BOSTON (CBS) — In what can only be described as the latest piece of evidence that the NFL simply owns the world, the Patriots’ trading of a backup quarterback who has thrown four career passes has become the dominant story in the sports news cycle in New England.
Frightening? Perhaps, but it’s anything but surprising. After all, the fake football game between the Patriots and Giants last week earned a 17.1 rating and a 30 market share, meaning 30 percent of all televisions in Boston that were turned on last Thursday night were displaying the muck-fest between a bunch of men wearing Patriots and Giants uniforms, many of whom were cut from both teams less than 48 hours later.
Nevertheless, people watched in record numbers, because people love football, and that’s why the Ryan Mallett trade has become story No. 1 in the city of Boston.
Alas, it should not be, because the Ryan Mallett trade is truly no big deal.
Here is a number: 6,583.
Here is a second number: 642.
And here is one final number: 126.
The first number? That is the number of passes thrown by Tom Brady since he became the starting quarterback in late September of 2001.
The second number? That’s the number of passes thrown by the backup quarterbacks since that same date. (Ready for a trip down memory lane? Those backup QBs are Rohan Davey, Damon Huard, Matt Cassel, Doug Flutie, Vinny Testaverde, Matt Gutierrez, Kevin O’Connell, Brian Hoyer and Mallett).
And the third number? That’s the number of passes thrown by the backups, excluding 2008, when Brady missed all but 7 minutes of the entire season and Cassel threw 516 passes.
That’s 126 passes over, essentially, 11 full seasons. Again excluding 2008, it’s an average of fewer than a dozen passes per season. Of those 11 seasons, seven of them saw the backup QB or QBs throw 11 or fewer passes. The trend has only strengthened in recent years, with Hoyer throwing one pass in 2011, Mallett throwing four in 2012, and backup quarterbacks combining for exactly zero passes in 2013.
All of this is to say one thing: The New England Patriots are Tom Brady, and Tom Brady is the New England Patriots.
The implied message of such a statement is a pretty common refrain: If the backup plays for an extended period of time, the Patriots are in a heap load of trouble, no matter who that backup may be.
Now, the common response to such a statement will be a point to that 2008 season, when the Cassel-backed Patriots won 11 games. However, focusing solely on the 11 wins is an inaccurate exercise. Instead, look at the year-to-year dropoff of a 16-win team falling five games from 2007 to ’08. That’s the equivalent, obviously, of an 11-5 team going 6-10 the following year. It’s a significant dropoff, and it’s fair to say that the 2008 Patriots were significantly worse than the record-setting 2007 Patriots, and the backup quarterback being forced into action was the main culprit.
In this regard, the Patriots are hardly alone. Last year’s Super Bowl participants had backup quarterbacks (the indomitable Tarvaris Jackson and the immortal Brock Osweiler) that combined to throw 29 passes all year long. In fact, the past eight Super Bowl-winning teams have had their backup QBs throw an average of just 24 passes per season. That number is significantly skewed by Matt Flynn throwing 66 passes in 2010, the bulk of which (63) came in a two-game stretch when Aaron Rodgers suffered a concussion and missed time. The Packers lost both games with Flynn at the helm.
Outside of Flynn, the other seven Super Bowl champs had backup QBs that threw an average of 17 passes per year. The 2011 Giants and 2006 Colts had exactly zero passes thrown by quarterbacks not named Manning.
So in case you’re not following along, the story is simple: Except in the rarest of rare cases, the backup quarterback is simply not important to a championship-winning team.
There is, of course, the elephant in the room when making such a statement, and that is in Brady himself, the unknown backup who trotted onto the field after Drew Bledsoe got himself killed in 2001. Brady has held onto the job for a good 14 years, and he has shown zero signs of getting Bledsoe’d in the near future.
And so as writers, analysts and sports radio callers rush to make a grand statement or two about the meaning of the Mallett trade, as they all criticize the Patriots for only getting a conditional late-round draft pick in return, and as they all use the trade to say that it’s obvious that the Patriots believe Jimmy Garoppolo is the next big thing, know this: It’s all hogwash.
(Also, it’s disingenuous to really criticize the Patriots for only getting a seventh- or sixth-round pick for Mallett. It may be too early to completely write off his chances of being a successful NFL quarterback, but in three years in the NFL, he’s shown not even one sign that he can play in this league. Mind you, he’s completed the same number of passes to his teammates as he has to his opponents. The conditional late-round draft pick isn’t much, but it’s probably more than Mallett’s really worth right now.)
It’s all really simple: The Patriots hardly need two quarterbacks, so they certainly don’t need three. They got rid of the one whose contract ends after this season, and they kept the one they think is pretty good. Whether Garoppolo will eventually play for the Patriots down the line, or whether he’ll yield a return somewhere between the Cassel and Mallett trade packages? That remains to be seen, and there’s no evidence as of Sept. 1, 2014, that would make it possible to make either case right now.
For the time being, the Patriots have Tom Brady at quarterback. That is simply all that should matter in New England. If Brady suffers an injury? Well, neither Mallett nor Garoppolo nor a future seventh-round pick is going to be much help when it comes to winning a Super Bowl.
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