This summer, quarterbacks entering Year 2 with their respective teams were the story of the NFL preseason. Jimmy Garoppolo and Deshaun Watson seemed poised to take over the NFL after showing flashes of brilliance during their short stints as starters last year. The Bears brought in offensive-minded head coach Matt Nagy to spearhead the development of Mitchell Trubisky. And Patrick Mahomes II was set to take over a loaded Chiefs offense.
Now, three games into the 2018 season, these QBs are still the story of the year—for different reasons. Mahomes and the Chiefs are burning down defenses, but the 49ers, Bears, and Texans are in much more precarious spots with their passers. We may be only a few weeks into the season, but there’s reason to believe that the issues facing these clubs—some underlying, some obvious—may linger for the next 14 weeks, and beyond. So let’s take a step back and assess where San Francisco, Chicago, and Houston’s panic levels should be right now.
San Francisco 49ers
Panic Level: DEFCON 1
After Sunday’s 38–27 loss to the Chiefs, Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan announced that the team feared Garoppolo had torn his ACL — and that fear was confirmed on Monday with an MRI. On a third-and-20 play late in the fourth quarter, the 49ers’ starting QB scrambled up the left sideline and, rather than ducking out of bounds at the first sign of trouble, tried to put a move on a defensive back. As Garoppolo planted his left leg, his knee buckled — the sort of non-contact injury that looks devastating even in the moment.
Now, Garoppolo’s season is over, and so too are the Niners’ wild-card hopes. San Francisco’s offense had sputtered over its first three games with Garoppolo under center, and though Shanahan can scheme receivers open as well as any play designer in football (see Kyle Juszczyk’s 35-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter on Sunday), that goes only so far. Turning to backup C.J. Beathard all but guarantees that the playoff dreams San Francisco held entering the season are dead.
If there is a positive way to spin this, it’s that even at full strength, Shanahan’s team wasn’t quite ready to make the leap. San Francisco lost starting running back and prized free agent Jerick McKinnon to a torn ACL in the preseason. Coordinator Robert Saleh’s young defense has produced some encouraging moments through three weeks, but glaring deficiencies still line that unit: second-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was benched last week against the Lions; Richard Sherman left Sunday’s loss in a walking boot after suffering a calf injury; and the Niners still lack a consistent pass-rushing presence on the edge. General manager John Lynch and his staff have a few defensive cornerstones in place, but watching Mahomes and the Chiefs light up that group for 35 points in Sunday’s first half, it’s clear that side of the ball is very much a work in progress.
The gloomy outlook on Garoppolo’s injury is that the Niners handed him a five-year, $137.5 million contract this winter — with a league-high $37 million cap hit in 2018 — and his first full season with the team is over after just three games. Getting a healthy Garoppolo back for the start of 2019 — with another draft class in the books and another offseason to add a couple more free agents (the Niners have about $30 million in cap room as it currently stands) — would theoretically put the team in position to get to the playoffs. But an injury of this nature complicates matters.
San Francisco’s franchise timeline was accelerated because of the way Garoppolo performed at the end of 2017, but this is still a QB who finished last year with just seven career starts to his name. Last season he used a truncated set of plays in an abbreviated version of Shanahan’s offense, and, as his uneven play over the first three weeks of 2018 has shown, the reps he was set to get this season would be crucial to his development. Garoppolo’s quick release and play-making ability jump off the screen, but his decision-making — both in taking care of the ball and processing information quickly to find the right receiver on time — needs plenty of work. And now that work will have to wait until next spring. Even discounting whatever lasting physical effects an ACL brings, this is just about the worst possible outcome for a Niners season that began with so much promise.
Panic Level: Moderate
Texans fans should be less concerned about Watson and more worried about the team’s offensive infrastructure. Houston’s offensive line is a complete mess—the unit committed four false starts and three holding penalties in Sunday’s 27-22 loss to the Giants, and it allowed three sacks and 11 quarterback hits against a pass rush that was missing starting edge rusher Olivier Vernon and had shown no signs of life through its first two games. If this group couldn’t protect Watson on Sunday, then it won’t be able to in any game this season.
