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Why Younger Quarterbacks Are Responsible for NFL Parity

Sports Illustrated 9/28/2022 Albert Breer

The league is in phenomenal shape at the most important position with several legit franchise players. Plus, what’s ahead at the trade deadline and do Mike Tomlin and Bill Belichick finish under .500?

It’s been a great September for the NFL, with a good game (Miami at Cincinnati) coming Thursday to finish out the month. And so you guys had a lot of good questions for me this week. Let’s dive in …

From Peter Small (@peterlsmall): NFL parity more/less unique this year than prior years?

Peter, it’s struck me through the past three Sundays how many awesome endings we’ve had. There’ll be a dud, I’m sure, soon—and there’s a better chance that those will come when the byes start in Week 6. But to this point, every Sunday afternoon window has had dramatic finishes. And we’re through three weeks, and there are just two 3–0 teams (Dolphins and Eagles) and one 0–3 team (Raiders).

Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Unio/USA TODAY Sports © Provided by Sports Illustrated Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Unio/USA TODAY Sports

Why? Just look at the quarterback talent across the league. Right now, if you buy Trevor Lawrence as having turned the corner, and I’m all in on that, you’ve got six teams in the AFC alone (Chiefs, Browns, Ravens, Bills, Bengals, Chargers) that have 27-or-younger quarterbacks that are already legit franchise guys. And maybe the Dolphins are there now, too, with Tua Tagovailoa? Again, this is just one of the two conferences, and we’re talking about a specific age group, not the entire pool of quarterbacks.

Bottom line: Fewer teams are in dire straits at the position than ever before, and more are in phenomenal shape. And I think that’s led to more teams having a shot every week, whether it’s with a force of nature such as Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen, or a guy such as Kirk Cousins, who’s seen as a game manager, but proved again Sunday he can be a little more than just that when the chips are down.

It’s a good place for the league to be.

From Aaron Wiles (@AaronWiles7): Are Jaguars a real contender?

Aaron, yes, especially in the AFC South. The Titans have looked shaky through three weeks—Taylor Lewan and Harold Landry are out for the year; the odometer’s high on Derrick Henry, and the receiver group is without the sort of go-to guy it had in A.J. Brown. The Colts, my preseason pick, have been worse, though they did bounce back nicely Sunday against the Chiefs. And the Texans, who showed some promise early, just lost to the Bears.

Add that up, and I don’t have a great reason why the Jaguars can’t win the AFC South. I think you can make a good argument they’ll have the best quarterback in the division if they don’t already. They’ve got a Super Bowl–winning head coach (Doug Pederson) with a pretty deep staff around him. The roster’s stocked with high draft picks and promising young players.

Now, if you’re asking about them as a “real contender” in the deep playoff team sense, then, no, I don’t think they’re that. But I do think it’s possible they win that division, or at least hang around in the wild-card race until the end. The arrow’s definitely pointing up.

From tyler (@tylerrrstephens): Will the Packers sign or trade for a low-end WR1, high end WR2?

Tyler, right now, I’d say they’re going to get their young receivers as many reps as they possibly can. Fourth-round rookie Romeo Doubs leads Packers receivers in snaps played (115) through three weeks. And second-rounder Christian Watson was up there, too, playing roughly two of every three snaps before he got hurt in Week 2.

To me, the Packers believe there is a pretty high ceiling with Doubs and Watson, and now is the time to get them ramped up so they’re more seasoned and ready to play bigger roles deeper into the season. They also have Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb and Sammy Watkins and Robert Tonyan at tight end. That should be enough based on having Aaron Rodgers, their run game with Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon and the defense.

That said, I think the Packers signing or trading for a receiver will come down to opportunity—it’ll be who is available, rather than just plucking from those that are. I could see Odell Beckham Jr. as an option when he gets healthy. But I don’t think you’ll see an overreach, where they do something just to do something.

From John Richardson (@JohnIsaac55): What does the league think about Josh McDaniels and his horrific start?

