Every NFL season is a new opportunity to learn. In some cases, the things you pick up from a campaign are brand new (or close), like seeing Chip Kelly work in that debut Monday Night Football game against Washington in 2013. Others are just reminders of things I either took for granted or wasn’t emphasizing as much as I should have when I think about the state of the game in 2018.
I’m going to run through some of the big stories from the 2018 season and see what I learned or relearned over the course of the new campaign. That begins with an absolutely bonkers playoff race and ends with a question about what to do with the missing quarterback from Sunday night’s play-in game in Tennessee:
We don’t know a lot after Week 1 … or even by midseason
Football Outsiders often jokes about Week 1 being National Jump to Conclusions Week, and its staff isn’t wrong. Seven of the 12 eventual playoff teams lost their season opener, including the Cowboys (16-8 to the Panthers), Bears (24-23 in the Aaron Rodgers comeback game), and Saints (who lost 48-40 to the Buccaneers of all teams). The Texans started 0-3. Their first win came over the Colts, who started 1-5.
What was less common, though, was how many teams made a second-half run to postseason glory. After Week 10, five of the 12 eventual playoff teams had a losing record. The Colts, Cowboys, Eagles, Ravens and Seahawks were each 4-5. They went a combined 29-6 the rest of the way, and one of those losses was by the Eagles to the Cowboys. From 2002 to ’17, a mere 17 teams — or just more than one per season under this current playoff structure — made it to the postseason despite a losing record after nine games.
Meanwhile, teams with winning records that seemed well-positioned to make the playoffs fell off. The 6-2-1 Steelers lost four games in five weeks and missed at 9-6-1. The 6-3 Panthers saw their defense collapse and lost seven consecutive games. The 5-3-1 Vikings fell into an offensive hole and couldn’t beat a Bears team that ended up having nothing to play for by halftime Sunday. Washington started 6-3 and ended the season with Josh Johnson at quarterback and their stands colonized by Eagles fans. The 5-4 Bengals were down to Jeff Driskel throwing passes to Alex Erickson on Sunday, and the 5-4 Titans made it to the final game of the season before seeing their playoff hopes tossed aside by Blaine Gabbert.
The lesson: Be patient, because miracles can happen, even in November. There were rumors in midseason that the Cowboys were about to fire Jason Garrett and the Ravens were going to do the same with John Harbaugh. Instead, Dallas traded for Amari Cooper, the Ravens were forced to promote Lamar Jackson into the starting lineup via injury, and their seasons turned around. The Colts were one of my most likely teams to improve before the season and my long shot pick to make the playoffs at 3-5 in November, but they were a laughingstock during the offseason after Josh McDaniels ghosted them to stay in New England.
This also applies to the teams that fell off their precipices. Steelers fans who want Mike Tomlin fired shouldn’t freak out over an ugly five-game stretch. Panthers fans who want to get rid of Ron Rivera would be cutting a coach who had gone 17-8 over the previous season and a half. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Steelers move on from defensive coordinator Keith Butler, or for the Panthers to bring back Steve Wilks if he’s fired by the Cardinals, but a wholesale clearout probably would be shortsighted.
No team is one player away
During their cap disaster era earlier this decade, the Saints seemed capable of convincing themselves that they were perennially one player or one fix away from winning the Super Bowl. On one hand, we’ve seen how good they can be with Drew Brees and a good defense over the past two seasons, but the reality was that they were always a few players away. After going 11-5 in 2013, they handed a huge contract to star Bills safety Jairus Byrd, even though the deal required an onerous structure to fit into an already tight cap. He was a disaster in New Orleans and is out of football.
The Saints didn’t turn things around until they had a killer draft in 2017. The Vikings had their killer drafts before making their big free-agent move, but it was fair to look at what they did in this offseason and view them as serious Super Bowl contenders. After making it to the NFC Championship Game and returning virtually everyone from a dominant defense, the Vikings raised their floor at quarterback by replacing Case Keenum with Kirk Cousins on a $28 million per year deal. I liked the move, and I wasn’t the only one.
