All Eyes on Him

Overlooked in the draft and never part of the game plan, New England Patriots rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett was ready for the spotlight.

By Dan Pompei

September 23, 2016

Bleacher Report

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — You are supposed to be a developmental prospect and third-string quarterback who is learning a system, methodically, over years. And then you are called upon to start a game in your rookie year before the New England leaves have begun to turn.

You are facing the NFL’s third-ranked defense, which features J.J. Watt, the greatest defender of a generation.

The standard for quarterback play in your home stadium has been set by arguably the greatest signal-caller in history.

Your team is undefeated and has the potential to win a lot of games—if you don’t screw it up.

The game is televised from the Atlantic to the Pacific and points beyond. It’s even on Twitter.

Your team’s best offensive weapon, a tight end with the wingspan of a pterodactyl, is limited by a hamstring injury and does not catch a single pass.

There is no other quarterback on the active roster to bail you out. The emergency plan is to have a 5’10” wide receiver who played quarterback in college replace you.

You have had only four days since your last game—barely enough time for bruises to turn from purple to yellow.

You have not had a single regular practice as your team’s starting quarterback—ever.

Less daunting circumstances have destroyed more gifted quarterbacks, and not just for the moment.

But somehow, some way, Jacoby Brissett was in his element at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night. You could see it from the time he led his team out of the tunnel, helmetless and at ease with who he is.

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New England Patriots quarterback Jacoby Brissett (7) and wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) lead the team onto the field Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, in Foxborough, Mass., for a game against the Houston Texans. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Between the seamless way the Patriots prepare backups and the way he prepared for his opportunity, nerves were not an issue. “You know we’re part of a great organization, great team,” Brissett said. “A lot of the veteran players helped out and stepped up and helped me a lot. Just giving me confidence; the coaching staff gave me confidence, and everything went from there.”

Brissett warmed up his arm on the sideline before the game and before almost every possession. He must have thrown five times as many passes on the sideline as he did in the game. In a 27-0 Patriots rout of the Texans, Brissett’s statistics—11-of-19 for 103 yards—don’t tell the story of his performance.  

This is what tells the story: Brissett’s first start wasn’t about what happened Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. If he wasn’t comfortable before this week, he wasn’t going to become comfortable in three days.

Even though Brissett had only two walkthrough practices to get ready for the biggest game of his life, he had been preparing for this moment for years.

He was as ready as he could have been.

“You could tell in meetings during the week,” Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan said. “He was poised and focused, preparing himself as a starter. He was ready for this, even on a short week.”

Brissett came into the game confident, partly because of what happened in his first appearance in an NFL game. Four days before facing the Houston Texans, he replaced injured Jimmy Garoppolo in the second quarter against the Miami Dolphins. He took over with a 21-0 lead, and the Patriots scored another 10 points with Brissett under center in a 31-24 victory.

Brissett didn’t make any highlight plays against Miami, but that was OK because he didn’t make any mistakes that undermined his team.

The Patriots had a plan for Brissett that day. They always have a plan in case their starting quarterback goes down: a separate call sheet with a reduced number of plays.

“[Jacoby] was poised and focused, preparing himself as a starter. He was ready for this.”

— Chris Hogan

Like Brissett, Jim Miller once backed up Tom Brady, playing for the Patriots’ third Super Bowl winner. Charlie Weis was the offensive coordinator on that team, and Josh McDaniels ran the quarterbacks room. Miller recalls a late-season blowout in 2004 when the Patriots wanted to get some work for fellow backup quarterback Rohan Davey.

“They had a package of plays,” said Miller, now a host on SiriusXM NFL radio. “It wasn’t the whole playbook, that’s for sure. Maybe a 10- to 20-play package. And he executed it brilliantly. It’s the way they do it.”

Part of that package for Brissett included this gutsy call from McDaniels, now the offensive coordinator. On 3rd-and-1 on the Texans’ 6-yard line in the first quarter with no score, McDaniels called for Brissett to throw a fade to the corner of the end zone. Not a safe run by wrecking-ball running back LeGarrette Blount that almost certainly would have kept the possibility of a field goal alive, but a difficult throw by the rookie quarterback.

His pass was incomplete, but it showed the belief the Patriots had in Brissett. The offensive game plan was conservative, but McDaniels tried to take advantage of what his quarterback did best.

At North Carolina State, Brissett had rushed for 529 yards his junior year, so the Patriots used quarterback movement plays. On 1st-and-15 late in the first quarter, the Patriots line blocked to the left. Brissett faked a handoff to Blount, then pivoted and ran to his right. He deked one defender on the sideline and squirted into the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown run. At 6’4”, 235 pounds, Brissett on the run is something to see.

Jacoby Brissett dives for a touchdown during the first quarter against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium on Sept. 22, 2016. (Getty Images)

After he scored, teammates circled him, bumping helmets until he could have used an ibuprofen. Brissett held onto the football until he made it to the sideline. Then he handed it to Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who smiled and kept the ball in a safe place so he could give it to Brissett after the game.

“He’s just a hardworking kid that is really dedicated to doing what’s right for the team and trying to improve on anything that you tell him,” Belichick said later. “He just wants to do what the coach tells him to do. I’m glad we have him.”

