INDIANAPOLIS – On February 27, 2011, 22-year-old Ryan Mallett stepped onto a riser inside Lucas Oil Stadium for his NFL Combine press conference.
He was the next in line during a parade of prospects to the podium, but while most players draw just a handful of media, a crowd assembled for Mallett.
Wearing a black sweatshirt, his credential dangling from his neck, Mallett shifted from side-to-side and gripped both sides of the podium.
The press conference began. The opener, according to a transcript of Mallett’s media session, was “Can you talk about the (drug) rumors and you?”
"First one, huh?” answered Mallett. “No, I'm not going to talk about that right now. I've got interviews with the teams.”
Seven more times over the next eight minutes, Mallett was asked about drug use and his character.
The final question was more a statement: “Ryan, the questions about the allegations are not going to go away, until you give an answer.”
"I understand that,” Mallett replied. “But like I said, I'm not going to talk about it. I'll talk about it with the teams.''
Mallett had never been arrested nor suspended for drug use while at either the University of Michigan, where he began his college career, or at Arkansas where he played in 2009 and 2010. He was arrested for public intoxication in March 2009.
But “Mallett” and “drug rumors” kept finding their way into the same sentence, culminating with an allegation from former Rams and Panthers personnel department executive Tony Softli, a St. Louis radio personality. Softli wrote of Mallett days before the Combine, “Character and drug use issues are starting to rear their ugly head. Heavy rumors of drug use and possible addiction kept him from coming out for the 2010 draft.”
The pump was primed when Mallett stepped to the podium that day. To not ask him about the rumors? A dereliction of duty.
But did extracting an answer from Mallett that day morph into taking a pound of flesh? And what’s fair questioning of incoming college players who are in Indianapolis primarily for job interviews with the 32 teams? Mallett reportedly did acknowledge drug use in interviews with teams. Should he have been expected to delve into the topic with the media given what was at stake?
Manti Te’o of Notre Dame may get treatment this weekend similar to Mallett’s thanks to the sensational and bizarre relationship he had with what turned out to be an imaginary girlfriend.
And while in Te’o’s case, the “infraction” is documented, not rumored as it was with Mallett, there is the potential in an unmonitored setting for a kid who isn’t even an NFL employee to bury himself.
“At a certain point you look at it and say, ‘It’s fair game. This is the life you’ve chosen,’ ” said Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk and NBC. “Like politicians, you know you’ll be rolling around in the mud from time to time, you’ve got to deal with the media. Especially at the quarterback position. Because if the kid is going to be the quarterback, he’s going to be the face of the franchise …
“You get the education very early and sometimes you get the education the hard way,” added Florio. “With Ryan Mallett, you look at it and say, ‘This is the way the world works.’ That might be unfortunate but - and I hate to sound crass about it - but, if you don’t want to deal with that, get out. Find something else to do for a living.”
It was widely noted in 2011 that Mallett’s drop from first-round prospect to third round pick had to do with off-field concerns rather than on-field ability. He was the 74th selection taken by the Patriots with a pick acquired from the Vikings in exchange for Randy Moss.
All six of the quarterbacks taken ahead of Mallett – Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick – are starters for their respective teams. Mallett bides his time behind Tom Brady. There’s no bitterness, says his agent J.R. Carroll.
“He’s never tried to say, ‘I was right and you were wrong,’ ” Carroll insists. “And, being honest, it’s probably the best thing that could have happened to him. As much as Ryan would like to play, the draft is the draft and you don’t get to choose your team. Looking back on it, if he had a choice of which team to go to, I don’t think it would be close. Getting to work with Brady and getting to work with Coach Belichick. In the end, I think he’s gonna get the last laugh.”
At this time two years ago, laughing seemed the furthest thing from Mallett’s mind.
Watch video of Mallett’s press conference and you can see he tries to be amiable when answering football questions. But he appears far from relaxed, pursing his lips, swallowing often. He tries to smile when deflecting questions related to the rumors but he makes it clear he won’t be speaking about it.
“He directly avoided dealing with the issue and just taking it head-on,” said Jason Cole a longtime NFL writer and columnist who’s currently at Yahoo! Sports. ‘Here are drug rumors about you; do you want to answer?’ I think that (Mallett saying he’d talk to the teams) that’s an inadequate answer. And I think that ultimately hurt him. Can I quantify how much it hurt him? He ended up being a third-round pick.
Cole was the reporter who told Mallett the questions wouldn’t go away until he answered them.
“I remember feeling, ‘This is not an honest response. This is not a response to the question, in my view’ ” Cole recalled. “As a reporter, you say, ‘Look, we’re not going to stop asking this question until we get an answer to: Have you used drugs or not?’ Most of us don’t really care whether you used drugs or not, what we care about is will you admit it or not admit it. Are you disputing it or are you not disputing it? He waffled.”
