Editors Note: All referenced stats and more are available in a table at the bottom of the page
It took 20 games, a benching, a public campaign and a bit of magic but Gardner Minshew II has officially started 16 games—the equivalent of a full season—in the NFL.
Perhaps it’s somewhat ironic, compelling, poetic, whatever word you wish to use, that with a full 16 games under his belt, Minshew now heads to Houston to face the team that defeated him in his first league start.
It was Week 2 of the 2019 season. Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Nick Foles had been placed on IR with a shoulder injury sustained in the week prior and the rookie sixth-round pick, Minshew, was tapped for his first start. The Jags lost that game to the Houston Texans by just one point, but it began a ride for Minshew that has taken the entire country along.
“I’ve learned so much and I think that’s a credit to a lot of the great coaches and teammates I’ve had around me between last year and this year,” reflected Minshew this week.
"They’ve done a great job of giving me information. I’m doing my best to try to learn it, take each week and just kind of keep building week by week and…continue to progress.”
It’s often said the jump a quarterback makes between year one and year two will be the biggest difference maker in their career. But what of a jump that comes in the middle of a season? How much can a quarterback change during game prep now that they have a season’s worth of knowledge? Can it even happen?
“We hope so,” laughed offensive coordinator Jay Gruden on Wednesday.
“We hope that everybody makes a jump. We’re going to have to make a jump. We’re 1-3 right now, so offensively we have to play better…usually the record is indicative of the quarterback play a lot of times from an outsider, so he has to get better and we expect him to get better. He’s a young player, has great energy, great passion for the game.
“He has the tools to become better and better each week, but we also have to play better around him and not put him in third-and-long situations and try not to get down two touchdowns in the fourth quarter where we’re [in] the two-minute drill all the time. So it’s our job offensively to make sure we finish drives, keep the game close, and that will make our quarterback play a lot better.”
With Foles traded to the Chicago Bears in March, the newest rookie quarterback Jake Luton having yet to see the field and the adamant declaration from the locker room that the team isn’t tanking, it appears Minshew is the future of this franchise. To be the future of a franchise, one is expected to be elite. So to better understand what’s expected from an elite quarterback in that jump from year one to year two, we looked at four other quarterbacks for comparison: Tom Brady (a fellow 6th rounder), Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson.
To begin, we looked at what all four passers did with their subsequent 16 starts. Since all of them appeared in playoff games during that span, those starts were included in the number.
Three of the four won a Super Bowl within the following 16 games.
Tom Brady won a Super Bowl on his 17th career start, the first of many more to come…but the second one didn’t come the following year. One season after going 14-3 as a starter, including in the big one, Brady and the New England Patriots went 9-7 and missed the playoffs. However, the Pats' last losing season was Brady’s rookie year when he appeared in one game in mop-up duty.
Patrick Mahomes followed up his first full season with a 13-3 record in 2019 and a Super Bowl win over the San Francisco 49ers. This was a feat already achieved by Russell Wilson, who started all 16 games as a rookie then took the Seattle Seahawks all the way to a Super Bowl title his second year, on a 13-3 regular season record, 16-3 overall.
Watson and the Texans haven’t won a Super Bowl, but he did make it to the second round of the playoffs his second season as a starter. Watson, like Minshew, had his 16 starts split up over two seasons. That, along with the fact that Minshew and the Jaguars winning a Super Bowl in his next 16 starts would mean it happening this season, asks us to look backward. As important as it is to look at what each QB did with their second set of 16 starts, how they got there is just as important.
THE AMOUNT OF GAMES
Of the four comparative quarterbacks, there’s not much argument over Brady and Mahomes being the most prolific and influential on the game. And the fact that both took their team to a Super Bowl win within two years of starting can’t be overstated. But there’s also another stat the two share that sets them apart from the others, Minshew included.
Both Brady and Mahomes had a full season in the league before ever starting a game. They were brought in behind established QB’s and got to sit for a year and learn before taking the field. Brady didn’t even take a single snap until the end of his rookie season.
In Brady’s second season, Drew Bledsoe was still the established starter. It wasn’t until Bledsoe took a hard hit in the fourth quarter of the Week 2 game that Brady was asked to play again. He was named the starter the following week while Bledsoe recovers, and he never relinquished the title. (Bledsoe did return and won the AFC Championship game that season when Brady suffered a foot injury)
Mahomes started the last regular season game of his rookie year, but only because the Chiefs were already mathematically in the playoffs and Head Coach Andy Reid wanted to rest Alex Smith. After Smith was traded that following offseason, Mahomes was named the starter for the 2018 season.
