The NFL did more than drop a hammer on the New England Patriots and their quarterback Tom Brady with its Deflategate ruling. A four-game suspension of Brady along with stripped first- and fourth-round picks and a $1 million fine is the league’s attempt at an Antonio Brown dropkick.
A suspension for Brady was fully expected. But the NFL’s wonky wheel of justice has now removed him for a quarter of the 2015 season, less than a year after Ray Rice’s suspension for physically abusing his now wife was initially just two games long.
Barring an appeal that reduces the suspension, Jimmy Garappolo is set to take his first truly meaningful regular-season snaps, and he’ll do it against opposing defenses that are both inviting and intimidating.
When we break it down further there’s an opportunity for Garoppolo to build confidence right away and avoid complete embarrassment. Immediately following that? So much pain and suffering.
Week 1: vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Aside from the shining lights of primetime this feels like a soft landing spot for a rookie quarterback making his first regular-season start.
There was a time when saying that about the Pittsburgh Steelers defense would have warranted a thorough mental evaluation. And maybe that time will come again after they used a first-round pick on outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who finished his college career at Kentucky with 23.5 sacks and 37 tackles for a loss.
But right now the Steelers are transitioning defensively, and two members of their secondary will have a combined two starts between them (safety Shamarko Thomas and rookie cornerback Senquez Golson).
Week 2: @ Buffalo Bills
This is when the hurt comes.
Garoppolo played the second half of a meaningless Week 17 game against the Buffalo Bills to end his rookie season. In only those two quarters and 22 dropbacks he was sacked three times, and finished with a tiny yards per attempt average of 5.8.
The Bills buried a lot of quarterbacks in 2014 while leading the league with 54 sacks, and little will change with the same core pass rush returning after defensive end Jerry Hughes was re-signed.
Since 2013 the Bills have recorded 111 sacks, an average of 3.5 per game. Translation: They can easily shatter a quarterback who’s still adjusting to the speed of real NFL football.
Week 3: vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
So about pocket pressure: Where exactly will it come from now for the Jacksonville Jaguars with Dante Fowler Jr. out for the season?
Because the Jaguars can’t have nice things Fowler tore his ACL during the first day of rookie minicamp. A team that occupied the pass-rushing cellar in 2014 (31 sacks, tied for last) was set to lean on the third overall pick to generate anything resembling push up front.
Now Fowler won’t see the field until 2016, and the Jaguars are also waiting on defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks to recover from his own ACL tear. Marks injured his knee in Week 17 of 2014, and he’ll be brought along slowly throughout the summer and training camp.
The Jaguars will offer another cushy Sunday for Garappolo, one when he’ll be gifted plenty of time and comfort.
Week 5: @ Dallas Cowboys
This is the wildcard, with questions that may already have loud answers by the time Garoppolo is preparing for his fourth NFL start.
Will rookie defensive end Randy Gregory make an immediate impact after falling in the draft due to character concerns? On-field performance wasn’t a problem for Gregory at Nebraska with his 17.5 sacks over two seasons.
Which Sean Lee returns at linebacker? The fragile mess, or the imposing defender with fast feet and even quicker instincts who had 42 defensive stops over only 11 games in 2013 (per Pro Football Focus)?
And will DeMarcus Lawrence bust out? The defensive end recorded two sacks and 11 quarterback hurries over only 277 snaps during his first NFL season.
If the answer to even one of those questions isn’t in Garoppolo’s favor, his welcome to the league will include a lot of grass eating.
Of course, there’s a chance at least two of the games discussed here — the latter two — are started by Brady. He’s going to appeal the four-game ban, and if it gets cut in half the two-time MVP will return against the Jaguars.
However, if an 0-2 hole greets him, so will this mountain: Between 1990 and 2014 only eight percent of teams starting with that record made the playoffs.