The Truth About Young QBs
A year ago, Marcus Mariota gave then-Titans assistant head coach Mike Mularkey a debut that he won’t ever forget.
The second pick in the 2015 draft posted a perfect 158.3 passer rating and that doesn’t even paint the full Picasso here. Mariota hit on 13 of his 15 throws for 209 yards, four touchdowns and no picks in a 42-14 win over Tampa Bay.
“That was quite a game,” Mularkey, now the head coach in Nashville, said Wednesday afternoon. “We didn’t throw much and we won by a lot. We didn’t put a ton of pressure on him. We just asked him to make plays, and guys made plays around him. It was impressive. He certainly wasn’t intimidated by the atmosphere.”
Fun afternoon for the Titans too, but how much could it really tell us? As I’m gonna lay out for you momentarily … not much.
Just like last season, Week 1 was a blast this time around for young quarterbacks, setting up Week 2 for all of us. And so we’ll get to the Bengals taking another shot at the Steelers, Adam Gase getting guys on his program in Miami, some summer trade fallout, a college quarterback to keep an eye on and so much more.
We start, though, with the explosion onto the scene of a bunch of young gunslingers. Carson Wentz was third-string nine days before the Eagles opener, and looked as good as any quarterback in the league, except maybe Jimmy Garoppolo, who quieted months of questions by helping slay a monster in Arizona. Trevor Siemian came up big when it mattered most, and Dallas coaches had Dak Prescott throw it 45 times.
Afterwards, for better or worse, there was bound to be some brake-pumping—It’s only one game—coming out of each of those teams. You should listen to that. Seriously.
I decided to look a little closer by examining the 14 first-round quarterbacks who started their team’s openers as rookies. (I know Garoppolo and Siemian aren’t rookies, and Prescott isn’t a first-rounder, but this simplified things.) What I found was, well, not a whole lot to hang your hat on. Here they are, sorted by passer rating, in those openers.
|Marcus Mariota, TEN||13-15||209||4||0||158.3|
|Robert Griffin, WSH||19-26||320||2||0||139.9|
|Matt Ryan, ATL||9-13||161||1||0||137.0|
|Cam Newton, CAR||24-37||422||2||1||110.4|
|EJ Manuel, BUF||18-27||150||2||0||105.5|
|Carson Wentz, PHI||22-37||278||2||0||101.0|
|Mark Sanchez, NYJ||18-31||272||1||1||84.3|
|Jameis Winston, TB||16-33||210||2||2||64.0|
|Joe Flacco, BAL||15-29||129||0||0||63.7|
|Sam Bradford, STL||32-55||253||1||3||53.1|
|Andrew Luck, IND||23-45||309||1||3||52.9|
|Ryan Tannehill, MIA||20-36||219||0||3||39.0|
|Matt Stafford, DET||16-37||205||0||3||27.4|
|Brandon Weeden, CLE||12-35||118||0||4||5.1|
Starting in Week 1 is tough for any young guy, but the truth in these numbers—Griffin was better than almost anyone; Manuel and Sanchez were better than Flacco and Luck—is that the degree of difficulty keeps rising, and swallows whole plenty of promising careers.
“The biggest challenge is that it really is different every week,” Mularkey said. “The defenses they’re facing—you got people coming in all different directions, different fronts, personnel, coverages, strengths and weakness. In the NFL vs. college, there’s just so many differences week-in and week-out, and that’s tough. There’s more time leading to the first game, so there’s that too.
“You don’t spend as much time on 2, 3,or 4. You spend a lot of time on 1. And then, they throw you into a regular season week, where you have to do all of it in a condensed amount of time. That’s jarring for a young player.”
So maybe the best way to gauge the difference, in current terms, is to take a look at the most recent examples. Those are in Tennessee and Tampa.
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And we can start with Winston, who didn’t puke on his shoes in last year’s opener, but clearly was outdueled by Mariota in a showdown between 2015’s first two picks. In his 2016 opener, Winston was appreciably better, going 23-of-32 for 281 yards and four touchdowns, against a single pick, in a 31-24 win in Atlanta.
Even better, Winston made three-dimensional the improvements that he and QBs coach Mike Bajakian were working. Winston sunk weeks into honing his drop technique and becoming more efficient moving within the pocket. Done and done in Week 1, per his position coach. And Winston also focused on being more willing to check down. Touchdown passes to Charles Sims and Brandon Myers came on, yes, checkdowns.