John, really, here’s what we’re talking about, with the Raiders at 0–3:

• The Raiders had the ball with two minutes left, down 24–19, and the Chargers sacked Derek Carr on a fourth down near midfield.

• The Raiders blew a 20–0 lead against the Cardinals, with Arizona forcing overtime on a fourth down, then winning the game in OT by returning a fumble for a touchdown.

• The Raiders came back from a 24–10 halftime deficit to get within a two-point conversion (24–22) of beating the Titans in Nashville.

Is that ideal? Of course not. The Raiders need to learn how to deliver in key moments. But in each situation, two of them on the road, Las Vegas was right there with a chance to win. And the past two weeks, it had a chance to win despite an uneven effort over 60 minutes. That doesn’t mean the Raiders don't have things to clean up. They still have to find their best five on the offensive line, and the defense has some issues up the middle.

But, overall, this remains a pretty good team. I think, with a little patience, that’ll show.

Danielle Parhizkaran/ TODAY Sports © Provided by Sports Illustrated Danielle Parhizkaran/ TODAY Sports

From Alex (@AuxElectricity): Assuming this is Daniel Jones’s last year with the Giants and the chance of a middle-of-the-road record, how do you see Schoen using his resources to get his/Daboll’s QB?

Alex, I think the best we can do is to look at the track record of Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll—and both have one from Buffalo in their parts of scouting and landing Josh Allen. You’ll remember, the Bills didn’t tank for Allen despite acknowledging they’d be taking a quarterback in the first round in 2018. They actually went 9–7 and made the playoffs in ’17, which complicated things a little.

So here are the steps they went through to make it happen.

• The Bills traded WR Sammy Watkins in the summer of 2017 to the Rams for an ’18 second-round pick that landed the 56th selection.

• The Bills traded LT Cordy Glenn and their slotted first-rounder (No. 21) to the Bengals for the 12th pick. (Late-round picks were also swapped in the deal.)

• The Bills packaged the 12th pick, their own second-rounder (No. 53), the second-rounder they received from the Rams to the Buccaneers for the No. 7 pick and a seventh-rounder.

The Bills then took Allen with the seventh pick, without having to touch the 22nd pick, which they’d acquired from Chiefs in the Mahomes deal a year earlier (they used that one, plus a third-rounder acquired for Tyrod Taylor, to move up to 16 and draft Tremaine Edmunds).

Why am I taking you through all this? Because I think the Giants are going to attack this creatively. Bottom line: If Schoen and Daboll see their version of Allen out there, I think they’ll try to find a way to get him—presuming Jones is gone. It also wouldn’t hurt if they had a wealth of draft picks before they do that, so it is possible they offload a vet or two to get there.

After all, I can’t imagine anyone would’ve guessed the Bills would turn Watkins, Glenn, the 21st and 53rd picks into the best quarterback they’ve had, easily, since Jim Kelly.

From Jim D. (@dool_75): Is the Jets’ biggest issue the talent on the field or the coaching staff?

Jim, to this point, I think the Jets’ failure to break through early this year has been a combination of everything. And part of that, to be sure, is bad luck. Zach Wilson hasn’t played a down, and it’s hard to judge the work of coach Robert Saleh and GM Joe Douglas before we get to see him running the team. Losing Mekhi Becton, shaky as that pick might look right now, didn’t help, either.

But outside of that, sure, it’s fair to ask questions. The Jets have put a lot of resources into the offensive line (two first-round picks, two big-ticket free agents), and that’s still a trouble spot. The pass rush should probably be better, too, given that the team has sunk picks and salary into that area. Now, of course, it’s been only three weeks, and so those elements of the team could well improve. At the very least, they merit watching.

It’s fair to ask questions about the coaching, too, in how the talent is developing, and after two convincing losses in three weeks.

This is a pivotal period for the franchise. They’ll have big decisions to make on Wilson after 2023, and there are a lot of young players, thanks to the capital spent from the Jamal Adams trade, that should be coalescing. Douglas is in his fourth season with the team and has his third draft class in house. Saleh is in his second year. I think, so long as there’s some progress, they make it to next year. But, again, ’23 is shaping up as a critical one.

