Replacing Tom Brady

It might be the toughest job in the history of sports. Here's why those who know Jarrett Stidham, and know his game, say he might be just the QB to do it.
photo of Matt HayesMatt Hayes@matthayescfbSenior National College Football WriterApril 7, 2020

Of all the hopes and all the dreams of playing in the NFL, imagine them coming to this: You're the poor guy following Tom Brady.

Welcome to the world of Jarrett Stidham, next in line to be quarterback for the New England Patriots.

"The toughest role in the history of quarterbacks," says Kendal Briles, who coached Stidham in college and is a close friend.

And don't kid yourself. Briles is underselling it.

It's maybe the toughest replacement role in the history of sports.

But those close to Stidham—and numerous NFL scouts—tell Bleacher Report that despite the clear and indisputable odds, he has the mental makeup and physical tools to make it work.

"He's a lot closer to playoff quarterback than another guy who falls on his face replacing a legend," one NFL scout tells B/R.

Of course, this isn't just any legend.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - OCTOBER 21: Tom Brady #12 and Jarrett Stidham #4 of the New England Patriots run out of the tunnel for warm ups prior to their game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on October 21, 2019 in East Rutherford, New Jers
Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Brady won six Super Bowls (played in nine) with the Patriots and had an NFL-record 249 total wins. He had 41 playoff starts (next-highest in NFL history by a QB is 27) and is the only quarterback with two streaks of 100 consecutive regular-season starts. Two!

Yet even with that backdrop, Stidham's teammates have gone out of their way to publicly back him this offseason, and his coach, Bill Belichick—you remember him, the other guy who won those six Super Bowls—has spoken positively of Stidham since he won the backup job last year as a rookie.

Forget about some pie-in-the-sky idea of the Patriots trading multiple picks and a few veterans to move up in the draft and select Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa or Oregon's Justin Herbert. We know how Belichick values draft picks, and you'd better believe he wants to prove the foundation of the "Patriot way" is his coaching—not elite quarterback play.

"Knowing Bill, he's excited about taking this big ball of clay and molding it into his image," another scout says. "I've always thought Stidham was way undervalued as a fourth-round pick. I begged our guys to take him. He has so much more ability than he was able to show in college."

Who does that sound like?

But before we get all sideways with the easy late-round selection comparison of Brady and Stidham, and how Michigan and Auburn misused both, respectively, maybe it's safer and more productive to compare tangible ability.

Stidham has elite NFL arm talent with the ability to throw on time and with anticipation, a high football IQ and is a teammate players gravitate to—one who can lead a locker room full of distinct personalities.

Just like you know who.

In a press conference last October, Belichick even raved about Stidham's preparation and transition to the NFL. "Jarrett is a smart kid. He picks up things very quickly," he said. "He has handled everything we've thrown at him."

It's what he has done his entire life, on and off the field, and more than anything is the reason this unthinkable job of replacing the greatest ever may not faze Stidham like you'd think.

Here's a former 5-star high school recruit, who, under the tutelage of offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kendal Briles, had 12 TDs and only two interceptions in an abbreviated freshman season (ankle injury) at Baylor—before everything changed in the offseason when the program and university were engulfed by sexual assault allegations within the football program.

Stidham left Baylor and, instead of transferring to another Power Five school and appealing for immediate eligibility, sat out a season and took classes at a local junior college while throwing scout team for Waco Midway High School, where his football mentor Jeff Hulme coached.

He'd drive his pickup truck to practice, hit the field with his helmet on—so no one knew who he was—and started throwing.

"He just went to work. That's who he is," Hulme says. "It took nearly a week before he took off his helmet and our guys figured out who he was."

Stidham then signed with Auburn, where decent numbers (36 TDs, 11 INTs) and a few big wins were overshadowed by what looked like a regression of his skills. He went from a player who made every throw look easy as a freshman at Baylor to one who never took the next big step at Auburn.

"We recruited him when he left Baylor, and we kept telling him he can't go to the SEC and play at Auburn or Florida," a Big 12 coach told B/R. "Neither one of those teams had any recent history of throwing the ball with any kind of efficiency. Our pitch was simple: You'll be a first-round pick in the NFL here in this offense. You're going to get lost there."

Stidham was miscast from day one in Auburn's run-heavy offense, a successful system used by coach Gus Malzahn that is based on misdirection and deception—and throwing play action off multiple play fakes.

