It didn’t take long for seven months of NFL offseason narratives to get full validation. Tom Brady gave that to all of us eight days ago in the very first game of the 2021 season. Patrick Mahomes further backed it up three days later, in the late-afternoon broadcast window of the first full Sunday of the year. And Aaron Rodgers’s failure to do the same was so newsworthy it further bolstered the idea:
How good you are at quarterback has never mattered more.
That premise may seem oversimplistic, and maybe it is. But dive into what Brady and Mahomes pulled off last week, and what Rodgers couldn’t, and sitting there in plain sight is a full illustration of what these guys are doing to the sport.
The Buccaneers allowed more than 400 yards through the air to the Cowboys, with both Dallas receivers going more than 100 yards, and they lost the turnover battle 4–1. On top of that, Chris Godwin dropped what would’ve been a 47-yard touchdown pass with 12 minutes left, then coughed the ball up inside the Dallas 5 with 4:52 to go in a tight game. And none of that mattered because the Bucs had Tom Brady.
The Chiefs, likewise, stumbled from the gate, and got physically beaten up by a rugged Browns team early at Arrowhead Sunday. Through 30 minutes, Cleveland was averaging seven yards per carry, outgaining the Chiefs 318 to 183 with touchdowns on each of its first three possessions to seize the tempo and tenor of the game. A fearsome Browns front registered seven quarterback hits. And all this to no avail, because the Chiefs had Patrick Mahomes.
Similarly stark was Rodgers’s not looking like Superman, which, down the line, we’ll either see as the Saints’ facing No. 12 at the right time, an early sign of bigger cracks in foundation or something in between. Regardless, so much of what didn’t smell right with the Packers stemmed back to No. 12’s just looking off.
And therein lies all of what we saw this offseason—so many other teams trying to compete with what the last two Super Bowl champions bring to the table, and what the reigning league MVP typically does, too.
“It’s gotten to the point now where if you’ve got an average quarterback, you’ve gotta be pretty much perfect around him to have a chance,” one NFC exec said Thursday morning. “And even if you’ve got a good one, to keep up with these guys, you’ve got to be very, very good.”
This week, you heard a lot of what you hear every year at this point: Don’t put too much stock into Week 1. There’s truth in it. The same way it’d be dangerous to write off the Packers after they laid an egg against the Saints in Jacksonville, it probably wouldn’t be particularly smart to draw up eulogies for the Bills, Titans or the Ravens. Or, for that matter, to crown the Saints, Steelers or Eagles.
So I went about trying to reverse-engineer that principle by making calls and asking folks what conclusions we actually could draw from Week 1.
And the biggest one I could come up with? The stuff we spent the offseason obsessing over was, indeed, worth obsessing over. Because the trend we saw is probably here to stay.
Call it the Mahomes-ization of the NFL.
Time for the Week 2 GamePlan, and we’re breaking down all that you’ve got to look forward to here in the column. Inside, you’ll find …
• A look at the five best games, by my estimation, this weekend.
• A glimpse into the future of one of the NFL’s most heated rivalries.
• My second attempt at picking games against the spread publicly. (The first attempt didn’t go well.)
But we’re starting with a pattern that emerged this offseason in the NFL, which I think will get only more prevalent from here.
The Rams lost to one of those guys—Rodgers—last January.
L.A. brought the league’s No. 1 defense into Lambeau for the divisional playoffs, but also a banged-up Aaron Donald. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year was limited to 53% of the team’s defensive snaps that afternoon, and the Packers’ three-time MVP shredded Donald’s unit as a result, throwing for 296 yards, posting a 108.1 passer rating and putting 32 points on the scoreboard in a breezy win.
In the aftermath, the Rams’ brass chose to be honest with itself. The team was stocked with in-prime players like Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, and some aging cornerstones like Andrew Whitworth. It had one of the game’s premier offensive minds, in Sean McVay, leading the way. It had been to the playoffs three times in four years under McVay and even made it to a Super Bowl.
In taking an aggressive posture to deal for stars like Ramsey, the Rams never lacked for urgency. But they were running out of ways to raise the current group’s ceiling.
“Aaron [Donald]’s 30; there’s a chance he’s not going to get to every playoff game,” said Rams GM Les Snead over the phone Thursday. “He’s a beast, and now, if you don’t have him, you almost have to score every time. So you need a sharper sword.”
Or, more specifically, you need the margin for error that Rodgers created for the Packers on that day, one in which Green Bay’s defense didn’t need to be great to win. Or one like the Bucs wielded the next week, with Brady, against the Packers—in overcoming three picks from Brady himself as Tampa went through Lambeau and into the Super Bowl.