From C_H_ (@hanning_c): How surprising has the play of Jacoby Brissett been?

Let’s look at the numbers through three games: Brissett has completed 66.3% of his passes for 596 yards, four touchdowns, a pick and a 94.1 quarterback rating. Which means that while he’s been efficient, the team isn’t leaning on him (less than 200 yards passing per game). Along those lines, he also ranks 24th in pass attempts.

And that strategy is ideal, and really impressive. It means the Browns don’t need to throw the ball a million times to win—they’re 2–1, and the loss was sort of a freak thing that presumably won’t repeat itself—and that they’re running the ball effectively despite having a backup quarterback and reworked receiver group. I wrote Monday how Bill Callahan’s making (around) $3 million a year. That the Browns are more than 600 yards rushing through three games under these circumstances is pretty astounding.

So I’d tell you Brissett playing like he has is why he’ll probably have a 15-year NFL career. No one’s got a backup that can carry a team. What you’re looking for is someone who can be an effective bus driver and threaten the defense enough to keep all the other elements of your offense working. Brissett is pretty resoundingly showing he can be that guy.

From THEE Harsha (@hr072): Do Tomlin and Belichick finish below 0.500?

Harsha, Bill Belichick’s been under .500 twice as a Patriots coach (2000 and ’20), and Mike Tomlin’s never had a losing record in 15 years leading the Steelers. So both of them finishing under .500 would be like lightning striking twice in the same place.

Let’s start with Belichick. His 2020 anomaly season came under a challenging (and mostly self-generated) quarterback circumstance, where his primary starter, Cam Newton, wasn’t signed until July, and necessitated a significant change in how they played offense. This year, the Patriots are facing a challenging quarterback situation with Mac Jones’s high-ankle sprain likely to sideline him for some period of time. Are the Patriots (1–2) good enough to go 8–6 the rest of the way? I think it’s an open question.

As for Tomlin, the Steelers are a torn biceps to a long snapper away from being 0–3. They have the Jets on Sunday, and if they don’t win that one, things get murky. Their next six are against the Bills, Bucs, Dolphins, Eagles, Saints and Bengals. So this could get away from Pittsburgh, and it’s not hard to see where, at some point along the line, they turn to Kenny Pickett, which will probably mean having to ride out some bumps.

Yeah, it’s really hard to do this based on history—but I can see where both Tomlin and Belichick finish under .500.

Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports © Provided by Sports Illustrated Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports

From Lennon theus (@broncolen30): Why is the Denver offense not clicking? Is it because they didn’t play much during preseason? Or is Russ declining already?

Lennon, I don’t think it’s Russell Wilson declining. I think it’s how the Broncos are deploying him—and how different that is from the way he was used in Seattle.

Through three games, and this is an admittedly small sample size, he’s averaging just over 35 pass attempts a game. He’s never averaged that many before. He’s also playing in the sort of offense he wanted to play in, which is more reliant on him as a passer, and less reliant on quarterback involvement in the running game.

Wilson’s long wanted to be more Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, and less Cam Newton, and now he’s getting the chance to see how it plays out. As part of that, he and Nathaniel Hackett are working to put together an offense that works for him. And, honestly, this is why I had the Broncos as the one AFC West team to miss the playoffs (though the Chargers and Raiders aren’t looking so hot, either)—because you’re projecting a lot with Denver, and it was always going to take some time for Wilson and the players to find their identity.

So get back to me on this one in a couple of months.

From Wade Harrison (@Wade_Harrison): Does Lovie survive a 3–4 win season, with a rookie QB coming in?

Wade, this is a fascinating question. I thought the Texans looked pretty decent through two weeks. But their first two opponents stumbled, too, and there wasn’t much to inspire confidence Sunday. Meanwhile, the team is just starting a critical point in GM Nick Caserio’s build. They’ve got their first big draft class, fronted by rookie corner Derek Stingley Jr. They’ve got a haul of picks in 2023 and ’24. They’ve got a quarterback decision on the horizon—whether to build around Davis Mills or find someone else.

