FOXBOROUGH -- When Tom Brady was sidelined for the season in the 2008 opener, Matt Cassel was ready to step in for the New England Patriots.
If Brady gets hurt again, his replacement doesn’t seem as obvious, not after his two backups shared all the snaps in the Patriots’ latest preseason game.
Second-year pro Ryan Mallett had better numbers than Brian Hoyer, Brady’s primary backup the past three seasons, in Monday night’s 27-17 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
But both were burdened by inconsistent protection and still have two exhibition games left to vie for the No. 2 spot.
"It’s good," Hoyer said of the competition with Mallett. "Obviously, he did a pretty good job ... and that will make me step up my level, too."
Mallett started and threw for New England’s only touchdown, a 7-yard pass to tight end Alex Silvestro, a longshot to make the team. Mallett completed 10 of 20 passes for 105 yards.
Hoyer took over with about 10 minutes left in the second quarter and went 5 for 17 for 55 yards with two sacks.
Mallett was back for the first two series of the second half and Hoyer handled the last four of the game.
"I’m getting more comfortable every time I go out there," Mallett said.
He was a much better prospect coming out of college than Hoyer. The Patriots (No. 2 in the AP Pro32) took him from Arkansas in the third round of last year’s draft.
In his first three seasons with the Patriots, Cassel threw just 39 passes. Then Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury and Cassel stepped in to throw 516 passes and complete 63.4 percent of them. The Patriots went 11-5 and nearly made the playoffs.
After Cassel left, Hoyer became the backup. But in three seasons, he’s thrown only 43 passes. Last year he tossed just one, a 22-yard completion.
He can become an unrestricted free agent after this season and, unlike Cassel, exhibition games may be his only chance to show other teams he has the potential to be an effective starter.
All three quarterbacks played in the first preseason game, a 7-6 win over the New Orleans Saints. But with the Patriots playing three games in 10 days, Brady didn’t suit up against the Eagles and figures to get his most preseason activity on Friday night at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The finale is the following Wednesday at the New York Giants, and Brady customarily plays little, if at all, in the last game.
So Hoyer and Mallett will study tape of Monday night’s game, try to impress coach Bill Belichick in practices and work to be ready if Brady goes down again.
Some of Hoyer’s problems weren’t his fault. Poor blocking led to a strip sack that set up a Philadelphia touchdown. But he knows he could have done better.
"I just have to make some better throws," he said. "I think there’s a lot that we can look at on the tape and learn from. We haven’t seen a lot of man coverage during camp or the other game, so it was good to get some live action with that."
Mallett was active for just one game last season after one year at Michigan and two at Arkansas, where he threw for 7,493 yards, 62 touchdowns and just 19 interceptions.
In 2007 at Michigan, where Brady also played, he threw a 97-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham. It was Manningham’s 38-yard sideline reception from Eli Manning that set up the Giants’ last-minute touchdown in last season’s 21-17 Super Bowl win over the Patriots.
"I know a little bit more of what’s going on," Mallett said after Monday’s game. "Last year I didn’t have a very good base. Now I have a pretty good foundation that I can keep working to build on."
Hoyer knows the system better. Mallett has a stronger arm.
If Belichick is leaning toward one of them to replace Brady if the need arises, he’s not saying.
He saw from both quarterbacks "some good things. Other things we can learn from, need to improve on," he said Tuesday. "I thought they both managed their situation well at times and there were other times where they, I’m sure there are plays they would like to have back, but you can say that about everybody."
Notes: The Patriots left Tuesday for two days of practice with the Buccaneers before Friday night’s game. ... Belichick said he had no update on starting safety Patrick Chung, who left Monday night’s game with what the team said was a shoulder injury.