PFF The Magazine: The connection between Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo
The connection between Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo runs deeper than that of a quarterback and his backup, but can the understudy become the master for a crucial four-game stretch to open the 2016 campaign? PFF: The Magazine editor Matthew Sherry digs deep on the man tasked with keeping New England afloat.
“Nine years ago, I made the decision after watching Tom Brady that he was the best in the game. His mechanics are incredible. So I started teaching my kids a lot of things that he does. I love the way he does things and have created my own drills around the things he does. I tailored around 90% of my teaching around Brady.”
That some things are just meant to be has rarely been clearer than in the case of Jeff Christensen’s epiphany. As he looks back now, almost a decade later, it’s hard not to imagine the remarkable series of events that ensured he would become a key cog in the New England Patriots’ quest for a fifth Super Bowl resonating.
To understand how a private quarterbacks coach based in Illinois suddenly impacted the NFL’s blue-chip franchise you have to rewind the clock back to around the time an awestruck Christensen began to break down the minutiae of Brady’s technique. To the point where, armed with an arsenal of new methods to instil in his charges, Christensen began working with a new kid.
The date with destiny was triggered by a phonecall from an old friend. The words were simple enough: ‘Jeff, I think I have found my next quarterback’. With that proclamation from Rolling Meadows high-school coach Doug Millsaps ringing through his ears, Christensen – a former NFL quarterback with the Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns – hopped in his car to check the kid out. One look was all he needed. “I watched him throw 12 balls and said, ‘I can work with that’. From that point forward, we just started working on his game.”
So ‘work with that’ he did, Christensen acting as Dr. Frankenstein in the hopes of moulding his perfect quarterback. The aim was simple: create a clone of Tom Brady. The irony now is stunning, for little did he know then that the passer he was moulding in the image of Brady would eventually be tasked with being Brady.
The story of how we reached this point is well-worn. Every opinion on Ideal Gas Law or exactly what did happen inside that restroom in the bowels of Gillette Stadium has been expressed. Did the NFL overreact? Or did they finally catch serial cheaters in the act? Whichever side of the fence you’re on, opinions are largely irrelevant as we approach the campaign. All that matters, really, is that Brady, fair or unfair, will miss the opening four games. And that could make a difference. A big one.
To see the importance of Brady, it’s worth casting your mind back to the beginning of last season. With a full slate of weapons – Rob Gronkowski, Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola – New England’s offense was practically unstoppable. Prior to Week 9, when Lewis’ torn ACL began a run of injuries to the Patriots’ skill-position players, they averaged 35.7 points per game. That they posting such lofty numbers was almost exclusively down to Brady and, most pertinently, his unrivalled ability to process what a defense is doing immediately and release the ball in around two seconds. New England passed the ball 67.5% of the time during that stretch, which basically means defenses were helpless despite knowing what was coming.
The bad news for weary NFL teams who’ve had just about enough of New England dominance is that this year’s unit looks even stronger. Pieces have been added to a questionable offensive line and, most importantly, they’ve recruited Martellus Bennett in a trade with Chicago. Bennett’s impact will be seen immediately. His addition allows the Patriots to almost exclusively line up in 12 personnel if they wish (2 WRs, 2 TEs, 1 RB) and then either choose a run or pass play depending on the opposition’s line-up. It’s like 2011, when New England had Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, except Bennett is a much better blocker than the latter (who was effectively a receiver playing tight end).
Then we come onto the defense. It may not be as fearsome a group as the other side of the ball, but this has the potential to be a top-five unit too. There’s talent all over the field: elite linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins; top-notch safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty; exciting young cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan; emerging-star pass-rusher Jabaal Sheard and impressive defensive tackles Malcolm Brown and Terrance Knighton.
Put simply, New England’s roster is the most talented in the NFL right now.
Except for one small problem. They will be without their Hall of Fame quarterback for a quarter of the season. Over to you, Jimmy.
At the time of his first meeting with Christensen, James ‘Jimmy’ Garoppolo’s future in football was far from certain. He’d spent most of his childhood with the round ball, playing as a pitcher in baseball before trying his hand with the pigskin. Even then, his experiences were a long way removed from being under center in the NFL; much like his brother, young Jimmy had played outside linebacker and running back. His quarterbacking knowledge amounted to ripping a few with his team-mates before practice. Only when he spun the ball, coach Millsaps noticed. “He had the raw tools,” Christensen tells PFF: The Magazine. “But there were some issues we had to work out. He was a former baseball pitcher so his arm was really elongated. We had to educate him and get rid of that, because it was a real flaw.”
That a quarterback battling such technical issues initially started injudiciously – Garoppolo threw 12 interceptions to nine touchdowns in his first full year – was unsurprising. Fortunately, though, he possessed the key ingredient need to reverse those fortunes. “Jimmy’s work ethic is incredible. He is a student of the game. His ability to listen to everything you say and put it into action is extremely rare. Sometimes I tell kids stuff and they come back the next day and make the same error. If I told Jimmy he could never do something, he would go home, watch himself in the mirror and replicate the error in the mirror so he never did it again. And he didn’t.”
