For a few hours Wednesday afternoon, New England Patriots fans were left to sit with a chill constantly running down their spines while pushing visions of 2008 deja vu out of their minds.
It was, admittedly, a rather similar scene. Tom Brady was, again, on the ground holding his knee and writhing in pain after being hit in a vulnerable position. Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Adrian Clayborn was playing the role of Bernard Pollard this time, having bull-rushed tackle Nate Solder to his backside, bowling over Brady in the process.
In the end, we all know by now Brady is fine. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported at about dinner time on the East Coast Wednesday evening that the MRI on the two-time NFL MVP was negative, and his colleague Ed Werder reported Brady was even planning on playing in this week's preseason game against Tampa:
MRI on Patriots QB Tom Brady's knee was negative and he now is considered day to day, per ESPN source with knowledge of injury.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 14, 2013
Sources say Tom Brady attended meetings last night and intends to practice today and play Bucs in preseason game, pending re-examination— Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) August 15, 2013
Brady being fine is obviously great news for the Patriots and terrible news for the rest of the AFC East. But that short period of uncertainty opened Pandora's box on the question many have been asking throughout the preseason: Who should really be backing up Brady, Tim Tebow or Ryan Mallett?
In 2008, Matt Cassel infamously stepped into Brady's shoes and led the Patriots to an 11-5 record, though they missed the playoffs. New England subsequently flipped him to Kansas City, and in the process set an artificially high value for a Brady backup going forward.
Eerily, Wednesday was Tebow's 26th birthday. I'm sure you can imagine the rush to smartphones, laptops and tablets everywhere to have the first "clever" witticism about that coincidence (or was it...). And I'm sure there will be many who scoff at the notion of this even being a question worthy of discussion.
But for a moment, let's sit back and think about Wednesday's worst-case scenario for New England. Who would give the team the best chance at repeating the 2008 surprise? Let's take a look at the case for both Mallett and Tebow and render a verdict.
The Case for Mallett
If Bill Belichick and Co. are looking for Cassel 2.0, Mallett unquestionably gets the first nod. One of the most highly touted players in the nation coming out of high school, the rocket-armed Mallett wound up bouncing from Michigan (Brady's alma mater) to Arkansas, but still mostly lived up to his prodigious hype. He finished seventh in the 2011 Heisman voting, having 3,869 yards and 33 touchdowns against 12 interceptions.
Expected to be among the top quarterbacks taken in that draft, Mallett plummeted all the way to the third round. And, in the most Belichickian move maybe in history, the Hoodie ended the 6'6" signal-caller's fall even as folks were wondering why he "wasted" a pick on a non-need position.
Well, situations like the one Wednesday are that reason. Belichick doesn't waste picks for the sake of just doing so, and if having an "elite" backup behind Brady cost a third-round pick, then so be it. Or, considering the post-Cassel value of New England backups, it's a good bet some desperate general manager would give him at least equal value.
As for what Mallett actually brings to the table, well, we're having this discussion for a reason. We spent so much time discussing Mallett's collegiate resume for one simple reason: He makes Tebow look like a wily veteran under center.
Through two NFL seasons, Mallett has thrown a total of four passes, completing one for 17 yards and throwing an interception. He has a career quarterback rating of 5.2, though the sample size makes citing that laughable. Being a backup behind Brady lends itself to small samples.
When Mallett has had a chance during the preseason, though, his results have been mixed. While showing off the elite arm strength and pro-style footwork that made him a star in college, the former Razorbacks standout has not shown much in-game accuracy. He's completed 53.1 percent of his preseason passes over the past two seasons, averaging fewer than six yards per completion in both campaigns and struggling to move the ball.
But this is the preseason we're talking about, where the overwhelming majority of Mallett's snaps were taken with a second unit. He's not getting the protection that Brady gets on every down, nor is he getting anywhere near the same level of help at receiver. He's also competing against the patron saint of in-the-pocket inaccuracy in Tebow.
What Mallett brings to the table—and this is more important than anyone realizes—is stability. This is his third year in New England's system. He knows his progressions, has an understanding of the verbiage and has a preexisting relationship with the guys in the huddle. And while Mallett's 2013 preseason debut wasn't anything special—9-of-18 passing for 97 yards without a score—he looked like Brady in comparison to his competition.
