The upper echelon of the NFL’s quarterback hierarchy has included many of the same names for roughly a decade now. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees have been fixtures atop the list. The 2004 draft class, which included Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger, has slotted a tier just below them. Each wave of young passers has featured a talented up-and-comer or two, but for the most part, players like Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson have fallen somewhere in that second tier as well, among the more familiar, established presences at the position.
With Week 5 of the season in the books, it feels like that hierarchy—outside of the top tier, populated by the likes of Brady and Rodgers—is in more flux than at any point in recent memory. Luck has yet to play a game this fall as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery; budding stars Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr are both injured, and watched from the sideline Sunday as their offenses struggled to get much of anything going without them; and mainstays like Roethlisberger (who tossed a career-high five interceptions in a 30-9 loss to Jacksonville), Manning (whose Giants fell to 0-5 after a 27-22 loss to Rivers and the Chargers), and Carson Palmer (who’s thrown six touchdown passes and five picks in the Cardinals’ 2-3 start) have disappointed.
More than a month into the 2017 campaign, it’s the names we didn’t expect that have been headliners at the position so far. Following a nightmarish rookie effort, Rams quarterback Jared Goff had emerged as the maestro of the league’s highest-scoring offense through four weeks, although he hit a snag (22-of-47 passing with two interceptions) against the Seattle defense in a 16-10 defeat Sunday. Carson Wentz turned in one of the strongest outings of his career in a 34-7 rout of Arizona, going 21-of-30 passing for 304 yards with four touchdowns. And since relieving Tom Savage in the second half of Houston’s Week 1 loss to Jacksonville, Deshaun Watson has established himself not only as the Texans’ quarterback of the future, but as one of the most exciting players in the league. That was on full display as he slung five touchdowns in Houston’s 42-34 loss to Kansas City. Along with boasting a generally thrilling style, Watson has also piled up touchdown passes at a rate unlike any rookie quarterback before him.
No quarterback, though, has shocked more people over the past few weeks than Watson’s counterpart on Sunday night. With the win over the Texans, the Chiefs improved to 5-0 and retained their distinction as the NFL’s lone undefeated team. And much of that success has been driven by the play of the oft-overlooked Alex Smith. The 33-year-old has been nothing short of brilliant this season, completing 76.6 percent of his passes for 1,391 yards with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. It was only five and a half months ago that Kansas City dealt its 2018 first-round pick to trade up 17 spots and select Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes II 10th overall. The move signaled that Smith’s tenure with the Chiefs would end sooner rather than later. All that Smith has done since is play the best football of his career and orchestrate a dynamic offense for which no one seems to have an answer.
It’s fascinating to consider how many quarterbacks would inspire more confidence in a fan base than Smith and Watson if the playoffs started next week. Beyond Brady, Brees, and Rodgers—who torched the Cowboys once again in a 35-31 victory in Dallas—the debate is wide open. There’s Cam Newton, who followed up a strong outing against the Patriots last weekend with a huge day (26-of-33 passing for 355 yards and three scores) in a 27-24 win in Detroit. There’s Matthew Stafford, who has kept the Lions in games all season, even if Sunday’s performance wasn’t one of his best. And there’s Matt Ryan, who won the 2016 MVP award, but who threw as many picks through four weeks this fall as he did through Week 10 last year.
What we thought we knew about the NFL’s quarterbacks may not hold true anymore. And as the hierarchy under center shifts, so, too, does the pecking order of teams around the league.
Roethlisberger authored a statistical marvel of a season in 2014, showing what he’s capable of at the peak of his powers. He completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 4,952 yards with 32 touchdowns and nine picks, leading the Steelers to an 11-5 mark and an AFC North title. Yet his outing on Sunday afternoon—and his entire 2017 season to this point—reinforced that he’s trending in the opposite direction. He had been shaky throughout Pittsburgh’s 3-1 start, but that was nothing compared to his disastrous performance against the Jaguars. It took Roethlisberger 55 attempts to get to 312 passing yards, and his five interceptions, including two in the third quarter that were returned for Jacksonville touchdowns, sunk the Steelers’ hopes.
