Opportunity knocks for Patriots despite Brady ban


Tom Brady's decision not to prolong his fight against his four-game suspension may look like a victory for the NFL but, while there will be anger in New England, it presents the Patriots with a substantial opportunity.

With Brady on the sideline, Jimmy Garoppolo will step in at starting quarterback, providing him with an audition not just for the Patriots but for the other 31 teams in the league.

And the good news for Garoppolo, drafted in the second round in 2014, is that - aside from the season opener at the Arizona Cardinals - the opening quarter of the campaign looks very manageable for the Patriots.

Garoppolo would be forgiven for having something of a deer-in-the-headlights look about him in the road game with a Cardinals team blessed with a plethora of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball, but subsequent clashes with the Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans and Buffalo Bills - all at home - should not daunt him.

The Patriots have long dominated AFC East foes the Dolphins and Bills and comfortably handled the Texans 27-6 last season.

And, though the Patriots lack game-changing talent at wide receiver, Garoppolo can rely on the best tight end in the game in Rob Gronkowski, who this offseason received a high-calibre running mate in Martellus Bennett, who put up 2,114 yards and 14 touchdowns in three seasons with the Chicago Bears.

Running back Dion Lewis also proved a superb pass-catching option out of the backfield last season, meaning Garoppolo will have plenty of safety nets to lean on as he adapts to the pressure of being thrust into the starting picture.

Despite his inexperience, Garoppolo will be expected to win at least two of the opening quartet of games and - should that scenario come to pass then a fresh Brady will have a strong platform to build on as he aims to guide New England to the playoffs.

Brady will still face five teams who finished 2015 with losing records, and they are sure to bear the brunt of his frustration from this saga.

New England's irritation at how this episode has come to a close will dissipate should Garoppolo prosper, as a strong performance from their backup would not only put them in a good position off the field but give the Patriots the flexibility to make moves off it.

In 2008, when a ligament injury felled Brady in the season opener, Matt Cassel took charge and led the Patriots to an 11-5 season, although New England missed the playoffs.

Cassel's displays led to the Patriots being able to trade him - and linebacker Mike Vrabel - to the Kansas City Chiefs for a second-round pick in the 2009 draft.

Any success Garoppolo enjoys would be in a much smaller sample size, but in a league where stable quarterback play is as highly valued as ever, that would likely be enough for the Patriots to have suitors for his services.

The 38-year-old Brady said in October that he has 10 years left but, were he to begin to decline in 2016, the Patriots could at least afford to have confidence in Garoppolo as a potential successor.

It will take some time for the disappointment and the anger to fade in New England, but providing Garoppolo can make the most of a relatively straightforward opening slate of games, the Patriots will have the flexibility to make a trade or have a succession plan in place for Brady.

If the chips fall as anticipated, things will again be looking rosy for the NFL's modern-day dynasty.