To whatever degree there can actually be excitement surrounding a rookie quarterback when your top option is Tom Brady, the drama exists at Patriots training camp.
With Brady held out of New England’s preseason opener against Washington last week, that opened the door for fourth-year backup Ryan Mallett – he of four career regular season pass attempts for 17 yards and an interception in 2012 – to split time with 2014 second-round selection Jimmy Garoppolo.
Leading into the 23-6 loss, Mallett – a third-round pick out of Arkansas in 2011 – was surrounded by undue national hype after NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said the QB “popped” during joint-sessions with the Redskins and even resembled a legitimate NFL starter.
Through about a dozen training camp practices to that point, Garoppolo had by all accounts looked terrible.
Last Thursday brought the role reversal that has since captivated sports talk radio.
Mallett got the start and worked the first-half. He generally stunk, as he lumbered around, looked slow in his decision-making, struggled with his accuracy, and didn’t handle pressure well. In the end, the QB finished 5-for-12 for 55 yards and his club failed to score any points. The only thing that “popped” was Mayock’s boisterous bubble.
Garoppolo, of course, looked like more of a gamer than a practice player in the very first NFL game he’d ever attended. He moved well, demonstrated good timing and his trademark quick release, threw the deep ball accurately, controlled the offense and, most of all, brought a comfortable, calming presence on the way to completing 9-of-13 passes in the second-half for 157 yards and a touchdown to roster hopeful Brian Tyms.
However, each of those recaps ignores two key factors: 1) Mallett was playing against many of the ‘Skins top players and without a number of his own starters, including top receiving options Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and the injured Rob Gronkowski, and 2) Garoppolo was facing third-and-fourth-stringers, eventual practice players, and many men who will never play a single down in the NFL.
The debates here are endless.
A gaggle of Patriots followers in the media will tell you Garoppolo has never looked as good as Mallett does in practice. Conversely, those same folks will claim Mallett has never appeared as at ease in his four preseason’s worth of games as Garoppolo did in his debut of out of Eastern Illinois.
The bottom line is this:
Brady is the undeniable starter and, in the event of a 2008-like catastrophe, a healthy Mallett (he’s currently dealing with a reported knee injury) would be his backup if the season started tomorrow. No, it’s not simply because he’s taller and has a cannon for an arm.
The 26-year-old Mallett is more experienced than Garoppolo, more familiar with the system and, in turn, worthy of second standing on the depth chart until further notice. To change course after one game would be an indicator of giving up on a player the organization has spent three-plus years developing, which would be a Lambeau Leap for coach Bill Belichick.
For the time being, the job is Mallett’s to lose and Garoppolo’s to seize. With the elder quarterback hurt and limited to one relatively inactive practice so far this week, though, the Pats may consider making a move for a fourth signal-caller to join the mix as an extra preseason body. Forget about the previously auditioned Brady Quinn; he’s a Dolphin now.
All told, that’s good news for Garoppolo, who has looked sharp in practice this week for the first time in camp and is lining up to be Brady’s direct backup on Friday against the Eagles, assuming Mallett is unavailable. Now it’s on him to replicate the magic he unearthed in what was otherwise an all-around dud for his team the last time out.
For supporters of the rookie, there’s nearly one month until the Patriots open the season in Miami on Sept. 7. By that time, Garoppolo may in fact have outplayed his predecessor to earn the No. 2 job. Frankly, with enough positive strides, the 22-year-old might become the de facto second option if Mallett continues to reside in developmental quicksand and winds up getting cut in order for the team to carry an extra player at a different position. In all likelihood, another team actually parting with a draft pick for the QB at this point seems unrealistic, plus the Pats aren’t adverse to carrying three quarterbacks – something they did in 2011 – so it would appear a cut-or-keep scenario.
Should Mallett be concerned? Yes, but it’s too early for him to be paranoid. For now, the slot behind Brady remains his, and he doesn’t have to elevate his game much to keep it; it’s the standing still or further regression in the upcoming weeks that he must avoid.
In either case, one lousy preseason game is far too early to elevate an NFL freshman and label his counterpart a lost cause – especially when the latter has never enjoyed a meaningful opportunity outside of August.
In a perfect world, we’ll never learn if Mallett could do what Matt Cassel achieved in 2008 after Brady went down and he guided New England to a respectable 11-5 mark but, today, I’d still be more comfortable finding out before automatically handing the job to Garoppolo.
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