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Why Did My Quarterback Have a Nervous Breakdown?

Not everyone can be Elite

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Week 3 provided NFL fans with a glimpse of the entire spectrum of quarterback play. On one side, we saw excellence: Aaron Rodgers snapped out of his 14-game funk, Trevor Siemian put together a near-perfect, four-touchdown gem, and Carson Wentz continued to impress, completing 74 percent of his passes for 301 yards and two touchdowns. On the other side, there was Ryan Fitzpatrick, Carson Palmer, Blake Bortles, Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, and Marcus Mariota, who reminded us that whether you’re an experienced veteran, a defending MVP, or a top-two draft pick, the quarterback position is an unforgiving one.

These six signal-callers had rough weekends, and while everyone has had a bad day, sometimes you have one bad day, and then another, and then another, and before you know it, you’re behind center for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. So, let’s take a look at each quarterback’s Sunday shenanigans and ask ourselves: Is it time to freak out?

Ryan Fitzpatrick, New York Jets

Fitzpatrick’s performance in the Jets’ 24–3 loss to the Chiefs was the stuff of football nightmares. The 12th-year pro followed up a great 374-yard passing performance in Week 2 with one of the worst displays of quarterbacking in the past decade: He completed just 20 of 44 passes and tossed six interceptions, four of which came in the fourth quarter — two of them in the opposing end zone — and it’s not as if his implosion happened in garbage time. After almost no offensive production over the first three quarters, the Jets found themselves down 17–3 at the beginning of the fourth, a tough but manageable two-score deficit. But then Fitzpatrick did everything he could to destroy any semblance of hope. He was absolutely reckless with the ball.

Fitzpatrick’s four fourth-quarter picks ended the Jets’ final four possessions, the third of which was returned for a touchdown to finally put the game away for Kansas City. He stared down receivers, threw into double and triple coverage, and finished the day in the wrong kind of record book: Fitzpatrick is one of just 24 players in the past 46 years to throw six or more picks in a game — the first since 2007, and the first since 1989 to also manage to not throw a touchdown in the process.

Should Jets Fans Freak Out? There are bad games, and then there are games like this. This is the type of disastrous game that ruins confidence and can derail a career, particularly one that’s never been on particularly strong footing. The inconsistency Fitzpatrick has shown during his career — he’s really posted only two solid, near-full seasons, 2014 with the Texans and last year with the Jets — was the reason the Jets balked at giving him a big-money contract, and while this is just one bad game in three this year, there’s the real fear that the “good” Fitzpatrick from last year is about to turn back into a pumpkin. The Jets have the weapons at receiver to make up for some of his shortcomings and inconsistency, but if Fitzpatrick struggles next week against the Seahawks’ elite pass defense, the Jets … gulp ... could start looking pretty closely at Geno Smith.

Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals

Palmer’s hold on the title of The Only Quarterback to Throw Four Fourth-Quarter Interceptions in the Past 15 Years did not last very long, as Fitzpatrick matched it a few hours later, but that’s cold comfort for the Cardinals. Palmer finished out Arizona’s 33–18 thrashing at the hands of the Bills with just 26 completions on 50 attempts for 287 yards and four picks. Stephon Gilmore dropped another easy interception in the second quarter, but the quartet of passes caught by the other team was enough to drag Palmer down to a 36.0 quarterback rating, his fourth-worst game over his 13-year career.

Unlike Fitzpatrick, Palmer’s turnovers were of the garbage-time variety. He forced passes into coverage as he tried to lead the Cardinals back from a 30–13 deficit at the start of the final frame, but his lack of accuracy downfield was surprising: He finished just 1-of-7 for 25 yards on deep throws 20-plus yards downfield, which are the bread and butter of Arizona’s offense.

Should Cardinals Fans Freak Out? While this is Palmer’s second disastrous game in his past four starts — don’t forget his six-turnover meltdown in Arizona’s NFC championship game loss to the Panthers — it’s too early to think it’s a trend. The Cardinals got themselves into an early hole on the road at Buffalo, and with a big lead late, the Bills knew that Arizona would be passing. Rex Ryan’s defense was awful over the first two games of the season, but with a comfortable early cushion, it turned up the pressure and sacked Palmer five times (including three in the fourth quarter), and brought the kind of heat that helped produce four turnovers. It was a sorry excuse for a comeback attempt, but it doesn’t indicate a bigger pattern for Palmer.

Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars

Blake Bortles (Getty Images)
Blake Bortles (Getty Images)

Bortles led the NFL in interceptions last season with 18, and he’s already on pace to nearly double that total in 2016. The Jags signal-caller tossed three more picks to the Ravens on Sunday, pushing his season total to six, and his third, which came near midfield with 25 seconds remaining, sealed Baltimore’s narrow 19–17 win.

