As if you didn't start to suspect this already, but ESPN might be cursed. With ratings down all across the NFL this year, perhaps nobody has taken a bigger hit than the cable giant and their Monday Night Football flagship, which nearly had its worst season in viewership since moving to ESPN in 2006 if not for the finale between the Cowboys and Lions. And still, ratings for MNF will decline for the third year in a row, and their playoff game will once again be football's version of a "clip show" episode of Seinfeld.
Two years ago, the wild card playoff game featured on ESPN was between the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers; the Cardinals were forced to start third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley, arguably the worst starting quarterback in NFL history, while the Panthers posted a losing record in 2014 at 7-8-1. Carolina won, nobody cared.
Last year, the "worldwide leader in terrible playoff matchups" was bestowed with a wild card game featuring the 11-5 Kansas City Chiefs and the 9-7 Houston Texans; the Texans used four different starting quarterbacks in the regular season before finally settling on Brian Hoyer for the postseason. In the 30-0 loss that day, Hoyer threw four interceptions and was sacked three times.
And now ESPN is saddled with perhaps the worst playoff matchup of quarterbacks in wild card history.
Houston is back in the playoffs at 9-7, having been outscored by 49 points in the regular season, and their situation at QB is somehow even worse than it was a year ago. It was obvious that the Texans needed to upgrade the position after Hoyer's playoff nightmare, but the decision to sign Brock Osweiler to a $72 million contract was a clear mistake from the beginning. Osweiler faces little competition in the race for "Worst Starting QB in the NFL," having been benched three weeks ago much like he was for the Denver Broncos before the playoffs last season, but on Saturday he may take a backseat to his opponent.
The Oakland Raiders actually had a legitimate MVP candidate at quarterback, which is why they're in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, but Derek Carr won't be playing any time soon. After breaking a leg two weeks ago, Carr was replaced by Matt McGloin, who hadn't started a game since his rookie season in 2013 and didn't have much to brag about when he did reminisce about his 1-5 record as a starter for the Raiders back then. However, things got even worse than that when McGloin was hurt in the season finale (a 24-6 loss to the Broncos that cost them a bye week and sent them to ESPN's "Keep Cutting That Cord!" special presentation) and was replaced by rookie Connor Cook.
A fourth round pick out of Michigan State, Cook only saw his draft stock as a senior despite his 34-5 career record and a spot in the College Football Playoffs last year. That's because Cook completed only 57.5 percent of his passes for the Spartans and had a rare distinction of being a three-year starting quarterback who his teammates didn’t vote to be one of the three captains in 2015, a sign to many teams that Cook was not mature enough to be an NFL starter. Now he's supposed to lead an NFL team to a playoff victory. And he'll have to do so as the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make his first career start in the postseason. Cook is the type of player you expect to start for the Cleveland Browns in Week 17, not a team that only a few weeks ago had the best record in the AFC.
So in a world of Cook vs Osweiler for the right to be one of the last eight teams standing, is this the worst wild card matchup of all-time? It's really damn close.
In 2000, four of the worst playoff quarterbacks ever got at least one attempt in a wild card game between the Ravens and Broncos. On Denver's side, Gus Frerotte got the start and posted a rating of 44.3 before being replaced by Jarious Jackson, who threw 22 pass attempts in his entire career. The Ravens started Trent Dilfer, a failed project with the Buccaneers, plus a bonus appearance from Tony Banks. Of course, Baltimore won the game and shortly later, the Super Bowl thanks to an all-time great defense.
Ten years earlier, another soon-to-be Super Bowl champion was mired in quarterback nightmare when the Giants lost Phil Simms to a broken foot in a Week 15 loss to the Bills. He was replaced by Jeff Hostetler, who at that point had a career record of 2-0 over seven seasons. In the wild card round, New York faced a Bears team that was starting Mike Tomczak, a former undrafted free agent in his sixth season who also only made two starts in 1990 after starter Jim Harbaugh hurt his shoulder in Week 15, same time as Simms. Hostetler won the game 31-3, and the Giants won the Super Bowl with a 20-19 revenge win over Buffalo.
We've seen other teams feature a single bad or unproven quarterback in the wild card round, like A.J. McCarron in 2016, Joe Webb in 2012, T.J. Yates and Tim Tebow in 2011, Quincy Carter and Anthony Wright in 2003, Kelly Holcomb in 2002, Steve Zolak in 1998, Danny Kanell in 1997, Steve Walsh in 1990, Paul McDonald in 1982, Scott Brunner in 1981 or Vince Ferragamo in 1979 (half of these names must sound made-up), but no matchup comes close to comparison to Osweiler-Cook than one that took place 25 years ago and also featured the Raiders.
It was December 28, 1991, and the Kansas City Chiefs and LA Raiders both emerged from the AFC West as wild card winners. (Back when the NFL had six divisions and wild card teams could play each other.) It was a matchup football fans were familiar with as the playoffs began … because it had happened six days earlier. The Chiefs beat the Raiders 27-21. The quarterbacks that day would also be meeting the playoffs:
Kansas City’s Steve DeBerg vs LA’s Todd Marinovich.
DeBerg was experienced, having 135 starts under his belt and being the player who will always have the distinction of being terrible for the 49ers before getting out of Joe Montana’s way in 1980, and then doing the same thing with the Broncos and John Elway in 1983, but he was okay for the Chiefs by ‘91. Just nothing exciting or interesting. Marinovich though, had only just made his first career start in that finale against Kansas City when starter Jay Schroeder got hurt.
The quarterback who had already gained national recognition for being "perfectly raised to play QB," turned out to be anything but perfect. His career at USC was bad. He was drafted by the Raiders in the first round in 1991 because he was Todd Marinovich. And while he shocked everyone with three touchdowns in the regular season finale, he had one more surprise in store for the world by throwing four interceptions in the playoffs as LA lost 10-6.
That may have been the worst QB matchup in wild card and postseason history, but I think there's a new king in this town of jesters.
One report says that ESPN will lose $75 million on the wild card game between the Texans and Raiders. Who among us is really expected to stop ESPN from bleeding subscribers, as they’ve been doing for months now, to witness these teams out-error each other? Will ratings go up or down after Osweiler is replaced by Tom Savage (or perhaps Brandon Weeden if Savage is inactive) once he throws his 17th interception of the year? Will #Raiders be trending once Cook is completely owned by a very good pass defense?
This is going to get worse before it gets better, and it's never even been this bad before.