Seeking that is why the Rams, sensing trouble in paradise between Rodgers and his team, placed an exploratory call to the Packers on the MVP later that month. It’s also why they dug deep into Matthew Stafford next, a process that unearthed a potential superstar at the position who’d endured tough circumstances in Detroit, and showed not just first-pick physical tools, but also a mental acuity that would make him a perfect match for McVay.
“He’s always had arm talent; he can make any throw,” Snead continued, “but when you saw how advanced he was manipulating coverages with eyes, and where he was looking and then coming back to something he knew would be open, that’s when we’re thinking, Uh oh, wait a minute; that’s the way Sean sees the game. … He’s doing things where, O.K., I know in this coverage, this route’s gonna be open, but because it’s [moving] a little bit slower [for Stafford], if I actually do this with my eyes or my body, the defenders in conflict, it’s going to lead them even further astray.
“And all of a sudden, those guys are even further out of position. And not based on them making an error, it’s actually based on them playing the coverage the right way, but we just came up with a little better chess move, and Matt made it come to life.”
The analogy Snead then used went back to something a lot of us can relate to—how the Apple podcast app works. As he sees it, most quarterbacks come into the league able to listen to, and digest, what’s happening around them at what would be 0.5 speed on that app. The first step for any quarterback, then, is to get them up to 1.0, where they can see the game in real time. Then, with any luck, they can get to 1.25 or 1.50.
“Matt Stafford, he’s listening to the podcast at 2.0,” Snead explained. “And he’s taking notes and he’s digesting everything.”
Therein lies the crux of the Rams’ gamble in sending two first-round picks, a third-rounder and Jared Goff to Detroit for Stafford—a belief that the ex-Lion, in a better situation, with his perfect coach, will generate the kinds of wins on the margins that Brady, Mahomes and Rodgers do. And create the sort of margin for error that’ll be a major advantage against most opponents, and level the one the Rams were up against in the NFC playoffs.
So how is this more than just teams’ looking to improve at quarterback, as they always do?
Consider this: The Rams and Niners came out of 2020 with quarterbacks in their 20s who had led them to Super Bowls, and both had multiple years left on top-of-the-market contracts signed relatively recently (Jimmy Garoppolo signed his in ’18, and Goff did his in ’19). And despite all that, both those teams started the process of moving on from them right away, as this offseason began (though San Francisco’s move away from Garoppolo will be more gradual).
I looked and couldn’t find a single example of a team in my lifetime making that sort of move, let alone two within weeks of one another. And elsewhere, you’re seeing other methods following the same trends.
Like the Niners and Rams, the Cardinals have been faced with the Seahawks’ having the franchise-quarterback advantage in their division for the last eight years—which in essence allowed Seattle to ride out a rebuild on the fly, bridging their championship teams with the current contenders, without ever enduring a single season under .500. So it was that Arizona decided, two years ago, that Josh Rosen wasn’t good enough to pass up on Kyler Murray for, even though the team had traded up in the first round for Rosen 12 months before taking Murray.
Along those lines, now, there are questions about whether the Dolphins should move forward with Tua Tagovailoa as their quarterback, just 10 starts into his career, and less than 17 months after Miami spent the fifth pick on him. And if Miami believes it can contend at the highest level right now, with Brian Flores and Chris Grier’s now having three offseasons under their belt, it’s easy to understand why their eyes might wander.
It wouldn’t be that they don’t like Tagovailoa, the same as the Cardinals weren’t simply out on Rosen after a single year. More so, it’s the question of whether, when you get there, your guy will be good enough, in today’s NFL, to put you over the top.
The Rams faced the reality that question presents in January, the same way they did in Super Bowl LIII against Brady in February 2019—Brady basically erased a virtuoso defensive showing from the Rams with a fourth-quarter flourish that night. And the same way Mahomes and Brady snatched Super Bowl wins away from Niners coach Kyle Shanahan three years apart.
Because of who they are physically, it’s easy to envision Josh Allen, Justin Herbert or Trevor Lawrence, or even Zach Wilson or Justin Fields getting to that level. Along those lines, the Rams with Stafford and the Niners with Trey Lance feel like they’ve raised their ceilings to where they could make it, too. All of which underscores the fact that, in an era where there are more good NFL quarterbacks than ever before, good may no longer be good enough to win at the highest level, the way it was when Brad Johnson and the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII.
Fact is, with the more physically gifted ones, their athleticism buys them time to develop, because their ability to play off-schedule can make them right even when they’re wrong, and gives them the capacity to, maybe, get to where Mahomes is. For the less physically imposing ones, there’s a much narrower path to take.
“I definitely think athleticism is more important than ever, and is necessary unless you’re Ben Roethlisberger or Philip Rivers, and you’ve played for years, and you’ve seen every defense, every coverage, and you’re so in tune with your offense,” said one AFC exec. “Early on, having the ability to extend play is gold—Justin Fields is that way. And so they make some plays, get more into offense and more comfortable.
