Tom Brady starts the 2014 season still seeking that elusive fourth ring. (AP)
As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We’ve broken down the wide receiver, tight end, offensive line and running back positions. Now, we wrap up the offensive side of the ball with a look at quarterback.
Depth chart: Tom Brady (380-for-628, 61 percent, 4,343 passing yards, 25 TDs, 11 INTs), Ryan Mallett, Jimmy Garoppolo
Overview: It won’t go on the mantle alongside the 2007 and 2010 seasons, but as we wrote here, to take Brady’s 2013 season as an indicator that he’s on his way out is to miss the big picture. With so many of his familiar targets gone, he wasn’t at his best over the course of the year — the October loss against the Bengals where he went 18-for-38 for 197 yards and a pick — was one of the worst outings of his long and distinguished career. In addition, he missed plenty of makeable throws last season, including some key shots downfield in the AFC title game. But at the same time, he played some of his best football over the course of the season, with his four-game stretch from Nov. 3 through Dec. 1 serving as his personal peak: Against the Steelers, Panthers, Broncos and Texans, Brady went 115-for-164 (70 percent) for 1,443 yards with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions — a per game average of 29-for-41 for 358 yards, 2.5 TDs and 0.5 INTs. He was at the controls of an offense that actually outscored the Broncos over the second half of the season, and ranked No. 7 in the league in total offense and No. 3 in points scored. All that with Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, Sebastian Vollmer, and Shane Vereen combining to miss 33 games. (That doesn’t take into account Stevan Ridley being repeatedly benched for fumbling.) All in all, it wasn’t his best season, but considering everything around him, still not bad.
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
1. Brady has moved into a different phase of his football career.
The quarterback wants to always remind people he’s no bigger or more important than the 52 other guys on the roster. But Brady, who will turn 37 next month, is no longer a contemporary of his teammates. He will be the older guy on the team for the third straight season, and while he’s always been in a leadership role, that really became evident in 2013. Last year, he commanded a group of receivers who were young enough to watch him win Super Bowls while they were in grade school. (By way of example, Dobson was 10 years old when Brady and the Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.) There’s more deference to Brady than there was in year’s past. That doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of doing some cutting up with teammates behind the scenes. Instead, he’s much more inclined to be spending an off day conducting weekly film sessions with the younger receivers.
2. Even though he hasn’t taken any significant snaps in the regular season, Mallett has done all he can to try and improve his stock.
It’s difficult to remember, but when Mallett came into the league as a third-round pick in 2011, he was a bit of a third rail. Despite the fact that he threw for more than 8,300 yards in three years as a collegian, he was dogged by character issues, which likely caused the draft fall. But since he’s arrived in New England, teammates have praised his attitude, work ethic and approach to the game. He may not ultimately get a shot with the Patriots, but he’s done well to put any questions about his past behind him.
3. Garoppolo’s development has shades of Brady’s evolution.
Garoppolo was tutored by quarterback guru Jeff Christiansen, and shortly after the draft, Christiansen told WEEI.com that much of the drills, technique and footwork that Garoppolo went through over the last 10 years all came straight from the book of the late Tom Martinez, who was Brady’s quarterbacking guru for nearly 20 years. “This is so surreal to me, it’s almost frightening,” Christiansen said after being told Garoppolo was drafted by the Patriots. “EVERYTHING we did [with Jimmy] was off Tom Brady. Brady set the standard for perfect technique, and so it just made sense for us to follow everything that Tom Martinez did with Brady.”
1. Do the Patriots keep two quarterbacks or three?
The last time the Patriots carried three quarterbacks on the roster was in 2011, when the Patriots had Mallett as a third-stringer and Brian Hoyer as a backup to Brady. (The last two years, it’s just been Mallett and Brady.) Chances are good that they’ll keep three quarterbacks on the roster this time around, but the fight for snaps between Mallett and Garoppolo at the backup spot (in practice and in games) should make for one of the more compelling storylines of the summer for the Patriots.
2. What does the future hold for Mallett?
Mallett is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and while the Texans inquired about his availability over the course of the offseason, he remains a member of the Patriots, at least at this point. While trades have happened over the course of camp and into the regular season can happen, with each day that passes, a deal involving Mallett seems more and more unlikely. If that’s the case, it will be interesting to see if he hits the open market as a free agent following the 2014 season, particularly if he does so without any significant regular-season snaps on his resume. What sort of interest could he draw around the league? Would the Patriots be inclined to keep him? And could he succeed long-term as a quarterback in the NFL?
3. Is Garoppolo the eventual successor to Brady?
The Patriots used the 62nd overall pick on Garoppolo, the highest selection Belichick has used on a quarterback since he arrived in New England in 2000. In a perfect world for Patriots fans, he’d be the Aaron Rodgers to Brett Favre‘s Brady, sitting fir the next three or so years and leaning under the starter before taking the reins sometime roughly around Brady’s 40th birthday. History tells us that franchises that don’t plan for the future can struggle when faced with the prospect of having a Hall of Fame quarterback retire. While the Patriots are at least planning for the future, there’s still the matter of being able to have the successor execute the game plan. Only time will tell if that responsibility will fall to Garoppolo or some other quarterback.
By the numbers: We’ve used this one before, but it’s one of our favorites — if Brady can win another ring, he’d be only the fifth quarterback in NFL history to win a Super Bowl after his 35th birthday: Johnny Unitas (37 when he led the Colts to a win in Super Bowl V), Roger Staubach (35 when the Cowboys won Super Bowl XII), Jim Plunkett (36 when the Raiders won Super Bowl XVIII) and John Elway (37 and 38 when he led the Broncos to Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII titles).
Key new player: Garoppolo. The arrival of the Eastern Illinois product has sparked all sorts of speculation about the future of Brady and Mallett. In his brief stint this past spring — where he got some added reps because Mallett was missing for a few practices — he was a mixed bag, with some good throws and some bad. Two things, however, stick out about Garoppolo’s development to this point: one, rookies and veterans alike have been impressive by his ability to command a huddle. And two, he has taken on a leadership role with many of the younger players, quizzing them on their responsibilities on a given play and making sure everyone is on the same page. Those are two of the characteristics that distinguished Brady from the rest of the youngsters when he first showed up in 2000.
The skinny: We can write all day about the impact of players like Rob Gronkowski, Logan Mankins, Darrelle Revis and Vince Wilfork. Ultimately, this team will only go as far as Brady can take it. If the quarterback is able to build on the chemistry that was forged with the new receivers last season — and Gronkowski stays healthy for all 16 games and into the playoffs — there’s a good chance he and the Patriots survive the rest of the AFC and get another shot at an elusive fourth Super Bowl.