This sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? How could this happen? The Patriots were one game away from another trip to the Super Bowl last year after winning the Super Bowl the year before. Statistically and by any other metric, Brady was brilliant again. No way a starting quarterback the caliber of Brady gets replaced, right?
Remember a few years back when Curtis Martin was enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame? One thing that stood out other than the normal admiration of a player’s outstanding career, was a Bill Parcels quote Martin claimed he always remembered, which paraphrased went something like, “Never let your backup get in the game.” Now, this quote was directed at the importance of a player’s durability or the ability to play with pain; however, it holds true in other scenarios, too – say, when a player is forced to sit out games because of a crazy NFL investigation.
Still, for a coach to replace a Super Bowl winning quarterback, that particular coach would have to possess decision-making skills above reproach, an impeccable reputation as a winner, and the laser focus will to ignore emotion when making roster decisions. In other words, the coach would have to feel comfortable enough to rule like a tyrant. Two coaches fit this description: Jim Harbaugh and Bill Belichick.
The year was 2012, and the San Francisco 49ers were making their Super Bowl run with a roster overflowing with talent when their starting quarterback Alex Smith went down with injury. Colin Kaepernick was inserted into the lineup, and Jim Harbaugh deemed Kaepernick’s performance worthy enough to keep the starting job. Kaepernick was a second-year player. Alex Smith had compiled a nice, 19-5 W-L record. Before Patriots fans go crazy, Alex Smith will never, ever approach Golden Boy’s status; however, Alex Smith is still a starter in the NFL while Kaepernick has not fared as well.
Well, how about an example closer to Tom Brady and the Patriots, then? Let’s go back to 2001 when Drew Bledsoe’s injury elevated a quarterback named Tom Brady to the starting role, and Brady never looked back on his way to multiple Super Bowl wins. Belichick replaced a pretty good quarterback with an unproven player drafted in the sixth round. Just how good was Brady that year? He threw 18 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions, averaging a little under 190 yards per game. Of course, the fact that the Patriots won the Super Bowl that year counts a great deal when evaluating quarterbacks. However, statistically speaking, Brady’s Super Bowl play wasn’t exactly stellar, he threw for 145 yards, completing 16 passes out of 27 attempts for one touchdown. (The net passing yards tally was 135. ) Those statistics weren’t superb, but yet, Brady kept the starting job.
The above two scenarios probably nip at Brady a little bit; especially, the latter one. Yes, we all know that Bledsoe was not as good as Brady, but at the time Belichick had no idea how good Brady would become, and he never even blinked at replacing a veteran quarterback who was good enough to lead the team to a Super Bowl appearance. Does anyone absolutely rule out the possibility that should Garoppolo display the arm strength and accuracy to hit receivers down the field, giving the Patriots a more diverse air attack without relying on Rob Gronkowski and the five-yard in’s and out’s, that Belichick would not make the cold-blooded decision to move on to the younger player? The press conference would probably sound something like, “Well, we know what Tom’s done, and he is available to play at any time, but right now, Jimmy gives us more options. We’re focusing on the next game.”
The NFL is a young person’s game, and the good coaches know when to make the switch from a good veteran past the prime years to the younger version who can not only perform satisfactory, but the peak potential performance is higher as well. The all-time coaches have the guts to make the choice. Obviously, even if Garoppolo plays like an All-Pro, the chances are slim that he’d win the job from the Golden Boy, but the suspension left the door slightly open. And…
You never let the backup get in the game.