Malcolm Kelly, Sadness And The Types Of NFL Failure

It seems likely that Malcom Kelly's career with the Redskins is coming to an end. Which is sad, but in all the wrong ways.

Early in the month of August, I spoke to Malcolm Kelly about the nagging injury that's been limiting his chances in training camp. He sounded disappointed to have missed so much time, but optimistic about his chances to return.

"It's feeling good, man," he told me. "It's not really to the point ...."

He trailed off, not sure how to explain it, then tried again.  

"The pain is just kind of weak now. Once I get that out there, get worked back up, you know, I'll be good."

Which sounds terrific. Problem is, we had that conversation in August of 2008.  Somehow, over the course of three full years, Kelly never ever managed to "be good."

Malcolm Kelly is probably going to be released some time soon. Maybe it'll be on August 30, when rosters drop from the lockout-bloated 90 down to a slightly-more-manageable 80. Maybe there'll be an injury settlement before then. Maybe he'll hang around until final cuts on September 3.  

But wide receiver is a crowded position right now, with veterans like Santana Moss and Jabar Gaffney, late bloomers like Anthony Armstrong and young guys like Terence Austin, Leonard Hankerson, Brandon Banks and Niles Paul all vying for spots. Kelly fits into none of those categories, so he's unlikely to fit onto the roster.

That makes me sad, which is kind of inexplicable.

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August of 2009 was a little better for Kelly. He was healthy after missing his rookie year, and would remain so for the entire season. In the second preseason game, there was even a brief glimmer of the possibility that he would wind up being a big-play receiver when then-head-coach Jim Zorn opened up the game with Jason Campbell targeting Kelly on a deep post route.

If this were someone else's story, the ball would've been where it needed to be. But it's Malcolm Kelly's story, so of course Campbell underthrew the ball and the pass fell incomplete.

"Woulda felt real good if we'd've completed it, y'know?" Kelly told me that in the parking lot of Redskins Park the next day, shaking his head with frustration through the entire conversation. "Long touchdown on the first play of the game, that would've really set the tone."

He paused for second, then added, "It was close."

It always seemed like Kelly was close.

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It's inexplicable that Kelly's eventual release would make me sad because -- as you've probably gathered by now -- it's an event that's seemed inevitable for some time now. Kelly should just be another draft bust, another college wide receiver who couldn't make it in his first stop in the NFL. It's a tough business, one where you come in knowing that one day you're going to get replaced. You certainly don't expect anyone to be sad about it. (Trust me on this.)

But Kelly's failure strikes me as unique. Here's the thing: there are dozens and dozens of interesting ways to wash out of the NFL. There are lots of exciting narratives that fit that otherwise depressing story. Kelly is experiencing none of them. Not only does he find himself (at least for the moment) having failed as a professional football player, he's even failing to be an interesting failure.

In 2010 Kelly travelled to Arizona to work out with then-quarterback Donovan McNabb. This seemed like the sort of feel-good camaraderie-building story that could only be a good thing. Instead, it was another Malcolm Kelly story: something too depressing and uninteresting to even be called a tragedy.

What started as a minor hamstring tweak in Arizona turned into a slightly sore hamstring during training camp, then got somewhat better ... and suddenly got much worse.  

"The clock has been ticking," Kelly had said during that brief period of apparent health, and then time was up.

When head coach Mike Shanahan put Kelly on injured reserve, the similarities to an awkward break-up were barely even subtextual.  

"I like the guy as a person," the coach said, because I love you but I'm not IN LOVE with you would've been really awkward.  "I think he's got a lot of qualities you look for in a football player. The main thing is, can he get out there on the football field eventually and play."

