Remove Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady from an NFL Sunday’s 1 p.m. ET slate and it becomes clear how many quarterbacks are deadweight. If that sounds harsh, consider that the Merriam-Webster definition of deadweight is “the unrelieved weight of an inert mass”; that wouldn’t crack even the 700 meanest ways to describe Kirk Cousins’s performance on Sunday.
There’s a lot of inert mass in the NFL this year. Adam Gase may be the first name that comes to mind, but there is also plenty of uninspiring quarterback play. Week 6 featured quarterback play that was not just bad, but representative of issues that certain teams will try to overcome for the rest of the season. Let’s look through some of the more, uh, inert performances from Sunday and see what they say about each passer’s team’s long-term chances in 2020.
Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
Score: Steelers 38, Browns 7
Stats: 10-of-18 passing for 119 yards with one touchdown, two interceptions, and four sacks
This game got so out of hand that Mayfield was benched before the end of the third quarter. Head coach Kevin Stefanski said the move was made to protect his quarterback, who played through an injury to his ribs against the best pass rush in football. Yet while Mayfield’s toughness is not in question, his decision-making certainly is.
On Cleveland’s third offensive play of the game, the Steelers had two safeties playing deep. Mayfield assumed that the safeties would drop further from the line of scrimmage after the snap, but instead Minkah Fitzpatrick crept closer to the line, stared directly at Mayfield, and waited. The ball came right to him.
“Those are the ones you can’t have happen,” Tony Romo said after the interception, with the tone of a disappointed father. One quarter later, Mayfield threw another pick directly to a Pittsburgh defender.
If these were isolated incidents, that would be one thing. But Mayfield has struggled to read NFL coverages—and pick up defenders—since leaving Oklahoma. Last season Mayfield threw 15 interceptions from a clean pocket, second to only Jameis Winston’s 16. As a general rule, you never want to be on an interception list next to Jameis Winston. Throwing picks from clean pockets implies that Mayfield is not making bad decisions because of duress. He’s just making bad decisions.
Mayfield also has a bad habit of not trusting his pass protection even when his blocking is effective. Last season that was understandable, as Cleveland’s 2019 pass protection was awful. But this spring the Browns spent approximately a bajillion dollars and picks to fix their line, and it has mostly worked. Yet Mayfield still has trust issues. Take the following play from Week 5 against Indianapolis. Mayfield had good protection, but instead of keeping his eyes downfield—where he could have thrown to receiver Rashard Higgins for an easy touchdown—he got antsy about the impending pass rush and scrambled.
Mayfield is often compared to Russell Wilson because of the similarities in their height, size, mobility, and height (it’s mostly the height). But Wilson always knows where his receivers are when he leaves a pocket. Mayfield doesn’t. He senses pressure even when it’s not there, and that can prevent him from seeing what’s right in front of him. Sometimes he doesn’t see open receivers; sometimes he doesn’t see defenders covering his receivers. The root cause is the same.
The Browns are 4-2 and still in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Their next five games are against Cincinnati, Las Vegas, Houston, Philadelphia, and Jacksonville, which all present easier pass defenses than Pittsburgh’s. The team looks way better under Stefanski than it has in years, but Mayfield is an outlier. This was his 11th game with multiple interceptions since the beginning of 2018. That’s the third-most multi-interception games during that stretch, behind only Winston and Philip Rivers. (Again, don’t be on interception lists next to Winston.) The Steelers pass rush is elite, Browns guard Wyatt Teller was out Sunday with a calf strain, and Mayfield gutted through a game in which the Browns would not have had a backup quarterback if he had been ruled out. But none of those excuse Mayfield’s mental mistakes. He took his team out of this one on his very first throw.
Cleveland’s defense is good. Its running game is great. But Mayfield’s tendency to either decide what he’s doing before the snap or panic after the snap is turning two of his biggest strengths—accuracy and mobility—into weaknesses. He was drafted first overall in 2018 to be Cleveland’s savior. Six weeks into the 2020 season, Mayfield has been the team’s weak link.
Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings
Score: Falcons 40, Vikings 23
Stats: 24-of-36 passing for 343 yards with three touchdowns, three interceptions, and one sack
Kirk Cousins, First of His Name, Master of Garbage Time, Honorable of Empty Stats, Vassal of the Vacant. Nobody has racked up so many meaningless yards since Blake Bortles was on the Jaguars. Cousins threw three interceptions in the first half of Sunday’s game as the Vikings fell behind the Falcons 23-0, then threw three touchdowns in the second half to make the game look closer than it was. You know you’re in trouble when you fall behind three touchdowns to the Falcons and can’t even mount a proper comeback.
Cousins, like Mayfield, threw a pick on his first throw of Week 6. The interception looked bad on TV, but looked even worse from Cousins’s perspective.
Cousins told reporters after the game that this was his worst pick of the day. There’s nothing like throwing so many interceptions that you have to rank them for reporters. And remember, this happened against Atlanta. When it comes to takeaways, the Falcons defense is more like the thieves from Home Alone than from Ocean’s Eleven.
“First play of the game, and the coverage was not confusing,” Cousins said. “It was just a zone drop, and I simply forced the football into coverage, tried to do too much. That’s a mistake I may have made in year one, but I’m disappointed that I would do that now.”
You know who else is disappointed? Vikings fans everywhere. Cousins leads the NFL with 10 interceptions this season. He ranks 28th among 32 qualified quarterbacks in ESPN’s total quarterback rating, an advanced stat that doesn’t give brownie points for garbage time. Relatedly, Cousins has an annual average salary of $33 million. Perhaps we should not be surprised he is playing so poorly after he almost missed the throw for his child’s gender reveal.