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 02: Head coach Gus Malzahn of the Auburn Tigers talks to his quarterback, Jarrett Stidham #8, prior to the game against the Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 2, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Instead of taking Stidham and working the offense around his arm talent, Malzahn tried to force him into his offense. It had worked with Cam Newton and Nick Marshall, two dual-threat quarterbacks who better fit the principles of Malzahn's quarterback run scheme. But it failed miserably with Stidham, a pro-style quarterback who needed a system of multiple receivers spread to the numbers.

He needed a system that would allow him to use his arm talent to make accurate throws to receivers who beat coverage on the outside. A system like Baylor had used under Art and Kendal Briles. A system like what the Patriots used for two decades with Brady.

"[Stidham] is playing in a phone booth between the hashes, and he has multiple play fakes to get through, and then he's supposed to look up, go through progressions and find the safeties—in the SEC, against those defensive linemen? Come on, man," another scout says. "What did they expect from him?

"That stuff is a lot easier to pull off if you have a quarterback who is a legitimate threat to beat you running the ball. Everyone is crowding the box to slow down the QB run, and the first [passing] read off the play fakes is usually the throw to make—and the receiver usually has separation."

The scout stops here for emphasis, because it's not so much a criticism of the Auburn offense as it is the reality of two lost seasons for Stidham within it.

"He had first-round talent that was mucked up by a system that didn't fit him," the scout continues. "He looked good at the Senior Bowl. He looked good at the combine. But we're a tape-is-your-resume league. And that tape at Auburn had some brutal stretches. Enough to make a lot of personnel departments push him down—and in some cases, off—draft boards."

When the Patriots drafted Stidham, Belichick said they liked his football IQ and his knowledge of passing game concepts. By the end of the preseason, he'd won the backup job. And won over his teammates.

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 01:  Jarrett Stidham #8 of the Auburn Tigers celebrates with the Old Leather Helmet after their 21-16 win over the Washington Huskies at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 1, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Earlier this spring, Patriots safety Devin McCourty used his podcast to publicly support Stidham, explaining how Stidham got better every week in his rookie season and that he's ready to step into the role.

"To me, the best thing for Stiddy was that he had to go against our defense every week," McCourty said on his Double Coverage podcast with his twin brother and teammate, Jason McCourty, adding later: "There were weeks where he was just on point. And those were some of our best weeks as a defense, mainly because Stiddy ate us up in practice leading up to the game."

There's every reason to believe that will translate to game success, as well. "The Patriots have a top-notch offensive line and two good 'safety valve' receivers in Julian Edelman and James White—good for the development of a young QB," says B/R NFL analyst Mike Tanier. "And Josh McDaniels' system is extremely adaptive." They've cycled through relying on big-play receivers, Swiss Army knife tight ends and a power game in the past decade or so. Of course, the constant has been Brady.

Now Stidham will head into training camp as the quarterback to beat for the right to replace him. Career backup Brian Hoyer has returned on a one-year, $1.05 million deal, and the Patriots will likely use a draft pick (they have 12 picks, the highest being No. 23 overall and then three third-rounders) to select another quarterback later this month.

Newton and Jameis Winston are intriguing free-agent possibilities, but both come with significant baggage. Newton has had problems staying healthy in the later stages of his career and hasn't won an NFL start since 2018 (eight straight losses). Winston had 35 turnovers in 2019 (30 INTs, five lost fumbles) and threw an NFL-record seven pick-sixes.

So it comes to this: take a flier on an NFL veteran (and a potentially large salary-cap hit), turn to a longtime backup in his mid-30s or trust in a third-day draft pick on a cheap rookie contract who has an elite NFL arm and high football IQ and has been in your system for a year?

"No one can predict what the Patriots will do at this stage, but one thing consistently heard is that Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels like Jarrett Stidham as the quarterback of the future and believe he's ready to take over for Tom Brady," B/R draft expert Matt Miller reported late last week.

"When you're dealing with elite athletes, you don't even have those conversations about following this guy or that guy," says Briles, now the offensive coordinator at Arkansas. "The Patriots have a guy who believes he can be an NFL quarterback and has been successful everywhere he has been. He's ready for the moment."

Even if he's the poor guy who has to follow Tom Brady.

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