“Those might not have been plays he’d have made last year,” Bajakian explained.
Winston also showed more command. Where quarterbacks often are given two or three options on each snap, based on what the defense shows them, Winston flashed the ability Sunday to go off the script completely.
“We give him some parameters, and he did a good job of recognizing those times against unscouted looks, when he had to take over,” Bajakian said. “When it comes to the mental side, Jameis is outstanding.”
As for Mariota, his numbers weren’t as gaudy in this year’s opener, and the Titans didn’t win. But the growth was most certainly there in his 25-of-41, 271-yard, two-touchdown, one-pick start to his sophomore season.
Mariota went through more than the typical rookie quarterback does in Year 1. “He had to learn to play through injuries, he really wasn’t healthy the whole year after Week 2, and he learned they can change coaches in midseason, and that’s not an excuse to be distracted,” Mularkey said. And Mariota came out of it with a solid base.
Mularkey and new offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie have cut down the volume in the offense, and given Mariota more control at the line. And the lessons he’s learned aren’t all that different than what the Bucs have taught Winston. Chiefly, it’s been learning when to take chances, and when to play it safe, which showed up in the opener.
“He got us out of a bad situation by throwing it away. There was a bust on a play, it was an option, and there was nowhere to go, and he just threw it out of bounds,” Mularkey said. “In the past, he tried to make more of those. So he did it in the first half, and then he didn’t on one play in the second half, and it cost us a touchdown. But I know he won’t do that again. …
“The big thing is, if we’re in a bad situation, give us a chance to get out of it.”
So obviously, this now keeps moving forward for all the young guys who showed up big in their debuts last weekend. Stepping on that stage is hard for anyone, and harder for quarterbacks. But as we’ve learned, and those guys are about to find out, sustaining a strong start is even more difficult.
“The biggest difference for the college guys coming to the pros, and what they realize, is it’s a really long season,” Bajakian said. “The mental grind, the physical grind, you have to be tough. So whether or not they make it is as much how a player responds to the 16-game season with a four-game preseason and camp starting in July before it. …
“Even for Jameis last year, starting out he had a couple games with multiple turnovers, then 4-5 games in, he hit his stride, and it’s tough to keep that going.”
We’ll find out soon if Wentz and Siemian and Garoppolo and Prescott can.
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1. $100 million is a lot of money. And look, the NFL deserves the skepticism it gets when it comes to its health and safety efforts. But the announcement to pledge $100 million “in support of medical research and engineering advancements” shouldn’t be taken lightly, in large part because it was the result of serious conversations at the highest levels. At last October’s fall meeting, Dallas’ Jerry Jones, the Giants’ John Mara, San Francisco’s John York, Houston’s Bob McNair, Atlanta’s Arthur Blank and Green Bay’s Mark Murphy were among those leading a discussion on the floor that was marked with anger over a lack progress in health-and-safety, and the way the league has been perceived in that department. The vibe, as one observer described it, was “no one believes we want to fix the problem.” That forum led to more discussion, and it became part of the hire of new information czar Joe Lockhart, and the promotion of Jeff Miller to executive vice president of health and safety. Lockhart and Miller made a presentation on the $100 million concept at the annual meeting in March. The owners asked for more detail ahead of the May meeting in Charlotte, and when Miller and Lockhart gave it to them, the idea moved forward.
Another step here was the tacit acknowledgement by the league of the credibility gap it has battled to close, which came when longtime medical advisor Elliott Pellman (who became synonymous with looking the other way on the concussion problem) was ousted and the league decided to, for the first time, hire a full-time chief medical officer. I’m told the NFL has secured the search firm Spencer Stuart to lead the process of finding the CMO, which is an indication that the hire won’t be some sort of inside job.
If you add it up, the one thing that ties everything together is the league making an effort to regain your trust. That’s why what you hear out of 345 Park is that they’re going to be more transparent across the board with these things, and why it was not mistake that Miller acknowledge the connection between football and CTE earlier this year. Will it work? That remains to be seen. But I’ve personally felt forever like football’s biggest problem as participation goes isn’t whether or not the game’s safer than it’s ever been—and I believe it is. The main issue, to me, is that no one trusts what people who are advocates of the sport say, a disconnect that’s been well-earned over decades. So when I see that there’s an effort underway to win back the trust of parents, and the general public, as someone who grew up playing and loves the game immensely, it’s enough for me to call it a good start.