Those weren’t the only mistakes Garoppolo didn’t repeat. The young passer’s high-school career continued on an upward trajectory, his efforts convincing Christensen the future was bright. Very bright. “You’re going to the NFL,” the coach told his prodigy. “You’re going to be one of those kids that gets drafted and starts.”
The proclamations of his coach, though, didn’t make Garoppolo’s route to the NFL any easier. “The NFL seemed a long way away,” adds Christensen. “Jimmy’s dad (Tony) wasn’t happy with me when I told him where I thought Jimmy was headed. He just wanted Jimmy to be good enough for a college scholarship. But I told him then that, at the pace he was developing, he was going to the NFL – and that they needed to start thinking that way. The more you start thinking that way, the more you visualise it, the more likely it is to become a reality.”
The recruiting process suggested Tony Garoppolo’s reservations were well-placed as Jimmy was shunned by the big-ticket schools. The Alabamas and USCs of the world looked elsewhere, forcing Garoppolo to do the same. The combination of his own play and being taught by a famous alumnus paved the way for a union with the FCS’ Eastern Illinois.
“I was the lead recruiter and offensive coordinator,” former Mustangs coach Roy Wittke tells PFF: The Magazine. “Jimmy was a guy who was on our initial list coming out of spring recruiting, and the fact Jeff – who played for Eastern Illinois – spoke so highly of him had an influence. Jeff is a good friend whose word I trust, especially on quarterbacks. All of those factors combined to ensure he became the number-one guy on our board. And I know it worked both ways; Jeff’s recommendation of our program influenced Jimmy’s decision. It was a win-win for everybody.”
At that stage, though, Wittke had no idea just how much of a win it would be. “There were no questions about his physical skillset. The things that really stood out were his quick release and footwork; those traits put him ahead and above other quarterbacks we evaluated. His working with Jeff in the early stages of his career played a big role in that. We felt he had a chance to go on and have a career beyond college even at that stage, although I didn’t foresee him being a second-round pick!”
For a school sitting in the lower echelons of the college game, Eastern Illinois boasts a rich history of NFL links. Christensen, a fifth-round draft choice in 1983, is part of an illustrious list that reads like a Who’s Who of modern football; Mike Shanahan and Sean Payton, current and former head coaches with three Super Bowl titles under their belts, both played under center for the Mustangs; and Tony Romo has become the poster child for many aspiring signal-callers, having risen from undrafted free-agent to star quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.
From the moment Garoppolo strolled onto campus for the first time, it quickly became apparent he could join that illustrious squad. “He was the first kid we had since Tony who we felt had a chance,” adds Wittke.
Garoppolo quickly set about proving such forecasts correct during a stellar college career. His numbers were eye-watering, a year-on-year improvement culminating in a magical senior campaign that brought 53 touchdown passes to nine interceptions. The former mark shattered the Ohio Valley Conference record of 35, held by Romo. Garoppolo also surpassed his predecessor’s school tallies for career passing TDs and yards, and won the Walter Payton Award for the best offensive FCS player.
“I’m certainly not going to say one was better than the other!” adds Wittke. “They both enjoyed tremendous success, were great young men and outstanding players. The awards and recognition they received was a tribute to their success. The one thing I would say is that Jimmy benefited from Tony’s success. It was brought up a lot that guys were determined not to overlook Jimmy in the same way they had Tony. I think guys made an effort to evaluate Jimmy more thoroughly. I certainly think that Tony’s history helped, because people suddenly didn’t think it was as big a risk to select him higher in the draft. It made it easier to project him.”
Although Garoppolo’s imprint on the tapestry of the FCS is secure, his NFL legacy is yet to be forged. Will he be just another great college player or, like Romo, can he make his mark on the biggest stage? The answer from those who’ve been instrumental in his development is emphatic.
“I remember a game in Jimmy’s first season,” reveals Wittke. “We were not a very good team and we were getting crushed by Tennessee State. We fell behind 28-7, but Jimmy wasn’t having it. He brought us back amazingly in the second half. It was a spectacular performance. We were on the road against a team who were favoured, and that was the game that confirmed what we had. We always thought we had something, and he’d shown flashes, but that was the game where he really showed how special he was.”
Expanding on Garoppolo’s display, in which he completed 20 of 33 passes for 331 yards and four touchdowns, Wittke adds: “The great quarterbacks have that ability to take a team on their back and win the game. You don’t know how quarterbacks will react to that situation until they stand under center and bring you back. He grabbed hold of our football team, took charge and led us to a win.”
If Wittke is confident, then Christensen is emphatic.
“Through his senior year and going into college, it became apparent to me Jimmy was really special. I told him, ‘Jimmy, you’re going to make $100million, be an NFL starting quarterback and win Super Bowls. You have the gift. If you keep improving at this pace, it’s going to be a scary situation’. I can remember the conversation like it was yesterday, and he just looked back at me and said, ‘Scared? Why would I be scared? That’s what we’re doing this for, right?’”