“Early on, they’re gonna get fooled—defenses are fast and throw a lot at them. So having the ability to improvise and make something happen gives them and their teams a chance. That’s why I think the true old-school pocket passer is in the past. It’s hard to develop that.”
Now, does that mean it’s impossible to win with, say, the 10th best quarterback in the NFL?
If it is, that’s a recent change. The Eagles won with Nick Foles four years ago. The Broncos won with a percentage of what Peyton Manning had been six years ago. Joe Flacco, never really considered a top-five quarterback by anyone, got hot and won the whole thing nine years ago. And when Wilson won, in 2013, he wasn’t the Wilson he is now.
So sure, there’s a way.
“This topic is always a craw in my [side],” said another NFC exec. “I just feel like, yes, you always want the elite guy, the Brady, the Mahomes, the Rodgers, that can dig you out of holes and lift the team up. But you can still win with a guy that’s just good; you just have to have the right team around him—offense, defense, special teams.”
The exec then presented an example, “Take a Kirk Cousins. You can win games with Kirk, but you have to put players around him. When they had a healthy [Dalvin] Cook, [Adam] Thielen, [Stefon] Diggs, that defense, that was a difficult team to deal with. Now, take Diggs away; it’s a different deal. You just gotta be better around him. Now, I get why teams trade up, trade down in search of one. But God’s only made so many. So what can you do?”
It used to be that, faced with that question, teams might shrug their shoulders. This just happened to be the year that a couple of teams didn’t. And it’s a safe bet there’ll be more like them in the years to come.
As bonkers as this offseason might’ve seemed for quarterback movement—it wasn’t just the Rams and Niners making these moves, either, with the Colts and Panthers, to name two more, rolling the dice on former top-three picks—there’s a decent chance we’ve got one heck of an encore coming down the pike.
Rodgers and Wilson could well wind up in similar spots next January as they were last January. The Texans will likely trade Deshaun Watson at some point between now and the draft. And more teams that have spent considerable capital on young quarterbacks recently may be reckoning with those decisions a few months from now, the same way the Rams, 49ers, Eagles and Jets did a few months ago.
If you want a good quarterback these days, clearly, you can find those.
But whether those are good enough anymore is, very clearly, an open question. And Week 1 showed it emphatically.
(FYI: We’ll have more Week 1 conclusions at the end of the column.)
FIVE STAR MATCHUPS
1) Chiefs at Ravens (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET): Does Baltimore’s Week 1 loss take the luster away from this one a little bit? Maybe, but no one plays the role of the cornered animal better than John Harbaugh’s bunch. I’d expect their best in what’ll be a very edgy environment under the lights at their place. And, of course, Mahomes’s mere involvement against a top-shelf defense in this one gives it juice.
2) Saints at Panthers (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): Carolina’s better than people think. The amount they got to the quarterback last week? Sure, the Jets aren’t great up front right now. But the Panthers are going to do that to a lot of teams. And while I’m picking the Saints to win this one, I sure don’t feel great about it. My guess: It’ll be tooth-and-nail to the finish, and one reclamation project QB or the other will have to make a play late.
3) Bills at Dolphins (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): The Dolphins looked tough and disciplined in Week 1, and now they get a chance to put the reigning division champions two games behind them. And they get that reigning champion, coming from the Canadian border, in South Florida in September. Miami’s coming out of the first two weeks with wins over the Patriots and Bills would be a heck of a way to start. And on the flip side, there’s a big shot for Buffalo to bounce back with a big statement.
4) Cowboys at Chargers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET): There are really good players across each roster, two young franchise quarterbacks and both teams have been to the playoffs recently. Even the crowd for this one in the Chargers’ first game at SoFi in front of fans—given Dallas’s massive Southern California fan base—should be interesting.
5) Rams at Colts (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): The Colts got pummeled by Seattle at home in Week 1, and that Indianapolis team is at a point now where the expectation has to be higher than that. Make no mistake, this is a very important game for Indy. And it’s a chance for the Rams to assert themselves again against a quality opponent.
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FOUR THEMES TO FOLLOW
How does Zach Wilson look in comparison to Mac Jones? The consensus has held that the best of the five rookie first-round quarterbacks Sunday was the one drafted last. And Mac Jones, without question, gave Patriots fans plenty of reason to feel good in a loss—playing fast, standing in there against the rush and showing a sort of unteachable awareness in the pocket, all of which gives him a chance without the physical tools the other four guys clearly possess. But what you might not have noticed? How Wilson came on for the Jets in the second half of their loss to the Panthers, playing behind a line that was getting its behind handed to it. Early on, when things weren’t going well, Wilson let the game come to him. Later, as he got comfortable, he made more off-schedule plays. And the stat line (14-of-21, 174 yards, 2 TDs in the second half) reflected it. It’ll be fun to see him, coming off that performance, against Bill Belichick’s defense and on the same field as Jones.
