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What Each Remaining Playoff QB Says About the NFL

Many of the divisional round’s signal-callers are here for the first time. Are there lessons we can learn from their presence?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

More than half of the teams left in the NFL playoffs are led by a quarterback who has never been here before. Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins, and Houston’s Deshaun Watson are all in the divisional round for the first time. Ryan Tannehill, 31, is in the playoffs for the first time. Jimmy Garoppolo rode shotgun with Tom Brady to two Super Bowl wins, but he is about to make his first appearance as a starting quarterback in the playoffs.

There’s change in the air, but even the guys returning to this state—Super Bowl winners Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson plus Patrick Mahomes, who made the AFC title game last year—can tell us something about the game. With that in mind, let’s examine each remaining quarterback to see what his appearance says about the league at large.

Lamar Jackson: A Special QB Can Change the Game

When training camp opened in July, head coach John Harbaugh said that Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense would create a model for the next era of pro football:

“If you look back and you think about the history a little bit, the game was probably revolutionized with Bill Walsh and Joe Montana,” Harbaugh told NFL Network’s Brian Billick. “That’s been the model for the last 25, 30 years and we’ve all been chasing that model pretty much trying to find that quarterback and find that rhythm and all the things that go with that offense. And it really hasn’t changed too much. None of us can envision what’s going to come in the future. … What’s the next era going to be? Well, we’re about to find out.”

A few days later, Harbaugh doubled down and compared their new offense to the original iPhone. Invoking Walsh and Montana’s West Coast offensive revolution before training camp is about as bold as it gets, but so far Harbaugh has not been wrong. In 2019, the Ravens went 14-2, earned home-field advantage in the AFC, and led the league in points per drive, plays per drive, yards per drive, and time of possession per drive. As a team, the Ravens had the seventh-most-efficient season in the history of Football Outsiders, whose database goes back to 1985. That put them ahead of eight of Walsh’s nine seasons.

Lamar Jackson was named first-team All-Pro and will almost certainly become the youngest winner of the Associated Press Most Valuable Player award since Jim Brown in 1958. The Ravens used a lot of fancy schemes to unlock Jackson’s potential, but the simplest part was going all in on him as a runner. He ran 176 times in 2019, the most ever for a quarterback by a large margin, even though he sat out Week 17. Many of those carries came on designed plays, not scrambles. By embracing designed runs for their starting quarterback, the Ravens changed the fundamental math of 11-on-11 football that has governed the game’s strategy. They subsequently rushed for 3,296 yards and 5.5 yards per carry, both the highest in the Super Bowl era. When defenses tried to adjust, the Ravens made them pay by passing. Jackson had the most passing touchdowns in the league (36) but ranked just 26th in pass attempts (401).

Jackson was the league’s most efficient runner (he tied for the fifth-highest yards-per-carry mark in the Super Bowl era) and the league’s most efficient passer (he threw a touchdown pass on 9 percent of his throws, tied for the fourth highest in the Super Bowl era). Doing either of those is impressive, but doing both is unheard of in modern football. Perhaps Harbaugh and Jackson just created an era when it will be heard all the time, and every NFL general manager will stop trying to draft the next Joe Montana and start trying to draft the next Lamar Jackson.

Russell Wilson: Labels Can Be Lies

Before Jackson changed how teams view quarterbacks, there was Wilson. Six-foot-tall Drew Brees was considered an outlier at quarterback until the 5-foot-11 Wilson came along and made two Super Bowls in his first three seasons. Without Wilson’s success, Baker Mayfield (6-feet, zero inches, don’t let the Browns lie to you) likely wouldn’t have gone no. 1, and without Baker, Kyler Murray (5-foot-10) likely wouldn’t have gone at the top of the draft, either.

Wilson’s success forces talent evaluators to think outside the box, because he doesn’t fit neatly under any traditional labels. Wilson can throw from the pocket, but he is not a traditional pocket passer. Wilson scrambles so much and so effortlessly that everything behind the line of scrimmage is effectively his pocket. Wilson is a mobile quarterback, but he typically only uses that ability to extend plays rather than pick up yards on designed runs. Despite that and concerns about his size, he rarely takes hits and has never missed an NFL start.

Even his leadership style eludes traditional scouting. On paper, Wilson checks every box imaginable. In reality, his positive leadership style has grown on his teammates but was initially viewed as a weakness. The labels used to describe quarterbacks in the draft, like labels for anyone, are mental shortcuts. Wilson doesn’t fit any of those labels, which is a reminder to be dubious when they get thrown around.

Deshaun Watson: Protection Still Matters, No Matter Who Your QB Is

Watson is a special quarterback, but even special quarterbacks need protection. Watson’s experience reveals just how tricky pass protection is in modern football, since defenses now spend so much of their time plotting to get to the quarterback—and how having a playmaker can make it more complicated, not less.

