FOXBOROUGH — Call him Jimmy G. Call him Mr. August. Call him the Patriots backup quarterback.
The exhibition season ‘tis the season for the backup quarterback, and Patriots rookie passer Jimmy Garoppolo is making the most of his faux football opportunity. In two games he has shown more spark, more potential, and more of a pigskin pulse than incumbent backup quarterback Ryan Mallett has shown in three prior seasons in Fort Foxborough. A 2014 second-round pick, Garoppolo’s eventual purpose is to replace Tom Brady, but he should displace Mallett on the depth chart now.
After his eye-opening performance in the Patriots’ exhibition opener against the Washington Redskins, Garoppolo took center stage again Friday night in the Patriots’ second game, a 42-35 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. Against guys for whom the NFL does not stand for Not For Long, Garoppolo was 6 of 12 for 72 yards and two touchdowns, following Tom Brady.
He was better than the numbers, though. He looked cool, calm, and in command of the offense in his five drives. If he were a baseball prospect, scouts would be talking about his mound presence and mature approach. The kid just has the carriage of an NFL quarterback, from the boy band looks to the requisite decisiveness with the ball.
The Patriots are keeping him humble, limiting his media exposure and like other rookies, forcing him to share a locker with a fellow NFL neophyte (rookie running back James White).
As the third man in Friday night, playing against roster fodder, Mallett looked much better than he did in his disastrous audition for the rest of the league against Washington. You had to feel good for him. He led three scoring drives in the second half. He was 7 of 11 for 92 yards and a score. He also ran for a 6-yard touchdown. But he still lacked polish, pocket awareness, and accuracy.
People will claim that caring about the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency quarterback behind Brady is like caring about what you would wear if you knew an asteroid were going to strike the Earth today. It doesn’t matter because it’s over. But that is presuming that Brady’s injury would be like 2008, a season-ender.
The reality is that a competent backup quarterback who can fill in for an injured TB12 for a three- or four-game stretch could be the difference between playing the AFC Championship game in Denver or at Gillette Stadium, between going to the Super Bowl and watching it on television.
It was notable that Garoppolo was the first quarterback off the bench in relief of TB12, who played 23 snaps and threw two touchdown passes. Unfortunately, one of the TD passes was to Patriots detractor/Eagles cornerback Cary Williams, who referred to the Patriots as “cheaters” this summer.
Brady hasn’t shown the quickness he did in attempting to chase down Williams, who went 77 yards for a score on New England’s first drive, since the Snow Bowl.
After Brady led the Patriots to a score on his second drive, it was time to see if Jimmy G, the highest-drafted quarterback of the Bill Belichick era (No. 62 overall), could play with some of the varsity.
Propitiously, his first drive began at the Philadelphia 28, after Boston College Eagle-turned-Philadelphia Eagle Ifeanyi Momah fumbled. Garoppolo hit a wide open James Develin out of the backfield for a 15-yard touchdown.
On the next drive, the Walter Payton Award winner (the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy), led a methodical 75-yard march to the end zone. His best throw was a beauty under pressure to Kenbrell Thompkins on the sideline that was incomplete because Thompkins was out of bounds. But it was the type of opportunity that starting-caliber NFL quarterbacks create out of nothing.
Garoppolo finished the drive with a seeing-eye 4-yard TD toss to Brandon LaFell that rivaled a Rajon Rondo no-look pass through three defenders for its degree of difficulty.
You have to have pluck, anticipation and accuracy — all traits a quarterback either comes equipped with or he doesn’t — to complete that pass. Brady has those traits. Garoppolo has shown them in meaningless exhibition games in his nascent NFL career.
Garoppolo didn’t throw 53 touchdown passes and nine interceptions as a senior at Eastern Illinois without being armed with those important attributes.
It wasn’t all perfect for Garoppolo. On a deep ball, he overthrew his favorite target, Brian Tyms. Mallett would do the same, multiple times.
“There is plenty of stuff to correct,” said Garoppolo. “I’m a still a rookie, still learning as we go. There are always going to be things to correct and button up. But overall a good game, and good to get a W.”
As for Mallett, lets end the pipe-dream of the Patriots getting a valuable draft pick for the pending free agent.
Perhaps, a quarterback-needy club will surrender a sixth or seventh round pick to see if it can mold Mallett’s considerable raw talent. But the Patriots are not going to recoup the third-round pick they used on Mallett in 2011. Their flip-a-quarterback plan has failed.
The decision now is whether to hold on to Mallett if he’s a third quarterback or use the roster spot to add depth to a position of need?
Mallett has been around long enough to know being the last quarterback put in the game can be foreboding.
“You get to play in the game. That’s all that matters,” said Mallett.” I just want to go out there and try to get better as a player. I feel like I did tonight. I have to just keep building on it.”
Garoppolo is a long way from joining the list of instantly recognizable first name followed by one letter sports figures like Dickie V or Tony C.
But so far Jimmy G looks A-OK to serve as Brady’s backup.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.