Danny Etling’s ‘Cinderella story’ with the Pats was doomed from the start

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - AUGUST 30: Danny Etling #5 of the New England Patriots rolls out against the New York Giants during a pre-season NFL game at MetLife Stadium on August 30, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - AUGUST 30: Danny Etling #5 of the New England Patriots rolls out against the New York Giants during a pre-season NFL game at MetLife Stadium on August 30, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images) /

Danny Etling’s attempted conversion from third-string quarterback to starting receiver was a fleeting feel-good story, but ultimately a pipe dream.

Let’s not beat around the bush here: the classic “rags-to-riches” narrative doesn’t really fly anymore in the Boston/New England area.

Yes, there may have been a depressingly-lengthy era wherein the Red Sox languished under the Curse of the Bambino. Sure, the ’90s weren’t especially kind to the Celtics, playing in the same conference as Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. And true, the Patriots were historically a pretty terrible football team until the arrival of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in 2000.

But since the start of the new millennium, all three of those professional teams (plus the NHL’s Bruins) have combined to give Beantown a staggering 12 national championships, which is easily the highest total won by any city in the country during that time.

So no, Boston as a whole can no longer call itself a “Cinderella” in the national sports landscape. Given the city’s remarkable recent run of dominance across all four major leagues, it’s more Prince Charming at best, Wicked Stepmother at worst (especially if you happen to live in Los Angeles or New York).

That all being said, New England teams aren’t exactly immune to the occasional feel-good story of an underdog going up against improbable odds. In fact, that’s exactly what happened with the Patriots this summer during their highly-publicized Danny Etling experiment.

Even during the so-called “slow season” of the NFL news cycle, Etling’s attempted position change garnered some major media interest. It’s hard to imagine a similar story having so much of an impact if it had occurred with the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Cincinnati Bengals, but these are the New England Patriots, after all. Prince Charming or Wicked Stepmother… either way, they’re going to receive national attention when they try something unorthodox.

That’s what happened when Bill Belichick decided to add a fourth quarterback to his roster this spring. With Tom Brady once again a world champion, but still set to turn 42 before the 2019 season began, Belichick selected Auburn passer Jarrett Stidham in the fourth round of last April’s draft. Stidham joined a crowded quarterback depth chart that already included Brady, longtime veteran backup Brian Hoyer, and second-year signal-caller Danny Etling out of LSU.

In most normal years bereft of pesky suspensions or preseason injuries, Belichick’s Patriots have been loath to carry more than two quarterbacks on the final 53-man active roster. Keeping four quarterbacks on that same roster, then, was never going to happen; thus it logically made sense that something had to give in the New England QB room this offseason.

Hoyer still represents the most stability and starting experience at the position should anything unimaginable happen to Brady. As a result, the Pats’ quarterback conundrum was really just a question of figuring out which of the two younger players showed the most potential upside for the future: Etling or Stidham?

It rapidly became apparent throughout OTAs, minicamp, and then full-on training camp, joint practices, and preseason action that Belichick (and by extension the Patriots as a franchise) viewed Stidham as the superior option at QB when looking toward the future. Some of this assessment certainly came from firsthand evaluation, but some of it probably also boiled down to simple economics and draft mathematics too: Etling was always going to be a cheaper and lower-graded asset coming into the pros than Stidham.

Rather than unceremoniously kick Etling to the curb, however, Belichick did what only Belichick does: he tried to morph the youngster into a completely different position player.

A similar experiment had famously worked years earlier with Kent State college quarterback Julian Edelman making the successful transition to wide receiver. Not that you’ve forgotten, but just last February, Edelman won Super Bowl MVP honors for being the Patriots’ only reliable wide receiver.

Why go to all this trouble with a player who ultimately found himself unemployed as a free agent on Tuesday, per ESPN’s Mike Reiss and Field Yates? Two reasons.

One: Belichick respected Etling’s impressive work ethic last season as a rookie and wanted to give him every possible chance to earn a spot on the team; and two: when you’ve won three of the past five Super Bowls, you earn the right to get a little cute with your roster during the offseason and experiment with some of your backup players.

As anyone who witnessed the team’s demolition of the Lions last week can attest, the Patriots’ depth of talent this year should be the envy of the league… and nothing screams “First World Problems” like trying to find a wide receiver roster spot for a hard-working quarterback who’s just not quite good enough to actually play quarterback on your team.

And therein lies the fatal flaw of this whole Bill Belichick mad scientist experiment, and why Danny Etling’s Cinderella story was doomed from the start.

It’s really a Catch-22 situation for Etling with New England: he’s not good enough (and probably never has been) to play quarterback or wide receiver for the NFL’s ultimate Goliath in the Patriots, and yet there’s no other team in the league helmed by as innovative of a free-thinker as Belichick who can also afford to take chances and make mistakes.

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Etling’s NFL journey is hopefully far from done, though. Some QB-needy team is sure to bring him in for a workout, and he seems like a probable candidate to find his way at least onto the practice squad of another franchise by the time September rolls around, if not sooner. He played decently enough last year in limited preseason action (as a QB), and quarterback will always be a position of talent-scarcity and over-importance in today’s NFL.

Maybe somewhere else, Etling’s fairytale will continue. But for a team like the Patriots – less than a month away from the beginning of yet another title defense – it was already long past time since the clock struck midnight.