A successful pass requires four basic elements:

  1. Design: a play to get receivers open
  2. Execution: receivers who can get open
  3. Time: an offensive line that can block until a receiver gets open
  4. Releasing on schedule: a quarterback who makes the throws on time

The Texans have struggled to make all four of these things happen at the same time. In Deshaun Watson’s first two seasons, he did not have time. In 2018, Watson was sacked 62 times, tied for the fifth-highest figure since sacks became a statistic in 1982. He also was pressured on 44.7 percent of his dropbacks (the highest of any quarterback) for 281 total pressures (also the highest).

Houston’s pitiful offensive line couldn’t protect him, so head coach Bill O’Brien had the tight ends and running backs help. The Texans used 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, and two receivers) at the highest rate in the league in 2018. Tight ends and running backs can help block, but paradoxically this makes the problem worse. Fewer players running routes made it harder for the coaches to design plays and for the receivers to get open, which meant Watson often needed more time. Subsequently, Watson led the league in average time in the pocket and was no. 2 in the average time before he released the ball, according to Pro Football Focus. Of Watson’s 62 sacks, 49 came when he held the ball for longer than 2.5 seconds. A bad line makes everyone’s jobs harder, and for Watson, the job becomes more painful.

The Texans spent their offseason fixing their offensive line. They drafted tackle Tytus Howard no. 23 out of Alabama State and offensive lineman Max Scharping no. 55 out of Northern Illinois. On the last day of August, the Texans dealt two first-rounders and a second-rounder for Miami left tackle Laremy Tunsil and receiver Kenny Stills. This definitely helped the offensive line, as Houston went from the no. 20-graded pass blocking team to the no. 7 pass blocking team, a massive swing. But Howard suffered an injury halfway through the season and played just three games after Week 6. While Tunsil finished the season with the third-highest pass blocking grade out of 91 tackles to play 200 snaps, Howard’s replacement at right tackle, Chris Clark, finished no. 77. Speedy receiver Will Fuller V suffered an injury in Week 7, which hampered Houston’s passing attack. (Watson’s deep-passing splits with Fuller look like Patrick Mahomes’s, but without the wideout, his numbers are closer to Josh Allen’s.)

Watson was sacked 18 times in September, putting him on pace for a near-NFL record 72 sacks. The next two games Watson was not sacked—just the second and third time he’d managed that in his NFL career—and he tossed five touchdowns for a perfect passer rating against the Falcons. But that success wouldn’t last all season: He was still sacked the sixth most times (44) and the sixth most often (8.2 percent) in 2019. That’s better than ranking no. 1, but not by much.

Part of this is on Watson himself. Sacks and pressures are often the result of quarterbacks holding on to the ball too long, and Watson hunts for big plays. The same unwavering self-confidence that allows Watson to create amazing highlights also leads to him taking some avoidable sacks. Most teams are willing to let Watson gamble on himself.

Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo: If You Know What You Want, Go for It

Cousins and Garoppolo may not have much in common as people, but they say the same thing about the league. A day before Halloween 2017, the 49ers traded a second-rounder to the New England Patriots for Garoppolo, who at the time had made two career starts. Garoppolo led San Francisco to a 5-0 finish, and in February 2018 the 49ers signed him to a whopping contract that promised to pay Garoppolo $86 million over the first three years of his deal. One month later, Cousins hit free agency and signed a three-year, fully guaranteed deal for $84 million with the Vikings.

Both deals were massive investments in relatively unproven players, and both teams have asked them to do similar jobs. Minnesota’s offense this season is heavily influenced by offensive adviser Gary Kubiak, who has emphasized zone running and play-action. Kubiak adopted this style after working for old Denver head coach Mike Shanahan. Mike’s son, Kyle, now uses these same principles as 49ers head coach. Both teams want to stretch the defense horizontally with their running game and then have their quarterbacks slice them vertically when the defense is spread too thin. Neither Garoppolo nor Cousins is a game manager. They are both expected to go earn their money when their teams are down a touchdown in the fourth quarter. But they are also not expected to be at the center of their offense if everything is working as designed. Unsurprisingly, these two offenses built on similar philosophies and plans have produced two quarterbacks with similar numbers.

San Francisco and Minnesota were two of the three teams to have more rushing attempts than passing attempts in 2019. Both teams also use play-action at almost the same rate (31.4 percent for the Niners versus 31.9 percent for the Vikings). In the final three months of the season, Cousins and Garoppolo had the same yards per attempt figure on their play-action passes (10.4) and on their non-play-action passes (7.3), giving them the same overall yards per attempt figure (8.3). On the season, Garoppolo and Cousins completed the same percentage of passes (69.1). They also were back-to-back in the rankings for passing yards per game (Garoppolo no. 17 and Cousins no. 18), total quarterback rating (Garoppolo no. 12 and Cousins no. 13), and percentage of passes that went for touchdowns (Cousins no. 6 and Garoppolo no. 7).

