Patriots fans are struggling with how much they miss Jimmy Garoppolo

“It was an evil necessity.”

That’s how 42-year-old Gloucester, Mass. resident Jason described the Jimmy Garoppolo trade to me while watching the Garoppolo-less Patriots struggle against the Bills early on in their Christmas Eve game.

With Garoppolo’s sudden and convincing success out west, Patriot fans (including myself) who were initially fine with the trade can’t be blamed if they are watching his rise with a tinge of “what could have been” second thoughts. Which is why I ventured out on a cold Christmas Eve afternoon and sought to find what local fans in Massachusetts thought of the entire situation.

At a packed-to-the-rafters local brewery (because the NFL isn’t second fiddle to anything … even Christmas Eve), fans were avoiding last-minute gift wrapping and awkward holiday conversations with extended family by focusing on the game and clutching their seasonal IPAs or craft Pilsners.

To many Patriots fans, the Garoppolo trade was a shock when it happened. But looking closer at the circumstances of the deal — the Patriots’ most beloved backup quarterback of the Brady era (no disrespect to Ryan Mallett) for a 2018 second-round pick — they had no choice but to get him out of their division and the conference for some sort of return before he signed with a more direct competitor in free agency. Otherwise, they would be forced to spend upward of $22 million on him with a franchise tag to keep him on the roster next fall.

That’s more than Tom Brady makes per season and because he’s not aging out of the starting spot like they were planning on him to in an ideal transitional situation, it could have meant Garoppolo would be paid that hefty sum while Brady was still on the roster. That’s a lot to pay for a backup whose job is to look good and take notes.

It’s no surprise that the Patriots weren’t exactly planning for Brady to still be breaking records after his 40th birthday, and while that’s not an unwelcome thing from a success standpoint, it certainly made the previously straightforward passing of the torch timeline obsolete. And if they repaid Brady’s longtime loyalty with the kind of Belichick Business Decision(TM) that meant Tom got traded or benched to make room for Jimmy, Gisele might’ve set fire to half of Foxborough on her way out of town with Tom.

Which is how Garoppolo (AKA Jimmy G AKA Handsome Jimmy AKA Sweet Baby James) came to be the quarterback that helped the Patriots clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs while not actually playing for the Patriots, thanks to the Niners winning for the fourth straight game with him under center. That win, against a playoff-bound Jacksonville squad, was another victory to add to what has been a magnificent start for Jimmy G on the Niners as he became the first quarterback since Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 to win his first six starts (dating back to his two starts with New England last year).

He also has a 69.0 completion percentage since the trade, which is nice.

Everyone I spoke to about the trade and its aftermath acknowledged that with Brady staying healthy this long, it couldn’t have ended any other way. Jason, who was passionate on the topic, agreed and said the Pats had “no choice but to do it.” But that doesn’t mean fans are happy about how things are panning out.

Of his new situation, Garoppolo recently said

That enthusiasm, coupled with his undefeated record as a starter in San Francisco, is hard to watch for the fan base that he left behind. As I’ve watched the last month of 49ers games (which is more attention than I’ve paid to the Niners in … [carries the one, multiples by seven, divides by two] … an entire lifetime of NFL seasons combined), a sense of “I’m just happy he’s doing well” has washed over me, like watching someone you used to date achieve their dreams without you and having to admit they could never have done that if you’d stayed together.

When his family made a visit to the sideline in Week 15, sporting identical strong jawlines and that focused Garoppolo gaze, it was like watching that ex’s family post perfect Instagram pictures of a vacation you were meant to be on with them and instead you’re watching from home. It’s tough but meant to be this way.

Pats fans didn’t just latch on to Garoppolo because of his looks (have I mentioned he’s good looking?), but also because after a rotating cast of serviceable backups, he was finally the one fans could get attached to as the heir apparent to Brady. He was the future, drafted out of Eastern Illinois in the second round of the 2014 draft, and once he proved his mettle by going 2-0 and throwing for 496 yards during Brady’s 2016 suspension, fan adoration only grew.

Heck, his first career passing touchdown in 2014 was to Rob Gronkowski, which is as auspicious a start as any New England backup could have. It was easy to imagine another successful decade of Patriots football with Jimmy at the helm, and the fact it won’t pan out that way is a tough pill to swallow.