Roethlisberger now has six touchdown passes compared to seven picks on the year. His 61.5 percent completion rate would be his worst since 2008, and he’s on pace to throw for fewer than 20 touchdowns in a full 16-game season for the first time since 2008. In the locker room following the loss, Roethlisberger quipped, “Maybe I don’t have it anymore.” Even in jest, that comment is jarring coming from the leader of an offense many expected to rank among the best in the league.
Pittsburgh is far from the only team that’s been hampered by a veteran passer stumbling in 2017, though. The Cardinals have seen Palmer connect on just 59.9 percent of his pass attempts to date, as Arizona’s unit has failed to consistently challenge defenses since star running back David Johnson went out with a wrist injury in Week 1. The Giants failed to secure their first win on Sunday as Manning threw for a meager 225 yards in a home loss to the Chargers; save for a 366-yard showing against the Eagles in Week 3 that was buoyed by a fourth-quarter explosion, he’s failed to crack the 300-yard mark in any other game this season, and that task won’t get any easier with wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. going down with a broken ankle that could cost him the remainder of the season. And the Dolphins sit at 2-2 in spite of the play of Jay Cutler, who completed 12 of 26 passes for 92 yards in a 16-10 win over Tennessee on Sunday.
Amid it all, the idea of a quarterback ascending to second-tier status at the position feels more accessible than it has in years. Trevor Siemian threw for four touchdowns in a Week 2 matchup with the Cowboys, while Joe Flacco has thrown four touchdown passes all fall. Wentz has registered three separate 300-plus-yard passing performances this season, while Dak Prescott has yet to amass more than 268 passing yards in a game and has done little to build on his breakout performance as a rookie. Considering all of the movement under center throughout the league (like Mike Glennon’s benching in favor of Mitchell Trubisky in Chicago, DeShone Kizer getting yanked for Kevin Hogan in Cleveland, and the backup QB extravaganzas in Oakland, Tennessee, and Indianapolis), teams with dependable play under center are standing out more than ever.
There’s still only one Brady, and there’s still only one fire-breathing dragon. In a league defined by quarterbacks, though, the rest of the spots in a hierarchy that’s long remained static suddenly appear up for grabs.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. Two of the league’s most irreplaceable stars are likely done for the year. With Beckham and J.J. Watt going down with devastating and fluky leg injuries, the NFL lost two of its most recognizable faces on the same day. Beckham leapt for a pass over the middle in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Chargers, landed hard on his left foot, and fractured his ankle. Watt caught his left foot in the ground during a first-quarter play against the Chiefs and suffered a tibial plateau fracture in the process.
For Watt, the injury brings his second trip to IR in as many seasons, and the sight of the three-time Defensive Player of the Year being carted to the locker room was hard to stomach, especially after he missed almost all of the 2016 campaign. Watt’s run as the league’s best defender was historic, but as he nears 30 and the injuries start to mount, it’s uncertain whether we’ll ever see the version of Watt that terrorized the league early in his career again. Houston was able to survive the loss of Watt last year thanks to the pass-rush pairing of Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, but Mercilus also left Sunday’s game with a season-ending torn pectoral. The Texans’ defanged pass rush couldn’t put any pressure on Kansas City’s Smith with both of those guys gone. That group is at risk of coming apart at the seams.
Unlike the Texans’ history with Watt, the Giants haven’t had to survive without Beckham for any extended period of time since he came into the league in 2013. No offense relied more on a single receiver than the Giants did with Beckham in 2016, and New York could be doomed with its best player on the shelf. Head coach Ben McAdoo’s team is 0-5, with its season all but lost. With Beckham hurt, a complete flop feels inevitable.
