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Will These Murky QB-Team Relationships Last? Or Are They Headed for a Breakup?

Plenty of NFL teams have gotten stuck in quarterback purgatory in recent years, and this season, a number of franchises are staring down a similar fate. Will the Cardinals, Buccaneers, and other teams stick with their guys next season? Or will they move on?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

For NFL franchises, finding a quarterback remains the most challenging step in building a winning team. Despite all the information front offices have access to in the era of analytics and Next Gen Stats, they still struggle to evaluate prospects at the position—as evidenced by 2022’s Mr. Irrelevant, who’s leading the MVP race—and even how a professional quarterback’s production might translate from one system to another.

Judging whether a quarterback is skilled enough to build a team around is an incredibly difficult task. And in 2023, we’re seeing that play out for franchises across the league. There are a dozen or so teams who will be fully committed to their current starters beyond this season. All of the elite and near-elite guys are on that list—as are the recently drafted quarterbacks, like C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson, and even Bryce Young. Then there are those on the opposite end of the spectrum—the guys who will be replaced as soon as possible. Think Desmond Ridder, Sam Howell, and Derek Carr. With those two groups, there is no confounding decision to be made. It’s pretty black-and-white. But the rest of the league is living in the gray.

We’ve seen plenty of promising teams get stuck in QB purgatory in recent years, and it feels as if over half the league is currently in danger of a similar fate. So with three weeks remaining in the season, let’s take a look at the teams and quarterbacks with questionable futures and figure out whether these relationships will endure into 2024, or whether they’re headed for an offseason breakup.

Jared Goff and the Detroit Lions

Jared Goff’s best game of the season couldn’t have come at a better time. His Lions had lost two of their last three, and what had once looked like an insurmountable lead in the NFC North had shrunk to two games, with four left to play. Goff hadn’t played well during Detroit’s slide, and with just one year and $5 million guaranteed remaining on his contract, it seemed as if we could have been watching the final days of the 29-year-old’s stint with the Lions.

A lot can change in a week, though. On Saturday night, Goff threw five touchdowns in a 42-17 win over a surging Broncos team, pushing Detroit’s record to 10-4 and pulling the team within a half game of second place in the NFC standings. The Lions offense we saw over the weekend looked a lot closer to what we’d seen during the team’s fast start. Goff was protected, the run game was consistent and explosive, and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson called a near-perfect game. The NFL’s official highlight reel of Goff’s performance has the perfect title: “This Is the Jared Goff We Want Every Week.” It may as well have been written by a Lions fan.

But as we’ve learned throughout his eight-year career, Goff’s performances do not happen in a vacuum. He is perhaps more affected by what’s going on around him than any longtime starter in recent memory, particularly when it comes to pass protection. While Goff may have the ideal frame for working from a tight pocket—he’s very tall, providing a clear view over the pass rush—he might be the most stationary quarterback in the NFL. There are melting glaciers with more “make you miss” than Goff has in him. And the numbers bear this out. He’s had 28 straight dropbacks—so no designed rollouts or bootlegs—where he’s had to throw on the run, per Next Gen Stats. And those plays have produced a whopping minus-31.7 expected points added, which ranks fourth from last. It gets even worse on a per-play basis: Goff is losing 1.13 EPA per dropback on those plays, which is easily the worst mark in the NFL among qualified starters.

Worst EPA Average on Throws on the Run, 2023 Season (Next Gen Stats)

Player Dropbacks EPA per play Success rate
Player Dropbacks EPA per play Success rate
Jared Goff 28 -1.13 14.3%
Zach Wilson 46 -0.92 23.9%
Daniel Jones 29 -0.89 20.7%
Bryce Young 57 -0.84 15.8%
Gardner Minshew 45 -0.81 31.1%

To be fair to Goff, only four quarterbacks have produced a positive EPA average on these plays: Josh Allen, Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson, and Patrick Mahomes. But the bottom half of that list is littered with career backups and guys we’ll also cover in this piece. It’s not a place you want to be in today’s NFL, where mobility should be seen as a prerequisite for a passer.

Goff will turn 30 next year, and he appears to have settled into the quarterback he’ll be for the rest of his career. He’s not getting any faster. He’s probably not getting better in cold weather. And he won’t ever be a quarterback who elevates the talent around him. Goff’s performance on Saturday night may have salvaged Detroit’s season, but it also offered up another reminder of who he is and why he may be looking for his third team in four years next spring.

Russell Wilson and the Denver Broncos

Let’s stick with that Lions-Broncos game while we’re at it. Russell Wilson was on the other end of the lopsided defeat in Detroit. It wasn’t a terrible game for the highly paid quarterback: He averaged 7.0 yards per attempt and scored twice. But his night also included this little pep talk from Sean Payton:

And with that, the idea that Payton had resuscitated Wilson’s career pretty much died, along with Denver’s playoff odds. The Broncos now have a 21 percent chance of making the postseason, per The New York Times’ playoff model.