Throwback to when Kirk Cousins almost missed a 3 yard pass for his gender reveal pic.twitter.com/lrrFr1Rqky— # (@HoodieSiakam) October 18, 2020
Not everything that’s going wrong in Minnesota is Cousins’s fault. The team let multiple veteran defenders leave town in the offseason, including cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes, Mackensie Alexander, and Trae Waynes. Head coach Mike Zimmer said it wouldn’t be an issue. “I’ve never had a bad defense. Ever,” Zimmer said in August. “So I don’t anticipate that changing.”
It turns out that Zimmer has his first bad defense. The Vikings have allowed the most points in the NFL through six weeks, and Sunday marked the first time the team has allowed three 30-point games in the same season since 2014. There are still 10 games remaining.
Justin Jefferson has been a bright spot in Minnesota, becoming just the second receiver in league history to record 500 yards in his first five games. He already has three 100-yard games, one off from the team rookie record set by Randy Moss. But Jefferson doesn’t make up for the bleak outlook otherwise. This offseason the Vikings gave out contract extensions to quarterback Cousins and Zimmer; at 1-5, they are now tied for the worst start in franchise history. Not only is this team bad, but it’s unclear how it will get better. The Vikings might see a lot of garbage time this year. At least Cousins is King of the Heap.
Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
Score: Ravens 30, Eagles 28
Stats: 21-of-40 passing for 213 yards with two touchdowns and six sacks
Wentz is having a Sisyphean season. Every time he pushes the boulder up the hill, another one of his linemen gets hurt. By the end of Sunday’s Eagles-Ravens game, the only preseason starters left playing for the Eagles offense were Wentz and center Jason Kelce. Philly finished the fourth quarter playing its third-string left tackle, third-string right tackle, fourth-string right guard, and third- and fourth-string tight ends. That’s enough strings for the Eagles to create their own orchestra of sad violinists.
Since so many players are hurt, the Eagles offense is poking Wentz with a stick and asking him to do something. Philly ebbs and flows by how he does. So far, that plan hasn’t worked. Wentz is the only QB in the league with an interception in each of his first five games; he’s tied for the NFL lead with five fumbles and ranks second with nine picks. He personally has more turnovers than 30 other teams.
Yet while Wentz was dead weight for the first five games of this season, on Sunday he carried the Eagles against the Ravens. Five of Philadelphia’s first six drives were three-and-outs, but that’s not on Wentz: He tossed a perfect pass on third-and-23 that could have been a touchdown if John Hightower had reeled it in. Wentz also fired a would-be touchdown pass at the end of the half that Miles Sanders dropped. The Eagles fell short, but Wentz wasn’t the issue.
This game was 24-6 entering the fourth quarter, and then Wentz put the rest of Philly on his back. The problem is that Wentz ended up on his back a lot. He took six sacks and was hit a whopping 16 times. He has already taken 25 sacks this season, more than Dak Prescott took in all of 2019. Wentz is on pace to be sacked 66 times this season, which would be the fourth-highest total of all time.
Some of those sacks are due to the bad offensive line, some are due to having played consecutive games against the Ravens and Steelers, and some are the cost of Wentz trying to buy time on every single play. Whatever the cause, the effect makes everything harder. The Eagles are still in the playoff race at 1-4-1 because they’re in the NFC East. Their next five games come against the Giants, Cowboys, Giants, Browns, and Seahawks, so Wentz could have an easier time making magic happen than he did against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Wentz was deadweight for this team in the first month of the season, but the rest of the way it is on him to carry the load.
Nick Foles, Chicago Bears
Score: Chicago 23, Carolina 16
Stats: 23-of 39 passing for 198 yards with one touchdown and one interception
Somehow the Bears are 5-1 despite outscoring their opponents by a combined 20 points. Aside from one quarter of good football from Mitchell Trubisky in Week 1 and two quarters of good football from Foles in Week 3, the Bears offense has hardly looked competent. “Bad teams win with prettiness; great teams win no matter [what] it takes,” Foles said after Sunday’s game. He also explained that the Bears were the first ones to say they need to play better and not be content with their record. It was a passionate response that showed why he’s so popular with teammates.
So Foles understands that the offense needs to play better, but jeez: This offense needs to play better. Chicago ranks 28th in yards per game, 27th in yards per play, and 26th in first downs per game. Its passing game looks the way tofu tastes.
Foles is superior to Trubisky. There is no doubt about that. He gets rid of the ball in less than 2.5 seconds almost twice as often as Trubisky does, and his specialty is the quick reads and fast decision-making that were Trubisky’s weaknesses. Take this third-and-goal play from the first quarter on Sunday, when Foles ripped a ball past two Panthers defenders for a touchdown to tight end Cole Kmet.
Yet while Foles is decisive, he struggles when there isn’t an immediate decision to be made. Here’s a first-and-10 for Chicago in the third quarter. Foles ran away from immediate pressure, but was barely faster than the statue of himself outside Lincoln Financial Field. Rather than throw the ball away, he made the boneheaded decision to toss the ball downfield, where it was easily intercepted.
That looks like something Trubisky would do. Foles has alternated between looking heroic and looking mediocre throughout his career, and the Bears have to hope that they can stay in the playoff race long enough for the former version to take the field in January. Maybe they can just tell Foles that he’s facing Tom Brady every week.