The NFL’s on-again, off-again suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady flipped to the “on” switch Monday morning. A panel of the United States Court of Appeals reinstated Brady’s four-game suspension resulting from the Deflategate incident, arguing that the league and commissioner Roger Goodell acted within the rules of the collective bargaining agreement in suspending Brady for a quarter of the regular season. Just when we were getting a little short on off-field intrigue, right?
To some extent, this isn’t a surprise. As the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport pointed out on Twitter, Brady dropped his base salary from $9 million to $1 million as part of his new contract restructuring/extension, which means he’ll only lose $250,000 as part of a four-game suspension as opposed to $2.25 million. Oral arguments suggested that the NFL’s chances of winning the appeal were strong.
The case will undoubtedly continue through the legal system, but the current lay of the land suggests that Brady will miss the first four games of 2016, so let’s approach the Patriots’ state of affairs with that likelihood in mind. Are they doomed? Does this dramatically shift the balance of power in the AFC East or the AFC as a whole?
We can’t predict the future, of course, but most evidence indicates that the dropoff from Brady to backup Jimmy Garoppolo won’t be quite the doomsday scenario one could have in mind. When Brady was due to be suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season, I looked into this very topic for Grantland and found that the difference between four games of Brady and four games of Garoppolo was a little more than a half-win, and the Vegas over/under line for the Patriots’ full-season win total moved by a similar amount.
The idea of going from a Hall of Fame quarterback like Brady to a relatively inexperienced backup like Garoppolo seems like it would inspire an enormous swing, but the reality is that the Patriots are well-equipped to handle such adversity. Even without Brady, they have a defense that was above-average by DVOA last year despite losing stars like Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty for parts of the season with injuries. And barring an offseason injury, New England’s offensive infrastructure — notably Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman — will both be in the lineup to start the year, when Garoppolo would be forced into the lineup.
It also helps that the coaching staff will still be there. The Patriots still have Bill Belichick, one of the finest coaches in all of football. And while there could have been serious concerns about how Garoppolo might operate behind an offensive line that was patchwork at best for most of last season, the Patriots were also able to convince legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia to come out of retirement this offseason, which should provide the best possible protection for the Eastern Illinois product.
Garoppolo will also benefit from having time to take reps with the first-team offense during practice. Research I’ve done in the past suggests that quarterbacks who come in off of the bench mid-game play about 10 percent worse than when they start the game. While Brady will still take plenty of practice reps during the preseason, Garoppolo will get four weeks as the No. 1 guy in practice at the beginning of the year. Remember that when the Patriots lost Brady for the year to a torn ACL in Week 1 of the 2008 season, a virtually untested Matt Cassel came into the lineup for the remainder of the year. Cassel struggled at first, but once he grew more comfortable in what had previously been the most powerful offense in league history, his numbers improved:
The undefeated 2007 Patriots had the point differential of a 13.8-win team; that’s not as good as their actual 16-0 record, of course, but it’s the fifth-best Pythagorean differential since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, with the 1985 Bears (14.1 wins) in first. The 2008 Patriots went 11-5 with the point differential of a 10.6-win team. That’s a difference of 3.2 wins over the course of an entire season; split that up over a quarter of a season, and you can intimate that replacing four games of Brady with four games of Cassel cost the Patriots 0.8 wins. That’s a very broad stroke, and the Patriots’ defense fell from 11th in DVOA to 17th — which undoubtedly influenced some of the decline — but you get the idea. The difference between Brady and Garoppolo is going to be somewhere between a half-win and a full-win.
With Garoppolo as the only other quarterback remaining on its roster, New England will either have to draft a quarterback and/or sign a veteran in free agency. The Patriots uncharacteristically have nearly $10 million in dead money tying up this year’s cap, thanks to the departures of Jerod Mayo and Dominique Easley, and they’ll only have about $300,000 or so to work with after using all of their draft picks. They can clear more space by releasing Danny Amendola ($4.1 million in savings) and Marcus Cannon ($3.7 million) or extending Hightower, who has a $7.7 million cap hold, but they’re not in a position to give Ryan Fitzpatrick $9 million or really even to give former Brady backup Brian Hoyer the $5 million or so he should be able to extract from a team over the next few weeks.
A more plausible target would be Rams third-stringer Nick Foles, who is undoubtedly available via trade and would only count for $1.75 million on his new team’s salary cap, thanks to the fact that the Rams already paid their deposed starter a $6 million roster bonus earlier this offseason. Even if the Patriots acquired somebody like Foles or Hoyer, though, chances are that it would be backup duty behind Garoppolo. And if they draft a quarterback, it’s far more likely to be a late-round flier in the Cassel mold than a second-round pick like Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg. Remember that the Pats are without their first-round pick — the other primary punishment from this seemingly never-ending saga; they’ll need to be judicious about how they use their top remaining pick in this year’s draft.
As for the teams they play over the first month of the season, well, things could be worse. New England starts the year by traveling to Arizona, and the Cardinals have to be considered among the biggest winners if Brady were to be suspended for the opening month of the season. Coach Bruce Arians’ team finished fourth in pass defense DVOA last year, but that was also with a healthy safety in Tyrann Mathieu, who may not be 100 percent at the beginning of the season after tearing his ACL late last year.
The Patriots play another top-10 defense in the Texans, who were seventh in pass defense DVOA last year, but that’s a team they comfortably beat last year 27-6. New England ran the ball 31 times in that game and attempted just 30 passes in an attempt to slow down defensive end J.J. Watt, who did not record a sack and only managed to knock Brady down once. It would be no surprise to see a similar sort of game plan in the rematch. New England also faces the Dolphins (29th in pass defense DVOA) and Bills (18th); facing those two teams should be less stressful. If Brady was out, say, from Weeks 12-15, the Patriots would be going up against three top-10 pass defense from a year ago in the Jets, Rams and top-ranked Broncos.
There’s no way to spin this as a good thing for the Patriots. Having Tom Brady under center is always going to be better than having him standing on the sidelines in a parka, no matter how handsome you think he might look in said parka. This hurts the Patriots’ chances of coming away with the top seed in the AFC, and we saw how much not having home-field advantage threw them off in Denver during the AFC Championship Game. This was also a team that won the AFC East by two games and came within two points of making it back to the Super Bowl to defend their title. Their margin for error in the regular season is reasonably high. The Patriots should survive comfortably without Tom Brady for a month. And when they get him back, well, you can imagine how cranky Brady’s going to be.