Sixteen games later, Vikings fans aren’t as enthused. The goalposts have begun to move in the way they often do when teams aren’t satisfied with their quarterback. After grumbling about Cousins’ record in prime-time games, he seemed to satiate Vikings fans with a 342-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Packers in Week 12, but that wasn’t enough.
The impotent offense led Mike Zimmer to fire offensive coordinator John DeFilippo in December, and while Cousins and replacement offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski helped push the offense to 68 points over two subsequent games, Vikings fans always seemed one rough series or quarter away from booing the offense again. In a must-win game on Sunday against the Bears, Cousins and the offense gave those fans plenty of opportunities to holler. Minnesota went three-and-out on its first four drives, racked up just three first downs by halftime, and finished with just 10 points.
With two fully guaranteed years left to go on Cousins’ deal, the Vikings are basically tied in with him with precious little wiggle room to make changes for the foreseeable future. (There will certainly be Vikings fans dreaming of a scenario where they trade Cousins and use the freed-up cap space to re-sign Teddy Bridgewater, and while it’s theoretically possible given that Cousins’ money is tied into a base salary, he would need to give his written consent for any trade.) After thinking they were one player away from a Super Bowl run, the Vikings are realizing that it isn’t quite that simple.
The lesson: Be realistic about which elements of your team’s play are likely to recur. During the offseason, fans often get hopeful about their team by counting on everything that went right to stay great while expecting everything that went wrong to improve. Teams can be about as optimistic internally. The Vikings had an incredibly healthy defense with an unsustainably great third-down rate in 2017. Their offensive line stayed healthy, and it allowed Keenum to post what would have been an impressive season for Cousins. I can’t fault Minnesota for going after Cousins, but the front office probably now wishes it had re-signed someone like Bridgewater or Keenum and used the money to supplement the offensive line.
Quarterbacks on rookie contracts are incredibly valuable, even if they’re not superstars
I’ve been writing about how the league is built around finding quarterbacks on rookie contracts since 2012, when a rush of teams like the Seahawks and 49ers rode young passers on bargain deals to the postseason. The CBA changes before the 2011 season created a universe in which teams that found competent passers on rookie deals were able to flood the rest of their roster with talent. This isn’t exactly a new lesson.
The Eagles rode Carson Wentz through most of the 2017 season before Nick Foles eventually took over and won Super Bowl LII. They followed the same path this season, and they’re not the only ones making it to January with a cheap quarterback. Seven of the 12 playoff teams either used a quarterback on a rookie deal as their primary quarterback or as the passer who will suit up for them in their first postseason game, including the Bears, Chiefs, Cowboys, Eagles, Rams, Ravens and Texans.
Doug Pederson says the Eagles’ playoff-clinching Week 17 win is “a lot of hard work that just paid off” and does not have an update on Nick Foles.
Meanwhile, many of the teams that paid a premium to keep their big-name quarterbacks around are going to spend their January licking their wounds. Of the 10 teams whose quarterbacks had the largest cap hits this season, only four will make the postseason: the Colts, Saints and Seahawks, as well as the Ravens, who are on both lists by virtue of hosting Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson on their roster. The 49ers, Giants, Lions, Raiders, Steelers and Vikings missed the postseason.
The lesson: The upper middle class is a dangerous place to be with quarterbacks. True superstar quarterbacks are perennially undervalued, but if you have something below that tier under center at a high price, you’re swimming against the tide. Earlier this year, I hypothesized that a team with a young superstar quarterback will eventually trade its starter before he gets a big contract to stay cheap at the position.
It’s going to take a brave team, and it might not ever happen. What should change, though, is that teams in the middle of the market simply can’t justify paying $20 million or more per season to guys who aren’t going to win you games single-handedly. Teams with quarterbacks like Flacco, Eli Manning and Ryan Tannehill can’t win with mediocre passers making more than 10 percent of the salary cap. If the next CBA doesn’t change the rookie contract structure, organizations are going to get more aggressive about moving on from competent veterans to go after younger passers on rookie deals.
