FOXBOROUGH — One of the second-string quarterbacks in Sunday’s Patriots-Jets game might have been the story of the year in the NFL last season, a lightning rod of attention with his every move, his throwing motion scrutinized like perhaps never before, his in-your-face beliefs vilified or deified by much of the public, his No. 15 jersey becoming — and remaining — one of the top-five sellers in the league.
The other second-string quarterback on Sunday? That would be Ryan Mallett, who also wears No. 15, for the Patriots.
Unlike the Jets’ Tim Tebow, he’s yet to take even one snap in a regular-season NFL game, much less push his team into the playoffs, get traded, create a quarterback controversy, or become a spokesman for an underwear company.
At least not yet.
Mallett has done enough, though, to convince the Patriots that he’s qualified to be Tom Brady’s backup, a clipboard-toting position held by Brian Hoyer the past three seasons. Of much more importance to Patriots fans, Mallett is the emergency quarterback the team will turn to if Brady suffers an injury.
“I’m one play away, so I’ve got to be prepared every week like I’m starting the game,” Mallett said. “And that’s what I do every week, prepare like I’m starting, so if something happens, if something were to happen, I’d be ready to go.”
That scenario probably sends shivers down the spines of Patriots fans, who recall a knee injury suffered by Brady in the first game of 2008, the only time in the last nine seasons the team has failed to qualify for the playoffs.
Mallett doesn’t want to see that, either.
“Obviously, you don’t want anything to go wrong with the guy ahead of you, it’s a good friend of mine now, it’s my teammate, and you never want to see that happen to anybody,” he said. “But it’s part of my job, I have to be ready in case that does happen.”
Mallett outplayed Hoyer in the four exhibition games, completing a higher percentage of passes, for more yards, more touchdowns, and a better rating. Along with four preseason games from 2011, it’s the only book Patriots followers have on Mallett, a big (6 feet 6 inches, 245 pounds), strong-armed slinger who was a third-round pick out of Arkansas, although he spent his first college year at Michigan, Brady’s alma mater.
After a rookie season in which he backed up Brady and Hoyer — he was active for one game, vs. Buffalo, but didn’t play — Mallett’s second year has been nothing like his first.
“Yeah, a little bit different,” Mallett said. “When you’re not active for the game, it’s a different mind-set, so this year I’m enjoying it, having fun with it.
“I’m attacking practice, trying to get better every day in my overall game, in what I’m thinking, in what the defense is showing me.”
The decision to release Hoyer could have served as a vote of confidence for Mallett. But he was already confident.
“I knew what the deal was,” he said. “I felt like they saw that I’ve improved over the last year, and I’ve gotten better, and I understand more what’s going on, and I felt like I saw that and they made their decision.”
Because there are only two quarterbacks on the roster, Mallett is getting more opportunity to show his coaches and teammates what he can do. He runs the scout team, but gets plenty of reps with the Patriots’ offense, too.
“I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, I’m doing what I’m told to do, just trying to do my job,” Mallett said. “I definitely see more reps, a lot more than what I took last year.”
Running back Stevan Ridley, who also was selected by the Patriots in the third round of the 2011 draft, said the first year was beneficial to his teammate, and the second season is proof.
“He had a whole year in front of him last year, and then the roster was adjusted, so I think that speaks volumes in itself, the kind of work he’s put in here and what he’s doing,” Ridley said. “He’s just really waiting on his shot, and he’s playing behind one of the great ones, so he’s got to learn everything he can, and when they call his number he’s going to be ready.”
It’s rare that a quarterback plays every snap for an entire season, so it’s probable that Mallett will see some game action. Preferably, from the Patriots’ perspective, near the end of a blowout win. Possibly Sunday.
Until then, he’ll keep preparing — himself as Brady’s backup, and the defense, as the scout team quarterback. So this week, with the Jets coming to town, is he Tebow out on the practice field, or starting quarterback Mark Sanchez?
“I’m probably both,” Mallett said.