Justin Tucker, flitting efficiently from one customer to another as he fit in one last bartending shift before the holiday, has a similar feeling about Jimmy G’s overnight success but is facing the situation bluntly and without mincing words. He admits, “At the time of the trade it was fair. … He deserved an opportunity to succeed.” Now though, with win after win stacking up with the Niners, he says “We’re f***ed. Brady’s only playing for two more years maybe.”

He went even further and offered up a guess as to why the expected transition from Brady to Jimmy didn’t go as planned: karma. Specifically, that “this is karma for the luck we had back with Brady and Bledsoe.” He says that that transition went perfectly, better than anybody could have expected, but “this time it didn’t go our way.” All the team’s luck got used up when Brady landed in the Patriots’ lap and hit the ground running all those years ago.

Taylor Murphy, a lifelong fan who lives in Dorchester, said, “It makes me happy to see Jimmy G excelling in a way he couldn’t [with the Patriots]. … He deserves it, although I wish it could have been with us.” But she too questions what the plan is if Brady gets hurt or his skill takes a nosedive before anticipated.

In her eyes, and other Pats fans I spoke to agreed with her assessment, once and future backup quarterback Brian Hoyer “isn’t someone that can support the team at this point in the season if anything happens to TB12.” She asserted that she is “a HUGE Brady supporter and believe[s] 100000% he is the GOAT, but the reality is that he’s old and the right kind of injury could be devastating to him and to us.”

While a permanent replacement for Jimmy G might not appear until this year’s draft or even a season later, Taylor did bring up one solution that could fill the void Garoppolo left behind while providing a better foundation for the Patriots’ future once Brady moves on. She said she is “wondering when Kraft, or anyone for that matter, will eat humble pie and scoop up [Colin] Kaep[ernick].”

Some fans had a more practical outlook, even if they also admitted the situation in New England isn’t exactly ideal. Maynard resident Frank, in town visiting his girlfriend for the holidays, was coming at the entire situation from a different perspective thanks to some firsthand information from the Kraft family.

Frank explained that he’s different than most fans in this situation because, “the week prior to [the trade] Kraft’s son was at my company talking about what they do with the players and investments, things like that. … They have plans for everything” and that this move, just like everything else Belichick does that might seem like a bad idea at the time, will only end well for the team. His takeaway from the trade and the aftermath is that “trading him was sweet and sour but they can make the team better.”

Jason, who made his peace with the trade when it happened, said his opinion hasn’t changed despite Garoppolo’s one-way ticket to stardom in California. He repeated his assertion that it was a necessary evil to make the move when they did, and that he “trusts Belichick” to make the right choice.

How far does that trust in Belichick and the Krafts go, though?

The era of Brady and Bill is coming to an end sooner rather than later in New England, and what then? Frank insists “they have the influence to get other quarterbacks and players when they need them” to maintain the competition-crushing success that fans have come to expect from Gillette Stadium. To him, that influence is enough to keep them on the top of the heap and avoid the precipitous drop off that is part of each team’s life cycle and will eventually arrive for every fan base that has been swaddled in the comforting embrace of guaranteed winning seasons.

When confronted with the fact that Brady could get hurt or that both of the team’s architects of success might not be pulling the strings much longer, he hesitated and then balked at confronting that reality with a curt “I don’t want to think about that.”

Of course, with Garoppolo available in free agency this offseason, his return to Gillette Stadium isn’t necessarily impossible. Belichick could surprise everyone by deciding to bring him back after all, anointing him once again as the future of the team. Weirder things have happened, and at this point, fans know to underestimate Belichick’s planning at their own peril.

While that particular outcome might not be in the cards, at this stage one thing is for sure: Patriots fans will watch Jimmy G’s success in San Francisco — or whoever signs him in free agency this offseason if it’s not the Niners — with pride for as long as it lasts.

Whether it’s because of that 1,000-watt smile (you didn’t think I was making it through an entire piece without talking about the smile, did you?) or the Belichick DNA that he seems to have absorbed during his Patriot Place apprenticeship, he’ll be the one who got away for football-watching New Englanders.

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