FOXBORO — Before the 2014 NFL Draft, it was easy to compare Jimmy Garoppolo with Tony Romo since both quarterbacks went to Eastern Illinois.
But for Garoppolo, there’s always been one comparison that he’s liked more than others. The quarterback talked about it two months before the Patriots drafted him in the second round.
“I like to think I’m pretty close in comparison to Aaron Rodgers,” Garoppolo told CSN Chicago. “He’s very athletic and gets the ball out quickly. He’s very knowledgeable of the game, controls the offense totally and that’s something I try to do. Just know the offense inside and out.”
Garoppolo has always tried to mirror Rodgers. He did when he first learned how to play quarterback at Rolling Meadows High School, thanks to his quarterback coach, Jeff Christensen. When Garoppolo learned to throw, Christensen, who owns Throw It Deep, a quarterback and receiver training academy in Lockport, Ill., taught him by breaking down film from a handful of elite quarterbacks, including Rodgers.
He’s also following in Rodgers’ footsteps now by backing up a future Hall of Famer in Tom Brady. His situation is similar to the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback, who spent the first three years of his career backing up future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre before taking the reins.
As the Patriots head into Lambeau Field on Sunday, Garoppolo will get a closer look at the player whose story he dreams of following.
“He’s a heck of a quarterback. That’s for sure,” Garoppolo said. “You see guys in the NFL when you’re younger and you try to model your game after that. He was one of the guys I tried to do that with.”
If all the pieces fall into place, perhaps that will one day be Garoppolo — taking the reins for the Patriots following a decade and a half of success by a Hall of Fame quarterback. All the right things will need to occur for that to happen, but if you ask the man who molded this quarterback, Christensen certainly sees the parallels.
“I don’t think there’s any question, he’s going to be the next Aaron Rodgers,” Christensen said. “I believe that in my heart. As someone who broke down the way they throw, I can selfishly say I think that’s going to happen.”
Garoppolo transitioned to playing quarterback full-time after his sophomore season at Rolling Meadows High School. He was a linebacker before that, and at first it wasn’t pretty.
The only time this Illinois native ever threw was in baseball. So when he’d fire off a football, he did so with a long windup as if he were on a pitcher’s mound. That’s when his coach Doug Millsaps called up Christensen, who also played in college for Eastern Illinois and then in the NFL from 1983-1987 for Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Cleveland.
When he developed his training regimen, he did so by studying some of the best quarterbacks with the best technique. He said the sequence of footwork drills he came up is based on what Dan Marino, John Elway and Favre did, and what Brady and Rodgers do now.
When it came to throwing, Christensen taught Garoppolo efficiency, making sure his shoulder, arm, elbow, feet and hips are all working together in perfect mechanics.
“There’s plenty of footwork drills. Getting the ball out fast. There’s certain things that he does,” Garoppolo, who still works with Christensen in the offseason, said. “I don’t want to give away too many of his secrets, but he does little things that you wouldn’t even think about, but you try it and it works, and you’re like, ‘Wow. OK. This guy knows what he’s doing.’”
Garoppolo’s comparison with Rodgers also comes with his lightning release. That’s one part of his game that Christensen implemented from watching hour upon hour of Rodgers throwing.
“Yeah. You want to mimic that,” Garoppolo said. “He has a very quick release and a very strong arm. If you can take a little bit of what he does and put it toward your own game, that’s a good thing to do.”
“It’s the carbon copy of Aaron Rodgers,” Christensen added. “Knowing what I know about Aaron and watching him closely at age 23 and watching Jimmy at age 23, he’s better than Aaron Rodgers right now…. Now we’re talking about specifically throwing the ball to point A to point B efficiently. He’s ahead of where Aaron is at the same age.”
The first time Christensen met Rodgers was in summer 2004 at the EA Sports Elite II competition in California. The weeklong competition is reserved for the best prep quarterbacks in the nation.
During that summer, Christensen’s son, Jake Christensen, was one of the competitors, and Rodgers, who was recently drafted by the Packers, was a camp counselor. Christensen and Rodgers talked all week about throwing, playing the position and his mindset going into training camp with Favre.
“I said, ‘When you get to Green Bay, watch what Brett Favre does and do everything he does,’” Christensen recalled. “I saw Aaron probably three or four years ago and said, ‘How did that work out for you?’”
“He said, ‘You called it, coach.’”
The advice that Christensen gave to Rodgers is exactly the type of advice this Packers quarterback said he would give to Garoppolo.
“There’s no better quarterback coach than the guy in front of you. For me it was Brett, for him it’s Tom,” Rodgers said. “That’s the training right there; it’s invaluable. Quarterbacks usually don’t have the opportunity to gain when you can watch a guy like that who has been consistently at the top of their game for a long time. Pay attention to what he’s doing, listen to what he’s doing, how he goes about his business and try to pick up as many things as you can from him and try to incorporate the stuff you like into your own game.”
This season, Garoppolo said he’s been observing Brady from a distance.
“I’m in the same room as him, but I don’t want to ask too many questions or anything,” Garoppolo said. “You just kind of have to observe and see how he goes about his preparation. It’s very impressive. I’ve learned a lot.”
As the Patriots head into Lambeau Field on Sunday, the Packers haven’t missed a beat with Rodgers at the helm. It’s quite the contrast to how other teams — Miami with Dan Marino or Buffalo with Jim Kelly — in the league have struggled for years and decades after losing a franchise quarterback.
It’s a situation that the Patriots would undoubtedly love to be in when Brady’s time in Foxboro is over.
“It’s a long shot,” Garoppolo said of following in Rodgers’ footsteps. “It’s a good idea to have in the back of your head. You can’t think about it too much. Everyone has their own story. I just kind of got to go through the process and let the chips fall where they may.”
Of course, anytime he’s compared to Rodgers, Garoppolo will take it.
“That’s never a bad thing,” Garoppolo said smiling. “That’s for sure.”
By MARK DANIELS
Journal Sports Writer
On Twitter: @MarkDanielsPJ