Every year, the NFL is riddled with quarterback controversies. This season is no different with a number of quarterback controversies across the league. While some appear to be shaping up, others remain in a state of flux as we wait for someone to distance themselves. Of course, the media speculates and the fans clamor. Ahh… what a life…
The preseason, first and foremost, is about finding players to fill a roster. Coaches want to see what players can do within their systems, but the emphasis is about testing the players to see what they can do as a football player out on the field. For that reason, offenses and defenses remain relatively “vanilla”, meaning they simply lack the complexities coaches will coach and use in their gameplans when the season kicks off officially.
The offensive coaches are implementing their offenses, both old and new, and bringing new players up to speed, which doesn’t give them the time to introduce their complicated “one-week gameplan” specifically designed for a defense. The same can be said for defenses as coaches keep their play-calling relatively simple for the new additions until they make the roster officially, giving them bits and pieces to be utilized as the regular season progresses. This is why you expect players like the Peyton Manning’s and the Tom Brady’s to excel against the basic defensive strategies – they’ve done it how many times now? The defensive coordinators aren’t really trying to stop them specifically, but rather putting their players in positions to make plays to, frankly, see if they can.
Why is this important? Well, this is what you see with quarterback controversies. Certainly the preseason provides a brilliant backdrop for a quarterback controversy, as it puts both players under similar circumstances, but preseason play doesn’t speak for how well they will perform when the regular season starts. This is most pertinent with rookie quarterbacks who are trying to quickly learn a pro offense and face down defensive players who equate to the best individual players they ever played in college. Highly picked rookie quarterbacks tend to have a higher ceiling, so they have exceptional abilities that carry them through in the preseason, but when the regular season rolls around, they struggle as defenses get more complicated and are specifically designed to stop each individual quarterback they play.
The best example of this would have to be the “meteoric” rise of Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden just a year ago. Over the first two preseason games in 2013, Weeden was 18 of 25 with 229 passing yards and three touchdowns. That’s a completion percentage of 71.8%. Weeden came back to earth in the third “tune-up” game where he was 12 of 25 for 125 passing yards, but the fact remains that in the early preseason, particularly, Weeden was able to excel. When the regular season came around… not so much. He finished last season playing in eight games (starting only five) and throwing for 1,731 yards with a 52.8% completion percentage, nine touchdowns and nine interceptions. While Weeden is just one example, you can look back to countless others throughout NFL history that played well in the preseason only to disappear in the regular season when the scheming phases them out essentially. A veteran player who has “been there before” or a rookie with exceptional gifts will stand out in the preseason. When the regular season finally rolls around though, that rookie will frequently disappear until they catch up to the speed of the regular season games. Keep this in mind as we take on each team individually.
Please note that some of these teams may appear set on their decision. I have those teams listed here as there legitimate questions about if the depth charts will remain that way as the season progresses.
The first player listed is the current starter/leader in the competition.
1. New York Jets
Geno Smith vs. Michael Vick
– Smith is the starter, but Vick is probably the most talented “backup” in the NFL right now. Smith still seems to struggle with accuracy at times and last season had to contend with the lack of skill on the Jets roster. Smith will start the regular season at quarterback, as the past tends to defer to the future in the NFL, but Vick is a quality player that I don’t expect to go away. Unless Smith falls apart in the preseason Week 3 matchup, Smith will play out the season through thick or thin. While I don’t think Smith brings the Jets a playoff birth this season, I do believe New York is uncomfortable with the thought of moving on from Smith just over a year after they drafted him. I only see Smith losing his starting spot if he is atrocious, which he won’t be, or if he gets hurt, which is more likely.
Prediction: Smith plays out season as starter pending terrible play or injury. Even a bad record would give Smith experience, so the more likely Vick scenario is that New York wins in spite of Smith into playoff contention with Vick being a necessary change to chase the playoffs.
2. Cleveland Browns
Brian Hoyer vs. Johnny Manziel
– Hoyer is the “guy” as recently as… today… and Manziel is recovering from a dicey Monday Night that saw him underperform (7 of 16 for 65 passing yards including a short shovel pass for a touchdown) and give the finger to the Washington Redskins bench. All this was not enough to remove Hoyer, and his “2 of 6 for 16 yards” performance, from the top spot on the Browns depth chart. Watching the Browns, Manziel seems to give them the best chance to win given his ability to be a weapon in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense, but I don’t think even that is a great chance. I wrote before the NFL draft that I saw Manziel potentially blossoming into an above average starter, but not the star everyone hopes for. In the preseason, we should be seeing his athleticism and his brilliance, but instead he is being outperformed by Hoyer. Hoyer, is a decent quarterback who, I believe, benefitted greatly from Josh Gordon a year ago (who accounted for 217 of Hoyer’s 590 passing yards in the two full games Hoyer played), but doesn’t have the caliber of a starting quarterback. We should see that rear it’s ugly head after the first two games of Cleveland’s season at Pittsburgh and home against New Orleans as Gordon, in all likelihood, watches from home. I expect Hoyer to struggle in those games and for the city of Cleveland to be looking for Manziel to start at home against Baltimore Week 3. I can’t say things will get much better when Manziel gets his shot, but he will have his moments.
Prediction: Hoyer retains starting spot until Week 3 of the regular season.
3. Minnesota Vikings
Matt Cassel vs. Teddy Bridgewater vs. Christian Ponder
– For all intents and purposes, Ponder is out of this race. Minnesota drafting Bridgewater in the first round signals that they are ready to move on, so there is no reason why the third option would be seriously brought back into this unless there is an injury. So, this is Cassel and Bridgewater. Cassel is a limited player who can win you games, but things need to go right for that to happen. His career stats are rather lackluster if you exclude great seasons in 2008 (with New England – 327 of 516, 3,693 yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions) and 2010 (with Kansas City – 262 of 450, 3,116 yards, 27 touchdowns, seven interceptions) and at 32-years old, Cassel doesn’t offer much in the way of growth. Bridgewater, however, has looked better than Manziel has this preseason playing with poise and composure. I fully believe Bridgewater will be a franchise signal-caller in due time whether he starts Week 1 or not. Cassel has played slightly better, but remember what I said about the preseason? While Bridgewater would certainly have an adjustment period, Cassel will not be this impressive throughout the regular season. Unless Adrian Peterson can carry the offense on his back yet again to a winning record, we will be seeing Bridgewater this season, probably sooner rather than later.
Prediction: Cassel starts season, but around Week 5-6 we see Bridgewater take over. An 0-3 start with poor play from Cassel could bring Bridgewater in even earlier.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Chad Henne vs. Blake Bortles
– Henne is the quarterback Jacksonville seems to be going with, but I have the feeling that by Week 1 or Week 2, at the latest, we will have Bortles as the starter. Fans and the Jacksonville coaching staff knows what Henne can do. They also know that they are in for, yet again, a long season. So, why wouldn’t they run with their franchise signal caller who has actually looked quite impressive and confident over his first two preseason games? Bortles has all the tools of a franchise quarterback with the size, mobility, arm strength and technical know-how to play the position. There are many, including myself, who commend Jacksonville for saying they will let Bortles sit, but of all the young-guns on this list, Bortles looks like he is the most NFL-ready. Put him in and give the Jaguars fans something to watch!
Prediction: Bortles starts Week 1.