What was most significant about Brissett’s performance was he did not turn the ball over. According to wide receiver Julian Edelman, who was also the emergency backup QB, the rookie also made the correct adjustments at the line of scrimmage.

It didn’t take Brissett long to make the Patriots feel good about taking him with the 91st pick of the April draft. From rookie camp through OTAs and minicamp, Brissett did things the right way.

“You sent him home with homework, he came back with the right answers, and then he asked the right questions,” said Michael Lombardi, a front-office executive with the Patriots until the summer, when he joined Fox Sports. “He was able to grow with his knowledge and understanding. When he made mistakes, he understood why he made them.”

Brissett arrived daily around 6 a.m. and stayed until close to nightfall. Bill Parcells, who befriended Brissett when he was in high school, had advised him to live near the facility, find a restaurant that can prepare healthy takeout meals and don’t get involved in much else. That was fine with Brissett, who doesn’t drink, doesn’t mess around on social media and doesn’t become a zombie with his smartphone in his hand.

“He’s wiped his slate clean, put everything else in a drawer, really focused on whatever it is he can do to get better,” McDaniels said. “He doesn’t have a lot of other things pulling at him. This is a kid that loves football. It’s one of the things you love the most about him—it’s how much it means to him, how much he wants to get better and invest himself in it.”

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Brissett, in his senior season at North Carolina State, looks to pass against Virginia Tech in October 2015. (Getty Images)

Brissett is with the right team for accelerated development. Throughout OTAs, the Patriots had him and his fellow rookies show up before the veterans each day for an extra meeting. Then there was another rookie meeting in the afternoon, and another at the end of the day.

In training camp, the Patriots were trying to get two quarterbacks ready to play this season—Brady, suspended for the first four games, and Garoppolo. So the two of them split the reps with the first and second teams. What was left for Brissett was work with the developmental team. He was given about 25 percent of the overall quarterback work in training camp.

Brissett apparently had enough reps. In preseason, he completed 67.9 percent of his throws and managed a passer rating of 93.4.

Brissett was ready for the challenges of OTAs and training camp in part because of what he did in the predraft process.

Since his junior year at North Carolina State, Brissett has worked with quarterback coach Ken Mastrole at the Mastrole Passing Academy in Estero, Florida. Between January and May of this year, Brissett and Mastrole focused on making Brissett as NFL-ready as possible.

Mastrole studied Brissett’s throws with 3-D motion analysis shot from a camera that can take up to 900 frames per second. He noticed his shoulder level changed slightly at times during his throw, so they worked to strengthen his left, non-throwing side to create better balance and posture. The result, Mastrole said, was a quicker release.

They also dissected two years of his college games, and then maybe another 30 NFL games. They broke down NFL quarterbacks and looked at different offensive systems in an attempt to prepare Brissett for what was coming. Mastrole, who has worked with a number of draft prospects, including Teddy Bridgewater and EJ Manuel, said Brissett couldn’t get enough film study.

“A lot of guys sit back and want you to give them the information,” Mastrole said. “He was aggressive in terms of wanting to push for more. Whether it was a training session where we were doing arm development, or board work, he’d put the extra time in.”

During this period, Brissett also was being advised by Parcells and former NFL coach Dan Henning, both of whom lived in his neighborhood in South Florida. Ravens safety Matt Elam, whose brother Abe Elam was helping Brissett with contract advice, also gave the young quarterback pointers on NFL defenses.

When he first set foot in Gillette Stadium for a predraft interview with Belichick and the Patriots staff in March, Brissett was in a good place in more ways than one. “[During] his interviews, he demonstrated a great ability to learn and retain, and then to be able to advance,” Lombardi said. “It’s one thing to be able to memorize. It’s another to understand. We thought he could do both.”

“A lot of guys sit back and want you to give them the information. ... He'd put the extra time in.”

— Ken Mastrole

Before the draft, more eyes were on Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook. Some scouts looked at Brissett as a second-tier prospect, but the Patriots grew comfortable with the idea of drafting him in the third round.

The Patriots might have known him better than any other team. “A lot of people close to the Patriots knew this kid beyond the tape, beyond what you can see,” Lombardi said, referencing Parcells and Weis. “That really helped.”

It helped that Brissett played for Weis for one year at Florida, in 2011, before Weis left for Kansas and Brissett transferred to North Carolina State.

The system McDaniels runs in New England is a descendant of Weis’ system. Through 17 Belichick years in New England, the basic concepts in the playbook have remained the same. Weis said the verbiage he used at Florida still is the language the Patriots speak, though McDaniels has his own dialect. They handle protections the same way, with the quarterback making the adjustments at the line after the initial calls.  

“I’d say he’d be able to recognize 75 to 80 percent of the things they were doing from what we did at Florida,” Weis said. “The rest was how they tweaked it since I left.”

The qualities that drew the Patriots to Brissett were the same qualities that drew Weis to him. “I recruited him because I thought he fit the system,” Weis said. “He’s a tall guy, he’s a physical guy, he’s got a front-line arm, he has moxie. He was the Pied Piper at his high school, the clear leader. It’s important in that system to be a smart guy with moxie and be a leader in that system.

“He is all of those things.”

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