With the Patriots honoring Ortiz before he headed to Fenway Park for a Sunday night game against the Yankees, Big Papi walked onto the field at Gillette Stadium in a No. 12 Brady jersey. Amid a terrific ovation, he accepted a No. 34 Big Papi jersey from Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
Ortiz pulled it on and as much as he fits in the pantheon of all-time Boston athletes, the thought creased our mind. He's No. 34. He's not No. 12. As an honorary captain, Ortiz took part in the coin flip. "Congrats on the career," Dolphins safety Michael Thomas, whose dad's a Yankee fan, told Ortiz. "Congrats on being a captain," Papi answered.
He came out like Tom Brady, too. Jimmy Garoppolo. That's who we mean.
For weeks, the questions raged. How will Garoppolo perform in the four games Brady is suspended by the NFL? With the debate on Deflategate exhausted, the preseason analysis on what Garoppolo cannot do seemed to tediously outweigh what he could.
And then Garoppolo became the only NFL quarterback to throw for 100 yards in the first quarter of the opening week. Without Brady, without Rob Gronkowski, supposedly without much chance of winning in the Arizona desert, Garoppolo directed a late drive that led to the winning field goal by Stephen Gostkowski against the Cardinals.
On Sunday, in what would end as white-knuckle 31-24 victory over the Miami Dolphins, Garoppolo opened 9-for-10. He was on fire. He did something Brady hadn't done in his previous 51 games. He threw two touchdowns in the first quarter. Garoppolo deftly stepped up in the pocket to avoid pressure and found Danny Amendola for a 12-yard touchdown pass to complete a 75-yard drive. Amendola had his helmet ripped off on the play, and he celebrated bareheaded for all to admire.
Garoppolo found Martellus Bennett, playing some terrific tight end with Gronk out, wide open behind for a 20-yard TD strike to make it 14-0. Only 1:50 into the second quarter, Garoppolo capped a 76-yard drive when he found Amendola again open behind Bobby McCain. It would be the first two-TD day of Amendola's career. Dazed, confused, the Dolphins looked horrible at that point. Garropolo? He looked like Brady: 14-for-17, 195 yards, three TDs, 154 passer rating.
Out in the parking lot before the game, there was a guy wearing a frighteningly lifelike Tom Brady mask. Wes Welker had wanted to go to dinner with Brady Saturday night, but Brady, who returned from the Michigan game in Ann Arbor, recruited his former teammate and old buddy to be his catching partner. The guy who came from under that Brady mask? It was Welker. Everyone wanted to be Brady for this home opener.
There was 4:04 left in the second quarter with New England on the move yet again when Garoppolo rolled right and threw a 15-yard pass to Malcolm Mitchell to the Miami 21. Yet as he released the ball, Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso closed fast, hit Garoppolo hard and, more importantly, landed on him with all his weight. Garoppolo injured his right shoulder as he bounced off the ground. He would not return.
"He came out of the pocket," Alonso said. "I got out there. He just landed on his shoulder. … It's one of those things we've seen with [Tony] Romo and [Aaron] Rodgers."
It wasn't a vicious hit, but with the maze of emerging NFL rules designed to protect the quarterback, it could have been called a penalty. As ESPN.com pointed out, the NFL recently added wording that required defensive players to strive to "not land on the passer with all or most of his body weight."
Asked what he saw on the play, coach Bill Belichick answered, "Not much." Asked what his reaction to the injury was, "I don't know yet. We'll just take it day to day."
Thank you, Coach.
X-rays on Garoppolo's shoulder reportedly showed no damage, but further examination revealed a sprained AC joint. With a short week — the Patriots face Houston on Thursday night — it's impossible to envision a scenario where Garoppolo would play, although he could be out only one or two weeks.
"It's very tough," Patriots wide receiver Matthew Slater said. "Jimmy has worked so hard. He put himself in great position to seize his moment. You really feel for the guy."
"You are programmed as a football player and a professional player that if something like this happens, you got to have a short memory," wide receiver Julian Edelman said. "You can't dwell on it because you've still got to try to win the game. It's terrible; it's unfortunate. [Garoppolo] was playing his tail off."
So there he came trotting onto the field, young, hungry, not so unlike Tom Brady a decade and a half ago. Jacoby Brissett. That's who we mean.
Yes, New England, we have lived long enough to see Jacoby play for the Yankees and Jacoby play quarterback for the Patriots.
UConn football fans will recognize the name. He's a big reason why Bryant Shirreffs transferred from North Carolina State to UConn in 2014. That worked out well in Storrs. Drafted in the third round, 91st overall, no less than Bill Parcells, who watched him play in high school near his Florida home, and Charlie Weis, who coached him for a year a Florida before Brissett transferred to N.C. State, have raved about the 6-foot-4, 235-pound rookie.
Still, this was different. This was stunning. For weeks and weeks, all of New England wondered how Garoppolo would do. Just when we were beginning to find out the answer was quite well — 18-for-27, 234 yard, three TDs, zero picks 130.8 rating on this day — he's gone.
"It's next man up," said Bennett, who rode to the game with Brissett. "Jacoby did a really admirable job filling in. That's tough on a young kid like that … but we're confident in him."
"Jacoby came in and he handled it pretty well," Edelman said. "We could have done a little better on third down. But, thankfully, our defense got some turnovers for us. He's very mature. Poised. Especially for a millennial. You know these kids. Am I a millennial?"
Belichick said Brissett did a good job handling the pressure. Belihick said he has gotten a lot of reps. He didn't say much more. Brissett, a careful rookie in an ultra-careful organization didn't say much either.
"Jimmy's a great guy, and I hope he's well, but you've just got to make sure you're ready to go," Brissett said. "I felt prepared and did enough for us to secure the win."
Brissett only threw nine passes in more than two quarters. He completed six for 92 yards. The biggest was for 31 yards when Bennett juked cornerback Byron Maxwell out of his shorts. Maxwell had a tough day. Later, LeGarrette Blount jumped over Maxwell and kicked him in the head in the process.
The truth is the Patriots were outscored 24-10 after Garoppolo left the game.
The biggest problem was the defense, which allowed three touchdowns in the second half. But Brissett led the Patriots on only one scoring drive, and production dropped 2 yards per play with him. The Patriots ground it out with Blount, who finished with 123 yards. Blount scored the only touchdown of the second half and promptly kneeled down among the ceremonial Minutemen behind the end zone and posed for photographers.
But the truth is the lack of Garoppolo led to a bumpy finish. Could the Patriots go out and get another quarterback before Thursday night's game? They could, but that would mean an incredible switch on the fly. That's not Belichick's way. He believes in the system, a system that had Garoppolo looking like Tom Brady for 26 minutes Sunday.
If Brissett had also been injured? Edelman, who played quarterback at Kent State, figured to be next.
"I wasn't even thinking about that," Edelman said. "Ask Coach on that one. I was just focused on catching the ball."
He's No. 11. He's not No. 12. And matters will be touchy around the Patriots until the coin flip before Game No. 5 against Cleveland and the real No. 12 is freed to return by NFL Warden Roger Goodell.