Slater said simply. One of the most thoughtful and eloquent players in the Patriots locker room, a captain, Slater had little else. "Tom Brady."

Pushed a little further, Slater was still briefly at a loss. He paused before coming up with more. 

"The guy is one of a kind," he said. "We've seen a lot of clutch players in this league, over the history of this league, me being a historian of this league, I was raised to appreciate the history and the great players of this league. It's really hard to find a guy who's been able to help his team the way that he has consistently. And to play at the level he's been playing at 40 years of age . . . Tom Brady."

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Amendola the definition of a good football player for Belichick, Patriots

Amendola the definition of a good football player for Belichick, Patriots

FOXBORO -- When it was over and an army of reporters and photographers in vests flooded the Gillette Stadium turf, Tom Brady was engulfed. Danny Amendola, meanwhile, was on the periphery, about 30 yards away from the 6-foot-4 eye of the storm, talking to one man with one microphone. 

Amendola slowly worked his way toward the middle of the field, and after a few minutes he eventually met up with Brady at the bottom of the steps of a makeshift stage. Before they both stepped up to address the more than 70,000 people in attendance, they laughed. It was their longest-developing connection of the night. 

"It means a lot, man," he told CBS' Jim Nantz moments later. "We put a lot of hard work into each week of the season and coming out here and getting a win each week. And we love playing at home, we love being in Foxboro, and we love you."

In that instant, Patriots fans of all types were probably returning the sentiment en masse. Amendola had just reeled in seven grabs for 84 yards and two scores, both of which came in the fourth quarter. The second put the Patriots ahead for the first time all night and gave them a 24-20 victory over the Jaguars to advance to Super Bowl LII. 

"I’m going to enjoy it tonight, I know that," Amendola said. "We know what to expect. A lot of guys in this room have been in a situation like that before. We know what’s it’s going to take to get the work done the week of. We know what the expectations are, we know what the media are going to be like and we’re going to be ready."

With Rob Gronkowski out due to a head injury suffered in the second quarter, and with Julian Edelman long gone for the season, Amendola came into focus as Brady's top target, especially in critical situations. 

There was the fourth-down conversion in the first quarter that led to a field goal. There was the third-and-18 completion with 10:49 left that kept New England's first fourth-quarter scoring drive alive. And there were the two touchdowns, a nine-yarder with just under nine minutes remaining and a toe-tapping four-yarder along the back end zone to take the lead with 2:48 to go. 

"Yeah, it was great," Brady said of Amendola's game-winner. "He’s made so many big catches, and I saw he got the one foot in and I just saw it up on the big screen one time. He’s got great hands and just a great sense about where he’s at on the field. So, I mean, he’s made so many big plays for us, and this was huge, and without that, we don’t win. It was an incredible play."

The Patriots work on those specific types of plays going all the way back to the spring, according to players. And in training camp, during practice sessions that are open to the public, some of the most engaging periods involve watching Patriots receivers catch touchdowns along the back end line from Brady. 

"These are situations that we practice," said receiver and special teams ace Matthew Slater. "Red-area scramble. Red-area situations. Back of the end zone, ball high. Front of the end zone, ball low. We work this. We practice this. To be able to come out and execute it at the most critical times of the season, it started in OTAs and now presents itself when we need it the most. I think preparation and execution really came together at the right time for us today."

Amendola had just three touches -- including a three-yard run -- in the first half. Jacksonville's defense was swarming, and the shallow middle portion of the field seemed to be a no-go for the Patriots offense. His first touch of the second half was a throw that he completed to Dion Lewis on a double-pass. Then, when he caught the third-and-18 sinking fastball from Brady, the seal was broken. Amendola was targeted six more times the rest of the way and caught four. 

One was a wild throw from Brady, high and a touch wide, to Amendola to pick up 14 yards and a first down. It was one of multiple athletic grabs from the 32-year-old in the game. 

"“The guy’s got maybe the best hand-eye coordination of any player I’ve ever played with," Slater said. "And I played with Randy Moss. His hand-eye coordination is elite. How do you measure that? You can't. It's just an in-game thing. I don't know. He's just so reliable, so consistent. And I think it just says so much about his character."

Bill Belichick raved about Amendola's game, which he did just over a week ago after Amendola had 11 catches for 112 yards against the Titans in the Divisional Round. Not only did Amendola catch it well, Belichick explained, but he had a key punt return as well. 

With 4:58 remaining in the game and the Patriots down 20-17, Amendola brought a punt back 20 yards to put the Patriots in field goal range. Three plays later, Amendola was in the end zone and they didn't need a kick. 

"Danny's a tremendous competitor, made some big plays for us," Belichick said. "I thought, as usual, he handled the punts great, and he had the last punt return that really set us up for the final touchdown. 

"Danny's such a good football player. When you look up ‘good football player’ in the dictionary his picture is right there beside it. It doesn’t matter what it is. Fielding punts, third down, big play, red area, onside kick recovery -- whatever we need him to do. He’s just a tremendous player, very instinctive, tough, great concentration. He had some big plays for us today."

He seems to have a knack for that this time of year.

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