2. Bengals return to the scene of the crime. OK, so maybe it’s not at the actual scene—last year’s wild-card meltdown took place in Cincinnati; Sunday’s rematch is in Pittsburgh—but it certainly will bring all kinds of reminders that the Bengals don’t really need. They’ve been hearing about that 18-16 loss for the past eight months, and the hope is that the lessons the players have had drilled home will be remembered. For the defense, it’s been about players keeping their heads. Coordinator Paul Guenther hasn’t been shy about asking Bengals offensive players to bait his guys in practice, to test their ability to stay under control under duress. For the offense, it’s been about avoiding turnovers. Jeremy Hill has carried at five-pound football at times, and one with a rope attached and a coach pulling at others, to work on the ball security issues that felled him in the playoffs. Will it work? Well, you could argue it already has, to a degree. The Bengals only turned the ball over once in their opener against the Jets, and had just two penalties on defense (a pass interference call on Dre Kirkpatrick and a very borderline roughness flag thrown on George Iloka). They also know the temperature gets turned up this week. My understanding is that Marvin Lewis hasn’t addressed this stuff in front of the team en masse yet, which is a pretty good sign that he believes his players have gotten the message. “I’m sure he addressed certain guys,” said one club staffer. “But we all know what we have to do to do this. And our players have matured and know what’s at stake.”
3. Adam Gase taking control. Given the opponent and the travel (the NFL’s longest trip, mileage-wise), the first game of the Adam Gase Era in Miami was probably as close to a moral victory as you’ll get in pro sports. The Dolphins lost 12-10. But they played strong defense behind first-year coordinator Vance Joseph (Russell Wilson was held to a sub-78.0 rating and went without a completion of 25 yards or more for the first time since his rookie year), and Ryan Tannehill looked pretty decent (his numbers would’ve been very good if Kenny Stills hadn’t dropped a long, sure touchdown) against an elite defense, so there’s plenty to build on. But what happened on Friday may have a more lasting impact. Gase left Jay Ajayi home, sending a very clear message to his locker room. The issue with Ajayi came to a crescendo before the fourth preseason game. People inside the building believed the second-year back was carrying himself all summer as if he’d arrived and, as such, Ajayi wasn’t happy that he had to play Sept. 1 against the Titans. He then promptly fumbled on the first snap of that game, and had a bad drop on the next series. And so Gase sent a strong message, then came back this week and said publicly that Ajayi now gets a fresh start. If you’ve talked to Gase before, you know there’s a pied piper quality to him; he gets along with everyone. This, conversely, is proof of very clear lines being drawn in his first year as a head coach. “He’s tries to treat them like men,” said one Dolphins source. “But they don’t comply, you take football away from them. Here are the rules, here’s how we do things, and the rest is up to you.”
4. Cleveland salvage jobs. I mentioned last week that there have been 15 NFL players traded since the draft. Two of those 15 were former first-round picks, and it probably surprises exactly no one that both were outgoing Cleveland Browns. So how are Justin Gilbert and Barkevious Mingo doing? The two combined for 21 snaps for their new teams in Week 1, all played by Mingo, and all coming on special teams. Now, the fact that each guy went to a prestigious program (Gilbert to Pittsburgh, Mingo to New England) is fair reason for some optimism, but the red flags here should serve as warnings to everyone not to expect too much. With Mingo, the problems are fairly simple. He’s athletic enough to cover skill guys and get past less athletic guys rushing. But as the Browns saw it, Mingo became paralyzed when he had to think too much, which means New England probably would be best served using him purely as a matchup guy (like they did with Akeem Ayers). Gilbert’s issues ran deeper. Late in the 2014 season, while Johnny Manziel was swallowing up the headlines, Gilbert had actually become even more of a headache for the Cleveland staff. He overslept. He was late. He missed meetings. He got called out, and it had no affect. “Just a really good athlete that doesn’t like football at all, and gives no f---s about the idea of a team or anyone other than himself,” said one ex-Browns coach. “All the stops have been pulled out to get him to care, and he just doesn’t.” Another former Cleveland assistant added, “Wouldn’t say he was malicious, but totally immature. Wanted to be cool and party more than he wanted to work and be a pro. Not sure if he loves football, or how tough he is, mentally or physically.” So maybe Mike Tomlin can coax more discipline out of him, and maybe Bill Belichick can scheme something up to take advantage of Mingo’s natural gifts. In both cases, it was worth taking the flyer, given the Steelers’ and Patriots’ respective foundations. And with each guy, considering they were both Top 8 picks, you see why the Browns are where they are.
