Can Jimmy Garoppolo Lead the Patriots to a 4-0 Start?
There's been a lot written about Jimmy Garoppolo recently, especially on and around Interstate 95 running from southeastern Connecticut all the way up through Maine.
His college coach, Dino Babers (now the head coach at Syracuse), who saw him throw for more than 5,000 yards and 53 touchdowns during Garoppolo's final season at Eastern Illinois, compared him to Dan Marino (seriously).
But, taking it easy on the Marino and Favre comparisons, and before we go out and wager our house on the three-win prop bet, what’s a reasonable expectation for Garoppolo in the first four games?
A Judicious Comparison
Let’s forget about Marino and Favre for a moment and remember Matt Cassel.
Sure, there are major differences in the Cassel situation compared to the Garappolo situation, but there are some similarities. Mainly, this will be the first time anybody other than Tom Brady will start consecutive games for the Patriots since Cassel did in 2008.
Ironically enough, Brady didn’t play a single game in the 2008 preseason, due to nagging foot injuries. However, Brady was active in training camp, and the team practiced and prepared for Brady to be the starter in Week 1.
According to Bill Belichick, that is not the case with this year’s training camp. The Patriots are using the pre-season to get Jimmy Garoppolo ready to start.
Unfortunately for Patriots’ fans back in 2008 -- and dudes like me who drafted Brady in the first round of their fantasy drafts (sorry @LateRoundQB) -- Brady’s knee was exploded by Kansas City’s Bernard Pollard in the first quarter of the Patriots first regular season game, and Cassel was forced to come in. He then started every game for the remainder of that season.
These are Cassel's results for the first four games he started after the Kansas City game:
|2||@ NYJ||W 19-10||16||23||69.6||165||0||0|
|5||@ SF||W 30-21||22||32||68.8||259||1||2|
|6||@ SD||L 10-30||22||38||57.9||203||0||1|
The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
When Cassel took over for Brady in that Kansas City game, it was his fourth year in the Patriots' organization -- he had attempted a total of 39 regular season NFL passes. When Garoppolo takes the field in Arizona on Sunday Night Football, he will be doing so in his third year with the Patriots -- with 31 regular season NFL passes under his belt.
Cassel, however, didn’t start any games at quarterback in college. He spent the majority of his time there as a back up to Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer. He even had stints at wide receiver and tight end while at USC. He attempted a total of 33 passes in college and threw no touchdowns.
Garoppolo, on the other hand, attempted more than six times that many passes as a freshman at Eastern Illinois University. He went on to average 42.61 attempts per game in the 26 games he played as a junior and senior. He threw 118 touchdowns in his collegiate career.
I’m not saying you can use college statistics to project NFL performance by any means, but I do think that it’s reasonable to assume that Garoppolo will take the Patriots’ starting quarterback reigns as a much more experienced quarterback overall.
Back in 2008, Josh McDaniels was the offensive coordinator for the Patriots. And after a brief stint as a head coach in Denver and coordinator in St. Louis, he is back to that position in New England today.
If McDaniels and Belichick were willing to let Cassel attempt an average of 31 passes per game in those first four starts in the 2008 NFL, there’s no reason to doubt he’ll allow Garappolo to attempt at least that many if not more.
In 2008, the NFL average for Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back was 0.04. In 2015, the league average increased all the way up to 0.11 Passing NEP per drop back. In fact, the NFL average for Passing NEP per drop back has increased without fail in every season since 2011. The NFL has transitioned into an extremely pass-friendly league, and as a result, quarterbacks as a whole have become more efficient and more productive.
Of course, the Patriots run a very opponent-specific offensive scheme that changes week to week. If Belichick and McDaniels determine that running the ball 40 times will help them win that specific week, that’s what they’ll do.
Both the Arizona Cardinals and Houston Texans, whom the Patriots will face in Weeks 1 and 3, ranked eighth and third, respectively, in 2015 in our opponent-adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play metric. It’s conceivable that the Patriots' brain trust may conclude it’s not wise to throw the ball all over the yard against opponents that excel in pass defense.
The Buffalo Bills -- the Patriots’ Week 4 opponent -- ranked 12th, while the Miami Dolphins, who the Patriots play at home in Week 2, ranked 31st. It’s just as conceivable that the Patriots could choose to throw the ball 40-plus times in these contests.
What Does It All Mean
Garoppolo, in theory, should be a more experienced quarterback than Cassel was, at very similar points in their careers when taking over for Brady.
Garoppolo will also have the added benefit of a full training camp and pre-season used to get him ready to start the first four games of the season. Cassel was surprisingly thrown into action because of injury.
The league, as a whole, has become a more efficient passing league, and quarterbacks in general, throw more than they did in 2008.
The Patriots, with Garoppolo under center, will pass the ball and pass it a lot when the coaching staff determines that’s the best way to attack an opponent.
Based on the past history of an extremely similar offensive coaching staff, you can rationally expect Garoppolo to average at least 32 passes per game the first four weeks of the season. If Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis, and the offensive line are healthy, you can also logically expect Garoppolo to put up some big numbers as a starter. Those are some serious offensive weapons, and these are the freaking New England Patriots.
He might struggle in Week 1, but don't be surprised if he plays great football in Weeks 2 through 4. And don't be shocked if the Patriots can find a way to start the season 4-0.