A lot of Tom Brady in Jimmy Garoppolo’s game
New England had Brady’s successor in mind when they picked Garoppolo in the second round of last weekend’s draft
ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. — Jeff Christensen wants to show an example of perfect quarterback mechanics. So he opens up his 15-inch Asus laptop and finds the All-22 film of the Patriots’ 27-20 loss to the Colts in November 2006.
Coincidentally, this is one of Tom Brady’s worst statistical games as a pro, with four interceptions. But when it comes to throwing mechanics, this is when Brady, then 29, was at his peak. This game is one of the films that Christensen, a journeyman NFL quarterback in the 1980s who now coaches quarterbacks full time, uses when teaching pros such as Kirk Cousins, Teddy Bridgewater, and Jake Locker, or prep school kids here in the Chicago suburbs.
“See how he gets his feet apart? See that bounce?” Christensen says of Brady. “You see that back heel off the ground? How his toes are pointed right at the target? How his hips are open? Now, watch where the ball goes. Right on the money. It’s like a clinic.”
Then Christensen opens another file on his laptop. It’s a video from two summers ago, when Jimmy Garoppolo was working with him at a local park. Garoppolo is dropping back and throwing the ball to a receiver — with his eyes closed. He hits the receiver in stride every time.
“Flat front foot, back heel 2 inches off the ground, legs at an angle, his back slightly angled, no tension in his shoulders, no head movement. Nice and easy,” Christensen says. “Perfect.”
Christensen presses pause right as Garoppolo cocks to throw. He holds a similar photo of Brady on his iPhone up to the computer screen.
“Isn’t that something?” Christensen says. “Just like Brady. Identical.”
Garoppolo, 22, is most often compared to Tony Romo, because they both went to tiny Eastern Illinois University, a Football Championship Subdivision school deep in the Illinois cornfields.
But the real comparison is with Brady.
“He didn’t have any posters in his room or anything, but Tom Brady, that’s his guy,” Garoppolo’s mother, Denise, said Wednesday at their home in Arlington Heights.
The drills Garoppolo has done in the last seven years with Christensen, the videos and photos he watches in the classroom — it’s all with the goal of emulating Brady.
“The way Tom has poise in the pocket, the way he throws the ball — it’s pretty picture perfect, if you ask me,” Garoppolo said.
Now that education takes on a whole new meaning.
Garoppolo was drafted by the Patriots in the second round last weekend, 62d overall.
“Is this a big deal?” Denise asks, genuinely.
Yes, it sure is.
Bill Belichick never took a quarterback that high in his previous 14 drafts with the Patriots.
Brady is soon to be 37, and Belichick acknowledged that the team doesn’t know how much time the quarterback has left.
No one is ushering Brady out the door yet. He is signed for four more years, and Garoppolo is just the third-string quarterback right now, also behind Ryan Mallett.
But the Patriots have grander intentions for Garoppolo than they did with the six other quarterbacks they’ve drafted in the Brady era.
Who knows how gracefully Brady will age? So the Patriots hand-picked Garoppolo — the kid who didn’t get a scholarship offer from one Football Bowl Subdivision school — to be the next Brady, if that’s what it comes to.
“He’s learned all the stuff from Tom and his throwing mechanics, and now he gets to go live it in real life, and not just through drills,” said Doug Millsaps, Garoppolo’s former coach at Rolling Meadows High. “It’s really unbelievable.”
There’s a lot of Brady in Garoppolo’s game — the mechanics, the rhythm passing, the leadership qualities, his control of the offense, his attention to detail in the classroom. Type Garoppolo’s name in YouTube, and watch him drop corner fade after corner fade into his receivers’ hands for touchdowns. It’s mesmerizing.
But Garoppolo is his own man, of course, and the Brady comparison isn’t perfect. Garoppolo is 2 inches shorter. He excelled at baseball, but was never considered to be an MLB draft pick like Brady. And while Brady earned a scholarship to football powerhouse Michigan, Garoppolo only received offers from FCS schools — Illinois State, Montana State, and Eastern Illinois.
