The only thing worse than not having a good NFL quarterback, a longtime general manager told me a few weeks ago, is trying to find one.
“I wasn’t alive then but I can imagine it’s akin to prospecting for gold in the 1800s,” he said.
That sentiment came to mind Tuesday when the Carolina Panthers announced they’ll continue filtering bodies through their quarterback turnstile Sunday, as Sam Darnold replaces Baker Mayfield as the starter mere months after Mayfield beat out Darnold for the job.
Neither of these players has been a consistent, good-enough quarterback five seasons after being selected in the top 3 of the 2018 draft. And that draft, along with what we’ve seen every year since, speak loudly to one fact:
A lot of NFL teams are terrible at finding quarterbacks.
NFL Teams Blow Quarterback Decisions
Consider this season and the bad decisions one team after another made while trying to find their starter:
The Pittsburgh Steelers, bless their hearts, had Ben Roethlisberger as their starter from 2004-2021. Great. This offseason they went looking for a starter and signed Mitch Trubisky to be that guy.
Trubisky washed out as the starter in Chicago after the Bears drafted him No. 2 overall in 2017.
But the Steelers thought he could be their bridge starter and possibly more after Trubisky rehabilitated his reputation in Buffalo last season by completing … 6 passes (not a misprint).
Trubisky earned four starts this year before coach Mike Tomlin decided that was a mistake. The Steelers now start Kenny Pickett. And the rookie’s progress has pleased Tomlin.
“It’s moving in the direction that we would like it to,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “Sure, could it move faster? Absolutely. I don’t think anybody is patient, including Kenny. This is not a patient man’s business.
“You work while you wait, and that’s what he and we are doing. But he’s doing a nice job just in general.”
Patience is an interesting concept these days. In 2022, NFL people seemingly measure patience in weeks and months. In swaths of four, seven, maybe 10 games.
Measure QB Success Over Years
In the past it was measured over multiple seasons.
And the difference between the two is a trap because fans, and sometimes teams, buy into the short bursts of good without considering the concept of regression to mean. And reality.
Carson Wentz, for example, played outstanding over a small sample size in 2017, throwing 33 TD passes and 7 interceptions before getting injured after 13 games.
He has never regained those heights again. Not with the Colts, who traded for him last season. And not with the Washington Commanders, who traded for him this season and have effectively benched him now.
Mayfield was good in 2020 for the Browns. He led them to the playoffs and got to make insurance commercials. It was encouraging. But it was fleeting.
Darnold was an instant hit with the Jets in 2018. Joe Namath watched him play and spoke highly of him. Broadway Sam shirts were made and sold.
“There’s very little chance anyone is going to give Sam a chance to be a starter next offseason when he’s a free agent unless the guy we see the next few weeks plays nothing like the guy we’ve seen the past three seasons,” a former NFL coach told OutKick on Tuesday.
“And the dye is cast with Baker. He’s going to sign a backup deal with somebody next offseason but nobody is taking him as their starter. Those days are over.”
Those examples serve notice to fans around the league that the quarterbacks they’ve seen play great in small sample sizes may or may not actually be great.
A Warning To NFL Teams About QBs
So fair warning to fans in Miami, Philadelphia, Seattle and New England who have largely crowned Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts, Geno Smith and Mac Jones as their franchise guys. All four have played well over a small sample size — Tua, Smith and Hurts this season and Jones last season.
But anyone claiming to already know these guys will be Drew Brees or Tom Brady and not Mayfield, Wentz or Darnold is merely hoping.
Small sample size guys fool teams as well as fans.
Nick Foles had an outstanding second season in which he threw 27 TD passes and only 2 interceptions. So the Rams traded for him in 2015 to be their starter.
It failed miserably.
Foles returned to Philadelphia in 2017 in time to have an amazing postseason run that eventually helped the Eagles win the Super Bowl. Foles earned the game’s MVP award.
Then the Jaguars fell for the banana in the tailpipe trick by signing Foles to a 4-year, $88 million deal to be their starter in 2019. That stint lasted one season.
Have I mentioned the New Orleans Saints kind of blew it with Jameis Winston?
The team wanted to upgrade at quarterback this season so they tried to trade for Deshaun Watson. But when the Saints fell out of the Watson derby they turned back to Winston, signing him to a two-year, $28 million contract.
How’s that worked out? It’s been a bust.
Winston, the former No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 draft in Tampa Bay, has played only three games and was bad in two of those.
He injured his foot and back in August and September. But when Dennis Allen announced the team was moving forward with Andy Dalton, the coach added it had nothing to do with any Winston injury.
Moral of the story:
NFL teams often operate in a fog while searching for good quarterbacks. And even some clarity can be shortlived.