On Sunday, we witnessed the beginning. Of what, I’m not exactly sure, though perhaps in hindsight, we’ll all look back on Week 3 of the 2014 NFL season as the epicenter of a youthquake that shook the league to its foundation.
The first four quarterbacks chosen in May’s draft all took the field. The results weren’t great, and the impacts occasionally minimal, but all four showed flashes of what may come. And, of course, the timing of this only adds extra significance: After all, three of those rookies are set to start in Week 4, while a number of future Hall of Famers are starting to look like they’re closer to a retirement speech than they are a Super Bowl.
With a number of new stars taking snaps, and a slew of young players looking more dangerous than their old-timey brethren, perhaps what we’re witnessing is a fundamental change in the NFL landscape.
The Vikings have already had to deal with the displacement of Adrian Peterson, but after Matt Cassel broke a number of bones in his foot, that also means they’ve got a new starting quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater. The results showed that Bridgewater is a more exciting quarterback than Cassel – something that an inanimate carbon rod could have recognized – but as of now may not be a lot more valuable than the veteran. Bridgewater completed his first two passes for 51 yards (most of which came on a 41-yard catch-and-run by running back Matt Asiata), but he was just 10-of-18 for 99 yards the rest of the way.
This was against a New Orleans defense that had given up 652 yards passing and four touchdowns in their first two games.
In Jacksonville, the Jaguars turned to rookie Blake Bortles not because the starter had any broken bones, only a broken spirit. The Jags have strongly established themselves as the worst team in the NFL and when down 30-0 going into the second half, replaced Chad Henne with Bortles. The end result was that Bortles threw for 223 yards and two touchdowns, but the more accurate analysis was that he threw two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and gained 163 of his yards on the final three drives of a game that hadn’t been close in hours.
Then there’s the Browns, who have yet to give Johnny Manziel a real shot at playing quarterback this season, though against the Ravens on Sunday, they did try to use his best skill: Deceptiveness.
OK, maybe that’s his second best skill (using a stack of cash as a phone is number one), and while this trick play didn’t end up counting – it was called back for an illegal shift – it was probably the best highlight from any rookie QB this week.
Finally there’s Derek Carr, the starting quarterback of the Raiders since Week 1, who was unspectacular in just about every sense against New England. Carr’s now 0-3, and no rookie signal caller has won a game in 2014 as the starter, a far cry from the stellar QB class of 2012, when Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin and Russell Wilson all led their teams to playoff berths. But the future is coming for these four whether they’re ready or not.
Especially since the NFL’s longstanding crew of “elite quarterbacks” aren’t looking quite as infallible.
The highest passer rating in the league currently belongs to Wilson at 108.9. Second is the ageless Peyton Manning, who, despite his last-minute heroics, lost to Wilson and the Seahawks for the second time since February’s Super Blowout. Drew Brees is eighth on the list at 99.1 – behind guys like Andrew Luck and Kirk Cousins – and his Saints have limped out of the gate at 1-2. The same goes for Aaron Rodgers’ Packers, who looked flat-out awful in Sunday’s loss to Detroit, and Mr. Discount Double Check hasn’t helped much: He’s 13th in passer rating and is averaging 6.8 yards per attempt, less Geno Smith and EJ Manuel.
The last of the elites, Tom Brady, currently owns a rating of 82.9 with just 5.5 Y/A. This despite the fact that Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman are all healthy, and the Patriots having faced a trio of porous passing defenses. At 37, Brady is younger than Peyton Manning, yet he’s looked a decade older, and it’s becoming clear that he misses his old pal Wes Welker; Amendola has just two targets over the last two games, and he’s caught neither of them.
In other words, after three weeks, we may be witnessing a seismic shift in the position. Philip Rivers and Matt Ryan are established veterans playing the best football of their careers, while Wilson continues to be one of the most efficient QBs, and Andrew Luck just had the best game as a pro after feasting on the Jaguars.
Luck is now the leader in completions and touchdown passes. Fellow third-year quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Nick Foles are first and second in yards per game.
The current crop of rookie QBs may not be off to an exciting – or successful – start, but they will only get more opportunities as the year goes on. Whether you’re in your first year, your third, or your last, it’s clear that one of the biggest transitions in professional football, the reorganization of the elite quarterbacks list, is happening right now.
5 Quick Q’s:
Will the 0-3 Jaguars win more than two games this year?
Probably not. Since 1976, only three teams have been outscored by more points through three games than the Jags, who currently sport a -75 point differential. The offense is awful, with Toby Gerhart leading the team in rushing at 82 yards on 2.4 yards per carry and leading receiver Allen Hurns catching less than half of his targets, but compared to the defense they’ve looked like world beaters. Jacksonville is dead last in points and yards allowed and they haven’t forced a turnover since there were 11 minutes left in the first half of the first game. Over the last 10 quarters they’ve been outscored 119-27.
Will Rex Ryan ever be an NFL head coach again after this season?
Yes, but not in 2015. After Monday night’s loss to the Bears, the Jets are suffering from “underachiever” status once again and are clearly not disciplined enough to post a winning record for the first time since 2010. Ryan will be fired and then shake his money-maker (his mouth) in a booth for a year or two before another NFL team tries to bank on his short-lived playoff success that came a half-decade ago.
Will more than 10 players rush for over 1,000 yards this year?
No. In 2006, 23 runners hit the millennium mark, a number that fell to just 13 last season, the fewest in a single year since 1996. Teams aren’t just passing it more than ever, they’re also avoiding the single-back system like it’s Mark Sanchez at a key party. Through three games, only 16 players are averaging the necessary 62.5 yards per game that you’d need over a full 16-game season, and many of those names – Justin Forsett, Knile Davis, Bobby Rainey, Lamar Miller, Terrance West – will once again be sharing the ball when other players get healthy.
Will more than 30 receivers gain over 1,000 yards this year?
Yes. Last year there were 24 players with at least 1,000 receiving yards, up from 20 the previous. Take that magic 62.5 Y/G figure and you’ll see there are 29 players averaging that number so far. That includes names like Darren Sproles, Golden Tate, Delanie Walker, Brian Quick, Andrew Hawkins, Kelvin Benjamin, Niles Paul and Emmanuel Sanders. In fact, Sanders is on pace for almost 1,800 yards, which is almost as many as he had in his first four years combined. Knowing how Peyton Manning likes to run his offense, he might just get there.
Will the 3-0 Cardinals win the NFC West?
No. Arizona’s win over the 49ers may have given them a significant two-game lead over San Francisco, but their 3-0 start seems like a fluke. The Cardinals play four of their last six games on the road – at Seattle, at Atlanta, at St Louis, and at San Francisco – plus home games against the Chiefs and Seahawks, and any major injury on defense could spell doom for them, especially given Carson Palmer’s status at QB. Also, the decline of Larry Fitzgerald these past few years does not seem to be a fluke. But mostly I’m just erring on the side of history. This is a team that’s been in existence since 1920, has only made the playoffs eight times, and has never won more than 11 games in a year. The Cardinals? Just no.