Two quarterbacks who signed for almost the same amount of money in the same window to play in such similar offenses producing similar numbers could be a coincidence. It could also be a sign that teams looking to make the playoffs can find quarterbacks in nontraditional ways if they limit what they ask those quarterbacks to do.

Ryan Tannehill: Always Have a Plan

Whereas the 49ers and Vikings went out and got themselves a franchise quarterback, some teams have one but are concerned about his progress. Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota has not become the quarterback many thought he could be when the Titans traded up to draft him at no. 2 in 2015. Mariota wasn’t developing, and he also was not healthy—his 2018 season ended with him dealing with a nerve injury in his throwing arm. With Mariota entering the last year of his rookie contract in 2019, Tennessee general manager Jon Robinson was proactive, acquiring Tannehill from the Dolphins, who just wanted to be free of Tannehill’s contract.

It turns out that decision saved Tennessee’s 2019 season. From the point Tannehill took over as the starter in Week 7 through Week 17, he was the highest-graded quarterback on Pro Football Focus, led all quarterbacks in passing yards per attempt (9.6), ranked second in completion percentage, and finished second in touchdown passes. Tannehill followed that up by beating the Patriots in his first playoff game (though he did it with 72 passing yards, the fewest in his career in a start in which he threw at least five passes).

Not every team should try to find a quarterback available in a salary dump and turn him into a top-five passer for the second half of a season. That’s not realistic. What the Titans did that was realistic, and replicable, was admit that they were having doubts about their franchise quarterback. Not every alternative will be as good as Tannehill, but it’s worth trying. Mitchell Trubisky is entering the fourth year of his deal in Chicago, and the Bears would be wise to acquire someone who could step in and be better than current backup Chase Daniel. The Lions need a real backup quarterback (no offense, David Blough) for Matthew Stafford in case he is forced to miss time again in the future with back issues. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers can’t bring Jameis Winston back unless they have someone they can bench him for (or perhaps have open for him, since Winston begins every game with a pick). The Titans are in the divisional round because they have Tannehill, but they have Tannehill because they had the courage to admit they needed someone else. In the NFL, that’s a strength.

Aaron Rodgers: This Is No Country for Old Men

Rodgers is the oldest quarterback left in the playoffs. He might have to get used to that. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees, as well as the 2004 draft-class trio of Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers, dominated football for most of the past 15 years. Those six players are all in the top eight in career passing yards. From 2001 to 2018, Peyton, Brady, or Roethlisberger represented the AFC in the Super Bowl in every season except 2002 (Rich Gannon) and 2012 (Joe Flacco). Now things are changing. Peyton is gone. Eli will likely join him this offseason, and Rivers might, too. Roethlisberger will return in 2020, but he is recovering from an elbow injury and will be 38 next season. The 42-year-old Tom Brady and 40-year-old Drew Brees just got bounced from the playoffs in the wild-card round and are both free agents. There is a not-so-distant future when Aaron Rodgers, 36, will take the title as the league’s oldest quarterback. When that happens, he’ll be surrounded by youngins.

The league’s next wave of quarterbacks is here. Patrick Mahomes, the reigning MVP, won the award at 23. Lamar Jackson, who turned 23 this week, is about to win this year. And they are just the leaders of the youth movement. Thirteen quarterbacks 25 or younger started 12 or more games this season, the most in at least the past 20 years. In Week 3, 20 quarterbacks under 27 years old started, an NFL record. Toss in LSU’s Joe Burrow, Oregon’s Justin Herbert, and (health permitting) Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, all of whom are expected to be high picks in the upcoming draft, and those numbers could be even higher next year. Just a few years from now, Rodgers and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan may be the old guard.

Patrick Mahomes: The Fun What-if That Came True

There is a saying that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. The saying doesn’t mention what happens when talent works hard and is put in the best possible situation to succeed, but if you’re wondering what that looks like, it’s Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs quarterback is the most talented passer in the league, and he is also on the team that best maximizes his abilities. Mahomes has the strongest arm in the league. The Chiefs have surrounded him with the NFL’s fastest players.

Not only does the most talented passer with the biggest arm have the fastest receivers, but his offense is coached by Andy Reid, who has mastered spacing players on a football field. The trio of Mahomes’s talent, Reid’s mind, and the speed on Kansas City’s team has created the perfect blend, essentially a what-if that came to fruition and defied all expectations: an MVP, 50 passing touchdowns, a Madden cover, and cereal that sells for $20 a box on eBay. People pray for his health. Mahomes and the Chiefs are going to be tough to beat. The less talented better start working a lot harder.