Jimmy Garrappolo vs. Matt Cassell Comparisons are Way Off


With the NFL apparently in no great hurry to make a ruling on Tom Brady’s suspension appeal, everyone’s eyeballs are going to be glued to backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo in training camp, and not just because the ladies of Boston think he’s a good-looking dude. Depending on which side of the bed Roger Goodell wakes up on, Brady could be sitting out four games to start the season, leading Garoppolo to fill Brady’s gargantuan Uggs against the Steelers, Bills, Jaguars, and Cowboys.

And since there’s really only ever been one situation where Brady’s understudy has had to come in and run the show, writers like the MMQB’s Greg Bedard and fans alike have been quick to point out that in 2008, when Brady tore his ACL in the first game of the season, Belichick and the Patriots still went 11-5 and barely missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker with Matt Cassell playing quarterback. Bedard, in particular, is quick to attribute Cassell’s success to Bill Belichick’s coaching genius, and seems to imply that no matter who’s playing quarterback, New England is going to be A-OK.

It’s a lovely sentiment, and needless to say, New England is definitely hoping Jimbo can hold down the fort until Brady makes his Gandalf-the-White return.

It also fails to take into account that Matt Cassell walked into just about the best hey-guess-what-now-you’re-starting job in the league, whereas Garoppolo is going to have a much more daunting task in front of him – and none of that’s his fault. It’s the next-man-up circumstances that each player was thrust into that are almost completely different. And not in ways that favor Jimmy G.

After reading up on that “lost” 2008 season, I was able to find three major areas where Matt Cassell was perhaps the luckiest man in football that year, and to be honest, only one of those three looks promising for Jimmy Garoppolo. Those three areas are each team’s offensive lines, receiving corps, and defenses.

Let’s get to it.

Matt Cassell’s Offensive Line Was Money

Ah, the perpetually underappreciated front-five. The drummers and bass players of the football world. If the 2014 season taught us anything, besides to not doubt Tom Brady in the clutch, it should be that if New England’s offensive line isn’t delivering, bad things happen. Like getting-Kansas-City-barbecued-in-prime-time-by-a-team-coached-by-Andy Reid type bad things. When Matt Cassell assumed quarterback duties in 2008, three of the team’s five offensive linemen had been selected for the Pro Bowl in 2007. Tackle Matt Light had actually made his second consecutive Pro Bowl (2006 and 2007), and guard Logan Mankins not only made the Pro Bowl in 2007, but also from 2009-2013, for a total of 6 times receiving the honor. Center Dan Koppen also made the ’07 Pro Bowl, and was valuable enough that the Pats kept him all the way from 2003 until 2011.

So that’s a pretty sweet gig for a backup quarterback to come in to. Jimmy Garoppolo, by comparison, will have these gentlemen for a starting offensive line (probably):

Nate Solder (tackle), Bryan Stork (center), Sebastian Vollmer (tackle), and some combination of Ryan Wendell, Josh Kline, Marcus Cannon, and rookies Tre Jackson and Shaq Mason at the guard positions.

While it’s nothing to sneeze at, none of these linemen have a Pro Bowl to their name, and a few, like Cannon and Kline, ranged from barely competant to massive liabilities in 2014.

That’s not to say that the 2015 Patriots O-line won’t be able to produce, but it’d make Jimmy Garoppolo’s life a whole lot easier if he isn’t seeing ghosts every other snap, especially in a division with Ndamukong Suh, Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Marcel Dareus, Mario Williams, and…well, you get the idea.

Matt Cassell Had Weapons Galore

Cassell walking in to run the Patriots offense in 2008 was roughly equivalent to starting a MarioKart 64 race with a blue shell equipped as soon as the light turned green. Randy Moss was fresh off a season where all he did was set the single-season receiving touchdown record, and in 2008 with Cassell slinging the rock, all he did was haul in 69 passes for 1,008 yards and 11 touchdowns. It seems like a million years ago, too, but Wes Welker was also running like he had Wolverine’s adamantium skeleton at the time, snagging 111 receptions for a cool 1,165 yards. The oft-forgotten Jabar Gaffney was no slouch in the receiving department either, with 5 touchdowns and 468 receiving yards, and tight end Benjamin Watson, while hardly posting rockstar receiving numbers, doubled as a formidable run blocker.

While it’s true that Jimmy Garoppolo’s arsenal is nothing to sneeze at, and includes the now-undisputed best tight end in the NFL in Rob Gronkowski, one can hardly compare Randy Moss and Wes Welker in their primes and their supporting cast to Gronk, Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola, and Scott Chandler.  And not to jinx anything, but the health of all five of these guys has had all of them missing significant time over the past two or three seasons.

(Let’s not even get into what might happen if Aaron Dobson and Bryan Tyms have to take significant snaps).

Matt Cassell Had a Pretty Solid Defense

While Tom Brady and Randy Moss were busy playing tether-ball with the rest of the league and setting passing touchdown records in 2007, it tends to be a bit forgotten that the Patriots also packed a vicious defense that season. All the 2007 Patriots defense did was rank 4th in team defense, 6th in passing defense, and 10th in rushing defense. Ironically, that team also finished 32nd in scoring defense. While everyone remembers cornerback Asante Samuel’s ugly departure from New England after the 2007 season, the 2008 Pats still ranked 8th in team defense and 11th in passing defense, although they did slouch to 15th in rushing defense. In comparison, if you remember the 2011 Patriots, who went to the Super Bowl with Julian Edelman playing emergency cornerback and Patrick Chung playing free safety, the 2008 Pats defense suddenly doesn’t look so bad.

The Patriots defense in 2015 has been already cast off as an inevitable disaster by just about everyone, mostly due to Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner cashing in after the Super Bowl, but the one thing we all know for sure is that nobody except Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have a single clue what the defense will look like this season. We do know, though, that the Pats won’t be able to count on Darrelle Revis single-handedly taking each opponent’s best receiver’s lunch money like he did in 2014. The front seven isn’t a sure shot either; with beloved captain Vince Wilfork gone and nobody really knowing what to expect from players like d-linemen Dominique Easley, first-round pick Malcolm Brown from Texas, and returning tackle Sealver Siliga, unless everything on the defense starts clicking and comes out of the gate roaring in Week 1, it’s hard to imagine this defense operating at the above-average, if not spectacular, proficiency of the 2008 Cassell squad.

The upside of all this?

If Jimmy Garoppolo is able to slide into the quarterback spot and succeed, he just might be the guy we’re all hoping he really is – a legitimate Tom Brady successor.