In temporary role, Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo shows off lasting talent

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Now you know why Tom Brady did not seem terribly thrilled this summer with the whole notion of Jimmy Garoppolo, first-string temp. The kid has a lot of talent, a little swagger and the kind of cover boy looks that, you know, a supermodel could fall for.

Oh yeah, and he's 15 years younger than the 39-year-old Brady. Deep down, even a four-time Super Bowl champ who will likely go down as the greatest quarterback of all time could feel a little threatened by that.

Bill Belichick has already Gronk-spiked the notion that a 4-0 Garoppolo could keep Brady on the bench for Week 5 in Cleveland, so there's no point in harboring any crazy ideas. Only here's the thing: Everyone gets replaced at some point, thanks to human frailty and the indomitable forces of gravity and time. Just as clearly as Ted Williams, Bill Russell, Bobby Orr and Larry Bird were replaced in Boston, Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. is going to be replaced in Foxborough.

And Sunday night, Garoppolo offered up the first strong suggestion that he might be the man worthy of the honor. In fact, as a nod to Brady's childhood idol, Joe Montana, Garoppolo showed he just might be the New England Patriots' answer to Steve Young.

No, Garoppolo doesn't have Young's athleticism, even if Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians tried warning his team during the week that the new Patriots quarterback had feet like Michael Vick. But Garoppolo, 24, can move around in ways Brady cannot, and the time he bought for himself was critical in this highly improbable 23-21 victory over a home team that was, by Arians' admission, "obviously not ready to play."

More to the point, the Cardinals were not ready to play against this version of Garoppolo, who walked into his first career start facing the worst kind of circumstances. Carson Wentz got the Cleveland Browns at home. Garoppolo? He traveled across the country to face a Super Bowl contender with a fearsome defense, a thundering dome crowd and every reason to believe it would shred a Patriots offense missing the injured Rob Gronkowski and a couple of starters on the offensive line.

The Patriots were 9½-point underdogs, the biggest spread against them since they upset the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl nearly 15 years ago. I picked New England to go 3-1 without Brady. I thought this would be the 1.

And yet Garoppolo was last seen walking out of University of Phoenix Stadium with a self-satisfied smirk on his face and two footballs tucked under his left arm, one a game ball. He took smelling salts before the game ("Nothing crazy, it just gets you going," he said), and then it was no Brady, no Gronk, no problem from there.

Garoppolo overthrew Chris Hogan on the first play of the rest of his life, and then he calmly led the Patriots on an eight-play, 74-yard drive. He found a wide-open Hogan down the left sideline for a 37-year-old touchdown, following the game plan that instructed him to attack the Arizona rookie corner Brandon Williams, who had been a running back for most of his college career.

Garoppolo weathered his share of big hits as the night unfolded and backed up Belichick's earlier claims about his physical toughness. In the second quarter, Garoppolo was blasted by a blitzing Tony Jefferson on a second-down incompletion, then he stood tall on the very next play in hitting Hogan for 19 yards.

"Jimmy made some really gutsy plays," Patriots defensive end Chris Long said. "He has a quiet confidence, and everyone on this team was confident in him."

Garoppolo did fumble the ball on a sack, and the Cardinals did recover and later score to cut their deficit to 10-7. But in the fight for that loose ball, Garoppolo angrily rolled over the top of his former teammate, Chandler Jones, and dug an arm underneath the linebacker in a vain attempt to rip away the ball. In other words, even in his worst moment Sunday night, Garoppolo was putting up a fight.

He caught his own deflected pass and ran for three yards (let's see Brady do that). He scrambled 10 yards for a first down. He burned Williams again, and he kept denting Arizona's spirit with big third-down plays (the Patriots converted 10 of 16 chances).

In the fourth quarter, after the great Larry Fitzgerald did what the great Larry Fitzgerald does -- borrowing an over-the-head catch out of the Willie Mays playbook for his 100th career touchdown -- Garoppolo had to deliver the throw of the night on third-and-15, with the home crowd at full roar. He used his dancer's feet, stepped up and fired a pass down the middle just before he got drilled from behind. Danny Amendola made the 32-yard catch, and soon enough Stephen Gostkowski was returning a lead to the Patriots that they wouldn't surrender.

"He's incredible," Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty said of Garoppolo. "All game he went out there and made the plays he was supposed to make.

"We believed in him. There was no doubt in this locker room that Jimmy could go out there and play."

The Cardinals had their chance to reduce the visiting quarterback's performance to a moral victory, the equivalent of a mortal sin in New England, but they botched the snap and the kick that would've done the trick. Belichick wasted precious seconds before finally calling a timeout before Arizona's last-ditch field goal attempt; he explained that when he saw the Cardinals rush onto the field, he figured (incorrectly) that they would rush the kick and allow him to save the timeout for Garoppolo.

The scene summoned the memory of Belichick's dramatic timeout gamble the last time his team had played in this building in the Super Bowl 19 months ago, when Belichick's stare down of a frazzled Pete Carroll led to Seattle's, well, you know what it led to.

When it was over Sunday night, Belichick wanted no part of the canonization of Saint Jimmy, mocking the notion that he cared a lick about Garoppolo's play as the news media's lead storyline. His former boss, Bill Parcells, liked to say a certain great player was heading to Canton on roller skates. Belichick wasn't about to lace 'em up for his kid quarterback.

"Good," was the coach's assessment of Garoppolo's play. Asked to elaborate, Belichick said, "It's been good. He made some plays. It's not perfect, but he made a lot of good plays."

As it turned out, Garoppolo made enough good plays to complete 24 of 33 passes for 264 yards, and to go punch for punch with an old pro, Carson Palmer. By comparison, a 24-year-old Tom Brady was no comparison in his first NFL start; he went 13-for-23 for 168 yards and no touchdowns in a Week 3 victory over the Colts in 2001.

Garoppolo said he was "amped up" before the game. He didn't need any time to catch up to the speed of his first regular-season game -- and to remain one step ahead of a defense heavily favored to eat him alive.

"We were confident going into the game," Garoppolo said, "and it showed."

He's no longer a quarterback at Eastern Illinois, breaking Tony Romo's records and lighting it up against the Eastern Kentuckys and Murray States. Garoppolo is officially a big leaguer now. He started acting that way when he called practice a "smoother operation" after the suspended Brady was banished from the grounds. And when he told WEEI of his possible not-too-distant future as a Patriots starter: "It's a crazy league, and anything's possible, really."

Just as crazy as it was on Sept. 23, 2001, the first Sunday of pro football after the 9/11 attacks. When Drew Bledsoe, $103 million man, was knocked out by Mo Lewis of the Jets, who could possibly believe that some sixth-round scarecrow could become what he became?

Brady grew into a titan so big that the Patriots slapped an outsized banner of him on the Gillette Stadium lighthouse. Now that banner has been taken down, physically and symbolically, to make room for Garoppolo's team next Sunday.

Brady will be the starting quarterback in October, but he knows this isn't a lifetime job. He watched his idol, Montana, get forced out in San Francisco. If Garoppolo turns out to be New England's Steve Young, Brady's challenge will be to handle it with more grace than Montana did.