Independent of his line’s struggles, Watson also had a rough outing against the Giants. He bounced several throws intended for wide receiver Will Fuller, and Alec Ogletree’s interception on a deep pass intended for Lamar Miller early in the fourth quarter came on a bad throw and an even worse decision. But even with those errors, it’s difficult to separate quarterback-specific issues from the ones created by a passer facing a constant deluge of pressure. Through the first two weeks of the season, Watson had been pressured on an absurd 47.6 percent of his passes, according to Pro Football Focus, the highest rate in the league among qualified QBs. Think about that: On almost every other dropback in the first two games, Watson had a rusher in his face. He occasionally compounds that issue with how long he holds the ball, but his ability to extend plays and create still provides the Texans with their best chance to move the ball. It’s a Catch-22, and there’s no easy fix.
This year is paramount in Watson’s progression as a structured QB, one who could move beyond the off-schedule mastery he showed last year and ascend to the next tier of NFL passers. But that plan can’t work when the offense’s structure is crumbling around him. Between Houston’s offensive line play and the team’s overall struggles to sustain drives, this system may be enough to short-circuit Watson’s maturation for the entire season.
In the short term, there don’t seem to be any simple solutions to the Texans’ issues. They could try to swing a trade for a tackle before the deadline, but few teams have offensive line depth to spare. Fielding two starting-quality pass blockers on the edge can be difficult; finding a reliable piece further down someone’s depth chart is borderline impossible.
So Houston will likely have to wait until the offseason to solve its O-line issue, leaving Watson to fend for himself behind this group for the next 13 games. The concern there is that, after spending an entire season dodging rushers and scrambling out of self-preservation, he might develop mental processing glitches and bad habits that become permanent. At 0-3, with postseason aims already slipping away, all the Texans can do the rest of this season is hope that Watson emerges from the year with no lasting impact to his progress.
Panic Level: Steadily Growing
Trubisky didn’t come into the year with the all expectations of Watson and Garoppolo, but there were reasons to be optimistic about his chances in 2018. The Bears fired John Fox, who ran the least-QB-friendly offense imaginable, in January, and brought in Andy Reid disciple Matt Nagy. The team also overhauled Trubisky’s receiving corps, weeding out replacement-level pass catchers like Kendall Wright and bringing in Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Trey Burton in free agency. If Trubisky was going to improve on his shaky rookie season, he now had the pieces to make that happen.
Through the first three games of the season, though, the returns have been troubling. Chicago pulled out an ugly 16-14 comeback victory over the Cardinals on Sunday to give the team a 2-1 record, but for the third week in a row, the defense did most of the work. Trubisky missed open receivers, failed to get proper air under a screen pass that wound up being tipped and intercepted, and still seemed to have issues moving beyond his initial option on a given play. He completed 24 of his 35 throws but averaged only 6.29 yards per attempt while botching plenty of simple passes. His tentativeness in the pocket is growing into a crippling problem.
Trubisky’s lack of faith in his decisions seems like it’s started to affect Nagy’s faith in his quarterback. The Bears made several conservative choices on Sunday, including kicking a field goal on fourth-and-2 late in the second quarter after the team had originally lined up on offense and then took a timeout. Nagy is naturally an aggressive play-caller, but with Trubisky struggling to this degree, he’s started to take a different tack. The Bears have been reining in their approach and tailoring it around their QB’s limitations, which is a disheartening reality with a no. 2 overall pick under center.
Chicago’s grind-it-out style may be viable with the way its defense is playing right now. Khalil Mack and Co. were excellent again on Sunday; the unit forced four more turnovers (bringing the season total to eight) and nearly had another game-sealing pick-six—this time off rookie QB Josh Rosen—that was called back. Because of that defense, the Bears are sitting atop the NFC North, but it’s hard to take much solace in the standings while Trubisky toils as a passer. It’s been only three games, and Nagy’s scheme is a lot to grasp for such an inexperienced quarterback, but we’ve seen enough to know it’s time to start worrying.
This piece was updated Monday afternoon after the 49ers confirmed that Garoppolo had torn his ACL and would miss the rest of this season.