INDIANAPOLIS – In about an hour’s worth of interviews with the media, Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett saw his draft stock crumble and Auburn’s Cam Newton kept his soaring.
The contrast between how the two quarterbacks handled the media on Saturday at the NFL scouting combine couldn’t have been more stark.
There have been whispers around the NFL about alleged drug use with Mallett for months. He came to Indianapolis knowing that the stories were out there and that the questions would be asked. Likewise, Newton came here with the usual questions about the NCAA inquiry into his college career and a new set of questions about his “icon” quote.
Mallet walked away from the podium leaving the questions hanging unanswered in a series of bumbling, and sometimes pompous, replies that had reporters shaking their heads. Newton walked to the podium with a statement in hand, pre-empting any questions with a simple, straight-forward explanation.
It’s still unclear if either Mallett or Newton will succeed in the NFL, but there was one clear impression left after watching the two speak on Saturday: If you’re choosing a leader at quarterback for your football team, Newton is a whole lot closer to being the real deal than Mallett.
Mallett started off defensive and then repeatedly bobbed and weaved his way around the drug questions. He neither denied nor admitted use. Fair or not, some might conclude that the rumors are true.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise. But it seemed that way to Mallett.
“First question, huh?” Mallett said, perhaps expecting that a bouquet of flowers was headed his direction. He then said, “When I saw that stuff, I laughed about it.”
After that came a series of further half-baked answers that led to more inquiries.
“I said I’m not going to talk about it here,” Mallett said, indicating that he would answer the questions only to NFL teams. Keeping secrets in the NFL about drug use is about as likely as growing palm trees on an iceberg.
Mallett then played the blame game, saying, “Obviously, someone did that for a reason, right before the combine.” In reality, the rumors about Mallett have been swirling for months.
Then there was this cocky gem of an answer to questions about his decision-making on the field. Many around the NFL have been troubled by Mallett’s propensity for big mistakes in critical moments. When asked how he answers those concerns, Mallett said: “Seven thousand-plus yards and 60 touchdowns in two seasons. That’s how I respond to that.”
Jim Druckenmiller, Andre Ware and David Klingler are among dozens of guys who have put up stats like that in college only to do nothing in the NFL.
Still, the daunting question about Mallett came back to the alleged drug use. He stonewalled again and again until he was asked bluntly: “This question isn’t going away until you answer. Why not just answer it?”
“Because I don’t want to talk about it,” Mallett said.
Mallett doesn’t seem to get it. His biggest problem isn’t the nature of the rumor. It’s that he wasn’t upfront. He wasn’t candid. No one was expecting him to detail his problems to the media, if he indeed has them. But at least own up to making mistakes in a general sense if you’re not refuting the claims.
If Mallett had said something like, “Yes, I’ve made mistakes and I’m working to correct them,” the questions would largely go away. Instead, Mallett looked like the antithesis of a leader.
In a profession where handling yourself in front of critics – sometimes 80,000 of them on a Sunday afternoon – is a prerequisite, Mallett flopped.
By contrast, Newton showed up for his interview smiling easily as cameramen flanked each shoulder in front of a standing-room-only throng of reporters. Before he took a question, Newton pulled out the piece of paper with his statement and responded to those who have already wondered if he’s already too Hollywood.
“I see myself as an entertainer-slash-icon,” Newton told Yahoo! Sports’ Dan Wetzel and other select national outlets. That quote prompted plenty of eye-rolling inside and outside the NFL.
Aware of that misstep, Newton headed off the controversy.
“First and foremost, I understand that my obligation is to be the best possible football player that I can be,” Newton said. “I know and believe that. The recent comments were made during the announcement of my new endorsement partnership. I was making the point that I want to be the best possible ambassador for them, just like I want to be the best possible ambassador for whatever team I’m lucky enough to play for.
“I’m excited to compete this week and you will see me doing everything possible to be the best possible player that I can be. And first and foremost I’m blessed to be in this whole situation and I couldn’t be in a better place than I am right now.”
With that, the criticism disappeared and Newton flashed his million-dollar grin. Sure, Newton didn’t answer questions about the controversies he dealt with at Florida and then Auburn, but he also didn’t blame anyone for them. He has been asked plenty of times about those situations and didn’t take it as some affront that he was asked again.
Newton gets the big picture. He’s comfortable under the microscope. He welcomes the attention and the question.
While there is some balance necessary with that attitude, it’s better to have that quality than to spend time fighting the attention.