No quarterback is totally immune to subpar coaching and a mediocre team
If you had asked me whether any quarterback in the league was a lock to get to 10 wins if he stayed healthy in 2018, I would have said Aaron Rodgers. After his first season as a starter in 2008, Rodgers had won 10 or more games in each of his seven full or close-to-full seasons as the Packers’ top passer. His career record suggested Rodgers would win about 10.5 out of every 16 games. With an improved defense, I expected the Packers to compete for a first-round bye in the NFC.
You know what happened. Rodgers was fine, but whether it was the knee injury he suffered in the opener, the dreadfully anachronistic offense of deposed coach Mike McCarthy, or age imposing upon the 35-year-old future Hall of Famer, Rodgers and the Packers never got going in 2018. A pair of miraculous comebacks and wins over the Bills and Dolphins got Green Bay to 4-4-1 after Week 10, but the Packers promptly lost three straight games by a total of 13 points, with the loss to Arizona costing McCarthy his job.
The Packers stumbled to the finish line, with their season ending via a 31-0 home loss to the Lions on Sunday. It was the third-worst loss at Lambeau for the Packers since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, and the worst since Rodgers’ second season, when the Packers lost 35-0 at home to the Patriots. Rodgers left with a concussion, but he managed to start all 16 games and somehow finished 6-9-1. Few things shocked me more in 2018.
The lesson: Every quarterback needs help. The floor for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick together might be 10 wins, but every other quarterback can’t be considered a lock to get to 10 wins if everything else goes wrong. Ben Roethlisberger, who had averaged nearly 11 wins per 16 games as a starter, also fell below 10 this season.
Healthy offensive lines drive good offenses
This was another one that was reinforced for me this year. When you hear fans complain that their offense isn’t as good as the one with the same skill-position guys from a couple years earlier and blame the coordinator or the quarterback, they’re usually ignoring the offensive line. The classic example for this is the Falcons, who had their five offensive linemen start every game together during the regular season of that incredible 2016 campaign. By the end of the 2018 season, Atlanta had started nine different offensive linemen at least once.
Just one team went 80-for-80 and started the same five linemen in all 16 games this season: the Rams, who were quite good on offense. Three other teams managed to start each of their five linemen for a minimum of 14 games. The Chargers were excellent on offense, and while the Bucs had turnover issues, they were able to basically produce with either Jameis Winston or Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback and should finish around 10th in offensive DVOA when the final regular season numbers post this week. The 49ers weren’t as effective, although they were down to their third-string quarterback for the second half of the campaign.
On the flip side, it’s virtually impossible to survive (or thrive) with a banged up offensive line. The five offensive lines to start more than 10 different players this season included the Saints, who survive on Drew Brees‘ immaculately quick release, but subsequently added the Dolphins, Washington, the Cardinals and the Jaguars to the mix. By the end of the season, the Cardinals were down to backup linemen in each of their five offensive line spots. In other news, Josh Rosen wasn’t very good.
The lesson: You can never have enough offensive line depth. Teams might see a healthy season from their line and hope that they’ve stumbled onto the fountain of youth, but even given that the Rams were remarkably healthy up front two years in a row, offensive line injuries are almost impossible to escape. Indeed, star left tackle Andrew Whitworth limped off during Sunday’s victory over the 49ers after knocking knees with a player and was ruled out as a precautionary measure afterward.
Highly drafted athletes are going to keep getting chances
As easy as it can be to call someone a bust, the temptation to close the book on a disappointing young player can lead to mistakes. We saw plenty of players who were great athletes coming out of school succeed in different locations in 2018, years after the world collectively decided they were disappointments.
Ground zero for these guys was Indianapolis. Eric Ebron was a disappointment in Detroit, where he dropped too many passes and was remembered most as the guy the Lions took ahead of Odell Beckham Jr. and Aaron Donald with the 10th pick of the 2014 draft. When Indy signed Ebron to a two-year deal this offseason, the only reason the move seemed exciting was context. Andrew Luck loved throwing to his tight ends when healthy, while new coach Frank Reich made ample use of multiple tight end sets in San Diego and Philadelphia.
