FOXBOROUGH –It would have been hard to top the performance Jimmy Garoppolo gave in his first-ever NFL start a week ago in Arizona. The third-year player set expectations high for his first home game at Gillette Stadium as Patriots starter – the first of a three-game home stand before starting QB Tom Brady returns from an NFL suspension.
Not only would it be a tall order to ask Garoppolo to replicate his Week 1 heroics against a tough, defensive-minded AFC East foe in the Miami Dolphins, it would surely be unrealistic to hope he could play even better than he did on the road in Phoenix last week… right?
In the early going, it didn't appear crazy at all. Garoppolo completed all but one of his 10 pass attempts over the first two possessions, both of which resulted in Garoppolo throwing touchdown passes (to WR Danny Amendola and TE Martellus Bennett) to put New England up 14-0 after just half a quarter had expired. Meanwhile, the Patriots defense came up with equally valiant efforts to force Miami into punt situations on their first two drives.
Garoppolo very nearly brought the house down with a brilliantly designed play that saw Matthew Slater – yes, the special teams co-captain – beat the Dolphins D on a fly pattern that would have been an automatic touchdown. Garoppolo just overshot his intended target. Still, that drive eventually ended with a similar result as the first: Garoppolo to Amendola for six. Just like that, 21-0 New England.
Thereafter, Garoppolo and the offense came back down to earth – in the quarterback's case, too literally. After a drive that ended with the first Patriots punt of the day, Garoppolo began having trouble connecting with his receivers, partially because his pocket was frequently collapsing on him. Then, with about four minutes to play in the first half, Dolphins LB Kiko Alonso chased Garoppolo down as the QB was throwing on the run to his right. Alonso slammed Garoppolo into the turf, with the QB's (throwing) right shoulder taking the full impact. He was in obvious pain on the field for several minutes while the team's medical staff assisted him. Garoppolo later was escorted to the locker room and didn't return.
View the best images from the Patriots Week 2 game against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, September 18, 2016.
"Anytime any player goes down, it's tough, but unfortunately, that's part of this game. It's 100-percent injury rate. It's football. Everyone's just got to do their job better now," wide receiver Julian Edelman observed. "You're programmed, as a professional football player, that if something like this happens, you have to have a short memory. You can't dwell on it because you still have to try to win a game. That's how you deal with that. It's terrible, it's unfortunate. Jimmy was playing his tail off. I hope he's all right."
"Anytime you see your quarterback hurt, your heart kind of drops for a second," echoed fellow pass catcher Chris Hogan. "I hope it's nothing serious and he can make a speedy recovery. That's tough, but at the end of the day, you have to move on. Jacoby came in and I thought he played really well."
Rookie Jacoby Brissett closed out the first half, collected himself at halftime, and engineered a touchdown scoring drive of his own in the third quarter to give the Patriots a 31-3 lead.
"The guys did a great job of staying calm, welcoming me in," Brissett said at his locker afterward. "Offensive line did a good job. Receivers, backs did a good job of getting open and giving me time to find the open guy. I think we did a good job of finishing."
"Jacoby handled it like a professional… poised in the huddle," added Edelman.
"We were all business. When Jacoby came in," remarked left tackle Nate Solder, "he called the play, we got to the line [of scrimmage], and played it as we always do."
The Patriots defense again came up with a few big plays in critical situations to help out the offense while Garoppolo was in the game, but once he departed, they started to fade.
That 28-point lead evaporated to just seven with six minutes remaining.
"Well, we didn't step up," lamented safety/co-captain Devin McCourty, "but we were playing good football. We try not to concern ourselves with what's going on offensively. We keep the same mentality: go out, get the ball back, turnovers, three-and-outs. Whatever we were thinking didn't work, though. We did everything in the second half. Matty [Patricia, the defensive coordinator] called everything we've got [in the playbook], I just don't think we played well."
The rookie Brissett looked like he'd saved his best for last. Helped by LeGarrette Blount's 32 yards on the ground on New England's final possession, Brissett led the Patriots into Dolphins territory for a potential game-clinching 39-yard field goal attempt, but normally surefire kicker Stephen Gostkowski's try sailed wide right, giving Miami life with a minute to go.
The defense needed to return to its first-half form… and it did. Safety Duron Harmon intercepted Dolphin QB Ryan Tannehill in the end zone with nine seconds left to secure the victory.
"That's a good football team," declared defensive end Chris Long. "Obviously, they were able to score a lot of points in the second half. They're capable of playing fast and changing up the tempo. That puts stress on a defense. At the end of the day, we made a play to win a game, and that's the bottom line."
The main concerns now are, how long is Garoppolo out, and what do the Patriots do – especially this Thursday night when they host the Houston Texans – to provide depth at the quarterback position?
Backing up the backup's backup
Garoppolo is still being evaluated, as far as we know, and his health and future remain uncertain. If Brissett had been injured during the Miami game, wide receiver Julian Edelman, a college quarterback at Kent State, would likely have been the emergency QB.
"You know, I wasn't even thinking about that," Edelman maintained, and by the look on his face, he seemed genuinely like the thought had just occurred to him. "I was just thinking about what I could do to help Jacoby. By doing that, I mean just doing my job [as a wide receiver]."
He's obviously not a viable alternative going forward as Brissett's backup, however, assuming Garoppolo is out for any extended period.
It would have been nice if the Patriots already had a young quarterback on the practice squad, somewhat familiar with the offense and ready to be elevated to the active roster. But they don't, so, what's the next-best thing?
Here is one plausible option: Matt Cassel.
Tom Brady's former backup played here from 2005 through '08, the year he subbed for the entire season when Brady was injured. Cassel is currently Tennessee's backup QB. However, a trade for Cassel seems possible. The Titans have a young quarterback on their practice squad and could, in theory, elevate him to back up starter Marcus Mariota. Cassel's considerable experience in this Patriots offense would conceivably make it easier for him to learn the playbook on short notice.
Furthermore, Titans GM Jon Robinson served for many years in the Patriots scouting department, and he left of good terms, so, there's an established relationship between the two sides that makes this move a distinct possibility.
Brian Hoyer, another erstwhile Brady backup, is in a similar situation in Chicago, where the Bears have a young quarterback waiting on their practice squad. Whether or not the Bears would be willing to make a deal is another matter, but perhaps the recent joint training camp sessions between the two squads established some positive lines of communication between New England and Chicago.
In any event, this is really more of a short-term dilemma for Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Because after these next two games, Brady will be back.