Jimmy Garoppolo’s impending return to Gillette Stadium conjured up fond memories for New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty.
Speaking with reporters Wednesday in a video conference, McCourty recalled the first start Garoppolo — now the San Francisco 49ers’ starting quarterback — made in a Patriots uniform.
The date was Sept. 11, 2016. With Tom Brady serving his four-game Deflategate suspension, Garoppolo had known throughout training camp that he would enter the season as QB1 in New England.
His first opponent: the Arizona Cardinals, who’d reached the NFC Championship Game the previous season. Oddsmakers installed the Cardinals as nine-point home favorites over a Patriots team that had not played a game without Tom Brady since 2008.
Garoppolo had been with the Patriots since they drafted him in the second round in 2014 but saw action only in garbage time during his first two NFL seasons.
Still, despite his inexperience, Patriots players had confidence in their young QB.
“I still remember going into the opening weekend and everyone asking us questions like, ‘How nervous are you about that (quarterback) spot?’ ” McCourty recalled. “And our whole team was saying, like, we weren’t nervous at all, because we believed in Jimmy and knew he’d be ready to go.”
They were right.
Garoppolo completed 4 of 5 passes for 75 yards on the Patriots’ opening drive, capping it with a 37-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hogan. He later converted two third downs — including a 32-yard strike to Danny Amendola on third-and-15 — to set up a go-ahead field goal with less than four minutes to play.
Garoppolo finished the game 24 of 33 (72.7 percent) for 264 yards and one score with no interceptions, and the underdog Patriots won 26-24 after Cardinals kicker Chandler Catanzaro missed wide left from 47 yards out in the final seconds.
“I think one of the biggest things I got to see here was just his poise,” McCourty said. “You can tell. You get a young guy and you’ve got to go in and fill in for Tom Brady, who’s (on a) four-game suspension. (Garoppolo) comes in, we’re in Arizona, Week 1, and he doesn’t really blink. He’s just out there going, playing, and I think when you watch him, that doesn’t change.”
Garoppolo went on to throw three first-half touchdowns the following week before suffering a shoulder injury that ultimately ended his tenure as a Patriots starter. He backed up Brady for the rest of the 2016 season and the first half of 2017 before head coach Bill Belichick begrudgingly traded him to San Francisco.
Though he saw meaningful action in just two games during his 3 1/2 seasons in New England, Garoppolo left a lasting impression on his Patriots teammates.
“What a lot of us used to call him is a gamer,” McCourty said. “From the first time he took snaps in the preseason, he’d be making plays, whether it’s staying alive in the pocket, whether it’s making a great throw. I would just say he was a guy who somehow made big plays. And it was great seeing, from the older guy, a young guy really jumping on the scene in 2016 when he had to start games those first two games and just how poised he was, how well-prepared he was.”
McCourty was asked whether the Patriots’ familiarity with Garoppolo will give them a defensive advantage when the Niners visit Gillette this Sunday.
“I think the biggest thing is we know Jimmy as a person,” the veteran safety said. “Jimmy’s going to come in here ready to go as a competitor. … We’re all expecting Jimmy’s best coming here Sunday. We know he can play football at a high level. We got to see his maturity throughout the years.
“I’m sure he’ll come in here Sunday ready to go against a team I would say he knows pretty well, just from his time sitting in meetings and on the practice field, when it comes to scheme and everything else.”