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Four Things to Know About Gardner Minshew II, the NFL’s Newest Folk Hero

He has a marvelous mustache. He’s already breaking league records. The Jaguars quarterback has had a stunning rise to this point, and he may only be getting started.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Of the 32 NFL teams, 24 entered this season with a backup quarterback who had previously started a regular-season game. Of the remaining eight, three had backups who had appeared in an NFL game but had not started (Josh Dobbs of the Steelers, Alex Tanney of the Giants, and Cooper Rush of the Cowboys). Of the remaining five, two had backups who’d never played in an NFL game despite spending past seasons on NFL rosters (Tim Boyle of the Packers and Brandon Allen of the Broncos). And of the remaining three, two had quarterbacks taken in the fourth round of the 2019 draft (Jarrett Stidham of the Patriots and Ryan Finley of the Bengals).

Then there were the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team that headed into Week 1 arguably the least prepared for a quarterback injury. Their only option in the event that big free-agent signing Nick Foles got hurt was not a player who had made his mark on the league, or even a particularly well-regarded prospect. It was Gardner Minshew II, a 2019 sixth-round selection out of Washington State. Football, the cruelest sport, recognized the Jaguars’ predicament. In the first quarter of the Jags’ season, Foles broke his collarbone. The team put Foles on the injured reserve list, which means that he can’t play until Week 11. His recovery could take even longer.

In the history of the NFL draft, there have been 106 quarterbacks taken in the sixth round. Forty-three have never thrown a pass in the league, a list that includes guys like Colt Brennan, Jeff Smoker, and Josh Booty; only 38 have attempted 100 or more passes, a group that features Keith Null, Ryan Lindley, and Spergon Wynn. Sure, Tom Brady was picked in the sixth round, but he’s a massive outlier. The top sixth-round QBs after him are Matt Hasselbeck, Marc Bulger, and Tyrod Taylor, who are dramatically outnumbered by the Smokers, Bootys, and Nulls.

As it turns out, Brady was a slacker. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass until the fifth professional game he played in, which came a full season and five weeks after he first set foot on an NFL sideline. Minshew, forced into action last Sunday during his first week in the league, went 22-of-25 passing for 275 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.

Very few players have been in Minshew’s position, and none have succeeded as swimmingly as he did. With bravado and a knack for excelling in unusual circumstances, the Jags quarterback is poised to become the NFL’s newest folk hero. Here’s everything you need to know about the Mississippi Mustache.

He Thought He’d Be Coaching by Now

In September 2019, Minshew is QB1 for an NFL franchise. In February 2018, he committed to be QB3 for a college program.

The Flowood, Mississippi, native’s career seemed destined for anonymity from the jump. As Joel Anderson detailed last year for ESPN, Minshew had a scholarship offer from UAB that vanished when the school temporarily shut down its football program in 2014, and another from Akron that went away when the coach who was recruiting him died in a car crash. Minshew went to Troy, but quickly left. He then enrolled at Northwest Mississippi Community College and dominated, throwing five touchdown passes in a 66-13 win in the 2015 junior college national championship game. (If you watched season 1 of Netflix’s Last Chance U and wondered who benefited from the subject school, East Mississippi Community College, getting disqualified from their quest for a fourth straight national title, the answer is Minshew, whose only loss of that season came against EMCC.)

From there, Minshew transferred to East Carolina, where he was an on-again, off-again starter for a team that went 3-9 in both 2016 and 2017. Minshew graduated and looked for somewhere else to spend his final season of NCAA eligibility as a graduate transfer. And Alabama—yes, that Alabama—came calling. The program that had won five of the last nine FBS national championships wanted the kid who once couldn’t get a scholarship from anyone besides Troy, and who couldn’t lock down the starting gig for a bad East Carolina team. Minshew snapped at the chance.

There was a holdup, though: Alabama already had a good quarterback. Two, actually: Jalen Hurts, who had been the team’s starter during the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and Tua Tagovailoa, who had won the Crimson Tide the previous national championship after entering the title game at halftime. Minshew was signing up to be a third-stringer, or perhaps a backup if Tagovailoa or Hurts transferred after losing the QB competition. But Minshew was fine with that. He had planned to become a coach anyway, and now he suddenly had an in with Nick Saban. “I do want to get into coaching eventually,” Minshew said. “And [Alabama] is like going to Harvard School for Coaching.”

Of course, Minshew then famously got a call from Washington State head coach Mike Leach. “Do you want to be a backup at Alabama, or lead the nation in passing?” Leach asked him. Minshew chose the latter. Sure enough, he did go on to lead the nation in passing last season, averaging 367.6 yards per game. Washington State went 11-2, the school’s best-ever record. Minshew finished fifth in Heisman Trophy voting, and a million mustaches were born on the Palouse.

He Works Out Wearing Shades ... and Sometimes Nothing Else

The first thing everyone notices about Minshew is his mustache. As Minshew Mania consumed Washington State, fans took to wearing replica mustaches. The quarterback famously got a hold of one and smeared it across Leach’s lips after a win against Colorado last November.

Now that Minshew is a pro, the world is noticing his glorious upper lip.