We're looking for a backup quarterback here; not a rockstar. Even if Mallett never quite makes the most of his prodigious talent, he's a guy who at least puts on the air of being a competent backup behind an all-time great.
The Case for Tebow
Even the most ardent Tebow supporter wouldn't dare extol his values as a potential star-worthy backup quarterback from a traditional sense. For all the bluster about reworked mechanics during the offseason, there Tebow was again last week, pretty much same as ever.
Same long, awkward release that looks more like a shot put at times than an NFL pass. Same happy-feet footwork that lends itself to even more inaccuracies than necessary, as evidenced by his 4-of-12 passing performance against the Eagles. Same slow decision-making process; it's not an accident he was the only Patriots quarterback sacked last week, and it happened three times.
These are the criticisms you've been hearing about Tebow pretty much since he left the University of Florida. At age 26, we're probably past the point of saying with a straight face these issues are "fixable." Tebow is who he is at this point, though NFL experience helps anyone over a long period.
Heck, at this point we're not even sure Tebow will make the team.
"That's not anything that we're ready to talk about right now," Belichick said Tuesday, per Doug Alden of USA Today. "A lot of competition out there. We'll see how it all plays out."
If we knew Mallett were capable of carrying the New England offense, we wouldn't be having this discussion. It'd be more salient to talk about whether he—and all the distractions that come with him—even has a place on this roster.
But here's the thing: We just discussed that Mallett has been nearly as inaccurate as Tebow during the preseason. Tebow has a career completion percentage of 47.9 and had a laughably bad rate of 46.5 in the biggest sample we have of him under center. But he's also thrown 17 touchdowns to nine interceptions and has averaged 6.71 yards per attempt for his career, which isn't a great rate by any stretch but is still at about Ryan Fitzpatrick levels. You can do worse than Fitzpatrick as your backup quarterback.
That's just from a passing perspective. The case for Tebow being on an NFL roster period is the duality between pass and run he provides to an offense, and that's not an unfair point to make. You cannot bloviate the Robert Griffin IIIs, Colin Kaepernicks and the Russell Wilsons of the world without acknowledging Tebow helped prove the read-option can work at the NFL level. It's an offense each of those three ran better than the former Heisman winner, but defenses at least respect Tebow when his fullback body comes barreling downfield at full speed.
Both quarterbacks are inaccurate based on the sample we have. So what's better, an inaccurate quarterback who can't run or one who can?
Assuming Brady is fine, which he is, there was never really any question that Mallett should serve as his No. 2 in command.
The purpose of a second-string quarterback—outside of clipboard-holding duties—is to keep the ship afloat. Even though the rash of ACL tears this preseason makes you think otherwise, the overwhelming majority of injuries in the NFL are short-term. They keep a star out for a couple weeks, everyone wrings their hands about this means for the playoff race and so on.
During that time, the backup is to come in and represent a decent facsimile of the man who came before. While Mallett has exactly four passes to his name in the NFL and dropped the concerns about his accuracy have been somewhat validated, he's as close to a Brady copy as the Patriots have. He's a big, strong-armed kid in the pocket and has obviously ingratiated himself with the coaching staff enough to have an unquestioned standing with the second string.
The case for Tebow falls apart once you take into account the wholesale changes needed to make him effective. As his time with the Jets proved last season, there are no half-measures when buying into Tebowmania. Either you use him for all he is and adjust your scheme accordingly, or he's essentially a glorified statue who takes media attention away from other players.
Who should be Tom Brady's top backup?
When accounting for the job of a backup quarterback as just defined, it's impossible for a team with Super Bowl aspirations to justify listing him as the No. 2 quarterback. The Patriots would have to adjust to a system that uses heavy read-option sets on the fly, do so well enough to win football games and then adjust back once Brady inevitably returns to the lineup.
The question becomes more interesting if we assume a long-term absence, Mallett deserves the first look. New England invested time, money and a draft pick that could have been used to fill one of many defensive holes to develop Mallett. Far be it from me to criticize a man with four Super Bowl rings.
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