Ryan Mallett and the Patriots Aren't Necessarily a Perfect Match
Many people out there in the blogosphere, on talk radio and at ESPN seem to think that the New England Patriots' selection of Ryan Mallett in the third round of last week's draft was brilliant—another ingenious personnel stroke by "The Master" Bill Belichick.
I'm not on the bandwagon.
For a minute, let's forget the larger question: whether or not Mallett is a great fit as the heir apparent to Tom Brady.
The issue about Mallett's growth, both on and off the field, is a much bigger concern.
First, the football side:
Mallett is a great prospect. In terms of pure passing, he's the best quarterback in the draft. His release, accuracy and touch all suggest NFL greatness.
But to become an NFL quarterback he has to play—and I'm not talking about practice, exhibition games or even mop-up duty. All the successful later-round backups-turned-starters—David Garrard, Matt Cassel, Matt Schaub, Tony Romo—saw some form of prolonged playing time before emerging as worthy of a starter's job.
For all his injuries, aside from the 2008 season, Brady has been pretty durable and played through pain. It seems no injury short of a torn ACL will keep him off the field. Since people around the NFL seem pretty high on Brian Hoyer, Mallett could wind up the third-stringer.
That's not so bad, and it doesn't doom him to a career of never playing. Maybe the Pats will deal Hoyer, whose name was thrown around often as trade bait on draft day. Maybe Brady will be forced out for a month sometime in the next three years, and Mallett will have a chance to play and show his value, either to the Pats or teams interested in acquiring him. In that football-only scenario, selecting Mallett was probably worthy a third-round choice.
But I can't help but look at the other element that surrounds Mallett's reputation.
While the rumors about his drug use and drinking and partying and showing up to meetings with NFL teams either late or hungover or both keep coming out, they don't necessarily make him a "bad apple." The only crime he committed was a public intoxication charge. The rest were some mix of college routine and bad judgment.
There's a good chance all that turns out to have zero impact on his career, bust or boom.
But I don't believe landing in New England will automatically clear up those concerns, if they do in fact exist. People talk about how Belichick is the king of rehabilitating "character issue" guys: Corey Dillon and Randy Moss to be specific.
Dillon wasn't a problem in New England, and neither was Moss...for three seasons. Then the cork came undone, and he became a malcontent again. But this notion that Belichick runs the tightest ship imaginable isn't quite true. His star safety Brandon Meriweather managed to get into trouble this offseason. Safety Bret Lockett was also arrested in September. Even the quintessential "Belichick guy," Mike Vrabel, now a Chief, was arrested last month.
I'm not saying that Belichick should know where every player on his roster is at all times. He can't and he shouldn't. But just because they wear the Patriots jersey and play for Belichick doesn't instantly make them saints. I doubt they all have a WWCBD (What Would Coach Belichick Do?) wrist bracelet to keep them from getting into trouble.
That's why Mallett won't automatically "fall into line" just because the Pats took him. If (and again, I'm not sold that he's the next Steve Howe or Ricky Williams) Mallett overcomes any problems relating to discipline and good habits, it's not going to be because he's afraid of letting down Belichick or some fabled Patriots ideal. It's not going to be from fearing Tom Brady or Kevin Faulk or Vince Wilfork will "Code Red" him either.
It's going to be because Mallett knows he has superb talent and a chance to be a true NFL superstar, and that if he doesn't stay on the right path, that will never happen.