Jimmy Garoppolo steps into starring role for Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- If you were banking on a "breaking news flash" on the first day that New England Patriots veterans were officially available for comment since the Deflategate hammer was dropped, then here it goes:

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has given up ice cream.

And it's been hard.

You care about Garoppolo now, don't you? If you are a Patriots fan, he holds the keys to the family car for the first four games of the NFL season, unless Tom Brady's suspension is overturned or reduced on appeal.

If you are a Patriots hater, you are chomping at the bit over the notion that with Brady ordered to stand in the corner by Roger Goodell (oh, excuse me, I mean Troy Vincent), the mighty Pats could prove to be vulnerable with Garoppolo running the show. You are already irritated by the understudy's poise, his million-dollar smile and his quick release.

What is it with those pretty-boy QBs in New England anyway?

Garoppolo's NFL sample size is small but impressive. In six games last season, Brady's backup completed 19 of 27 passes for 187 yards, a touchdown and a passer rating of 101.2.

His first career appearance was in the wake of that horrendous Monday night blowout against the Kansas City Chiefs, when the Patriots were trounced 41-14 and Jimmy G came in to mop up. He made the best of his limited snaps, completing 6 of 7 passes for 70 yards and a 13-yard touchdown to Rob Gronkowski, and left the field a sparkling 147.9 rating.

Oh, if only it were that easy.

If Garoppolo is indeed New England's starter on opening night against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 10, it will be like nothing he's ever imagined. You can't fully appreciate the full pro quarterback experience until you have James Harrison buckling his chin strap and gunning for you on every snap.

Simulating that kind of intensity in OTAs or even the preseason is virtually impossible.

Let's make an educated guess and assume Harrison has perused Garoppolo's NFL.com scouting report following the combine, which clearly stated that one of his weaknesses is "doesn't always feel pressure in the pocket."

That needs to change in a hurry. The Patriots need him to be upright and alert to hold down what suddenly threatens to become a spot on the roster with thin cover.

Garoppolo's scouting report lists a number of positive attributes, among them a "lightning-quick release," a clean compact delivery and the knack for exhibiting poise in the pocket. He was graded as someone who is intelligent, mentally tough and adept at selling play-action.

Some of the negatives were physical, including the small hands and short arms that we've heard about before. There was also some concern about Garoppolo's working under center, since he ran the shotgun in a no-huddle offense for coach Dino Babers in his senior year at Eastern Illinois. I'm going to stick my neck out and say the Patriots' coaching staff has spent some time in the past year working on that with him.

The conclusion drawn in the NFL.com piece, which was posted before Garoppolo was drafted, was succinct: "More of a caretaker than a game-changer."

The Patriots will take that. If Garoppolo can stay the course until the uber-motivated Brady returns, ready to wreak havoc on a league that he must feel has betrayed him, then the kid will have done his job. Even a 2-2 record (a loss in Buffalo in Week 2 and a loss to Dallas and Tony Romo, the guy whose records Garoppolo broke at Eastern Illinois, in Week 4 seem possible) would be acceptable.

We can only imagine the angst that occupies the brain of No. 12 at this hour. His teammates dutifully reported that he was the same old Tom at OTAs, focused and vocal and seemingly impervious to the uncertainty swirling around him. Yet, in the privacy of his mansion, you have to wonder what it's like for Brady to ponder the possibility of watching his football team from home come September.

Similarly, we have to wonder how Jimmy G is handling his bigger role, and the knowledge that each snap now smacks with urgency. When asked about these very things, Garoppolo predictably responded, "I just have the mindset I have to get better."

Garoppolo's teammates were no more forthcoming regarding the mindset of Brady or his potential replacement. Gronkowski went so far as to say: "I've got to keep on doing what I need to do, and that's preparing and working as hard as I can. Whatever goes down with [Brady] doesn't affect what I do to prepare.

"I'm just worried about myself right now and what I need to do to prepare."

When Patriots players are injured or suspended, they might as well be dead to coach Bill Belichick. No hard feelings; it's just business.

If there was any doubt whether Belichick was dwelling on the controversy that has engulfed his football team, he made it abundantly clear Friday afternoon when the queries about Deflategate resumed in earnest.

"That was a long time ago," Belichick said, his usual deadpan demeanor intact. "We're on to next year -- 2015. You can forget about last year. That was last year."

Obviously that simply isn't true. Last year has spilled into this year, and the Patriots are (again) embroiled in one of the biggest stories in NFL history. One of the league's most revered players has been tried in the court of public opinion, and no matter what happens next, there is no recourse for damage done to his reputation. The gaping hole he leaves in New England's lineup, if it comes to that, will have huge ramifications for the 2015 Patriots.

New England cannot afford to tread water while it waits for a Brady ruling, so the Patriots have done their best to adopt a "business as usual" approach. Julian Edelman, one of Brady's closest teammates and most trusted receivers, recently posted a video of himself catching footballs on a beach in California. The guy throwing them was ... Jimmy G.

"We had a couple of guys out there," Edelman confirmed. "We were just playing catch and throwing. There were plenty of guys out there -- [Matt] Cassell, JB [Josh Boyce], a bunch of clowns out there. It was fun.''

Asked how Garoppolo looked in those California sessions or in the OTAs, Edelman deftly avoided the queries with the skill of an elusive punt returner.

"I'm worried about myself," Edelman said. "I'm going into another year. With this league, you have to try and reinvent yourself every year."

Jimmy Garoppolo does not have to do that. Circumstances have taken care of it for him. He's gone from backup to front and center, and he acknowledged that the learning curve won't be nearly as steep this season since he has some familiarity with the playbook, the personnel and the coaching staff.

"Obviously a year will do that for anyone," he said. "But there's a ton to improve on. I've got a long way to go."

And if Brady's suspension holds, not much time to get there.