2. Life is better when Aaron Rodgers is your team’s quarterback. Cowboys fans probably see Rodgers in their nightmares. Nine months after he tore out their hearts during the divisional round of the playoffs, Rodgers performed another bit of sorcery by taking the Packers 75 yards in just 1:02 and throwing the game-winning score to Davante Adams on Sunday. He finished 19-of-29 passing for 221 yards with three scores, and was masterful when the Packers needed him most.
Despite injuries to Green Bay’s receiving corps (Jordy Nelson finished the Dallas game on the sideline) and offensive line (the team was without left tackle David Bakhtiari again in Week 5), Rodgers has barely missed a beat this season. He’s completed two-thirds of his passes for 1,367 yards with 13 touchdowns and only three interceptions. In an NFC full of flawed clubs, it’s good to be the one led by a defense-destroying force.
3. Mike Pence and Jerry Jones added a new layer of idiocy to the conversation about player protests during the national anthem. The vice president flew from Nevada to Indianapolis to attend Sunday’s Colts-49ers game, only to storm out of Lucas Oil Stadium in response to several players kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” According to several reports, this walkout was planned in advance, meaning that an estimated $242,500 of taxpayer money was spent just so that Pence could throw a premeditated temper tantrum at the behest of the president. The notion that the administration put this kind of effort into denouncing a group of men peacefully protesting racial injustice while hardly lifting a finger to condemn the actions of the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville requires logic so twisted that it’s staggering to even imagine.
Not to be outdone by someone else’s hypocrisy, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told reporters Sunday that any Dallas player who kneels during the anthem would be benched moving forward, undercutting any member of the team who wants to exercise his right to protest. The idea that Jones—a man who once employed Greg Hardy and has proved willing to consistently look the other way when players actually embarrass the Cowboys and the league—is somehow a moral authority here is rich. Both Pence and Jones have actual concerns that might warrant their attention; here they are, though, further muddying a debate that shouldn’t be a debate in the first place.
4. DeShone Kizer’s benching is the latest disappointment for a Browns organization that’s used to them. Kizer went 8-of-17 passing and tossed his league-worst fourth red zone interception in Sunday’s 17-14 loss to the Jets. After the Browns were held scoreless in the first half, Kizer was pulled in favor of backup Kevin Hogan, who completed 16 of 19 passes for 194 yards with two scores in relief.
Cleveland’s hope is that Kizer’s demotion will be temporary, and that the Notre Dame product shows promise when reinserted into the lineup. But for a beleaguered fan base, the wasteland that is the Browns quarterback situation has to be again taking it toll. This franchise had the option to take Wentz in 2016 and then Watson in the spring; as both continue to thrive, Cleveland’s lack of a viable starting option becomes tougher to deal with.
The Browns front office has preached patience when it comes to finding an answer under center as it tries to accrue draft picks and stockpile as much young talent as possible. Yet all the high-level playmakers in the world can’t make up for a black hole at quarterback. It’s far too early to say anything definitive about Kizer, but watching him struggle to the point of getting the hook has to be worrisome for a team that may be haunted by the ghosts of failed QBs.
5. The Raiders look lost without Derek Carr, and every week he misses pushes Oakland further out of the playoff picture. Raiders backup quarterback EJ Manuel finished Sunday’s 30-17 loss to the Ravens 13-of-26 passing for a paltry 159 yards. Considering Oakland’s struggles on defense, life without Carr under center simply isn’t tenable, something that was clear in a lackluster performance and the team’s third straight defeat.
Tennessee also experienced its share of issues with Mariota sidelined in Week 5, but it plays in an AFC South that lacks elite competition. Even a rough patch might not spell the end for the Titans’ postseason chances. For the Raiders, though, the sense of urgency is real: This loss drops Oakland to 2-3—three games behind the unbeaten Chiefs in the division and two back of the 3-1 Broncos in the loss column. If the transverse process fracture in Carr’s back keeps him out for an extended stretch, the Raiders’ playoff hopes might be dashed by Halloween.
