Did the New England Patriots trade the wrong quarterback?
On first blush that may sound absurd, and if one looks historically it is. But the NFL is a “what have you done for me lately’’ league, and lately Jimmy Garoppolo has arguably done more for his team , the San Francisco 49ers, than Tom Brady has done for the Patriots.
The truth is in the numbers.
Since Garoppolo became a starter in San Francisco after New England traded him to the 49ers just before the trade deadline for a second round draft choice, he has led the 1-10 team he inherited to four straight victories, including a stunning 44-33 win last Sunday over the No. 1-rated pass defense, the playoff-bound Jacksonville Jaguars.
During that four-game winning streak, Garoppolo has completed 69 percent of his throws for 1,268 yards and five touchdowns with three interceptions. Those numbers only enhance what he accomplished in limited opportunities as Brady’s backup for three years.
Overall Garoppolo is 6-0 as a starter in the NFL and has thrown for 1,958 yards with 10 touchdown passes and only those three interceptions.
As for Brady, we all know his resume and his ring collection, which includes five Super Bowl championships and seven AFC titles in 17 seasons as a starter. But over the stretch of time that Garoppolo has been dominant with the 49ers, Brady has been markedly off his feed.
He is 3-1 as a starter but has thrown six picks in his last five games. And in the past four he has completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 1,013 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions, including a pick- six last week against the Buffalo Bills.
Brady has also consistently been off target early in games for the past month before settling down as the game wears on and returning to his more dominating self.
Judging someone by six games is always risky business. But so is building and sustaining a pro football franchise. Betting on 40-year-old quarterbacks to be highly competitive several years from now is a fool’s errand. Bill Belichick knows this is true even though Brady is a fitness fanatic and has repeatedly insisted he intends to play for five more seasons.
The wise move would have been to retain Garoppolo through the end of the season and then franchise him if necessary to avoid having him walking away in free agency with no return -- even though that might have limited what the Patriots could do in other areas of free agency.
If Garoppolo continues to play as he has for the past month, his value will soar. Then there would be no way you could argue obtaining a second-round choice for him was comparable compensation because there is no such thing as comparable compensation for a franchise quarterback.
But Belichick was on the horns of a dilemma when he traded Garoppolo because owner Bob Kraft was not willing to sign off on getting rid of Brady any time soon. Nor was he willing to tie up a third of his cap space on one position -- which, at least for the short term, might have been necessary to keep Garoppolo off the free-agent market in 2018.
So what was Belichick to do? Did he trade away the franchise’s future to retain what might be a fading star of the present? Or was he living in the moment, as most coaches do, and arguing that the quarterback who gave his team the best chance to win in 2017 was a greying Brady ... not a youthful Garoppolo?
In the end, the Patriots stuck with Brady, who until about a month ago was in the MVP discussion, and understandably so. He is a proven commodity, perhaps the best quarterback in NFL history and a defending Super Bowl champion who led a remarkable 25-point comeback in the final 17 minutes to win Super Bowl LI just a year ago. But as the regular season winds down, the noise grows louder in New England that failing to retain Jimmy Garoppolo was a mistake.
So did the Patriots trade the wrong quarterback, retaining the greybeard at the expense of giving away a potential franchise quarterback for the next decade or so? It is way too early to know. But it’s a question the play of Jimmy Garoppolo has made it necessary to ask.