Early Sunday afternoon, two New England quarterbacks were likely beaming with joy – and neither of them is named Tom Brady.
It’s official; rookie Jimmy Garoppolo is now Brady’s undisputed, uncontested backup. That’s because his elder predecessor, Ryan Mallett, was told to clean out his locker after being dealt to Houston to play for his former offensive coordinator from Foxborough and new Texans head coach Bill O’Brien.
Mallett must be thrilled.
As the Pats received a 2016 conditional seventh-round draft pick – let’s be honest, that’s essentially a bag of balls – and, more importantly, an additional roster spot, the embattled Mallett was given new life. Unlike in his three years backing up a future Hall of Famer in Brady, the 26-year-old now has the chance to genuinely compete for a starting job.
The NFL’s regular season is less than a week away. Mallett won’t have the benefit of a training camp or preseason action with his new team. The only place he’ll be starting is in his familiar position on the sidelines, wearing a cap and holding a clipboard.
However, the Texans have two other QB’s on their roster – now that Case Keenum has been cut – and neither should intimidate their new company on the depth chart.
Houston’s projected starter is none other than Harvard product Ryan Fitzpatrick, a 31-year-old journeyman preparing to play for his fifth team in 10 seasons. Patriots fans are of course most familiar with Fitzpatrick from his four years in Buffalo, where the signal-caller never won more than six games in a season and he averaged 2,914 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. In 55 contests, the QB went 20-33. In his 85-game career, Fitzpatrick is 27-49-1 after struggling with the Titans last season.
Rookie Tom Savage was selected 135th overall in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. He’s 24, raw, and coming off a fine campaign for Pittsburgh after sitting out two years following two seasons at Rutgers. Don’t tell Bill Belichick or the Pats might wind up with a new third-stringer.
So, where does this leave Mallett?
You know his story already. The pros? He’s tall, possesses an even bigger arm, and looks good in practice. The cons? Basically everything that happens in the games. The 2011 third-round pick has been slow to develop on account of inconsistency, hesitation in his decision-making, and frequent inaccuracy – unless throwing over a target’s head or at the ground is in the playbook.
That said, Mallett also never had an opportunity in New England. Not really.
Since getting drafted, he appeared in four regular season games. In those contests, all in 2012, Mallett completed 1-of-4 passes for 17 yards, was intercepted once, and ran for negative-nine yards on eight carries. Not exactly Canton material, but also nothing that can be fairly evaluated.
In this latest preseason, bringing his career exhibition totals to 1,265 yards, eight touchdowns, and three interceptions, Mallett completed 53.8 percent of his passes for 161 yards and a TD, good for an 85.6 QB rating. It’s true he was outplayed by the far more poised Garoppolo (58.2%, 618 yards, 5 TD, INT, 99.0 rating), but he was also never accompanied by the support of viable targets.
It’s fair to point out Garoppolo rarely had any of those men to aid him either, but the rookie also wasn’t fighting for a spot on the roster, merely his place in line.
Should Fitzpatrick get off to a rough start in Houston, which is hardly difficult to imagine given his background (even with a light first four games on the schedule against the Redskins, Raiders, Giants, and Bills), and Savage potentially being groomed for the long-term, Mallett should be next in line for an opportunity to prove what maybe only the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock ever witnessed.
With elite wideout Andre Johnson and second-year talent DeAndre Hopkins at his disposal, plus Arian Foster to move the chains in the backfield, the largely inexperienced Mallett might finally have a chance to “pop” in a well-known system under his old instructor.
Remember, everyone who followed the Patriots wanted Matt Cassel shipped out of town about this time six years ago after a lousy camp. When Brady went down with a season-ending knee injury the moment the 2008 regular season started, the then only slightly more experienced Cassel stepped in and guided Belichick’s squad to an 11-5 record. That offseason, he was extended a franchise tag and later signed to a six-year, $62.7 million deal by the Chiefs.
Sometimes it just takes opportunity and a supporting cast. Somewhere inside Mallett’s shaky exterior and rattled confidence is the kid who thrived as a two-year starter at Arkansas from 2009-10, when he threw for 7,493 yards, 62 TD’s, and 19 interceptions in 26 games.
This is Mallett’s chance to prove his worth for a better-than-advertised Texans club that suffered through a 2-14 season in 2013 only one year after going 12-4.
I believe the quarterback will succeed and O’Brien will benefit from a trade that, based on reports, had been in the works for months. Belichick will be left with a sixth-round pick to show for it and the satisfaction that one of his own broke through in a situation he never would have otherwise received had he stayed.
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