Jimmy Garoppolo entered Week 17 having gone 9-of-10 passing for 92 yards and a touchdown over his first five NFL games. He left it having gone 19-of-27 for 182 yards and a touchdown over his first six.
The second-round pick out of Eastern Illinois hadn’t thrown a pass since Oct. 26 against the Chicago Bears, in a game that was a 25-point New England Patriots lead by the time he entered it in the fourth quarter.
Garoppolo had only entered to kneel down and hand off in the two months since then. But the 2013 Walter Payton Award winner would get throw the ball again on Dec. 28. And he would get to run with it, too.
It was an 11-point Buffalo Bills lead at the start of the third when the 37-year-old Tom Brady traded in his helmet and the 23-year-old rookie stepped in. The fourth-ranked Bills defense, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 74.9 passer rating and leading the league with 50 sacks, awaited him.
Only they did more than wait.
It was a season finale that meant something to an 8-7 Bills team led by head coach Doug Marrone. Sights were set on the franchise’s first winning record since 2004 and the first win in Foxborough since 2000. Those goals would not change without Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, starting cornerback Stephon Gilmore or a playoff berth.
A 17-9 victory over New England at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon achieved them. But over 35 second-half snaps, Garoppolo found his own meaning in a game of little significance.
It began fast for the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Ohio Valley Conference product. After a five-yard quick out to receiver Danny Amendola, Garoppolo was sacked for a three-yard loss by Bills defensive end Jarius Wynn in under five seconds. And on New England’s next pass play, he threw a diving ball into the turf in front of tight end Tim Wright after scrambling off rookie right tackle Cameron Fleming for four seconds.
Those incompletions out right became a trend as Garoppolo looked to escape to his throwing side of the field. It was because the Buffalo defensive front had succeeded in getting to him, bulling through a New England offensive line consisting of Marcus Cannon, Josh Kline, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell and Fleming.
It was also because he struggled to get rid of the football fast enough.
Following three exchanges with running back LeGarrette Blount to begin the next offensive series, the first-year Patriots quarterback was sacked twice in a row. One came at the hands of Mario Williams for a one-yard loss out of a play-action scramble that spanned five seconds. Then another came at the hands of Jerry Hughes in nearly six seconds, before a defensive holding call negated what was a three-yard loss.
It marked the 24th time the two starting Bills defensive ends had gotten to opposing quarterbacks this season.
Garoppolo would be gotten to once more on Sunday as he ran into darkness, turning his back away from the line of scrimmage, and away from Wynn and Manny Lawson.
It took eight seconds for him to be circled on a 15-yard loss at the 6:51 mark in the fourth quarter.
Garoppolo tried to make plays with his feet as the internal clock began to tick. He sensed the pass rush and did not give into it, when at times, he should have. But that kind of acclimation process was expected for a quarterback who played just 34 snaps on the year before Sunday, per Pro Football Focus.
It was expected for a quarterback who had been playing in a rapid FCS shotgun-spread offense just one year ago.
Even so, part of the reason it took time for the Bills to bring down Garoppolo was because he bought time. He trusted his mobility to the point where it also worked in his favor against Buffalo.
Garoppolo rushed for 16 yards on four carries versus the Bills’ defense. But his most impressive run was one that gained only four.
From play action, Garoppolo was exposed to a defensive line with a head start. From there, however, he managed to shed pursuit, steering back towards the sticks to evade tackles he wasn’t expected to run into. It wasn’t always by design. But sometimes, it was.
It was seen in the play calls from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, which included a designed fourth-down run to the flat that gave possession back to the Bills, as well as a four-yard option run through the right B-gap to pick up a first.
The fact that those plays were seen said something.
So did Garoppolo’s plays from the pocket.
Though the running game remained a heavy component in New England’s offensive attack on Sunday, the passing game returned as a complementary component in time.
With repetition, the dust began to settle for Garoppolo. He strung together a sequence of quick passes to the left, including screens to Amendola and first-read outs to halfback James White during the two-minute drill. And while those pass plays may have not been lucrative, they kept the plan fundamental for the quarterback.
They helped him test his rhythm further down the field, where he stepped into traffic to fire three passes of the 15-yard variety over the middle.
And his succinct read and release on wideout Brandon LaFell’s dig route gained 14.
It all added up as Garoppolo finished the loss 10-of-17 for 90 yards. Seven of which reached their intended target within six yards of the line of scrimmage. Yet that was, in many ways, the gameplan that was installed for him.
Garoppolo worked the short and intermediate levels of the field, having all seven of his incompletions fall on the right side of the field.
And as the final pass of Garoppolo’s fifth drive fell incomplete at the right hash marks, his most extensive appearance in New England’s offense netted just three points.
But it was less about the outcome than it was the process.
He dropped back from center and shotgun. He worked to keep his eyes level up when the Bills were rushing down. He eluded pressure. He climbed the pocket. He made throws. He made mistakes. And he learned in a game where little was thought to be.
That was the goal.