- The mustache. The jorts and aviators. The completion percentage and passer rating in the first three games of his NFL career. The aura of the Jaguars’ backup QB has captured the NFL early this season—but how long will he continue to shine?
The only thing more impressive than Gardner Minshew II’s stat lines is his aesthetic. The Jaguars’ back-up quarterback hasn’t captivated America just because of his performance on the field since he took over from the injured Nick Foles in Week 1. Minshew can’t be defined solely by his completion percentage (73.9%) or passer rating (110.6), although those numbers are the highest that any rookie QB has put up across the first three games of his career. No one, in the 100-year history of the NFL, has gotten off to a better start.
But there’s something more to this 23-year-old than football. Just look at his mustache—a thick, Tom Selleck-in-Magnum-P.I. situation that started as a joke with college teammates and quickly became Minshew canon. And the red embroidered suit with a wide collar and unbuttoned metallic shirt he wore to the Alamo Bowl with his Washington State team last year. And the short jean shorts (which he cut himself), aviator sunglasses and thick headband he wore while in Pullman to watch Washington State play UCLA this past weekend. That’s not to mention the American flag bandana he tied around his head for a post-game interview after beating the Titans in prime time last Thursday night.
America wasn’t supposed to care about Minshew this much. The Jaguars selected him in the sixth round of the NFL draft in April after the team signed Foles in the offseason, taking the Super Bowl LII MVP away from Philadelphia. Jacksonville quickly embraced Foles, with his tight spiral and quiet determination, but that salvation in Florida only lasted a few minutes into the Jaguars’ first game. Foles broke his collarbone, knocking him out for at least eight weeks; Jags fans were dejected, and so was Minshew.
“I’m not happy with the circumstances that it happened obviously,” he told reporters after the game about his first NFL start. “Breaks my heart to see what happened to Nick, ’cause he’s been one of the best people I’ve ever played with, had the pleasure to be around. To see him go down like that was awful.”
The Minshow, however, had already started. The rookie completed 22 of his 25 passes and inspired a fanbase, even though the team fell to the Chiefs, 40–26. The next week, despite Minshew’s once-again stellar numbers, the Jaguars lost by one point to the Texans.
But after Jacksonville’s 20–7 win against Tennessee on Thursday Night Football in Week 3—the Air Raid offense-trained quarterback lit up the field—the rest of the nation perked up. Minshew had around 30,000 Twitter followers at the start of the game. Less than a week later he’s just shy of 100,000 and has consistently dominated headlines. Google searches of Minshew’s name spiked dramatically last Thursday night and have yet to plateau. The uninitiated started to wonder... who is this seventies-inspired swag machine?
Anyone who follows college football can tell you about the Myth of Minshew. What you might have learned, if you’ve been one of the millions of Americans to Google him, is that Minshew walked on at Troy University, then went to community college in Mississippi before transferring to East Carolina for three seasons. He originally planned to spend the 2018 season as the third-string quarterback at Alabama, because he figured any time with coach Nick Saban would be his best bet for getting into coaching after college. But Washington State coach Mike Leach convinced Minshew to head to Pullman, Wash. as a grad transfer instead (The now-famous quote: “Do you want to be a backup at Alabama or lead the nation in passing? We’re going to lead the nation in passing one way or another,” Leach told him). Minshew galvanized a team rocked by tragedy after the suicide of QB Tyler Hilinski.
“It was time for that community, going through a lot of healing with the passing of Tyler Hilinski,” Minshew said. “Just really trying to honor that legacy and bring hope to a community that was pretty down.”
In addition to his emotional impact, Minshew set school and conference records, finished fifth in Heisman voting, and won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award in 2018. But there’s more to Minshew. He’s captured much of the football-watching country’s imagination because he was made for relatable stardom.
First, there’s his name, which sounds like the name of a character from Harry Potter or an accountant in middle management somewhere in Omaha. Then there’s his vibe, which is familiar to anyone who loves Dazed and Confused, went to a college with a fratty culture or grew up in Florida. You can picture this dude chugging a beer and then crushing the can on his forehead while standing on the roof of a dilapidated house just off campus. But he lacks the vaguely sinister air that often hangs around those kinds of parties, as far as I can tell. Minshew wasn’t available for comment when I reached out to the Jaguars (I like to imagine he was too busy cutting the sleeves off a t-shirt he found at Goodwill to chat). From afar, however, what makes him so enjoyable is that everything he does seems to come with an implied wink and finger guns. He puts God first and peppers his speech with “golly.”
But it’s the seemingly endless supply of entertaining anecdotes hovering around this guy that have done the most to contribute to his legend. Like how his father wanted to name him Beowulf. Or how he used to work out mostly naked in the Wazzu locker room, stripping down to his jockstrap, sunglasses, and headband while he did band exercises. Or how he tried to break his own hand so he could get a medical redshirt and play more football (a story he revealed for the first time on the podcast Pardon My Take last week). Or how he wanted to see the movie Bohemian Rhapsody because Freddie Mercury’s mustache reminded him of himself.
In an age where athletes are notoriously careful about their image and often err on the side of appearing bland, Minshew is publicly a lumberjack-y goofball. He’s the Paul Bunyan of football. Other backup rookies are off to pretty good starts this year (Daniel Jones, Kyle Allen), but none have shown the amount of character Minshew has. Remember when everyone started making Chuck Norris jokes in 2005 (I’m dating myself here, but high school in the mid-2000s is something that sticks with you)? The martial artist and actor took on a life larger than his own, where he could, like, single-handedly rescue a kitten from a tree while bench-pressing 250 pounds, smoking a cigarette and hacking whatever Russia’s version of Facebook is. Gardner Minshew is 2019’s Chuck Norris. They have a similar aura—kind of raw, slightly wild, somewhat dad-on-vacation energy. Minshew could simultaneously fix your car, remember to order flowers for Mother’s Day, give a bully a swirly and throw a touchdown—all while keeping his mustache impeccably trimmed.
Who knows how long Minshew’s magic will last. He is lightning in a bottle right now, an electric player on a hot streak with a personality to match. But we’re talking about—and I can’t stress this enough—football. We’re three weeks into a season where most of what we expected hasn’t panned out so far. History doesn’t smile as kindly on rookies with incredible debuts, at least not nearly as warmly as Minshew does in his post-game interviews. The players whose records he hopped in front of haven’t exactly gone on to light the league on fire: Marcus Mariota, Rick Mirer, Trent Edwards. Remember Ryan Fitzpatrick last season? The then-Buccaneers backup threw for 400-plus yards in three straight games while filling in for Jameis Winston, who was suspended three games for groping an Uber driver. Fitzpatrick started that fourth game, with Winston serving as his backup ... but was yanked at halftime when his magic evaporated into thin air.
The beautiful thing about football, however, are moments of greatness like this. A player comes along at the right time with the right amount of personality and does something superhuman enough that he transcends logic. A fanbase prematurely pins Super Bowl hopes on him and national media like me swoops in to write about “his vibe.” In Minshew’s case, the pageantry comes with enough substance that it might have staying power. There could always be some awful fall from grace, but maybe there won’t be.
So for now, Minshew’s legend grows, at least until Sunday when the Jags play again. He’s taken people for a ride and allowed them to believe in something for a moment, whether that’s his Matthew McConaughey-esque style or his touchdowns. And on some level, what more could fans ask for? That’s the whole point, right? To get caught up in something joyful. To base your mood on the performance of a young man who looks like he just shotgunned a beer in a parking lot. To cut the legs off your pants, pull your sunglasses down your nose, and smile at your television. To accept Minshew as the hero we don’t deserve, but the one we have.
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