NFL Media analyst Mike Mayock, a trusted voice within NFL circles, put the pressure on Mallett this week when he claimed that the New England Patriots’ backup signal-caller looked like a “legitimate NFL starting quarterback” after watching him in joint practices against the Redskins. Mallett has looked better in training camp this year, but it didn’t show in the Patriots preseason opener.
Mallett was his usual inconsistent self, displaying a strong arm on longer passes but struggling with accuracy and touch on the short passes in which the Patriots’ offense is predicated. Maybe Mallett could excel in some NFL offenses, but after 13 up-and-down preseason performances, it’s looking like Mallett probably won’t prove it in a Patriots uniform.
Mallett faced a tougher Redskins defense (while also being surrounded by better teammates), but it was telling how natural rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo looked in his first NFL action. Garoppolo completed 69.2 percent (9-for-13) of his passes on Thursday night against the Redskins; Mallett has never thrown for that high of a completion percentage in a preseason game.
Mallett had plenty of positive momentum going into Thursday night’s game, and now he’s hit the reset button. It appeared that the Patriots might be able to deal Mallett before September, or at the very least, he’d have teams knocking down his door after he becomes a free agent after the season. Mallett has spent nearly four offseasons in the Tom Brady quarterback camp, but he doesn’t have much to show for it as he enters his contract year.
NFL teams are afraid of risks when it comes to starting quarterbacks, which is why players like Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco and Tony Romo get massive contracts. An unknown commodity — like Mallett — is much more frightening than mediocrity.
Where Mallett goes from here is unclear. The fourth-year pro could string together three impressive preseason games and undo the damage caused on Thursday night, but he probably won’t have an entire half to prove himself like he did against the Redskins, and he likely won’t be facing another first-team defense, like he was against Washington. If Garoppolo gains confidence off Thursday night’s performance and begins to outplay Mallett, there’s still a possibility that Mallett could be released before the 2014 season. There isn’t much value in carrying three quarterbacks, and the Patriots have been hesitant to do so since 2011.
The most likely scenario is that Mallett sticks with the Patriots for one more season, then signs with a team where he can compete for a starting role, in an offense where he can showcase his arm. Mallett’s struggles on Thursday night won’t derail his career, but a strong performance would have gone a long way in proving that he has what it takes to carry a team.