Gregg Rosenthal, who at the time worked for Pro Football Talk and is now at NFL.com, described Mallett as, “Very standoffish. As bad an impression as a kid coming through here can make, he made it. He seemed surprised that he was being asked the question, like, ‘Why you coming at me?’ ”
Given what Mallett had at stake in his looming team interviews, what would have been a better course in front of a room of NFL reporters, the majority of whom he’d never met.
“From his perspective, I can see where he’d feel it’s unfair because he comes here as a college player trying to get a job and all he’s hit with is drug questions,” said Rosenthal. “I think he reacted like most kids want to react. He gave the honest reaction. But after the fourth or fifth question, what do you expect?”
Said Cole, “I don’t think there’s an onus to explain it to us. But if you’re not going to be honest about who you are? He kept dancing around it and to me it smacked of not owning who you are. If you can’t own who you are when you play quarterback in this league, you have real problems there.”
Former Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian, now an analyst for ESPN, said of prospects in general, “There’s a school of thought that says, ‘Go face it, it’ll never be any worse.’ I wouldn’t hold it against (a player) if he didn’t do well. But it’s an ordeal. I don’t care how well or how poorly they do. But I worry about it impacting what they have to do which is physically doing what’s necessary.
Mallett’s experience is an extreme exception – most of the 300-plus Combine press conferences are polite, deathly boring and sparsely attended – there’s not a huge media relations presence monitoring press conferences either. Any player can be asked anything and – with unsophisticated prospects having much at stake – there’s potential for an interview to go sideways.
“In Mallett’s case, you need somebody to stand up on your behalf and say, ‘This isn’t appropriate. These are just rumors.’ There is a point where it becomes potentially libelous to just be trafficking in rumors that has no basis in truth,” said Florio. “And maybe one of the ways the process can improve is to be ready to protect a guy who needs protecting. On one hand it goes with the territory. On the other hand, there’s only so much that someone should be fairly expected to subject themselves to.
“It’s not in Ryan’s nature or background to be a public speaker,” said Carroll. “Tom Brady said he didn’t do well at the Combine. Luckily, the Combine doesn’t have anything to do with playing football. Ryan understands that as a quarterback you have to be the face of the franchise and do what’s right. But there’s a lot of emphasis put on winning the interview. When a new coach gets hired, I’ve heard the saying, ‘There’s a difference between winning the interview and winning games.’ "
Mallett declined to be interviewed for this story.
Ultimately, in Mallett’s case, there was fire behind the smoke of the drug rumors. He did acknowledge drug use to teams. But was it an inferno or just a little blaze easily stamped out? Or something in between?
But scores of players have admitted to drug use – normally marijuana – in past years and their missteps are met with an, “And…?” by not only the media but teams in some instances.
Why did Mallett’s situation gain such steam as to drop him from a first-round prospect?
“If you would have started a whisper campaign saying he can’t play football, no one would have believed you,” said Carroll. “So they had to go somewhere else with it. And that’s where they chose to go. He was charged at 19 years old with public intox. That was the exact same charge that Eli Manning had when he was in college. And that’s it.”
Who is “they?” Carroll was asked. He wouldn’t theorize.
Gil Brandt, the former Cowboys personnel man who is practically the Commissioner of the Combine, said, “I think there’s a smear campaign by agents to smear people so that their player gets drafted higher. If you followed it to the root, you’d find it came from the agents.”
Polian said that teams don’t truck in rumors.
“Lots of what floats around is unsubstantiated but it’s nonetheless spoken and written about. That’s the world we live in these days,” he pointed out. “As a general manager, I never dealt with anything that wasn’t substantiated. We did a very thorough background check on every player so if there was something there that was untoward, fine.
“But who is anybody to cast the first stone? We’ve all made mistakes. Somehow, conventional wisdom has become that everybody should be an altar boy. If they’re not, there’s something wrong with them. But that isn’t the way the world works, that isn’t the way our business works. Young people make mistakes. Lord knows, I made more than my share. The question is, do the young people have the capacity to grow, to learn from the mistakes? And is their mindset such that they’re willing to do what it takes to be a good professional?”
It’s still to early to project how good Mallett will ultimately be. He’s thrown four regular-season passes for the Patriots and completed one for 17 yards. He’s thrown a pick. He did not have a very good training camp or preseason in 2012, though the Patriots have consistently praised his development.
“Great talent. Big arm. Athletic,” is how Polian recalled Mallett being pegged. “My recollection is we felt there were too many interceptions to make him a top of the board guy. I think he was drafted in the right place. The Pats don’t make too many mistakes. He was drafted in the right place and now he’s got a chance to grow backing up one of the best players of all time in a system that he’s certainly capable of operating in. He fits the prototype of the quarterback in this system that can perform well.”
Meanwhile, the draft process for 2013 grinds on. Information feeds evaluations which are turned into projections. It won’t stop for two more months and the hunger only grows. Everyone isn’t discerning about what they ingest or expel.
“We got all of these guys that start these stories,” Brandt said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “And they’ve already started with guys this year. They’ve already started.”