FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick has said it time and time again: The priority for the Patriots is to get Jimmy Garoppolo ready to be the team's starter for the first four games of the regular season.
Thursday's performance against the Bears was an indication that the third-year signal-caller was well on his way to achieving that goal, but it also proved that Garoppolo still will have plenty of value to the Patriots for the last three quarters of the regular season and beyond as Brady's backup.
When Brady sliced open his thumb prior to the game against the Bears, the team was in a live "emergency situation" for the first time in quite a while.
In Garoppolo's two-plus years as a pro, he's never really seen one of those. Brady has never come off the field hobbled, leaving a half of play or more to his young backup. The closest thing Garoppolo has experienced to that type of situation was when he took over for Brady in the second half of a lopsided contest in Week 4 of the 2014 regular season in Kansas City, but that game was over before Garoppolo ever took a snap.
Against the Bears, Garoppolo was truly caught off guard. He didn't expect to start, but was thrust into the game at the very beginning due to Brady's absence. And he played well for an extended period.
Much has been made of whether or not he'll be prepared when the Sept. 11 opener against Arizona arrives, and rightfully so. That's the priority. But often lost in that conversation is the fact that -- unless he's traded mid-season -- Garoppolo will still occupy a critical role on the Patriots roster for the remainder of the 2016 regular season and into the playoffs. He'll be one twisted knee or separated shoulder from becoming this team's go-to-guy for a second time.
But should anything like that happen from Weeks 5 through 17, the Patriots can feel as though they'll be in secure hands given how he performed after receiving Thursday night's surprise tap on the shoulder.
"I didn’t think I was going to [start], but then some stuff came up and I got tossed in there," Garoppolo said. "It was a good test, I guess. It always keeps you on your toes. Coach [Bill Belichick] always preaches, you never know when you’re going to go in or when your number is going to get called. You just have to be ready for it."
Garoppolo has long said that he's prepared for every game in his pro career as though he'll be the starter. His coaches have praised him for his work behind the scenes to be ready if ever called upon. By going 16-for-21 for 181 yards and a touchdown in the 23-22 win over the Bears on Thursday, after the Patriots were forced to go "next man up," that doesn't seem like lip service.
"That's part of football," Belichick said. "Things happen that are unexpected. He's been prepared for that from the day he got here. I think all our players are. Sometimes things happen and they change, and you have to adjust to them. On offense, for quarterbacks, we refer to that as an audible."
It wasn't perfect for the Eastern Illinois product. In fact, his last-minute insertion may have taken a few snaps to get used to as Garoppolo and the Patriots went three-and-out on their first drive -- in part because Garoppolo misfired on an out-route to Aaron Dobson that was thrown to Dobson's inside shoulder and fell incomplete. New England's next two drives, both of which saw the Patriots get deep into Bears territory, resulted in only three points. Brandon Bolden lost a fumble on drive No. 2, and the Patriots' running game stalled near the goal line on their subsequent possession.
Thoough those lackluster results in the red zone weren't necessarily due to any mistakes made by Garoppolo, it gnawed on him that he wasn't able to put more points on the board.
"I don’t know exactly what we were in the red zone tonight, but we just have to finish some of those drives," he said. "We got the ball down there, we were moving it well, had some long drives, slot plays, but we’ve got to finish at the end."
But a sharply-run two-minute drill and a relatively clean 44 snaps overall -- no interceptions and just one pass, his last of the night, that was in danger of being picked -- had to have been encouraging for Garoppolo as well as Belichick and the rest of the Patriots staff.
"I think Jimmy’s been pretty consistent through camp," Belichick said. "We’ll look at the film and take a look at everything tonight, but again, [he took] care of the football and [took] advantage of our opportunities offensively.
"If the goal line had been the 3-yard line we would’ve scored two more touchdowns but it wasn’t, so finishing those drives is an area we need to do better in. But had we done that we’d be looking at a lot more production offensively than what we actually had -- you get (the point total) up there in the 30s where you’d like to be . . . [But] I like us taking care of the ball and not turning it over and creating some field position in the kicking game or the turnovers that we had defensively. Those things all bode well."
Whether it's in the role as starter or Brady's backup, it goes without saying that Garoppolo will be vitally important to the Patriots for the duration of 2016. What he did on Thursday is a sign that he's a capable option either way.