BEREA, Ohio – He was barely 18, but the legend of Ryan Mallett’s rocket arm had already grown to the point that his Texas High School (Texarkana, Tx.) team was selected to play in what was called the Kirk Herbstreit Classic in 2006, a national showcase event that brought Mallett to Cincinnati as a headline attraction.
Mallett threw for 330 yards and four touchdowns that mid-September night at Nippert Stadium. Texas High routed Findlay, the alma mater of Ben Roethlisberger, 44-21.
Mallett’s first game in Ohio was supposed to be the first of at least a couple more. He was committed to Michigan, a five-star, highly touted recruit thought to be next in a long line of big-armed Wolverines quarterbacks. As the story goes, Mallett — already listed at 6’6, 220 by Scout.com — had thrown a pass 88 yards in an elite summer camp before his final high school season. He was stamped not only as a college star but as a future NFL first-round pick.
He played in 11 games and threw seven touchdowns in his only season at Michigan. Things got messy, Lloyd Carr got fired and Rich Rodriguez replaced him. Rodriguez wanted a mobile quarterback, and Mallett ended up at Arkansas. He’d get to play in a pro-style offense, and his NFL dreams were very much still alive.
There have been other detours. He’s thrown three passes in four NFL seasons since being selected in the third round in 2011.
Sunday, he’s back in Ohio to make his first start.
The Houston Texans used their bye week to make a quarterback change, replacing Ryan Fitzpatrick with Mallett, acquired after training camp in a trade with the New England Patriots. The Patriots selected second-round rookie Jimmy Garopolo as the next guy in line behind Tom Brady, just as they did in 2012 when cutting Brian Hoyer to keep Mallett.
Hoyer is now the starter for the Browns, Sunday’s opponent. He knows Mallett well. So, too, does Texans first-year coach Bill O’Brien, who was the Patriots offensive coordinator when Mallett was drafted in 2011 and was the third quarterback behind Brady and Hoyer.
"He loves football," O’Brien said of Mallett. "Even when he was on the sideline in the games, he was somewhat of a coach on the sideline kind of trying to tell us what he would see and what things were standing out to him during the game. He just loves being around the team and he’s shown that now as the starter.
"He’s doing a good job of operating the offense. It seems to me that he’s doing a good job of throwing the football. We’re all excited to see what he’s going to do on Sunday."
Mallett said this week that he believes his football IQ is his biggest asset, not his arm. Perhaps he’s tired of being labeled as just a guy with a powerful arm. Perhaps he’s just tired of waiting for his NFL chance.
"I’m just ready to play football," Mallett said. "It’s been a while, so I’m ready to go."
Complicating things in his first start are the weather — it’s supposed to be somewhere between windy and downright cold and nasty in Cleveland Sunday — and the fact that the Texans are a run-first team but workhorse running back Arian Foster is battling a groin injury. The extra practice time probably helped, but Mallett’s preseason experience was with New England, not his current team.
That could complicate things for the Browns, too.
Maybe the Browns went back to his college tape. In two seasons at Arkansas, he threw 62 touchdown passes. Maybe the Browns even dug up Penn State film from the last couple seasons to see how O’Brien calls a game with a big-armed quarterback. It’s almost a certainty that in mid-November, the Browns prepped for a game against the Texans by watching Mallett play last August with the Patriots.
Exactly what all the studying showed the Browns will remain under wraps until Sunday. What had to be obvious, though, was the arm strength.
"Talking about Ryan, first and foremost, I can honestly say it’s the strongest arm I’ve ever seen — by far — in person," Hoyer said. "I’ve seen him throw a football up close and personal.
"I’ve seen him throw balls off of receivers’ helmets 20 yards down the field and they can’t even get their hands up in time. It’s very impressive."
Now, it’s Hoyer vs. Mallett, the "Understudy Bowl," battle of the dismissed and the different trying to make it down very different paths and different circumstances.
"I know this," O’Brien said. "Anything is possible in football."
Hoyer, who’s 9-3 as the Browns starter, knows that, too.
"I think the one thing I learned from Tom Brady the most is, yeah, he had great stats, but there were games where we ran the ball 40 times and we won," Hoyer said. "He didn’t complain. He didn’t care. He cared about the team and putting the team first and winning. From the quarterback position, if you can do that, you always give your team a chance to win."