Bortles finished the game 24-of-38 for 194 yards, and it wasn’t just the three picks that made his performance disconcerting. He looked jittery (completing just 50 percent of his throws for a 28.6 quarterback rating when pressured), painfully unaware of game situations (he took a sack at the 32-second mark instead of throwing the ball away, which forced the Jags to use their final timeout), and his 5.1 yards per attempt show that he’s still not able to fully utilize the weapons Jacksonville’s put around him. Bortles said after the game that Jacksonville’s offense continues to “tremendously underachieve,” and that all starts with the inconsistent, erratic play he’s providing from behind center.

Should Jaguars Fans Freak Out? Bortles is in Year 3, and his development has plateaued. With Jacksonville 0–3, there’s no seat hotter right now than Gus Bradley’s, and if the Jags make a change at head coach, there’s nothing holding them back from moving on from Bortles, too. He needs to stop turning over the ball, but there’s nothing to suggest he’s going to.

Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

Big Ben laid an egg in Philadelphia, completing just 24 of 44 passes for 257 yards with one interception and a lost fumble in a 34–3 loss to the Eagles. As it always does, the Roethlisberger-Antonio Brown connection thrived (Brown caught 12 of 18 targets for 140 yards) but the rest of Pittsburgh’s receiving corps was nowhere to be found: Markus Wheaton dropped three passes, Eli Rogers left with a toe injury in the second quarter, and Sammie Coates isn’t much more than a deep threat at this point. Pittsburgh’s normally dangerous offense was completely smothered. The 251 net yards of offense was its lowest mark since Week 1 of the 2013 season.

Should Steelers Fans Freak Out? Roethlisberger struggled with the constant pressure the Eagles brought all game. Paired with a sloppy win last week against the Bengals, when Big Ben badly missed receivers downfield on several occasions, this isn’t anywhere near the MVP-level performance many were expecting from the Pittsburgh quarterback. But ultimately, it’s just the sixth time that he’s been held without a passing touchdown since the start of 2012. He’ll get Le’Veon Bell back from suspension next week, and that’ll open up options in both the run and the pass game. If Roethlisberger sputters again next week against the Chiefs, then something might be up — but it’s more likely that we see him putting up a triple-touchdown, 400-yard game sometime soon.

Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers

Cam Newton (AP Images)
Cam Newton (AP Images)

Against the Vikings, Newton connected on his first eight passes for 123 yards and added a rushing score to help push the Panthers out to a 10–2 first-quarter lead. But once Minnesota managed to get themselves off the ropes, the rest of the game was all about the Vikings defense. Mike Zimmer’s squad racked up eight sacks, picked Newton off three times, and held the Panthers’ normally potent offense scoreless over the final three quarters. Newton finished 21-of-35 for 262 yards with three interceptions, and he struggled badly in the face of an unrelenting Vikings pass rush. He threw to his top target, Kelvin Benjamin, only once, and that resulted in an incompletion.

Newton finished with a 47.6 passer rating, the lowest mark he’s produced since Week 9 of the 2014 season, and one of just five games in his career that number has dipped below 50. The Panthers, meanwhile, have already doubled the number of games they lost last year.

Should Panthers Fans Freak Out? Newton has had the misfortune of playing two of the NFL’s top defenses — the Broncos and Vikings — in three weeks. Both have speed and explosiveness in their front seven that they combine with talented secondaries, and both can get after the quarterback. Carolina’s offensive line has struggled to cope with these top groups, and that might be a concern come playoff time, but Newton’s now already played the two toughest defenses he’ll see all season. It also didn’t help that he played through an ankle injury for much of this game — Linval Joseph rolled up on his ankle early in the second quarter, and it seemed to affect him for the rest of the day. Cam will bounce back.

Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans

Coming into Sunday, the comprehensively terrible Raiders defense looked like a meaty matchup for Mariota and the Titans’ struggling offense. They’d given up 34.5 points per game in their first two weeks and surrendered an average of over 500 yards of offense. Plus, Tennessee was getting them at home. It didn’t matter. Mariota completed just 17 of 33 attempts for 214 yards, threw two picks, and lost a fumble. If NFL teams don’t already know it, the book is now out on how the former Heisman winner handles pressure: Mariota finished just 1-of-7 for a single yard against the blitz.

In college, Mariota showed top-notch ball security, but that talent has not followed him to the pro game. He threw 10 picks and lost six fumbles last year, and he’s already thrown four picks and lost two fumbles this season.

Should Titans Fans Freak Out? If you have a ball of worry about Mariota’s viability as a long-term starter growing in the pit of your stomach, no one’s going to blame you. Thus far, nothing has really screamed “franchise quarterback,” certainly not his 23-to-22 touchdown-pass–to-turnover ratio. We knew that it might take a while for Mariota, who played under Oregon’s high-octane, simplified, spread offense in college, to develop into a pro-style passer who goes through a progression of reads on each play, but right now, he doesn’t even look like a guy with potential for that; outside of a few nice drives, he just looks bad.