This year’s New England Patriots have been the exact opposite of what they’ve been the last 20 years. Sluggish offensively, inconsistent defensively, and most recently getting outplayed at home. They most recently showcased it against the San Francisco 49ers suffering the biggest home loss in Foxborough since head coach Bill Belichick took over, losing 33-6. Quarterback Cam Newton threw three interceptions and got benched for Jarrett Stidham, who also threw an interception of his own. The defense could not get off of the field and the Patriots offense weren’t giving them any time to rest when they were on the sideline. It’s just a brutal look.
It would be fair to argue the Patriots apparent downfall is due to the departure of a quarterback, though the departure of which signal-caller should be debated. As the Patriots continue their struggles of the post-dynasty era, their quarterback of 20 years, Tom Brady, is killing it in his new home in Tampa Bay. The Bucs sit atop of the NFC South with a 4-2 record coming off a 45-20 win over the Las Vegas Raiders. Brady threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns, including one to fellow former Patriot legend tight end Rob Gronkowski.
On paper, it looks like the Patriots died as soon as their six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback hopped ship on March 17. I’d argue it died much sooner than that. The death date being Halloween of 2017 when New England traded then 25-year-0ld Jimmy Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers for a second-round pick. Putting their future in the hands of 40-year-old Brady, who would two seasons later demand that his contract be void after the 2019 season without the ability to be franchise tagged or traded. A deal where, to put it bluntly, let Brady decide how his future was going to go down, not Belichick. Patriots owner Robert Kraft allowed Brady to put the Patriots in the most unfavorable of circumstances in the 2020 off-season. We all know how that went, but to those interested in this point finishing. Brady signed a two-year contract in Tampa Bay where he could not be traded or franchise tagged, the Buccaneers traded for the rights to Gronkowski who then promptly came out of retirement. Then Newton signed a one-year incentive-based deal with New England after being cut by the Carolina Panthers.
To tie it back to Garoppolo, his career had a rocky start. In his five starts with the 49ers in 2017, he took over a 1-10 team and closed the season out with five straight wins passing for 1,560 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Holding a completion percentage of 67.4. Not bad for a quarterback getting his first real action outside of the team that drafted him. The following season, he played just three games before tearing his ACL against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week Four. The next season, Jimmy G played his first full season, leading the team to a 13-3 record where the 49ers boasted a top end rushing attack and a defense that was an immovable object for much of the season. Garoppolo had a respectable campaign throwing for 3,978 yards and 27 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. Putting up a top-five completion percentage of 69.1 meanwhile he was the league’s best passer on third down. The 49ers went onto the Super Bowl and were one missed pass away from possibly winning the whole thing against the Chiefs.
In 2020 the 49ers have been up and down. They sit at 4-3 on the season after beating the Patriots, last in the NFC West. Losing to the Arizona Cardinals Week One, then stomping the New York Jets a week later but still suffering as they lost Garoppolo to a high ankle sprain and wouldn’t return until two games later in a blowout loss against the Miami Dolphins. In Week Six, the 49ers returned to full strength and knocked off the Los Angeles Rams 24-16. Then, this week blowing out the New England Patriots. As much as Jimmy Garoppolo might not be the reason they’re winning, it’s foolish to say he holds them back.
Newton hasn’t shown much through five games as the Patriots starter. Producing two wins and two extremely ugly losses. Since catching the ever-so contagious COVID-19 and missing their matchup against Kansas City, Newton has been awful. Throwing five interceptions and zero touchdowns through two games and completing just 22 of 40 passes in the process. It’s safe to say he hasn’t been everything the Patriots have wanted, as much as he flashed it when he first signed on with the team. Getting benched for Stidham is something only Brian Hoyer has done, but Newton managed to do it late in the third quarter after throwing his third interception on a pass that was a good foot behind Julian Edelman. The receivers that Newton is working with aren’t ideal and can’t produce any separation, but let’s not act like he hasn’t struggled either.
All of that being said, which quarterback would be playing better? Garoppolo, six years into the Patriots system if he was never traded. Or Newton, just three months into the Patriots offense filling the gigantic shoes of Brady? I’m picking Garoppolo, and for me, it’s not even close. We can debate the athletic talent all we want, but the system matters. The experience of being in said system matters. The Patriots would be able to transition smoothly between Brady and Garoppolo simply because Jimmy G was watching every single step that Brady took and probably knew the offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ playbook like the back of his hands. That’s what happens when you operate in the same environment for years and years. Newton hasn’t proven that he does, and he shouldn’t, it hasn’t even been four months since he opted to sign up with the Patriots.
Knowing what we know now, Brady was going to leave the Patriots anyway. Regardless if the Pats won another Super Bowl as they did in Super Bowl LIII. On top of that, the Patriots return for Garoppolo wasn’t ideal. That second-round pick turned into these guys through a series of trades: Duke Dawson (never played a game for the Patriots), Christian Sam (never played a game for the Patriots, currently a free agent), JoeJuan Williams (depth cornerback), Damien Harris (solid asset, 119 rushing yards through two years of his career), Yodney Cajuste (bench player), Stidham (hasn’t shown any capability to be a starting quarterback), Dalton Keene (made his first career start against the 49ers, caught a pass) and Justin Herron (bench player, had some of a role in the 49ers game). Are any of these guys worth the value that an above-average, staring caliber quarterback that Jimmy Garoppolo is?
We can talk about Super Bowl LIII all we want. But I’m of the belief that the Patriots have a good shot of winning it without Brady. It’s not like he was spectacular in his age 41 season in 2018. Brady passed for 4,355 yards, 29 touchdowns to 11 interceptions with a completion percentage of 65.8. Those are all numbers that Garoppolo could hit. He was pretty damn close in his full first season as a starter in 2019. Not to disrespect Brady or anything of that nature, but was there any moment that you thought, “Nobody besides Brady could get this win?” That never crossed my mind watching that year play out. Going 11-5 was fully in the cards with Garoppolo after he gained another year of experience under the Belichick system (remember, he was traded at the deadline a year prior to the Super Bowl LIII win).
You could also argue that Brady earned the right to call the shots on his future, and I would agree. After winning the six championships he did and being the epitome of elite quarterback play for the Patriots for two decades, how could you not want to give Brady all the credit he deserves? Though as a football manager, it’s not smart to have a devotion to your players. It’s what made coach Bill Belichick so successful. Selling off players a year too early and getting their replacement in place (look at Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, Lawyer Milloy), than a year too late and have them be a detriment to the team that holds them back. On the field, Brady was never that, he elevated the team as much as he could. Off of it? He left the Patriots in terrible circumstances that forced them to sign Newton on short notice and cost them an eventual succession plan.
Kraft is also to blame here as well, if the rumors were true that Belichick wanted to sell Brady and move forward with Garoppolo, all evidence says that it was the right call and Kraft should’ve let him do it. But Kraft stepped in for his quarterback, and it eventually bit him in the behind and cost his football team a secure future at the quarterback position. Due to Kraft’s loyalty to Brady, we have this mess of a clearly flustered Newton, the inconsistent and raw passer of 24-year-old Stidham, and infamous journeyman Hoyer. When they could’ve had Garoppolo entering his third season as a starter, six years into the McDaniels/Belichick offensive system and well versed in the ways of New England Patriots football. This isn’t an article that’s meant to just bash on Newton. I love his ability and his emotion and devotion to the Patriots chemistry and locker room, but the play isn’t where it needs to be. All the while it’s hard not to imagine where we could be now, in an alternate universe where Belichick moved on from Brady like he wanted to heading into the off-season of 2018.
Photo Source: Patriots Wire