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THREE CHECKDOWNS FOR THE WEEKEND
• Will Josh McCown be an upgrade? I certainly got the feeling that Cleveland’s Week 2 opponent, Baltimore, thinks so. What little we saw of Robert Griffin III on Sunday didn’t reflect a whole lot of progress. The coaches I talked to who watched his tape said Griffin’s accuracy issues remain, and he looked more skittish in the face of contact than he was before. Based on the cost of quarterbacks these days and the time Hue Jackson’s staff has already spent on him, it may make sense for Cleveland to invest the $6.75 million it’d take to keep Griffin (a $750K roster bonus is due in March) for 2017, just to ride out the process. But it’s getting harder and harder to envision Griffin making it as a starting QB, particularly considering how good Jackson is at developing them.
• As much as the Rams gave up to get Jared Goff, and it was a haul they’ll feel next April, it wasn’t an easy call taking him over Carson Wentz. So after Wentz’s starry debut, the focus on Goff’s position on the Los Angeles’ roster figures to be intense. Jeff Fisher already committed to starting Case Keenum this week, so the question then becomes whether Goff, Sean Mannion or both dress this week, because if Keenum plays like he did in San Francisco again, an in-game switch could be on the table. By the way, Goff became the first top overall pick to be a healthy scratch in Week 1 in 13 years on Monday. But the last guy that happened to—Carson Palmer—didn’t seem to suffer from it too much.
• The Colts’ revamped offensive line certainly held its own against Detroit, allowing two sacks and fairly sparse pressure in setting the stage for Andrew Luck to throw for 385 yards and four touchdowns on 31-of-47 passing. This weekend will be a different challenge entirely. After some early struggles against Carolina, Denver’s defense partied like it was early 2016 in the Panther backfield, knocking Cam Newton senseless. The formula—control the run game (they had trouble with that in the first half), create long-yardage situations, hit the QB. Can Indy run effectively enough to keep the Broncos from pinning their ears back? That’s likely to be the key to keep all of Luck’s teeth intact.
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TWO COLLEGE PLAYERS TO WATCH SATURDAY
1. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson (vs. Florida State, ABC, Noon ET): The true sophomore numbers to this point look fake—Jackson’s completed 60 percent of his passes for 697 yards, seven touchdowns and a pick while rushing for 318 yards and six touchdowns on 32 carries. Remember, we’re two games into season. “All I know is he’s a hell of an athlete, that’s all I know,” said an AFC college scouting director. “He came in last year, played right away, I didn’t know him as well as a passer, not sure how accurate he really is. But he is a true dual threat, a really good athlete, dangerous on the move. … It’s like when A.J. Green was a freshman or a sophomore, or Fournette last year—just enjoy it. We’ll study him soon.” This is one of those games where he’ll get more eyeballs, and lots of NFL folks can’t wait to get a closer look at the 6-foot-3, 196-pound 19-year-old. Given his athletic traits, and the fact that he’ll be coming out of Bobby Petrino’s pro-style offense, Jackson has a chance to play himself up the 2018 draft board in games like Saturday’s. “He’s an NFL athlete,” said one area scout assigned to Louisville, who, like a lot of others, wanted to wait to pass judgment on Jackson’s prospects as a pro quarterback.
