Whether it's for two games, four games or no games, we'll find out next week exactly how long the New England Patriots will be without Tom Brady. For now, though, the Patriots have no choice but to prepare for life without their star quarterback.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is no stranger to managing his offense around an inexperienced quarterback. He did it 14 years ago when a young Brady was thrown to the wolves when franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe was knocked out by Mo Lewis. He did it again seven years ago when Matt Cassel, who hadn't started a game at quarterback since high school, was forced to take over for Brady following a season-ending ACL injury in Week 1.
The first time, the change was permanent. The second time, the switch was only temporary. While it's possible that second-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will be the quarterback of the future for the Patriots, it's unlikely that he'll dethrone Brady as the quarterback of the present.
Thus, the Patriots need only to make sure that Garoppolo can come in and manage the offense in Brady's absence, and there are a few things they can do to make sure that process goes as smoothly as possible.
Right now, they are doing everything they can to make that happen. They've been splitting up the reps in an interesting way to get Garoppolo on the same page with his teammates. Brady has been playing behind the starting offensive line that includes Nate Solder and Bryan Stork, but Garoppolo has been throwing the ball to wide receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Brady's rapport with those two pass-catchers does not need any sharpening. Garoppolo, on the other hand, could stand to benefit greatly from working with the top pass-catchers on the team. That being said, just because Garoppolo is throwing to the top receivers does not mean he will be running the full breadth of the offense.
Garoppolo has a lot of talent, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's ready to carry the same measures of responsibility as Brady. Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will have to work around Garoppolo's strengths and weaknesses. Basically, the Patriots need to morph Garoppolo from a young quarterback to a game manager.
As noted by NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah, he has his share of strengths:
Make no mistake; the term "game manager" is not used negatively. Quite the contrary, most general managers would give up an appendage to have a game manager at their disposal.
When building an offense around a game manager, a heavy dose of the running game is a good place to start. The Patriots have gotten away from their ground attack in recent years. From 2007-2010, the Patriots passed the ball 55.3 percent of the time and ran it 44.7 percent of the time; from 2011-2014, that ratio has tipped to 58.3 percent pass plays and 41.7 percent run plays.
The Patriots know how valuable a steady dose of the running game can be for a young quarterback. In 2008—Cassel's year as the starter—the Patriots finished the season ranked fourth in the league in rushing attempts, sixth in rushing yards, seventh in yards per rush attempt and fourth in team rushing touchdowns.
With Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler playing tight end for the Patriots, it may not be a chore to go back to the running game, but having two big-bodied tight ends on the field could help in both the running game and the passing game. Opposing defenses could find themselves in a bind every time the Patriots trot two tight ends measuring 6'6"-plus and 260-plus pounds, both of whom can run block and run routes with the best of them.
Belichick and McDaniels could send Garoppolo onto the field with very simple marching orders: If the defense stacks the box against the Patriots' two-tight end formation, check to a passing play; if the defense puts extra defensive backs to stop the pass, change the play to a run.
NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks touched on that in a recent column:
The threat of pounding the ball out of "12" (1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs), "13" (1 RB, 3 TEs, 1 WR) and "22" (2 RBs, 2 TEs, 1 WR) formations will force opponents to employ more single-high-safety looks, creating one-on-one opportunities on the outside. This will help Garoppolo rack up completions on high-percentage throws on early downs. Most importantly, the presence of a strong running game will help the Patriots stay ahead of the chains and keep the young quarterback from facing the exotic blitzes that accompany long-yardage situations.
With a deep stable of running backs, the Patriots have an answer for any situation.
LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray and Brandon Bolden can mash between the tackles on first and second down. Travaris Cadet, James White and Tyler Gaffney can provide support in the passing game on third down.
The running game will be important in more ways than one as a supplement to the passing game. In 2014, Brady had the sixth-highest percentage of play-action pass attempts, according to Pro Football Focus. If the running game is as big a part of the offense as it should be, the play-action pass attack should also be more of a focus, and should be even more effective.
That's all game plan-specific stuff, though. For now, the Patriots aren't worried about game-planning as much as they're worried about learning the system and practicing good habits that will carry over to the regular season.
In that respect, McDaniels is optimistic that things are working out just fine.
"I think in Jimmy's situation, there are no bad days," McDaniels said. "We're either going to get better from some mistakes we made or we're going to make progress and be happy about that."
If making mistakes is a way to improve, then Garoppolo had a very productive first few weeks of practice. He had one particular session where he threw five interceptions, but not all of those picks were created equal, and while some were bad reads or poor mechanics, others were tipped balls or other fluky plays.
That being said, mistakes are not the only way to improve. McDaniels also notices some specific areas that Garoppolo has improved.
"He's making decisions quicker," McDaniels said. "He's more sure of what to do, and at the same time, there's not a day that goes by that he doesn't make mistakes that we can correct and try to improve his play off of."
All this talk about mistakes brings up another point: One way the Patriots can make life as easy for Garoppolo as possible is to limit the room for mistakes. This isn't college; they can't draw up every play to go to the first read, but they can draw up some plays that get the first read open more often than not, which would give Garoppolo less to digest on any given play.
We're also likely to see a lot of three-step drops that allow Garoppolo to throw in rhythm. His impeccable footwork and quick release are conducive to a quick-hitting pass attack.
The Patriots have enough to work with in Garoppolo that they should not have to dramatically cut down the playbook in his time as the quarterback. At the same time, they would be wise to give him as much help as possible in the form of formations, play calls and run-pass balance in order to ensure smooth sailing from the get-go.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.