What happened next shocked everyone, Ebron likely included. The North Carolina product finished second in the league behind Antonio Brown with 13 receiving touchdowns. His 750 receiving yards were the fifth highest in the league, and while it’s tough to imagine Ebron scoring on nearly 20 percent of his catches again in 2019, the 6-foot-4 tight end proved he could play in this league with the right coaches around him.
Ebron wasn’t the only one. Former Bengals second-round pick Margus Hunt, an overaged size-speed monster coming out of school, was a standout rotation end for the Colts. Fellow speed demon Breshad Perriman tormented his former Ravens employers on Sunday amid a 233-yard, two-touchdown final month of the season with the Browns. Former Lions disappointment Laken Tomlinson had emerged as an upper-echelon guard for the 49ers before suffering a knee injury on Sunday.
Even Cody Latimer, who never panned out as a Brandon Marshall/Demaryius Thomas replacement in Denver, had four catches and 72 yards against the Cowboys on Sunday. Byron Jones, who had been struggling at safety and lost his job for stretches last season, moved back to cornerback full-time and had a Pro Bowl season for the Cowboys. Teams are always going to give these guys chance after chance to succeed. Some of them eventually pan out.
The lesson: Don’t give up on those post-hype sleepers. Even if a first- or second-round pick hasn’t yet panned out, smart organizations will go after them in the hopes of finding them an athletic contributor for a low price. From the 2015 draft, that list would include the likes of Kevin White, DeVante Parker and Dante Fowler, as well as Josh Doctson and Karl Joseph from the 2016 first round.
Big draft classes are still the best way to turn around a team quickly
With the league steadily reducing practice time, it became trendy to talk about treating the draft like a waste of time while using picks to acquire players from around the league. The Rams seem set on actually implementing the strategy while using supplemental picks gained in free agency to replenish their draft capital. The Patriots, who dealt away several picks in the 2017 draft, also seemed onboard.
One year later and that philosophy might be Rams-specific. The 2017 Saints showed just how much life a great draft class can breathe into your organization, as they turned five top-76 picks into the likes of Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams and Alvin Kamara. The Patriots ended up with two first-round picks this year, although Isaiah Wynn and Sony Michel only combined to play 13 games, all from the latter back.
Two of the breakout teams from the bottom of the pack rode impressive draft classes to competency. The Browns had been stockpiling picks forever under general manager Sashi Brown, but with John Dorsey making the selections in 2018, the hit rate was higher. Baker Mayfield looks like a franchise quarterback and might have the most theoretical trade value of any player in the league given his contract, while cornerback Denzel Ward made the Pro Bowl with the first-round pick the Browns got in the Deshaun Watson deal. (When was the last time you heard someone criticize Cleveland for trading out of the Wentz and Watson picks?) Second-rounder Nick Chubb also looked like a game-breaking back after the Browns traded away Carlos Hyde in midseason.
The Colts, who traded down with the Jets as part of the Sam Darnold deal, have to be delighted with their draft haul. Indy general manager Chris Ballard ended up with five picks in the first two rounds, and his first two selections look like superstars in guard Quenton Nelson and stud inside linebacker Darius Leonard. The latter’s interception sealed Indy’s playoff berth on Sunday night. Braden Smith started 13 games up front alongside Nelson for Indy, and while Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis were less impactful, the Colts got down-ballot contributions from Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins at running back.
The lesson: The draft is still good. Don’t go trading away all your draft picks unless you’re Sean McVay.
Breakout young teams might not have lengthy windows of opportunity
The three most stunning teams from last season that came out of nowhere to compete for the NFL title were the Eagles, Jaguars and Rams. Philadelphia and Jacksonville went from worst-to-first, while the Rams improved from 4-12 to 11-5. With each of the three teams returning virtually every core member of their roster from the previous season, it seemed likely they would each make it back to similar heights in 2019.
