- The two second-year QBs raised their game substantially from their rookie campaigns—one through a coaching overhaul and another by building trust. So it’s far too early to write off DeShone Kizer in Cleveland, or to make judgments about Mitch Trubisky’s upside. Both will likely see changes in 2018 that could provide them the development chance they need
The immediate legacy of Carson Wentz and Jared Goff—before the Pro Bowls and All-Pro nods and playoff wins are tallied up years down the line—is fairly obvious at this point: Don’t judge rookie quarterbacks by Year One. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, and we’ll get to them. But what the second-year quarterbacks for the Eagles and Rams have done for the next generation of young passers and the coaches and executives responsible for selecting and coaching them is something so significant I don’t think we truly understand it yet.
Wentz, in his second year more than doubled his touchdown total from the year before (in three fewer games) and halved his interceptions; his passer rating went from 79.3 to 101.9. Goff raised his completion percentage by eight points and his QB rating from 63.6 to 98.9. Wentz in particular serves as the best argument for patience in an organizational hierarchy with a new QB, because while Goff undeniably benefitted from the Rams moving on from Jeff Fisher and hiring Sean McVay, Wentz’s support structure stayed in tact from 2016 to ’17, from head coach Doug Pederson to offensive coordinator Frank Reich.
I recently spent some time with one of the people who benefitted the most from Wentz’s dramatic upturn (before the quarterback suffered a knee injury this month). Eagles tight end Zach Ertz and his spouse, the talented Julie Ertz, were the subject of our latest installment in the 24 Hours series. While visiting with the couple after Philadelphia’s rout of the Bears in Week 12, I asked Zach what he thought had been the most important change in Wentz from Year 1 to Year 2.
Usually, when you ask players these types of questions, they hem and haw and give generic, all-encompassing answers, because it’s never just the one thing. But in Ertz’s mind, it was the one thing.
“I think he’s taken command,” Ertz said. And he wasn’t talking about being an emotional authority in the locker room. He was talking about the day-to-day negotiation that happens in every quarterback meeting room between the starter and the coaches.
“I think there are plays he doesn’t love, and he tells the coaches he doesn’t want them in the game plan, and they’re not in,” Ertz continued. “I think there are plays he loves, and he ran them in college, and he’ll get them in. I think they trust him. The coaches respect him because of the work he puts in to prepare. They’re not going to put in every play that he likes, and he can’t get rid of everything he doesn’t like, but him being so confident in every play that we call is the difference.”
There’s a key sentence in there, and it speaks to the measure by which rookie quarterbacks should be judged. It’s not a statistic, or a win-loss record. I think they trust him. At some point in the last 19 months, Pederson and Reich decided they trusted Carson Wentz enough to give him some stake in the playbook, to let him tinker with the intellectual property they’d spent their own careers developing.
Goff, whose dramatic improvement came with a almost-as-dramatic coaching change, may not have as much power in his offense as he’ll end up with, but in Sean McVay he has a coach willing to experiment with creative ways to run an offense and give his quarterback an advantage. It was revealed this month the Rams were hurrying to the line of scrimmage so McVay could relay instructions to Goff based on the defensive alignment before the audio system connecting coach and player goes quiet with 15 seconds left on the play clock, per league rules.
Surely, McVay understands this is unsustainable for an entire season, much less a career, and would rather trust Goff to process information and appreciate the potential of each play under various circumstances the way he does. That trust factor, which is so difficult for those of us on the outside looking into these organizations to ascertain, is going to make the difference for the rookie quarterbacks we watched trudge through this season with mixed results.
Texans first-rounder DeShaun Watson was spectacular before his season-ending knee injury, but how will he and Bill O’Brien collaborate and adjust when they meet defensive coordinators who’ve had an offseason to figure out their play-action-heavy spread attack? What will become of the Bears’ Mitchell Trubisky if John Fox is relieved of his coaching duties at season’s end? And what do we make of Browns second-rounder DeShone Kizer, the lone current rookie starter chosen outside the first round in 2017?
The Notre Dame product has been the biggest letdown of the first-year QBs, and it’s not really close. His 59.4 passer rating is historically bad, ranking third-worst among rookies with at least 400 attempts after Jim Zorn in 1976 (49.5) and Jack Trudeau in 1986 (53.5). But most foreboding for Kizer’s future as a starter were coach Hue Jackson’s words this week after the team dropped to 0-14. “He has some work to do,” Jackson said of Kizer. “I think that’s a fair question if he’ll ever get it. I think he will, but he has to keep working.”
Not getting it, in coachspeak, is just about the worst prognosis you can give a young quarterback, and a surprising thing to hear from any head coach when the cameras are on. If Jackson is trying to win hearts and minds in support of his continued employment under a new general manager in Cleveland by hammering home the reality that the team has yet to pick a quarterback of his liking in the first round, it wouldn’t be the first time he spoke out of turn apparently to advance his own personal interests.
Or it could just be that Kizer truly hasn’t done enough behind the scenes to give Jackson or anyone else the idea he can eventually be trusted with a stake in an NFL offense. That, more than anything he’s done on the field, would be career-damning. Given the examples of Wentz and Goff, it would behoove us to suspend judgment on any of the 2017 rookie quarterbacks until further review. Sometimes patience is what’s needed to build trust.
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