Garoppolo is more relaxed than Brady and doesn’t quite have the same chip on his shoulder. Don’t mistake that for a lack of work ethic. Garoppolo just is enjoying the ride a little bit more.
Garoppolo and his brothers — he’s the third of four — all played high school football, but it’s not like they had great measurables or came from a football hotbed. His older brother, Mike, played linebacker at Western Illinois, but Jimmy was more of a baseball and basketball guy at first. In football, Garoppolo liked running back and linebacker, which he played for his first two years at Rolling Meadows.
“The quarterback thing was never really a goal,” said his father, Tony. “He wasn’t even buying into it at first, and then it sort of grew on him.”
Millsaps saw good athleticism in Garoppolo and sent him to his friend Christensen, who played at EIU in the early ’80s and was the Bengals’ fifth-round pick in 1983. Garoppolo’s throwing mechanics were a mess — he had a long windup like a baseball player — but they saw potential.
Garoppolo’s two years as the quarterback at Rolling Meadows were fairly uneventful. The team wasn’t very good, and Garoppolo didn’t win any honors from the local newspapers. But Garoppolo cleaned up his mechanics and tightened his throwing motion, which is more three-quarters than over the top.
One Friday night Christensen got a call from Roy Wittke, the longtime receivers coach at EIU, who was in town to recruit another kid. Christensen implored him to check out the first half of Rolling Meadows’s game that night to see Garoppolo.
Wittke, who had been at EIU for 25 years before leaving for Bowling Green recently, was instantly sold. He told longtime EIU coach Bob Spoo to sign Garoppolo.
“Roy recruited Tony Romo, so knowing Roy’s track record, it was an easy choice,” Spoo said.
Made most of opportunity
Garoppolo was supposed to redshirt his freshman year, but the Panthers were awful, on their way to a 2-9 season, so Spoo inserted Garoppolo as his quarterback in late September and stuck by him, even as he got battered, throwing 13 touchdown passes against 14 interceptions.
Garoppolo was better as a sophomore, throwing 20 TD passes with 14 interceptions, but the Panthers again went 2-9, and Spoo retired after 25 seasons.
In 2012, the Panthers hired as their new coach Dino Babers, who was Baylor’s receivers coach during the Robert Griffin III era. He brought the up-tempo, shotgun spread offense to EIU, and many inside the program told Babers he should find a new quarterback and convince Garoppolo to transfer.
“I said, ‘Hold on, let me see him in practice or something,’ ” said Babers, recently named the head coach at Bowling Green. “Jimmy threw five balls, and I said, ‘That’s the starting quarterback.’ That’s all I needed to see. I thought a bunch of recruiters made mistakes, because this kid was at the wrong level.”
Garoppolo flourished in the up-tempo offense — Babers took out the running element he used with RG3 and tailored the offense to Garoppolo’s strengths. Garoppolo threw for 3,823 yards, 31 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions as a junior as the Panthers improved to 7-5.
Still, the NFL seemed like a fantasy. Garoppolo played in a glorified high school stadium in the middle of nowhere, in front of a few thousand fans.
“People always asked us, ‘Is he gonna go pro?’ ” Tony Garoppolo said. “I was like, ‘He’s at Eastern Illinois.’ ”
But the NFL started taking notice.
A handful of scouts started coming through EIU last August. Garoppolo threw for 361 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions in the first game of the season, a 40-19 win at San Diego State, an FBS school. San Diego State’s second game of the season came against Ohio State, and Urban Meyer helped put Garoppolo on the map.
“Eastern has really one of the best quarterbacks I’ve ever seen,” Meyer said after watching the game tape. “I didn’t even know who he was until I watched him. He’s a great player.”
Garoppolo didn’t slow down. He threw for at least 440 yards and four touchdowns in each of the next three games. Garoppolo finished the season with 5,050 passing yards, 53 touchdowns, and just nine interceptions, shattering all of Romo’s EIU career records.
