FOXBOROUGH — Tom Brady was where he belongs on Thursday night — behind an offensive line, instead of in front of a US District Court judge. The Patriots can only hope that Brady is in his rightful place at Patriot Place for the Thursday night game that counts, the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 10.
Brady’s fate and the identity of the Patriots’ starting quarterback in the season opener is still up in the air, all because of air that may or may not have been removed from footballs. Forget the Ideal Gas Law. The Ideal Pass Law for the Patriots is having Brady throwing all of them in 2015.
The cloud of Deflategate is still hovering over the Patriots and their preparations, as Brady engages in a pitched legal battle with the NFL and capricious commissioner Roger Goodell over his four-game suspension.
It felt like Brady and the Patriots were making a statement by having him start the preseason opener just one day after he was before US District Judge Richard M. Berman, who grilled NFL lawyers on the lack of direct evidence linking Brady to the alleged deflation of footballs in the AFC Championship game. Brady’s presence was both an act of defiance and a show of confidence that the NFL’s dubious punishment will not stand.
While Brady was preparing to play in the preseason opener against the Green Bay Packers, his lawyers were engaged in settlement talks with the NFL in New York.
Everything surrounding the Patriots these days is framed by the never-ending deflation story. This game, a 22-11 loss, was no different. A meaningless initial preseason game was hyped as a harbinger of how the Patriots might fare without Brady in the huddle. Deflategate gave backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s play an air of heightened importance.
So, all eyes weren’t just on Brady playing in a competitive football game for the first time since his suspension was levied back on May 11. They were also on his understudy, Garoppolo.
Those hoping to get an accurate gauge of Garoppolo’s growth and readiness in his second season forgot what preseason football looks like. Faux football is not the proper format to evaluate any quarterback, certainly not a second-year one playing behind an offensive line that’s even less experienced than he is.
Jimmy G had to wait out the Brady pep rally before he could get his turn. Brady led the Patriots onto the field at 7:28 p.m. and got a loud ovation from the Gillette Stadium crowd when he was introduced.
As Brady strode into the huddle for the first offensive possession with 9:16 left in the first quarter, following a goal-line stand against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers by the Patriots’ defense, the Foxborough Faithful gave him a standing ovation.
New England’s favorite pigskin political prisoner didn’t stick around very long. Brady participated in two series. He finished 1 of 4 for 10 yards. His lone completion was a slant to Brandon Gibson. He was replaced by Garoppolo with 11 seconds left in the first quarter.
A cameo was wise considering the patchwork offensive line blocking for both quarterbacks. Starting tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer and starting center Bryan Stork did not play. The starting offensive line featured Chris Barker and Cameron Fleming at left and right tackle, respectively; rookies Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason at guard; and undrafted rookie David Andrews at center.
If Garoppolo was searching for a role model in how to succeed a legend all he had to do was look across the field at reigning NFL MVP Rodgers. But you can’t judge a quarterback when he is picking himself off the turf, instead of picking out receivers. Garoppolo was sacked seven times.
Garoppolo led the Patriots to all of their points, but his performance was uneven in nine possessions. He was 20 of 30 for 159 yards but missed deep throws and tossed an interception. (The third-quarter turnover wasn’t all his fault as Josh Boyce, who tracked balls about as well as Hanley Ramirez, had the ball deflect off him and into the hands of Green Bay’s Ladarius Gunter.)
If Garoppolo put any extra pressure on himself because of Brady’s uncertain availability, he wasn’t revealing it.
“I’m going into it pretty much the same way I would whether this is going on or not,” said Garoppolo. “Whether you are the backup, starter, third string, whatever it may be, you have to have that mind-set that you’re the starter. Training camp there is a lot of repetition, a lot of guys mixing and matching, so you have to be able to play with multiple guys.”
Garoppolo’s first pass was a 16-yard completion to Boyce. The next play, Jimmy G handed off to Jonas Gray, who galloped 55 yards for the Patriots’ lone touchdown.
The Patriots’ Plan B QB guided the team to points before the half on an ugly seven-play, 11-yard “drive.” The Patriots got the ball at the Green Bay 49 with 53 seconds left in the half. Garoppolo hit two passes to Jonathan Krause to move to the Packers’ 36. An offside penalty moved the Patriots to the 31, but Garoppolo was sacked for a 7-yard loss.
Stephen Gostkowski drilled a 56-yard field goal on the final play of the half to put the Patriots up, 11-9. But those were the last points the Patriots scored.
“It was ups and downs. I got a long way to go, obviously,” said Garoppolo, who did complete 15 of 17 passes in the second half. “Eleven points isn’t by any means good enough. There is room for improvement.”
Brady’s appearance went down as the highlight of the evening.
On this night, Garoppolo had to leave the statement-making to Brady.