In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell comes to the conclusion that success is often based on a set of circumstances, some of which are completely out of our control, that happen to fall in our favor—combined with proper preparation to capitalize when presented with an opportunity.
Ryan Mallett was born on June 5, 1988. Jimmy Garoppolo was born on November 2, 1991.
Flip those birth dates and we may well have a completely different discussion on our hands. Instead, Mallett appears to be the forgotten man in Foxborough, while Garoppolo is the closest thing to an heir apparent to set foot in New England since Tom Brady took the reins in 2001.
Being a backup quarterback for the New England Patriots is all about the timing. Earlier, backups were destined for a Patriots career consistent of carrying clipboards and coach's notes. Now, backups may one day have a chance to claim a position that could open up in the near future.
Drafted by the Patriots in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft, Mallett's visit to Foxborough never appeared permanent; it was just a matter of when and how he would be shown the door. The timing was just never right to warrant discussion as a possible franchise quarterback. Now, entering the final year of his rookie contract, it seems all but certain that his time in New England will end unceremoniously and simultaneously to his deal.
Mallett never appeared to be the heir to Brady's throne as the starting signal-caller for the Patriots offense, but what if he had been given a different birth date? Who knows. Now, with the arrival of Garoppolo, Mallett may never get a chance to prove otherwise.
The difference of three years is just too great for him to overcome.
Mallett's situation is not uncommon. From 2000-2013, 124 quarterbacks have been drafted in the third round or later, according to Pro Football Reference. Only 40 (32.3 percent) have started five or more games. Only 60 (48.3 percent) have had a chance to start a game.
Mallett falls into neither category. His only extensive playing time has come in preseason games, primarily only after Brady and the first-team offense have done their day's work.
Mallett showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie, but those flashes faded to darkness during an ugly 2012 preseason campaign. He rebounded in 2013, but given their selection of Garoppolo in the second round, the Patriots clearly remain unconvinced.
Over the years, other teams have seemed unconvinced as well.
There have been constant trade rumors surrounding potential new landing spots. Two years ago, the Cleveland Browns were reported to be interested in a draft-day trade for Mallett, per The Boston Globe's Greg A. Bedard, but nothing came to fruition. This year, the rumors linked the Patriots in talks with the Houston Texans, per MassLive.com's Nick Underhill, but again, there was no climax to potential storylines of a reunion between Mallett and new Texans head coach Bill O'Brien.
The Patriots clearly have not received a worthwhile offer, otherwise Bill Belichick probably would have pulled the trigger by now. With so little time left on the clock for Mallett, convincing Belichick to part ways with Mallett may not take a Godfather-style "offer he can't refuse."
At this point, however, trading Mallett would only put the Patriots in a pickle for the 2014 season. In that scenario, they would be forced to insert the rookie Garoppolo into the lineup if Brady misses any length of time.
"That’s not really something we're that interested in," Belichick said on Sirius XM NFL Radio in May (via Boston.com), when asked if the Patriots had fielded calls from other teams about trading for Mallett. "Ryan has done a good job for us. Fortunately for our team, maybe unfortunately for Ryan, he hasn't really had any playing time in the last three years. But he's improved tremendously as a quarterback and as a football player, and we have a lot of confidence in him."
Mallett's extensive knowledge of the offense makes him a more favorable option in that worst-case scenario, but barring a Brady-esque Super Bowl run of miraculous proportions, any playing time earned by Mallett in 2014 would only serve to gauge his value on the free-agent market.
In a certain light, it's fair to wonder whether the selection of Garoppolo was an admission of failure with Mallett on a number of levels.
Sure, Mallett's worst-case scenario was always going to be sitting on the bench as glass to be broken in case of an emergency. In that sense, Mallett's Patriots career has been a success—the Patriots haven't yet been cornered into that situation.
Coming out of Arkansas, the book on Mallett was written like the profile of a raw quarterback with tons of potential: Big and strong-armed, but needing some polish in his footwork and lacking consistent accuracy and touch. Not much has changed in those respects for Mallett over the years.
Should it be any surprise, then, that the Patriots appear to have gone the complete opposite direction with Garoppolo? He's undersized, and doesn't have a fire hose for an arm, but his footwork and mobility are a thing of beauty, as is his quick release and ability to control the trajectory on his passes to put the ball where it needs to go.
Count that as another of Gladwell's aforementioned circumstances that broke Garoppolo's way in his journey to New England: The Patriots had the benefit of their past experience with Mallett to inform their future decisions at quarterback.
Garoppolo will still have to prove he can fit the ball into tight NFL windows, and he'll have much more complicated reads in the Patriots offense than those in FCS Eastern Illinois. He won't get the chance to show what he's made of until Brady is out of the picture. With a contract that lasts through the 2017 season, it could be a while before that happens.
In the meantime, three years appears to have been long enough for Mallett to prove he's not the man of the future in New England, but not long enough to prove he's the man of the future elsewhere.