The Panthers went 12-2 and lost in the FCS quarterfinals. They averaged 48.9 points and 87.1 plays per game, both tops in the nation for FCS. Garoppolo won the Walter Payton Award, the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy. For the first time maybe ever, two NFL general managers watched EIU games in person — Chicago’s Phil Emery and Tennessee’s Ruston Webster.
Still, expectations were low.
“We thought, ‘Maybe we can get him drafted in a late round, maybe be a free agent signing,’ ” said Rich Moser, EIU’s sports information director. “What he did after the season really catapulted him.”
Garoppolo was invited to the East-West Shrine Game in January, a second-tier college all-star game. Garoppolo was the star of the week, turning heads at practice and winning MVP honors for throwing for 100 yards and a touchdown in the game. His performance earned him an invitation to the Senior Bowl the next week.
“Very accurate, great timing,” said NFL Draft insider Tony Pauline, who was in the stands all week at East-West. “He was able to acclimate himself to his new receivers right from the word ‘Go,’ and I mean, never missed a play. Looked like he was playing with these guys for a long time.”
“He didn’t have a big arm — he’s not a vertical passer, more of a timing passer — but that’s the way Brady started.”
Buzz quickly grew that Garoppolo had elevated himself to a second- or third-round draft pick.
The NFL invited him to attend the draft in New York City, and he visited more than a dozen teams on official visits. He even visited Foxborough, but didn’t think too much about becoming a Patriot.
“He liked New England. It was different from every other team he visited,” Tony Garoppolo said. “I remember him saying that there was a lot more playbook stuff than any other team. [Offensive coordinator] Josh McDaniels went through hours of an interview with him, with the playbook, when other teams were just basic.”
“He barely ate there or anything. Didn’t have time for it,” Denise Garoppolo added.
But it’s easy to see why the Patriots were enamored with Garoppolo and willing to snag him with the 62d pick.
“He’s got a lot of qualities that we admire in a quarterback,” Belichick said.
Garoppolo is an accurate passer (66 percent completions last year) with great footwork and a quick release. He has experience in a pro-style offense and the no-huddle, up-tempo attack. Eastern Illinois didn’t huddle much the last two years or use a traditional playbook, but the Patriots aren’t a traditional offense, either.
“Hell, you guys are NFL up-tempo, with Brady,” Babers said. “If you took Jimmy, [Blake] Bortles, Bridgewater, [Johnny] Manziel, and [Derek] Carr, took their jerseys off and just had them throwing around, I promise you Jimmy Garoppolo would be in the top two.”
Garoppolo already is impressing with his leadership, constantly quizzing his fellow rookies on the plays and their assignments during their long days at Gillette. Babers called Garoppolo “not good — awesome” in the film room.
By the third game of Garoppolo’s senior year, Babers let Garoppolo call some of his own plays at the line of scrimmage. Garoppolo isn’t a straight-A student, but he’s always been solid in the classroom.
“He came to class, sat in the front row, notebook open, and took notes, notes, notes,” said Kesha Coker, Garoppolo’s retail management professor last fall at EIU. “You have to think strategically in retail, and I saw that in Jimmy.”
Garoppolo has never sat on the bench since enrolling at Rolling Meadows as a freshman, but his parents are happy that he gets to sit and learn behind Brady for at least a couple of years.
He needs to improve his deep ball, and the NFL is two levels up from the FCS.
“I don’t know that he’s an Andrew Luck, ready to walk in and play,” Tony Garoppolo said. “So he can learn from the best player, and the best organization. We couldn’t have asked for a better situation.”
The knock on Garoppolo is that he didn’t play good competition at EIU. Christensen thinks Garoppolo should be even better in the NFL. He didn’t have any 6-foot-5-inch monsters like Rob Gronkowski running down the middle of the field.
And he has some pretty good teachers in New England.
“You get someone with great technique and talent, add info from Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, and he can become a star,” Christensen said. “He wants to be great, he’s coachable, he doesn’t have any baggage, he’s willing to learn. He perceives it as bragging, but I told him as a senior, ‘You could be Tom Brady.’ ”
Now, Garoppolo gets his chance.