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The Tweaker Has a New Toy

With Tom Brady suspended and Jimmy Garoppolo hurt, Bill Belichick will likely start a third-string rookie quarterback on Thursday night. That might sound scary, but with a legendary tinkerer in charge, it’s going to be a treat.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Maybe you think that Thursday night’s contest against the Texans won’t be ideal for Patriots fans or enjoyable for Bill Belichick. Maybe it seems that aside from eager Houston fans, massive football nerds are the only ones eager to watch Belichick put out a third-string quarterback against a good defense on a short week.

But Belichick has always been able to MacGyver-himself out of sticky football situations, and though that tendency will be severely tested in Week 3, flexibility has always been his greatest strength.

This is a man who switches his system as often as most of his peers swap their polos and khakis, famously changing his entire defense to a 4–3 because he thought there would be fewer opportunities to learn the intricacies of his 3–4 the year after the lockout. Some coaches go an entire career without altering things like that; Belichick can’t go a year.

This is a coach who has played receivers Julian Edelman and Troy Brown at defensive back and employed Richard Seymour and Junior Seau as fullbacks. Linebacker Mike Vrabel was such an effective spot tight end that he caught 10 career passes, all for touchdowns.

This is the guy who revolutionized the slot receiver role once he realized those pass catchers could be acquired more cheaply than big-play outside receivers.

Belichick identifies problems before they develop and solves them better than perhaps any coach in history. His real gift is his ability to improvise and revise.

The best way to describe Belichick is the way Malcolm Gladwell described Steve Jobs: He’s a tweaker. Of course, it’s unfair to compare Jobs and Belichick, because one changed the world with his constant innovation and is recognized as an all-time genius, while the other invented the iPad. But on Thursday, Belichick’s problem-solving ability will be on full display as he likely starts rookie Jacoby Brissett.

The Patriots are in this position, of course, because Tom Brady is serving a four-game suspension for his role in the Deflategate saga, and his replacement, Jimmy Garoppolo, injured his shoulder against the Dolphins in Week 2 after wowing against the Cardinals in the opener. Brissett completed six of nine passes for 92 yards in relief and seems likely to helm New England’s offense against Houston, though Belichick has refused to officially rule out Garoppolo even though he hasn’t fully practiced this week. Brady returns in two weeks, so barring a stunning return to health for Garoppolo, Brissett will get two starts, against the Texans and then the Bills. Edelman, who played quarterback at Kent State, will serve as the emergency backup.

It’s not significant that Belichick is turning to a third-stringer, because he’s routinely done that at about 21 other positions. It’s significant because for the first time, he’ll have to truly improvise at the quarterback position. For the past 15 years, Belichick has been able to rely on Brady, perhaps the best quarterback of all time. When he’s had to go outside of that safety blanket in the past, it was with Matt Cassel, who was in his fourth year in the Patriots system when he took over for the injured Brady, and Garoppolo, who knows the playbook well in his third year with the franchise.

Brissett, in contrast, is an unknown with essentially one and a half days to practice being a starting quarterback. If Garoppolo stays on the shelf and Brissett starts, then from a purely schematic standpoint, Thursday might be Belichick’s greatest test. Yes, he’s neutralized Marshall Faulk in a Super Bowl and called a championship-winning play to defend a Seahawks goal-line pass, but at least he had some time to prep and some players to help him execute in those cases.

When acquiring most of his players, Belichick values positional flexibility above all. He wants cornerbacks who can play safety and vice versa; linebackers who can put their hand in the dirt and play end; offensive linemen who can play every position in the trenches. He moves pieces around game by game, but he’s never tinkered with the most important position in sports. Now, he and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will get that chance due to pure desperation, and it’s going to be fun.

Belichick has tried to get playful with the position before, but not out of necessity: In 2013, the Pats signed Tim Tebow, who was last seen airmailing a baseball so badly that it shocked Jon Heyman.

That experiment wasn’t about typical quarterback play; it was about Belichick doing things he’s only envisioned in his wildest scheme-nerd dreams. Belichick added Tebow when he was intrigued by the wildcat offense and the read-option, but a fringe acquisition who failed to make the roster isn’t apples-to-apples with a guy who’s likely going to start against a fellow playoff hopeful.

There are plenty of options for how Belichick will use Brissett despite limited time to develop a grand plan. Brissett, who ran a 4.94 in the 40-yard dash at the combine, is not a tremendous speedster, but he showed real ability to run the ball in college. During his junior year at NC State, Brissett, a Florida transfer, delivered 529 rushing yards from scrimmage and three rushing touchdowns. Garoppolo has wheels, and his athleticism heightens his game, but he’s never come close to a year like that. Brady, of course, is Brady: When there’s a massive hole, he runs at his own pace.

Though the majority of Brissett’s plays at NC State were typical shotgun passes, he showed some scrambling ability and skill at running the zone read, even flashing some Rodgersesque power to scramble his way to touchdown passes. That kind of play can give the Patriots a new dimension, and Brissett’s best snaps against the Dolphins came off play-action from the shotgun, showing that defenses will freeze if he hints that a quarterback keeper may be coming:

Belichick has not previously enjoyed the luxury of a quarterback who utilizes his feet to extend plays. Will the coach keep things vanilla and hand the ball off to LeGarrette Blount 40 times? Will he think of a new offense that instantly turns Brissett into a Texans-destroyer? For now, all we know is that we’ll get to find out, and after a decade-plus of the Belichick-Brady pairing, that’ll be a rare treat.