FOXBORO, Mass. — Jimmy Garoppolo already was being thrust into an unprecedented and unenviable situation, filling in as the New England Patriots’ starting quarterback while Tom Brady serves a four-game suspension and looms large over Gillette Stadium, both literally and figuratively.
(Seriously, Jimmy. If you need to be reminded you’re only a temporary leader of the Patriots, just look over your shoulder and up above the end zone.)
Now some of the Patriots’ offseason happenings have notched up the difficulty level for Garoppolo, who will play without the team’s starting running back and right tackle alongside him, as Dion Lewis and Sebastian Vollmer begin the season on the physically unable to perform list. Wide receiver Danny Amendola won’t start the season on PUP, but he also didn’t take a single summer snap with Garoppolo under center in practice or the preseason. They have less than a week of practice to get on the same page before traveling to Arizona to face the Cardinals this weekend.
Right tackle is set, since a slimmed-down Marcus Cannon has been inserted into the role, but no one knows who will start at right guard in Week 1, and left tackle Nate Solder suffered an injury in the Patriots’ preseason finale.
Patriots fans have been watching perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history for 15 years now. Any other quarterback couldn’t live up to Brady’s lofty standards, and now poor Garoppolo is being thrown to the Flying Elvis-wearing sharks wearing seal-blubber-scented pajamas. And Cannon is standing in front of him with a dull spear for protection.
It’s tough to feel bad for the Patriots’ offense, since they’ve consistently been dominant since Brady took over in 2001. The Patriots added tight end Martellus Bennett and wide receiver Chris Hogan — whom New York Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall called “a monster” this week on “Inside The NFL” — so losing Lewis and Vollmer won’t exactly make their offense impotent. But without Lewis, the Patriots’ run game won’t be nearly as intimidating to opposing defenses, putting even greater pressure on Garoppolo against a dangerous Cardinals pass defense, which includes cornerback Patrick Peterson, defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, pass rusher Chandler Jones and hybrid linebacker Deone Bucannon.
Patriots running backs not named Lewis averaged just 3.7 yards per carry last season. LeGarrette Blount, the Patriots’ projected starting running back, averaged 4.3 yards per carry overall last season but just 3.8 in his final five games before going on injured reserve with a hip injury.
James White will fill in for Lewis on third down, but he offered little as a ball carrier in 2015, when he averaged just 2.5 yards per carry. The Patriots have D.J. Foster on their active roster and Bishop Sankey on the practice squad if White falters, but it will be White’s job to sink or swim in Week 1 as Garoppolo and Co. attempt to beat the Cardinals.
All this being said, the Patriots’ offense still has a chance of being solid with Garoppolo under center. He just has to be really good despite the issues. And he certainly has the potential.
Garoppolo struggled in his final preseason snaps, going 9-of-15 passing for 57 yards against the Carolina Panthers, but he was solid in his starts against the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears, when Brady wasn’t both looking over the third-year pro’s shoulder and interrupting his flow and snaps.
The Patriots’ season-opening matchup against the Cardinals is a serious test. But it’s important to remember it’s not Garoppolo’s final exam. Even if he and the Patriots struggle on the road against a Super Bowl contender, Garoppolo still has three home games against lesser teams to pull it together.
The Cardinals aren’t unbeatable. But Garoppolo will need to put out an All-Madden level performance to match their difficulty and protect himself from Patriots fans’ wrath.
Thumbnail photo via Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports Images