2. Oklahoma RBs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine (vs. Ohio State, Fox, 7:30 p.m. ET): The Sooners’ dynamic tailback duo rolled up a combined 2,551 yards and 28 TDs from scrimmage last year, and each averaged more than 6.0 yards per carry. So assuming both declare, as they’re expected, they’ll be alongside Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey and Royce Freeman, among others, in a tailback class that’s considered the deepest in decades. And that means this week’s intersectional showdown—against a Buckeye defense that didn’t allow a touchdown to Bowling Green or Tulsa—serves as a proving ground. “Perine is the little cannonball,” said an area scout assigned to the Sooners. “He’s got unbelievably good feet and vision, and obviously his strength combined with that body type—he’s a load. He’s your steady chunker, whereas Mixon has more juice to be the big-play guy, and gives you more in the passing game. If you took the character out of it, it’d be Mixon (going first of the two). But because that kind of incident in today’s NFL is such a screaming red flag … Perine probably goes first even though Mixon’s better.” The incident the scout is referencing was a 2014 altercation where Mixon allegedly punched a woman and broke her jaw. He was suspended for his freshman season as a result and, by all accounts, has walked the straight and narrow since. As a prospect, he’s a less explosive version Ezekiel Elliott, whereas Perine is more of a Ray Rice or Maurice Jones-Drew type.
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As you know by now, Sports Illustrated chief Chris Stone gave The MMQB the keys to this week’s magazine, which hit newsstands Wednesday. And as is the case with a lot of big projects like this one, plenty of good material (from everyone) wound up on the cutting room floor.
I handled a couple elements of the tick-tock Week 1 story that is the mag’s centerpiece. One that I really enjoyed—and think turned out to be more interesting than I anticipated—was following a young agent’s Week 1. So I figured I’d give you guys a look at that one here. This gets going last Saturday night …
Saturday, 11:22 p.m. ET: It’s bed time for 32-year-old agent Jon Perzley, whose Week 1 began at 6 p.m. at Fire and Oak inside the Bengals team hotel in Jersey City—normally a half-hour drive (but an hour tonight with traffic) from his place in Clifton, N.J.—where he had a two-hour dinner with partner Brian Mackler and client Jeremy Hill. The rest of the night for Perzley was spent flipping through texts wishing his guys good luck and watching college football games on TV. In less than five hours, at 4:15 a.m., Perzley’s alarm will go off for his 6:40 a.m. direct flight to Phoenix. He’s headed to see Cardinals RB David Johnson and OT D.J. Humphries and Patriots DL Vincent Valentine.
Sunday, 1:18 p.m. ET: Perzley pulls into US Egg in Chandler, Ariz., with Humphries riding shotgun. The agent landed in Phoenix at 8:40 local time, stopped quickly to check news and each team’s inactives, then shot over to Humphries’ house in Chandler, and grabbed him for breakfast. Perzley has three eggs, avocado, bacon and a side of fruit; the Cards right tackle has a four-egg omelette with bacon and avocado. Going on short sleep, Perzley is headed to Johnson’s house in Tempe next.
2:41 p.m. ET: Perzley sits on Johnson’s couch in Tempe, with the Cardinals tailback’s pregnant wife and her parents. The Eagles-Browns game is on the television (clients Christian Kirksey and Tank Carder are playing), as the group waits for Texans-Bears to come back from halftime (Jonathan Bullard and Deiondre’ Hall are in that one). Perzley’s phone and charging case are almost dead, so he’s near an outlet so he can stay plugged in. He and Mackler have two of the more high-profile street free agents on the market—kicker Robbie Gould and running back Dexter McCluster. No calls on those two yet.
4:49 p.m. ET: Cardinals receiver John Brown arrives at Johnson’s house to pick up his teammate and make the drive from Tempe to Glendale for the game. Perzley follows his client out to say hello to Brown, who’s also a client of the SportStars agency where Perzley works. Perzley then hops in his rental to go check into his hotel and drop off his stuff before going to the stadium.
10:01 p.m. ET: Perzley now is perched in Section 105, Row 37 with Humphries’ family. Today’s been a good day for Perzley for one specific reason: “Fortunately, no injuries on my end,” he says. In a few minutes, he’ll go down to Row 30 and see Johnson’s family again, and alternate the rest of the night. Perzley’s plan is to see Valentine before he hops on the Patriots team bus to fly back across the country, then take Johnson’s and Humphries’ families out to dinner. He flies back to Newark at 8:38 a.m. Monday. “Day in the life,” Perzley texts from the stadium.
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Like I said, you can find more stuff like this in the mag. It’s a really cool inside look (and yeah, I’m biased) into all that goes into the opening Sunday of the NFL season.
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