Minshew, on the other hand, was brought in during the first half of his first NFL game due to Foles' shoulder injury. He then started eight games before being replaced by a recovered Foles. Following three abysmal starts from Foles, Minshew was put back into the game at halftime against the Week 13 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His starts have been spread out to the point that he hasn’t been allowed a full consecutive season as of yet.
Whereas it took Brady and Mahomes 34 and 33 career games respectively to reach their 16 starts, Minshew did it in 20 games. Of the five, only Watson—who was thrust into a game in much the same way as Minshew—and Wilson reached the accomplishment in a shorter amount of time.
Watson notched his 16th start during his 17th game—however it should be noted an injury in Week 7 of his rookie year kept him out of the remaining games, which is why his career starts were split up as well.
Wilson is the outlier in the group, having earned the starting job as a rookie in training camp. He started 16 games right away, finishing 11-5 his first regular season. Russ has been cookin’ for years and deserves the credit given for his impact on the Seahawks from the moment he stepped into Seattle.
But is there any other reason he was able to be so successful so quickly? What was different about Wilson’s first 16 starts versus the others?
Frankly, the largest difference had nothing to do with Wilson at all.
During Russell Wilson’s record breaking rookie season, the Seahawks defense was fielding one of the best units the game has ever known. The defense was fourth in the NFL in yards allowed per game and first in scoring defense. In other words? They didn’t put their quarterback in bad positions. He took the field knowing that his defense was going to hold the opponents to little yards and even fewer points so even if something went wrong on a particular drive, he most likely wasn’t shooting himself and the team in the foot by not grabbing points on the possession.
Brady’s first season as a starter, 2001, the Patriots defense was sixth in the league in points allowed per game. Mahomes, Watson and Minshew haven’t been as lucky, which is why the three (particularly Mahomes and Watson) are often seen more as innovators who must make something out of nothing on the field because if they don’t, no one will.
It’s a situation the Jaguars defense has put Minshew in far too often this season as well, according to linebacker Myles Jack.
“This team, we just know that, ‘Okay we’re a team, we can depend on the offense a little bit and the offense can eventually depend on the defense.’ We’ve got to give them a little bit more, but they can depend on us.”
Until then, Minshew and the offense have found themselves forcing drives with obvious passing situations late in games. The quarterback places no blame on the defense, saying it’s his job to get downfield each time. Still, the balance is missing.
“It’s one of those things that we set out every drive to go score seven points. We fall short sometimes, we score sometimes. No matter what, I think we each have to take a one play at a time, one drive at a time mentality. That’s our best recipe for success.”
WHAT SHOULD JAGUARS WORRY ABOUT?
While that recipe is still being assembled, there are a couple of things within this comparison that should stand out as to where Minshew is behind the four other quarterbacks. For starters, well, he doesn’t have the defense currently to help in close games. And for as magical as his play can be at times, there are few generational talents like Patrick Mahomes that can overcome even the most porous of defenses.
There’s also the matter of his consistency. Minshew’s pass completion percentage is fairly similar to that of the other four in their first 16 starts (see graph below). However, his average has been achieved by games like his first when he set the record for best Week 1 percentage by any NFL quarterback with 88%…only to see him follow with sub-50% performances. Once he finds a consistent groove from game to game, the Jaguars could see part of that year two leap.
WHAT SHOULD JAGUARS BE ENCOURAGED BY?
Games aren’t just won on paper, but Minshew’s other numbers compared to Brady, Mahomes, Watson and Wilson aren’t far off. He has the best touchdown-interception ratio (26-8) through 16 games. And he trails only Mahomes for most yards through the same time period.
Perhaps most encouraging though, is the ambiguous “it” factor that befuddles and amazes many an announcer about the other four QB’s on the list, and at times, Minshew as well.
All five quarterbacks at some point in their first 16 starts orchestrated a game winning drive in the 4th quarter, setting them up with the experience to do it again. Gardner Minshew did it three times. If not for a tipped ball versus the Tennessee Titans in Week 2 of this season, he could’ve added a fourth.
While the comparisons and scenarios are plentiful, Minshew isn’t concerned with the other four guys or any other quarterbacks for that matter. Now with a full 16 games to his name, he says he is looking to make a jump but only with those guys around him.
“I’m just working with our guys each week just trying to get better and better, [get] on the same page, continue to try to build that chemistry with our guys, continuing to trust our offensive line and just build this thing together. I think we have a lot of room to grow as a unit, as a team, and that’s what we’re going to work to do.”