Patriots rookie quarterback Ryan Mallett.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Patriots don't need to look far for an example of the non-guaranteed nature of the quarterback position in the NFL. Last week, New England opposed first-time starter Tyler Palko in a win over the Chiefs and the coming weeks could bring the likes of Philadelphia's Vince Young, Indianpolis' Curtis Painter, Washington's John Beck, Denver's Tim Tebow and Miami's Matt Moore. Four of those teams recently made Mel Kiper Jr.'s list of worst quarterback situations (Insider) in the league.
Despite sitting out nearly the entire 2008 season due to injury, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will shuffle up to fourth place in the NFL in consecutive starts this weekend with his 43rd straight game starting under center. He'll sit behind only the Giants' Eli Manning (113), Chargers' Philip Rivers (91), and Baltimore's Joe Flacco (59).
But as the Patriots prepare for both Eagles starter Michael Vick (questionable with a rib injury after sitting out all three practice sessions this week) or Young, it's fair to wonder how equipped the Patriots would be if Brady were to endure another season-ending malady. On Friday, Patriots coach Bill Belichick talked at length about rookie quarterback Ryan Mallett and his development as the team's third-string quarterback behind Brady and Brian Hoyer.
"I think at that position, so much of it is about playing," said Belichick. "Certainly, from a mechanics standpoint [and] from a physical standpoint, I think he’s made a lot of improvements, as [Tom] Brady did. Brady’s rookie year, he was like 205 or 207 [pounds] or whatever it was, he gained a lot of strength in both his upper and his lower body. That’s helped him, both in throwing and taking hits, durability and all that. Ryan’s definitely gotten on that program, he spends a lot of time in the weight room and doing what we ask him to do. A lot of his job is working with the defense, but when he gets the opportunity to work with some of our other receivers after practice -- receivers, backs, tight ends, whoever it is.
"Also, one of the good things about the backup quarterback is he’s always working against our defense. Whatever you think of our defense, it’s the best that we can put out there, so [Mallett is] getting reps against our best players on defense, what they’re doing relative to our scout defense, trying to simulate what our opponents are doing. I think those reps are good, too, because as a quarterback, you make that competitive. You’re trying to complete a pass and execute a play against a defense that sort of knows it’s coming and they’re sort of geared to stop it, hopefully. That’s a competitive situation, too."
Belichick then took a stroll down memory lane, traveling all the way back to the 1979 season (Mallett was still nearly a decade away from being born in 1988), to offer some high praise for Mallett while comparing him to then-rookie Phil Simms.
"I remember my first year at the Giants, one of the things that I did as a special teams coach was kind of run the scout team offense for the defensive coaches," said Belichick. "That was Simms’ rookie year and he wasn’t playing a lot, so he was the scout team quarterback. I really gained a tremendous appreciation for Phil in that season of just how good he was, how accurate he was. When we would have a route drawn up on the card and throw it to this receiver and there are four guys around the receiver, [but] he still could get it into them. I remember walking off the practice field a number of days saying, ‘Man, that guy can really throw the ball accurately. This guy is going to be a good quarterback.’ He had some other things he needed to get straightened out, but just in terms of throwing it to a spot, threading the needle, which in practice you can do -- it’s not always recommended in a game -- but in practice you’re supposed to throw to a guy and there’s three or four guys there, [but] you find a spot and sling it in there and he could do that.
"I’m not comparing [Mallett] to Phil Simms now, but I’m just saying it’s that same opportunity for our other quarterbacks -- Ryan, Brian. But Mallett has made some impressive throws in practice."
An NFL rule change this season on inactive players eliminated the emergency third-string quarterback, meaning Mallett and his low-on-the-depth-chart brethren don't always get the opportunity to suit up on gameday. In fact, Mallett's been active for just one game -- a Week 3 visit to Buffalo -- but has been on the field before most games, helping teammates get loosened up.
To Belichick, even that might be a heavier workload than Brady (three pass attempts during his rookie season) ever endured during his first year in the league.
"I don’t think Tom [Brady] was at a lot of games [his rookie season]. I mean, he was at the game, but not on the field or dressed for the game," Belichick said. "I can’t remember him being at very many games. You might have to ask him about that -- my memory isn’t what it used to be. I don’t think he was at too many. So it was, [Michael] Bishop was the third quarterback. I think there’s something to be said for that, I wouldn’t overrate it -- I don’t think that’s the key to developing a quarterback. I think that there are some things that they learn from it, sure. It’s just part of the game experience. As a backup quarterback, if you put yourself through mentally all the situations that the guy who is in there experiences, you could certainly learn from it and you can sharpen your mental skills and your thought process and all that and that’s valuable if it’s used properly."