What will the first 10 minutes of the Monday night game look like? Quarterbacks lead teams, and I’m really interested in how Aaron Rodgers will lead his into a prime-time home opener against the rebuilding Lions. He spent the whole offseason carrying himself in a sort of aloof way, as if football were just something he does in the fall, before reporting for training camp at the end of July. And so I’m interested in seeing the fire he and his teammates come out with after the Saints completely undressed them in Week 1, in what has to stand as one of the most embarrassing losses of Rodgers’s 17-year career. I’d think, if you were Rodgers, or Green Bay in general, you’d be a little angry right now. Let’s see if they show that.
Can the Cardinals keep it rolling? The Vikings should be another one of those teams coming off Week 1 with a little edge, but they’re headed into what looked like a buzzsaw in Week 1. And now I’m interested to see what that buzzsaw is capable of cutting down next, and not just because of the jaw-dropping plays Kyler Murray made or how unblockable Chandler Jones looked against the Titans. It’s because the construction of that team is fascinating, stocked with promising young guys (Murray, Isaiah Simmons, Zaven Collins, Byron Murphy), paired with in-prime stars (DeAndre Hopkins, Budda Baker), paired with a healthy stable of 30-somethings (Jones, J.J. Watt, A.J. Green, Rodney Hudson, Robert Alford). And because they could be an x-factor in the league’s best division. I feel like we’ll know a little more about them after the Minnesota game.
Are the Jaguars locked in? You can make this an Urban Meyer story if you want to—and it’s fair to say a lot of people will be paying attention to how his team responds coming off a shellacking at the hands of Houston on Sunday. One of my biggest questions on Meyer coming to the pros was how he’d handle losing. He lost six games in two years at Bowling Green, two games in two years at Utah, 15 games in six years at Florida and nine games in seven years at Ohio State. If he loses nine games this year alone, it’d mark a seven-win improvement for the Jaguars over last year. And while he was famous in his last two stops for taking losses very, very hard, he only lost consecutive games on four occasions (2002 at Bowling Green, ’07 and ’10 at Florida, ’13 at Ohio State) in 17 seasons as a college head coach. So how the Jags respond against a good, but beatable, Denver team in their home opener will be fascinating.
TWO BEST BETS
Season record: 0–2 (Ouch … I guess picking against the spread isn’t so easy.)
Seahawks (-5.5) vs. Titans: The game’s in Seattle, and the Seahawks’ offense looked dynamic last week and is playing a Titans defense that struggled mightily with a mobile quarterback last week. And the Seahawks’ front held Jonathan Taylor to 56 yards on 17 carries last week, which would indicate they’d have a shot to do what Arizona did in Nashville, and make the Titans one-dimensional by shutting down Derrick Henry.
Texans (+12.5) at Browns: I think Cleveland’s going to win the game—but this is a massive number for a team that’s generally going to play a controlled, relatively conservative game on offense. Also, the Texans aren’t as bad as a lot of people thought. Which makes me think this is a 24–17 kind of game.
ONE BIG QUESTION
What big-picture things can we take from Week 1?
After asking a healthy number of scouts over the last couple of days, three things stick out to me, beyond just what we led the column with this week.
1) Tackling was shaky, and defensive pressure was up. I thought this was interesting because, as scouts see it, it comes down to players’ getting less work in the spring and summer. Lack of fundamental work, for obvious reasons, could lead to these issues with blocking and tackling. And here’s the other thing that was raised to me: When there are technique issues, gaps in athleticism can be highlighted, and generally defensive linemen are better athletes than offensive linemen, and offensive skills guys are better athletes than players in the defensive back seven.
2) The way rosters are being churned is a lot different. Anecdotally, execs told me they’ve noticed more rosters are unsettled through the first week of the season, a sign that more teams are using September to settle on a team for the long haul. It’s something that New England’s actually done for a long time—treating the first month as almost an extended preseason. And the cut down in practice time, and move from four preseason games to three, has made it more difficult for teams to know their own rosters as well as they normally would. Which has contributed to the increased turnover. Also, the expanded practice squads have made it a little tougher to find the right street free agents in a pinch, so teams have gone through more of those types.
3) Coaches are taking more chances. A team gave me this stat, which was pretty interesting—teams went for it more times on fourth down in Week 1 (52) than in any single week of games since 2000, with one exception (there were 53 fourth-downs tried in Week 14 of ’09). Things have certainly been going in this direction for a while, and it feels like, with seven new coaches in the league, this is one trend that has a good chance of holding over the course of the season.
More NFL Coverage:
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