By: Bob George
FOXBOROUGH – Tom Brady still needs to be the guy. Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking anything otherwise.
But if the Patriots suffer a repeat of the 2008 season, perhaps the most compelling positional battle of the 2014 Patriots training camp is the battle for Brady’s backup. You have Ryan Mallett, the former Michigan and Arkansas quarterback, in the battle of his life against second round draft pick Jimmy Garoppolo. While Mallett had the slightly better numbers on Friday night at Gillette Stadium in a 42-35 Patriot preseason win over the Philadelphia Eagles, Garoppolo gets the nod as the man of the match because he played mostly against the Eagles’ varsity while Mallett played against mostly third stringers and future cuts.
All things considered, Garoppolo did well, albeit not astounding, but showed some good stuff at times while playing for all but two offensive series of the first half. Garoppolo was at times pressed into tough decisions and had to move around in the pocket on occasion. But he threw some nice balls, demonstrated his quick release, and didn’t throw any bad balls nor suffer any interceptions.
The same cannot be said for his heralded skipper. Brady suffered a pick-six on the first Eagle offensive drive of the game, and was the only one out of six quarterbacks in the game for both sides to not break the 100-point mark in quarterback rating. On a night where defense was mostly absent and quarterback numbers were quite good, Garoppolo showed that, given the chance to play mostly against the best Eagle defenders, he held his own and showed good poise in the process.
Brady opened the game playing the first two series. On the first possession, he drove the Patriots to the Philadelphia 30 yard line, then tried to hit newly signed tight end Steve Maneri in the left flat about ten yards downfield. Maneri curled in when he should have curled out, and Cary Williams had a clean interception at the Patriot 21. He took the pick and returned it 79 yards to put the Eagles on the board first. This pick was on Maneri, as he clearly ran the wrong route and Brady threw the ball to where he should have been.
Brady had a much better second drive. He took advantage of four Eagles penalties and fired a 15-yard scoring toss to Kenbrell Thompkins at the left pylon to tie the game at 7-7. Referee John Parry visited the Patriots-Eagles joint practices this week, met with the players to go over the new rules, and even officiated one of the practices. Bill Belichick implored Parry to throw lots of flags in Friday night’s game, and Parry’s crew responded with 21 total penalties on the night. On this drive, a 26-yard pass interference call on Julian Edelman which would have put the Patriots at the Eagle 11 yard line was pushed back to the 26 when Belichick protested the spot of the foul and was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Brady was able to overcome Belichick’s excessive complaining nonetheless.
Jimmy Garoppolo played a steady game against first-string competition against Philadelphia on Friday night at Gillette Stadium. (USA TODAY Images)
Garoppolo had the rest of the first half, and led the Patriots to touchdowns on his first two drives. After the first Eagle offensive play resulted in a fumble recovery by Tommy Kelly, Garoppolo led the Patriots on a four-play, 33-yard drive. Two of his passes went to reserve fullback James Develin. He ran a nice naked bootleg and hit Develin in the right flat for 12 yards to put the ball at the Eagle 9. Following a holding penalty on Chris Barker, Garoppolo dropped a nice flat pass to Develin, who was wide open in the left side of the formation, and he ran it in untouched from 15 yards out to give the Patriots their first lead.
The next drive featured Brandon LaFell and Brandon Bolden. Garoppolo threw his nicest pass of the night when he floated a nice 25-yard touch pass to LaFell to put the Patriots at the Philadelphia 37 yard line. On the next play, Bolden blasted around left end for 18 more yards. Six plays later, Garoppolo found LaFell in the back of the end zone for a six-yard touchdown pass, a nice throw on a crossing route into heavy traffic.
The Eagles were able to hold down Garoppolo for the rest of the first half, but in doing so, the rookie never threw a bad pass or made a bad decision. He did overthrow Brian Tyms on a sideline pattern to thwart the next drive, but two costly penalties on Marcus Cannon took care of the following drive.
Garoppolo’s final numbers were 6 of 12 passing for 72 yards and two touchdowns. He was confident in leading the Patriots on the two touchdown drives. His passer rating was 108.3.
Mallett did play the entire second half, and looked much better than he did in the preseason opener at Washington last week. Mallett was 7 of 11 for 92 yards and a nice 17-yard touchdown pass to Tyms, though Tyms had to make a great leaping catch and pass a replay review in doing so. Mallett also had a six-yard rushing touchdown, and Roy Finch chipped in with a ten-yard touchdown run in the third quarter as well. Mallett’s passer rating was 120.3.
Mallett also made no bad throws or decisions, though he was the only Patriot quarterback to be sacked (twice for 19 total yards). His competition was against mostly Eagle players who won’t be with the team when the games get real, so gauging his performance is a bit difficult. Another element which helped Mallett was the rushing performance of Jonas Gray, who carried 12 times for 98 yards.
The Patriots are still about Brady, and will be until the future Hall of Famer hangs up his spikes for the last time. Garoppolo is merely playing well, at least better than his first few practices, and pushing Mallett for the backup job. The smart thinking is that the Patriots keep all three quarterbacks, and let the competition for who backs up Brady play out as long and best it can.
The next game, at home against Carolina, will be the proverbial “dress rehearsal” game, where Brady will draw most of the snaps, at least in the first half. The backup battle will be secondary in this game.
But the battle will, and must, continue. Sooner or later, Brady will leave the Patriots. Who takes his place will be the most scrutinized athlete in this area in maybe the last 50 years.