That didn’t happen. The Rams improved on their 11-5 mark from a year ago and went 13-3, claiming the No. 2 seed in the NFC. The Eagles struggled for consistency and rhythm on offense, but eventually figured enough out late to sneak into the playoffs at 9-7.
The Jaguars beat the Patriots in Week 2 and seemed to be on the cusp of great things. Instead, Jacksonville lost eight of its next nine games and saw the entire identity collapse in on itself. Blake Bortles, the quarterback the organization had talked itself into for years, finally played poorly enough for the Jaguars to bench him. The offensive line imploded via injury to the point that the Jags were starting Giants castoffs Ereck Flowers and Patrick Omameh by the end of the season. Running back Leonard Fournette, the player the Jags chose in lieu of going after a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson in the 2017 draft, reportedly had his contract guarantees voided after a midseason suspension and could be traded or cut this offseason.
Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone speaks about his job status saying he feels confident that he can turn the team around next season.
Jacksonville’s formula — a young, aggressive, dominant defense and an offense just good enough to stay out of the way — seemed functional. A year later, it seems irreparably broken. What seemed like the beginning of a multiyear championship window now seems like a momentary crack of fresh air.
The lesson: Don’t assume everything will keep working. The Bears are essentially a carbon copy of last year’s Jaguars in terms of the leap made and the way they win football games, and they’ll need to get more from their offense in 2019 than the Jaguars did in 2018. (If you’re going to say that the Bears are better offensively than those Jags, keep in mind that Jacksonville finished 16th in offensive DVOA at minus-0.3 percent in 2017, while the Bears were 22nd in the same category at minus-5.1 percent heading into Week 17.)
If it’s not the Bears, teams like the Texans, Colts, Cowboys and even the Browns will have to hope that their formula is sustainable. One of them is likely to fall back toward the bottom quarter of the league in 2019.
The running quarterback is alive and well
You might remember that the read-option was declared dead sometime around 2013, when the likes of Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin were no longer able to terrify opposing defenses merely by reading one backside end and keeping the ball accordingly. It was never that simple. The Chip Kelly offenses kept plenty of read-option looks, of course, while the Panthers had their fair share with Cam Newton within their running game. The Bills, who had Greg Roman as their offensive coordinator under Rex Ryan, built in read-option looks for Tyrod Taylor.
While coaches and pundits cautioned that teams would stop using their quarterbacks as runners once passers started getting hurt, that hasn’t happened. In fact, in 2018, we saw quarterbacks run the ball more than ever before. Passers racked up a combined 8,086 rushing yards, the most any quarterback class has combined to generate in a single season since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970. The 71 rushing touchdowns they scored is the second most over that 49-year span, coming up narrowly behind the 73 scores racked up in 2002.
What’s even cooler is that we’re seeing quarterbacks succeed as runners in different ways. Josh Allen and Mitchell Trubisky, who are still developing as passers, created significant chunks of their value this season on the ground with their legs. Seventy-eight percent of their rushing yardage came on scrambles, when teams would play man coverage and fail to contain the quarterback in the pocket. Russell Wilson, who had precious few designed runs this season, also hit his spots as a scrambler.
Lamar Jackson, meanwhile, led all quarterbacks in rushing yards while running about as pure of a spread option scheme as we’ve seen from any attack at the professional level. He shouldered an enormous workload and was essentially the Ravens’ offense during the 6-1 stretch which pushed them into the postseason. Jackson finished the year with 147 carries, which is a post-merger record for NFL quarterbacks despite only starting the final seven games. When he wasn’t running the ball, the threat of Jackson was creating running lanes for Kenneth Dixon and Gus Edwards.
The lesson: The league keeps evolving. I don’t think we’re going to see quarterbacks top 8,000 yards next year. Allen and Trubisky won’t be as effective as scramblers, with teams devoting more resources to stopping them on the ground. Jackson, who was banged up several times during this stretch, probably isn’t going to be able to shoulder a 272-carry workload after averaging 17 rush attempts per game as a starter. The league will adapt on defense, and then there will be adjustments on offense. We’re going to continue to see smart teams take concepts from Friday (high school) and Saturday (college) and implement them on Sundays over the next decade.