6. Leonard Fournette is a special kind of badass. One of the best moments of Week 5 came in the fourth quarter of the Jags’ big win over the Steelers. Fournette came free off the right side and waved a hand at Mike Mitchell, essentially daring the Pittsburgh safety to meet him for a collision. This actually happened. Good on Mitchell for obliging, because the only thing more frightening than Fournette in the open field are the Dothraki.
Leonard Fournette waved at Mike Mitchell and told him to come get a piece of him pic.twitter.com/43tfc3ccXl— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) October 8, 2017
It was an audacious bit of bravado from the rookie running back, and that attitude feels warranted given that he piled up 181 rushing yards with two touchdowns on the day. Fournette’s stats to date haven’t been otherworldly, (he’s averaged 4.3 yards per carry on 109 rushes through five games), but his unique blend of power and speed has been unmistakably apparent. The former LSU star is a smooth and violent runner who makes defenders take notice every he touches the ball. His challenge to Mitchell was just one instance of what makes him so fun.
7. The Seahawks’ 16-10 win over the Rams served as a reminder that the NFC West title goes through CenturyLink Field. There’s a temptation every season to latch onto the league’s upstart teams, if only to bring variety into our lives. After their 3-1 start and shockingly fun product on offense, the Rams were one such team this fall. By shutting down L.A. on Sunday, though, Seattle let the NFC know that it hasn’t gone away quite yet.
This was another ugly outing for a Seahawks offense that’s struggled to find the end zone at times in 2017, but the defense was more than willing to pick up the slack. Seattle forced three three-and-outs, intercepted Jared Goff twice, and generally stifled a Rams unit that moved the ball efficiently before this weekend. As long as the Seahawks trot Earl Thomas and friends out there every week, this group should be in every game it plays.
8. Ed Dickson had a monster day for the Panthers offense and could help Carolina find a passing game without the injured Greg Olsen. The 30-year-old Dixon made five catches for 175 yards in a win over Detroit, and even if the idea of an eight-year NFL veteran having a breakout season sounds ridiculous, Dickson will have his share of opportunities with Olsen on the shelf. Over his past two games, the tight end has eight grabs for 237 yards—and averages a gaudy 29.6 yards per catch. After a middling start to the season, Cam Newton (77.4 percent completion rate and six touchdowns over his past two games) appears to be back on track.
9. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Aaron Donald still doesn’t make any sense.
Donald finished Sunday with three quarterback hits and three solo tackles, including this beauty above. Seattle right guard Oday Aboushi has zero shot, and it takes less than a second after the snap for Donald to teleport to the spot where Wilson hands the ball off and to toss the 250-pound Eddie Lacy to the ground like he’s barely even there. Despite missing the 2017 season opener because of a contract dispute, the Rams star already has five tackles for loss (four shy of the league lead) and eight quarterback hits (tied for 12th).
10. This week in tales of the tape: The Panthers were the latest team to use a red zone wrinkle involving a shovel pass to create confusion as they approached the goal line.
The first touchdown of Christian McCaffrey’s career came on a nifty design that saw the rookie running back go from the slot to the middle of the field in preparation for a flip from Newton. By leaving defenders unblocked as the result of a zone-read action, teams can create a numbers advantage in the red zone, and that only becomes more effective when variants like the shovel pass are added to the mix. When they force the defense to account for the pitch man, Newton, McCaffrey, and the Panthers are able to shift the math in their favor while simultaneously exploiting two different areas close to the goal line. This is an ideal way to deploy a pair of guys with the special skill sets that Newton and McCaffrey have.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Deshaun Watson can conjure plays from nowhere.
This is the element that Watson brings to Houston’s offense. The Chiefs get such quick penetration here that this play should be cooked before it even gets going, yet somehow Watson escapes the sack, slides the ball from his right hand to his left to avoid being stripped, makes a running back–style jump cut in the pocket, resets his feet, and finds receiver Will Fuller V for a 48-yard touchdown. The guy knows how to put on a show.