The idea that Wilson was playing good football during their recent win streak was mostly based on the scoreboard. The Broncos were winning games, but Wilson wasn’t playing like a quarterback who’s making more than $30 million a season. And Payton wasn’t treating him like one, either. The veteran coach was calling schemed-up throws that didn’t require much mental processing, like screen passes and designed shot plays. Payton has essentially eliminated the midrange shot from Wilson’s game: It’s been all 3s and layups for the Broncos quarterback.

This isn’t unlike the offense Wilson ran in Seattle—at least philosophically. And maybe it would have been as effective as those Seahawks units that almost always wound up in the top 10 in efficiency metrics if Wilson could have supplemented it with some of his trademark out-of-structure play. But Payton hasn’t been able to coax that out of Wilson in 2023. Above, I mentioned that Goff had lost the fourth-most expected points on dropbacks when he was forced to throw on the run. Guess who’s right above him, with minus-27.4 EPA on those plays? That’s right, it’s Wilson.

We’re officially at the point in Wilson’s career where he’s struggling to keep up with Goff when it comes to out-of-structure play. And with his well-documented issues in the pocket, it’s getting difficult to picture an offensive approach that would be viable for Wilson over the course of a full season. Payton, one of the league’s sharpest offensive minds, is already starting to run out of ideas.

Wilson’s play isn’t providing much job security, but his contract will continue to offer cover for at least one more season. Even if the Broncos waited until after June 1 to cut Wilson, he’d still cost them about $39 million in cap space in 2024, and then another $50 million in 2025. So this partnership between Payton and Wilson, as rocky as it may have appeared on Saturday, will likely last for at least one more season.

Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals

Murray is in the same boat as Wilson: There have been plenty of questions about his status as a legit franchise-leading quarterback in recent years, and his uneven performance hasn’t provided any satisfying answers. But it doesn’t really matter because it makes no financial sense for Arizona’s front office to make a change this offseason. As an anonymous NFL exec told The Athletic last month, “That’s just not a tradeable contract. … Moving that contract is problematic” since there is plenty of guaranteed money left on the five-year, $230 million contract he signed in 2022.

So the Cardinals are stuck with Murray for at least one more season. But I don’t know whether that’s necessarily a bad thing. Murray hasn’t been stellar since returning from a torn ACL that ended his 2022 season, but it doesn’t appear the injury has cost him any of the trademark athleticism that convinced Arizona to draft him in 2019 and then later give him a monster extension. Despite playing only half the season thus far, Murray is the only NFL quarterback who has reached 20 mph on a run play multiple times this season. He has the highest ratio of run plays in which he’s reached at least 15 mph (58.6 percent), and his 90.1 run grade from PFF leads the NFL. Murray may not be dominating from the pocket, but he’s running his ass off.

But while he hasn’t had to wait long to gain back his mobility, his timing and feel in the pocket are still works in progress. He’s been doing OK in first-year offensive coordinator Drew Petzing’s scheme—as Nick Bosa observed in the lead-up to the 49ers’s 45-29 win over the Cardinals on Sunday—but there’s just something missing. His first interception against San Francisco was a nice illustration of when Murray is just a tick too late to make a decision and how damaging that lag can be for a professional passing game.

Murray’s eyes get to the right spot, and he picks out the appropriate target, but the late decision allows Charvarius Ward to undercut the throw for the pick-six. It’s hard to say whether this is rust, or whether Murray’s development as a pocket passer has stalled out. He wasn’t consistently making the right decisions even before the injury, but he had at least been trending in the right direction. If the ACL tear was a setback for the diminutive quarterback—who had to leave Sunday’s game after taking a big hit—that might be enough to convince Arizona’s front office to start looking for its next franchise guy. They’ll have about a year to figure that out. Murray isn’t going anywhere before then.

Baker Mayfield and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Welp, I didn’t see this coming:

It’s not that I didn’t think the Packers defense was incapable of allowing this type of performance. I just didn’t expect Baker Mayfield to be the quarterback who could exploit all of Joe Barry’s unit’s issues. Tampa Bay had been winning games, and Mayfield had come up with big plays in the clutch, but we weren’t seeing down-to-down consistency out of the former first pick. Until Sunday, that is.

In the 34-20 win over Green Bay, Mayfield was decisive, he was accurate, and he rarely ran himself into pressure. When he performs like that, this Bucs offense, which still has most of the talent from the Super Bowl–winning team of a few years ago, is awfully hard to defend. Offensive coordinator Dave Canales has put together a well-designed scheme that makes his quarterback’s job a lot easier.