Great coaches don’t lose their core competencies as they age
While McCarthy was struggling to keep up with the times in Green Bay, a number of veteran coaches reminded us of just how talented they are in 2018. Take Harbaugh, who has spent his decade in Baltimore working alongside an ever-changing staff of imported coaches from other organizations. Harbaugh is yet to spend three full seasons with the same offensive and defensive coordinator in place, either losing his coordinator to another organization or firing them for subpar performances. He has shown a remarkable capacity for flexibility.
Harbaugh worked with Marty Mornhinweg and Greg Roman this year to build an offensive package for Jackson before making that the core of the Ravens’ offense during the bye week in November. The Ravens didn’t want to switch to Jackson — remember that Harbaugh said he wasn’t benching Flacco during the bye week before it came clear that the veteran’s hip injury was going to cost Flacco playing time — but when it was necessary, Harbaugh went all-in with an offense that was designed to maximize Jackson’s strengths. It worked. (Compare that to what McCarthy did with Brett Hundley a year ago.)
Hundley is now in Seattle, where Pete Carroll’s defense has been one of the quietly impressive units of the season, even after losing Earl Thomas in September. Carroll was once an excellent defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator before becoming a head coach, and one of the first successes he had with the Seahawks was molding a bunch of midround picks around Thomas into what became the Legion of Boom.
With his veteran stars either cut or injured, Carroll built his new secondary into a competent unit overnight. Shaquill Griffin impressed in 2017 across from Sherman and took over as the lead corner this season, with rookie Tre Flowers impressing on the opposite side. A safety duo of Bradley McDougald and Tedric Thompson wasn’t Thomas and Chancellor, but they more than held their own. The Seahawks built a solid secondary with third-, fourth- and fifth-round picks around McDougald, who was a modest free-agent addition from the Bucs. It’s not difficult to imagine Carroll at the core of that improvement.
Of course, the most notable story is Andy Reid and what he’s done with Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City. I wrote about the multiyear plan that went into developing Mahomes back in September, and little has changed since then. He is my pick for MVP, and while Mahomes might have succeeded anywhere as a pro, Reid has done an incredible job of surrounding him with talent and the right scheme. Nobody has a better résumé of building offenses around different types of quarterbacks than Reid.
The lesson: Don’t count out veteran coaches. Maybe we’re too aggressive in dismissing McCarthy, who is being linked to a new job as coach of the Browns alongside Dorsey. At the same time, though …
Offensive infrastructure is everything for a young quarterback
The best example of this might have been with Jared Goff between 2016 and 2017, when he went from looking overmatched with the Jeff Fisher-era Rams to a franchise quarterback underneath Sean McVay. We saw more examples in 2018, with Mitchell Trubisky coming out of his shell under Matt Nagy in Chicago. Trubisky’s growth as a passer wasn’t quite as dynamic, but he looked far better as a sophomore than the former second overall pick did during his first half-season under Dowell Loggains.
An even more obvious change is Baker Mayfield in Cleveland, given that he went from playing mediocre football under Hue Jackson and Todd Haley to the best run in recent Browns history under Freddie Kitchens. Mayfield kept it up since I wrote that column, posting a 94.8 passer rating over the final three games.
Baker Mayfield says his is disappointed the Browns’ comeback fell short, but praises the team’s resiliency and reflects on his rookie record.
With that in mind, the Browns are running a major risk by presumably replacing Kitchens with the new staff. Even if McCarthy comes on board and retains Kitchens, it seems extremely unlikely that he’ll hand the reins over to the incumbent and let Kitchens continue to make playcalls and design the scheme to his own specifications without interference. Could McCarthy help Mayfield develop? Absolutely, just as McCarthy helped Rodgers develop into a star. Could he roll things back and make Mayfield take a step backward? It certainly seems possible. Given how Mayfield has been playing under Kitchens’ stewardship, it seems extremely dangerous to shake things up and bring in a new offensive mind. It could become the defining moment of Dorsey’s reign in charge of the Browns if things don’t work out.