It’s a lot, and it’s important that the right staff is in place to help identify and develop that talent, and that, I know, was a major element in hastening the decision to fire David Culley.

Would Houston do that again? It’s hard to say. There’s the connection between Texans EVP Jack Easterby and former NFL quarterback Josh McCown that hovered over the past two coach searches. There’s also a notable Northeast Ohio connection between Caserio and Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, who interviewed very well with Houston in January, has a relationship with Caserio and is close with longtime Caserio coworker-teammate-friend Josh McDaniels.

So I’m not necessarily projecting a second consecutive one-and-done here. I really like Lovie Smith and think he has a good shot to get the ship turned with a better roster in place this year. But I’m also not ruling anything out.

From Tyler (@Tylernol93): Have you heard anything regarding the Bears and any trades before the deadline (i.e., Robert Quinn, receivers)?

Tyler, just like the Bears were the most active team on the waiver wire at the late August roster cutdown, I’d expect GM Ryan Poles to be aggressive about tweaking his roster between now and the trade deadline. Part of that, I think, will be building capital for the 2023 draft, and Robert Quinn is most certainly one of the pieces that makes the most sense to look at moving—maybe back to the Rams, with the need there and Quinn now having some familiarity with the Vic Fangio–centric scheme that Raheem Morris runs.

The other two names I think could bring back good trade value are safety Eddie Jackson (Buffalo?) and Roquan Smith (Denver?). Jackson’s just 28, but the team does have a very, very promising rookie at the position in Jaquan Brisker, who’d soften the blow. And Smith’s in a contract year and, while a really good player, isn’t the taller, longer player that Matt Eberflus has traditionally favored at the position.

I’m not, by the way, saying those guys are gone or anything close to it—I just think most things would be on the table for the new Chicago regime.

From Tom Marshall (@aredzonauk): Regardless of the cause—was allowing Tua back into the game a very bad look for the NFL?

Tom, the short answer is yes. Given the NFL’s long-standing concussion issue—and make no mistake, the league and the teams put themselves in this position years ago—eyebrows should be raised in these circumstances every time. To the viewer Sunday, combining how Tagovailoa’s head bounced off the turf on a third-and-3 right after the two-minute warning, how Tagovailoa stumbled to the ground afterward, and how the Dolphins pulled him and sent him to the locker room, this one looked easy to diagnose.

Then, Miami announced Tagovailoa was being evaluated for a head injury to confirm that thought. So the fact the Dolphins would rush word, in-game, that it was actually a back injury, and not a head injury, before putting Tagovailoa back in the lineup to start the second half looked, at best, like a really sloppy cover-up in an effort to keep your starter in there and win a pivotal division game.

But at this point, there would have to be a lot of people complicit in this whole thing for what we initially thought was happening to be true. The Dolphins’ staff, the NFL’s concussion spotters, the league office and Tagovailoa himself would need to be in on it, at this point, if there actually was a concussion and the quarterback somehow didn’t open the week in the concussion protocol.

Again, everyone should look at the NFL and its teams with a skeptical eye on this stuff, which is why the NFLPA, rightfully, is investigating it. But at this point, there’d have to be something pretty sinister going on for the whole thing to be a ruse.

From Wendell Ferreira (@wendellfp): Which WRs do you expect to be available before the trade deadline?

Wendell, Kenny Golladay is the one that pops into your head on this one. The Giants would give him away for, well, not much now, and take on salary to buy back a draft pick. All of that’s established—but the contract is going to make it hard for Joe Schoen to move him.

Other than that? It’s hard because so many teams are still in contention, so you almost have to look for guys that have fallen into disuse (like New England’s Kendrick Bourne) to find viable options. And, of course, with some time, and teams out of contention, all of this is subject to change. Also, don’t forget that Beckham is out there—with the hope being he’ll be healthy enough to play come, ballpark, the holidays. 

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