What’s surprising is that Canales has been able to pull out some of these performances from Mayfield without relying on the quarterback’s crutch: play-action passing. In Cleveland, Mayfield’s success was almost directly tied to the offense’s ability to run play-action passes. If the Browns fell behind early or defenses were just able to defend those concepts, Mayfield didn’t have a plan B. He just wasn’t a quarterback you could trust to win in obvious passing situations. We’ve seen the inverse in Tampa Bay this season. Mayfield is playing his best ball when asked to just drop back and pass. The ball is getting out quickly, which suggests not only that he is seeing the field well, but also that Canales’s play designs are routinely providing him with immediate answers.

Baker Mayfield When Throwing “in Rhythm” (PFF)

Season Dropbacks Comp. percentage TD INT Rating PFF grade
Season Dropbacks Comp. percentage TD INT Rating PFF grade
2023 564 61.3 24 8 91.3 72.5
2022 411 57.7 10 9 74.9 52.2

Mayfield’s production on play-action passes is well below the league average this year, but that might not be a bad sign for his future performance. Production on play-action passes is volatile across the league, as many studies have shown, so there’s reason to expect some positive regression for Mayfield. If that regression does hit, if he and Canales can maintain their current performance in the dropback game, and if the Bucs can’t get in range to draft a top QB prospect, a reunion in 2024 would make a lot of sense. And even if they can draft a top prospect, keeping Mayfield around as a bridge quarterback wouldn’t be a bad strategy. Mayfield won’t be too expensive—unless, of course, he gets hot down the stretch and leads Tampa Bay on a surprising playoff run. I’m sure that’s a problem the Bucs would welcome.

Justin Fields and the Chicago Bears

Every Justin Fields performance feels largely the same: a smattering of jaw-dropping displays of talent—whether he’s slaloming through the defense on a long scramble or launching a downfield throw effortlessly—breaking up stretches of maddeningly inconsistent quarterback play. As Fields slowly develops, we see more of the former, but still way too much of the latter. And Sunday’s 20-17 loss against the Browns, in which Fields averaged 3.7 yards per dropback, was more of the same.

These setbacks are infuriating, but Fields is improving as a passer. He’s taken big strides in some key metrics year over year, including clean pocket grade, sack avoidance, and throwing without schematic guardrails like play-action or screens.

Justin Fields Is Improving in Meaningful Metrics (via PFF)

Split 2022 percentile rank 2023 percentile rank
Split 2022 percentile rank 2023 percentile rank
Clean pocket grade 17th 51st
No play-action grade 16th 44th
Negative play rate 13th 38th
Sack rate 0th 18th

he starting point is the issue. Fields had a loooooong way just to get to this mediocre level where he’s currently operating. And with the Bears nearly locked in to having the top pick in this year’s draft—and two blue-chip QB prospects in the class—they almost have no choice but to move on from Fields. The 24-year-old has elite athleticism and arm strength. He’s improving as a passer every week. In a vacuum, that’s not the profile you give up on. But Caleb Williams and Drake Maye aren’t the prospects you pass on, either. Fields will be starting somewhere (hello, Atlanta) next season. It just may not be in Chicago.

Jordan Love and the Green Bay Packers

Despite the Packers’ recent stumbles, including Sunday’s loss to the Bucs, Love is nearly proving that he shouldn’t be on lists like this. Ironically enough, the man who kept Love on the bench for three years might be the reason why Love can feel confident he’ll be the Packers’ starting quarterback next season. Because Aaron Rodgers was injured in his first game with the Jets and failed to play 65 percent of their snaps, Green Bay won’t receive New York’s first-round pick in 2024, which is currently slotted in no. 6 in the draft order. There’s a non-zero chance the pick will end up in Maye-Williams range, and if that were the case, Green Bay would have to consider moving on from Love.

But that obviously won’t happen now, and Love has flashed enough high-end talent to prevent Packers fans from thinking about what could have been had Rodgers stayed healthy. Sunday’s game, which was ultimately a losing effort thanks to Barry’s defense, provided more of those flashes, including Love’s perfectly placed strike to Jayden Reed in the back corner of the end zone.

According to Next Gen Stats, the pass traveled 34 yards through the air in 1.4 seconds. That works out to a 50-mph throw while Love was on the move. It wasn’t quite a cross-body throw, but it was damn close, and it didn’t seem to affect Love at all.

The 2023 season has proved that Love has these trick shots in his bag. The more routine plays are still a work in progress, but it’s always tricky to dole out proper blame for botched executions when all parties involved are young and raw. Accuracy is not Love’s strong suit, but it’s impossible to say whether the misses are the product of his own inaccuracy or of inconsistencies in Green Bay’s route running. It’s probably a little bit of both. Love’s improvement in that area will ultimately dictate the floor of his career in Green Bay, but he’s already proved he has a high ceiling that could help him develop into a top quarterback one day.