The lesson: Don’t make any significant, long-term evaluations of a quarterback after one year. I mentioned this in the progress report. Before you can make any long-term proclamations about any of these passers, we need to see Josh Rosen playing behind a line that is not literally all backup linemen. We need to see Josh Allen and Sam Darnold with better receiving corps. Their careers could all head in different directions with new coaching staffs or changes in weaponry. Mayfield, who looked like the star of the group coming out of college and after Year 1, might not mesh with his new coaches. There’s still so much time.
When a team falls in love with a quarterback, it stays in love
Let’s finish with this truism and how it fits the top of the 2015 class. When I wrote about the players who had the most to gain or lose over the second half of the season, I put Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston at the top of the list. He had been benched the night before for Ryan Fitzpatrick and would lose his job on what seemed like a permanent basis the morning of my column. It was fair to wonder whether the Bucs would keep Winston off the field to try to keep from triggering his injury guarantee of $20.9 million for 2019.
Instead, Dirk Koetter and the Bucs couldn’t resist going back. After Fitzpatrick played like the Fitz of yore, the Buccaneers reinserted Winston into the lineup. From Week 11 on, Winston was 10th in the league in passer rating and fifth in QBR. He threw 13 touchdown passes against just four picks and two fumbles, an impressive ratio for a quarterback with a propensity for turning over the football. Winston did enough for Adam Schefter to report that the Bucs plan on bringing him back as their starter in 2019.
That decision was up to general manager Jason Licht, who appears likely to retain his job even after Koetter was fired Sunday night. Licht is now 27-53 as general manager and has just one season with more than six wins, but the best way for him to keep his job is for the quarterback he drafted with the first overall pick to pan out. Extending that evaluation period out for as long as possible has managed to earn Licht the chance to hire a third head coach and take a shot at the eighth kicker of his reign.
Is it possible that the Winston of the last six weeks is a new player? Of course. At the same time, we were asking the exact same question about the last month of his 2017 season, and after returning from his suspension for allegedly groping an Uber driver, Winston threw a ton of interceptions and was benched. There is little reason to think that he deserves this many chances based on his on-field play or off-field conduct, but the Bucs are so deep into the Winston game that it will take a new coach with meaningful clout to get Winston out.
The Titans, meanwhile, saw their playoff hopes come to an end when Marcus Mariota wasn’t able to suit up for Sunday’s play-in game against the Colts. The Titans should be applauded for making the prudent decision and protecting their quarterback’s long-term health by sitting him out with a stinger, although it’s unclear whether Mariota would have been effective if he had played. It might be too generous of a stance toward the Titans — remember that they inserted Mariota as an injury replacement for Gabbert earlier this season despite the fact that Mariota was initially kept out with nerve damage in his elbow — but even a playoff berth isn’t worth Mariota’s career.
At the same time, though, health is a skill Mariota lacks. He has now missed games in each of his first four pro seasons with various injuries, and there doesn’t seem to be an obvious solution beyond getting luckier. The Titans have cycled through offensive coordinators and invested in weapons for Mariota, but the best scheme for the former Oregon star is also one likely to put him in harm’s way as a runner.
Just as the Buccaneers need to reconcile the Winston of the last three-plus years with the guy who has been promising over the past month, the Titans need to accept that this is going to be Mariota’s baseline. As tempting as it is to count on a 16-game season from Mariota, the far more likely scenario is that he misses two games and is banged up playing through another. Is Mariota good enough for the Titans when he is healthy to justify a big market despite missing those two to three games per year?
The lesson: Self-evaluate well and invest in a high-quality backup. Yes, better than Gabbert, who looked hopelessly lost while trying to hit open receivers in a would-be playoff game Sunday. If both these teams want to stick with their young quarterbacks — and it appears that they do, at least into 2019 — they probably need to invest more in the backup position than just about anybody else in the league. Mariota and Nick Foles sounds a lot more imposing than Mariota and Gabbert, even if it costs the Titans $10 million per season for Foles.