FOXBOROUGH – No big deal, just potentially the next decade of the franchise.
Preseason openers aren’t really games that you form long term opinions from. The Patriots invited the New Orleans Saints to camp earlier this week, then faced off against them on Thursday night at Gillette Stadium. For both teams, they welcome the chance to hit guys other than themselves for a change. Coaches love it for the opportunity to experiment with different people packages, to gauge who’s having a good camp (and who isn’t), and to just match wits with the guy wearing the headsets on the other side.
The Patriots are in an unusual position this year. This game was not your usual run of the mill preseason opener. Patriot Nation at some point has to come to grips with the fact that Tom Brady does not have an awful lot of career left, and Thursday night’s game gave everyone, fans coaches and players, an all important opportunity to see what may be the future of the franchise.
With Brady opting to accept the 4-game suspension from DeflateGate, we know his status to start 2016 and he wasn’t at Gillette Stadium for Thursday night’s game, instead taking an excused leave of absence. The star of the evening was Jimmy Garoppolo, the second round pick from three years ago, the most daring and ballyhooed draft pick of the last ten years by the Patriots. Preceded by a hail of pretenders and wannabe quarterbacks drafted by the Patriots over the last decade or so, Garoppolo represented the first actual hint of who may be the biggest takeover of a position in Boston sports since Carl Yastrzemski took over for Ted Williams in 1961. That obviously depends on how long Brady is able to continue to play at his Brady-like level.
Garoppolo played the first half of a 34-22 win by the Patriots over the Saints. In a game filled with great defensive plays and more than its share of two-point conversion attempts, Garoppolo basically had a fair to bad first quarter, and a good second quarter. He looked uncomfortable in the first quarter, and looked more in rhythm in the second. He didn’t “blow you away” with his play, and he certainly didn’t have you thinking “4-0” or “Brady should retire now!” But it wasn’t a performance which would send you to the lifeboats.
Garoppolo’s first drive was hampered by a slip and bad blocking. On first down, LeGarrette Blount slipped in the backfield and was nailed for a two-yard loss. On second down, he hit Martellus Bennett for eight yards on a routine play. On third down, Garoppolo was sacked for a seven-yard loss by Kasim Edebali. This play could either be analyzed as Garoppolo hanging on to the ball too long or Nate Solder whiffing on his block of Edibali. With more experience, Garoppolo might instead turn this play into a safe incompletion and not take a sack, regardless of blocking mistakes.
The second drive was another three and out. Garoppolo attempted passes on first and third down and misfired on both. The first, a right sideline pass to Bennett, was defensed by Kenny Vaccaro fairly well, but Garoppolo threw over his left shoulder when he should have led him to the outside. On third down, he led Chris Harper too far with Dannell Ellerbe draped all over him. This was more about early game/season jitters, and trying to find a comfort level.
The third drive lasted longer, but still yielded no points. He hit Bennett on a crossing pattern that is routine by NFL standards for 12 yards. On third down on the next series, he found Bennett for 15 yards over the middle, given time to throw. At this point, all his completions were to Bennett. The drive died on the next play when James Laurinaitis broke in unblocked, leading to another sack by Edebali for a 14-yard loss. The Patriots punted three plays later. Garoppolo cannot be blamed for this sack, as center James Andrews was occupied with one of the defensive tackles and unmaintained gap integrity allowed Laurinaitis to come in totally unchecked.
Into the second quarter, scoring finally happened. After Mark Ingram scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to make it 16-8 Saints, Garoppolo led the Patriots on a four-play, 84-yard drive. The highlight was a nice screen pass from Garoppolo to James White that nearly went to the house. With Edebali and Roman Harper bearing down on him at full speed, Garoppolo flicked a screen pass in the right flat to White. He was able to ramble 56 yards before being corralled at the one by De’Vante Harris. Blount blasted in for the score on the next play. It was a simple screen pass, but given the duress that Garoppolo was under, he gets the nod for completing a routine pass very well.
The next drive was longer and resulted in a field goal. Garoppolo began with an eight-yard toss to Aaron Dobson, then hit rookie Malcolm Mitchell for nine yards to set up a fourth and two which the Patriots went for and made. Two plays later, Garoppolo found Mitchell for 24 yards on a nice touch pass down the left sideline. The drive would get no closer, and Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 38-yard field goal to give the Patriots the lead for good at 17-16.
Mitchell was the star of the last offensive drive of the night for Garoppolo, both positively and negatively. On second and six, he hauled in a 14-yard pass in the left flat. Just after the two-minute warning, Mitchell’s number was called again. The rookie, who has been unilaterally heralded for a great camp and having a great game thus far, caught a pass in the right sideline but suffered a grisly elbow injury which ended his night immediately and suddenly. Harris, who was also guilty of defensive holding on the play, jumped on top of Mitchell after the catch. Mitchell fell to the ground and used his left arm to break his fall. But the weight of Harris draped on top of him caused his forearm to bend the wrong way at the elbow. Fortunately it sounds like he’ll only miss a few weeks after the Boston Herald reported that he suffered a dislocated elbow, which is certainly good news given how bad it looked initially.
Garoppolo finished 11 of 18 passing for 168 yards. Mitchell had four catches for 55 yards, while White had the one catch for 56 yards. Again, not eye popping stats, but not too terrible for Garoppolo’s debut.
Defense carried the day for the Patriots, as Jamie Collins had a pick-six in the first quarter after a nifty defensive play by Patrick Chung on Brandon Coleman. Collins caught the deflection and rambled 43 yards for the touchdown, with Malcolm Butler throwing a nice block just before Collins reached the end zone.
Despite the obvious concern over how the first four games will go for the Patriots without Brady, the injury to Mitchell seemed to overshadow everything else. The horrible injury, which you should watch under advisement if TV stations choose to show it, cast a pall over the evening for the Patriots. Mitchell seemed like a rising star for the Patriots, but all his promise may be on hold for a while.
So, in the end, so much for the “keep everybody healthy” mantra for preseason games. But Garoppolo is okay for now. Bill Belichick will take it.
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