FOXBOROUGH — Bill Belichick likes to say that this is a teaching time of year for the Patriots, and that the real competition doesn’t start until the pads are put on in training camp.
Second-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo may have learned a valuable lesson over the last five days with the signing of veteran Matt Flynn — nothing is going to be handed to him.
Garoppolo, last year’s second-round pick, is in line to be Tom Brady’s backup again this year. And he might even get a few starts at the beginning of the regular season. Brady is going to fight his four-game Deflategate suspension to the hilt, and a four-page letter his defense team sent to the NFL this week calls the Wells Report “dubious” and argues that Brady’s entire suspension be wiped out, according to ESPN. Apparently, owner Robert Kraft is so confident in Brady’s innocence that he is telling people that Brady will be starting for the Patriots on opening night against the Steelers.
But the Patriots still need a quality backup plan at quarterback. And by bringing in Flynn, a veteran in his eighth year with a few starts and more than enough savvy under his belt, the Patriots are sending Garoppolo an important message that he’s going to have to earn the No. 2 job this summer.
Before Flynn signed last Thursday, Garoppolo’s only competition for the backup job was Garrett Gilbert, a second-year player who was on the practice squad at the end of last year. That is to say, Garoppolo didn’t have much competition.
Having Flynn in the house won’t change Garoppolo’s approach much — he’s an all-business, no-nonsense player as it is — but there’s nothing wrong with turning the heat up on Garoppolo a bit and making him work for the seat behind Brady.
Remember, Garoppolo wasn’t handed the backup job last year, either. He had to beat out Ryan Mallett in camp, and after a shaky first couple of weeks, Garoppolo stepped up his performance once the exhibition games began and he thrived under pressure.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Garoppolo has had a “positive spring” and “he’s just much further ahead” than he was last year. And Garoppolo’s teammates raved about the way he served as “Russell Wilson” last year before the Super Bowl, displaying impressive athleticism in practice.
That said, Garoppolo is still unproven. He completed 19 of 27 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown in limited action last year, and didn’t show much in his one extended opportunity, getting sacked three times in the second half against the Bills in Week 17.
“He’s making decisions quicker, he’s more sure of what to do,” McDaniels said. “And at the same time, there’s not a day that goes by that he doesn’t make mistakes that we can try to correct.”
Flynn, meanwhile, has an uphill battle to supplant Garoppolo as the backup. He’s a year-plus behind Garoppolo in learning the playbook, and he’s not going to do much during this three-day minicamp to wrap up the spring practice season. He took mostly mental reps Tuesday, with Brady and Garoppolo taking the majority of the snaps and splitting time with the first-team offense. Flynn threw a touchdown pass in team drills toward the end of practice, but also fumbled a snap and was forced to run a penalty lap.
Flynn played in a quick-passing West Coast offense in Green Bay in six of his previous seven seasons, and needs to learn a new system in New England.
“It’s always tough going to a different team. You have this huge task of learning a new offense,” said Flynn, who turns 30 on Saturday. “That’s what I’m going to go do right now — just try to cram as much information as I can right now and forget about the old offense. That’s probably what’s hard about learning something new, is forgetting the old.”
Flynn has had an interesting journey. Like Garoppolo, Mallett, and several Patriots quarterbacks before them, Flynn has spent most of his NFL career stuck behind a future Hall-of-Famer — 5½ years behind Aaron Rodgers.
But when he finally got his chance, he made it count. Flynn got the start in Week 15 of the 2010 season, his third in the NFL, and it came against the Patriots in Foxborough. Flynn lit it up that day, throwing for 251 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception in a 31-27 loss, and made a name for himself.
“That was a great night for me,” Flynn said. “I’ve always been a confident guy, but to go in there and show it on a big stage, it was fun. I just remember having a blast.”
Flynn had one other big start in 2011, and turned his limited résumé into a three-year, $20 million deal with the Seahawks in 2012, with $9 million guaranteed. But the Seahawks also stumbled onto Wilson that offseason, and Flynn lost his starting job before ever really taking it. He bounced around to Oakland, Buffalo, and back to Green Bay in 2013, and again served as Rodgers’s backup last year.
He was sitting at home unsigned for the past three months when the Patriots called last week.
“When I got the call from my agent, I was just excited I was going to get an opportunity,” Flynn said. “Especially here.”
So Flynn isn’t exactly the next coming of Johnny Unitas. He has thrown for 2,541 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in his career, but there are questions about his arm strength, and he couldn’t hack it for Buffalo or Oakland, two teams that were starved for a quarterback. The Patriots only gave him $20,000 guaranteed on his one-year deal that will pay him $950,000 if he makes the team. This is as low risk of a signing as it gets.
But Flynn has plenty of NFL experience and will push Garoppolo a lot harder than Gilbert would have.
“I backed up the same quarterback for 5½ years,” Flynn said. “I know that role well and I’ve been around the league. I’ve seen a bunch of different offenses, I’ve seen a lot of defenses.”
Flynn said he’s not thinking about any sort of competition right now.
“I look at it right now as I got a big task ahead of me, and that’s learning the playbook,” he said. “That’s the only thing that I’m thinking about right now, and that’s the only thing that they’re telling me to do right now, is to learn, learn, learn. And we’ll go from there.”
He’s well behind Garoppolo, but Garoppolo had better be ready to get Flynn’s best shot once training camp arrives.
“The worst thing I can do coming back to training camp [is] get to the line of scrimmage and I’m worried about where the offensive guys are instead of where the defensive guys are,” Flynn said. “I’ve got a lot of catching up to do, playbook-wise. I’ve got to immerse myself in it in the month we have off and try to not only memorize plays and formations but learn them, and there’s a big difference between those two.”