However, I’d argue it’s unfair to Minshew that so much is made of his facial fur. While it’s unmistakably a magnificent mustache—thick, proud, and unencumbered by mitigating beard hair—it’s hardly the most interesting thing about him. Too often, we mistake growing a mustache for being a distinctive personality trait. Trust me: I have a mustache, and it’s mainly out of laziness, because if I shaved my mustache then I’d perennially grow upsetting mini-mustaches and I’d have to get rid of those every few days.

There is, though, something only Minshew does: stripping to stretch.

I think the seemingly unique decision to bodybuild in the buff summarizes Minshew’s DGAF nature more than a facial hair decision that millions of other men make.

You Can Call Him a Baker Mayfield Clone. You Won’t Be the First.

Baker Mayfield is 73 inches tall, weighs 209 pounds, and has one mustache. Gardner Minshew is 73 inches tall, weighs 209 pounds, and has one mustache. Cue the comparisons:

Their personalities are similar, as are their backstories. Both were lightly recruited out of high school; both moved around before landing in their eventual college homes; and both rose to prominence via the Air Raid. Mayfield played for Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech and Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma, both of whom were once quarterbacks under Mike Leach at Texas Tech. Minshew read Leach’s memoirs as a middle schooler and broke down tape of Leach’s Tech teams in high school, but had to wait until after graduating from East Carolina to actually play for Leach.

In Mayfield’s debut season at Oklahoma, he completed 68.1 percent of his passes with 36 touchdowns and seven interceptions, finishing fourth in Heisman voting. In Minshew’s debut season at Wazzu, he completed 70.7 percent of his passes with 38 touchdowns and nine interceptions, finishing fifth in Heisman voting. Mayfield had a higher yards per attempt average (9.4 to 7.2), while Minshew’s volume led to many more yards (4,779 to 3,700). Yet while Mayfield played two additional seasons at Oklahoma, turning in two of the most prolific seasons in college football history, Minshew’s college career ended after his breakthrough 2018. Mayfield won a Heisman and was taken with the no. 1 pick in the NFL draft; Minshew went to the Jags with the 178th overall pick, with Leach wondering during the predraft process what exactly scouts were looking at.

Scouting prejudice against Mayfield’s diminutive build prevented him from being noticed until a few chance discoveries changed his life. The same is true for Minshew, except his discovery came after he’d already completed his bachelor’s degree. Maybe there’s still time for him to blossom in the way Mayfield has.

He’s Already Making History, and He Can Make More

Minshew set two NFL records and one franchise record in his first game. He completed his first 13 career passes, a new league high. His 22-of-25 effort gave him a completion percentage of 88.0, the highest of any player (with a minimum of 10 pass attempts) in his first pro game. That completion percentage is also the highest in Jaguars history (minimum five passes) regardless of context.

And Minshew’s completion percentage probably should have been higher. Pro Football Focus graded all three of Minshew’s incompletions as drops, two by Leonard Fournette and one by Ryquell Armstead, giving Minshew an adjusted completion percentage of 100 percent. Here’s a Minshew pass that turned into an interception because Fournette let it drill him in the face and ricochet off his helmet into the hands of a defender.

Completion percentage can often be misleading, revealing that a QB avoided making difficult throws—we call this The Sam Bradford—more than showed pinpoint accuracy. But Minshew finished third among quarterbacks in air yardage per attempt on Sunday.

So Minshew’s Week 1 is etched in the league and the Jaguars’ record books. But I still think that sells the ridiculousness of this debut short. If we compare Minshew’s performance with those of other quarterbacks in his position—rookies who did not start for their teams in Week 1, but who were pressed into action—nobody has come close. Since 1999 (which is as far back as we have reliable data on who started individual games), only two QBs who fit this criteria have ever thrown a touchdown: Minshew and Deshaun Watson, a college football national champion and first-round draft pick who entered his rookie season with enormous hype. Only one player in this scenario besides Minshew has thrown for 100 yards: Ken Dorsey, a seventh-round pick who split snaps with Tim Rattay in San Francisco’s 2004 opener.

Dorsey threw for 111 yards in that game. Minshew threw for 275 yards on Sunday against the Chiefs. Nobody in anything resembling his situation has accomplished anything close to what he did.

Very few teams have been in a position like this. Only two quarterbacks drafted in the sixth round have ever started 10 or more games as a rookie: Scott Hunter, for the 1971 Packers (when Bart Starr, in his final NFL season, needed surgery), and Bruce Gradkowski, for the 2006 Buccaneers (when Chris Simms’s spleen ruptured). Foles isn’t allowed to return until Week 11, so at least nine starts are up for grabs.

On Monday the Jaguars traded for Josh Dobbs, who had spent the last two seasons as Pittsburgh’s backup. But I think they’d be dumb not to stick with Minshew, at least for the time being. Dobbs never had a college season that was as good as Minshew’s 2018 campaign, and nobody has ever had an off-the-bench debut like Minshew just had.

The Jaguars have spent big to find their franchise quarterback over the years, perpetually failing. They used a 2011 first-rounder on Blaine Gabbert. Nah. They used the no. 3 pick in the 2014 draft on Blake Bortles. That was funny then, and it’s still funny now. Then they made Foles the highest-paid free-agent quarterback in his class. He’s not the best QB in the league, but the Jags were desperate to find anybody who could play quarterback in a non-laughable manner. It’d be beautiful for them to luck into competence from a player who was previously most famous for his facial hair.