Spoiler alert: he didn't

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Malcolm Kelly's story, depressing though it is, is not any of the following:

  • The lone hope, extinguished. Sometimes you put all your eggs in one basket, and then someone takes that basket, shakes it around for a while, chucks it down a well and throws a rock on top of it. Take poor Patrick Ramsey, drafted to be the quarterback of the future on a roster with no one of any consequence at his position. When he just couldn't get it done, the team found itself scrambling and ultimately plucking Mark Brunell off the scrap heap. Malcolm Kelly, by contrast, wasn't the lone hope. He was drafted alongside (and will always be lumped together with) two other pass catchers, one of whom has already been unceremoniously dismissed from the team. Kelly won't even be the most dramatic story at his position from his round of his draft from his team. That honor will always belong to Devin Thomas.
  • The unexpected tragedy. The story of a guy who is drafted with all the promise in the world but unexpectedly fails to succeed. Leaving aside the truest tragedy in recent Redskins history -- the senseless death of Sean Taylor -- I think Heath Shuler would be a good example here. Despite a solid pedigree and a remarkable amount of fawning draft-day hype, he's now considered one of the biggest busts in NFL draft history. Kelly, on the other hand, had "durability concerns" listed next to his name on nearly every 2008 pre-draft ranking, so it's hard to even be surprised that he only managed to play in 21 games over his (likely) three-plus year stint.
  • The flash-in-the-pan. Running back Timmy Smith picked a hell of a time to have his one good game: 204 yards and two touchdowns in Super Bowl XXII.  But he basically never amounted to anything again, and his story is all the more interesting for that one, inexplicable glimmer of stratospheric promise. During the opportunities Kelly has had, he's looked mostly pedestrian, producing just 28 catches for 365 yards over the aforementioned 21 games.
  • The never-was. The Redskins took an offensive lineman by the name of Andre Johnson in the first round of the 1996 draft, and almost immediately realized that he was terrible. He never played in a regular-season game for the team and -- almost unthinkably for a first-round pick -- was cut after his rookie year. The same stats that I called pedestrian in the last example remain pedestrian here, but they constitute infinitely more success than a guy like Andre Johnson had. Timmy Smith was more interesting than Kelly because he succeeded briefly; Johnson is more interesting because he failed more completely. 
  • The wrong guy for the system. We could debate forever whether Jeremy Jarmon would've been worth a third-round pick at all, but there's no doubt that he was ill-suited for a sudden change in the defensive scheme. He tried his best, losing and gaining weight to try to find a position to play, but was ultimately traded away to a team where his skillset made more sense.  Malcolm Kelly, on the other hand, was drafted under one system, and when a new coaching staff came in, they said they hoped to accentuate his similarities to one of the greatest receivers currently playing the game. Instead, Kelly wound up on injured reserve for the season. That's similar to Andre Johnson's 86 receptions for 1,216 yards, but different in a few crucial respects.

Now, at the likely end of his Redskins career, Kelly winds up as neither a tremendous success nor a staggering, imploding supernova of  failure. Instead, as his likely finish approaches, he's just a nice guy who never got a break, an immense talent who never became anything more than a ball of potential.

And that middle ground is much sadder to me than either of the extremes.

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Just over a year ago, as the post-Arizona hamstring injury that would land him on I.R. lingered, Kelly let his optimistic facade slip. He declined to predict a return date, for example:

"I ain't gonna waste my time doin' that," he said. "I think I got to the point a few day ago where I stopped sayin' days."

He explained what the problem was, sort of:

"It's tricky, because sometimes it can be a week, sometimes it can be a month, you never know. Different people, different areas of the hamstring, means different recovery time for different stuff."

But, most siginificantly, he offered what might as well be an epitaph for his career to date.

"I don't know if words can really explain how frustrating it is," he said, after another afternoon of sidework, away from the team and their real practice activities. "Especially when you come in with high expectations of yourself, and they got high expectations, it's just ... it's frustrating."

It seems likely that's going to be Malcolm Kelly's Redskins career in a nutshell: high expectations, and more frustration than words can explain. It's been more than a year since he made that assessment, and we're still waiting for the official end of his Redskins tenure. That's possibly the saddest part of all.    

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