Wednesday, June 19, 2024
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QB purgatory: Path for Giants, Browns and five other teams to change their fate at NFL’s most crucial position

Quarterback play falls into three categories for the most part. There are star quarterbacks capable of elevating a team and leading them to a Super Bowl. There are the struggling quarterbacks who make it quite clear it’s time to move on. Then there’s the middle ground — QB purgatory: The average-to-above-average starters aren’t quite good enough to lead their team to the holy grail, but not quite bad enough to start over from scratch. They can win a playoff game once in a while and maybe even a title if all the stars align, but usually they leave a team muddled in mediocrity. 

QB purgatory is the worst space for a team to be in. Take the Giants for example. It looked like Daniel Jones‘ days in New York were numbered through three seasons, but then Brian Daboll came along. Jones cut down the turnovers, showed upside with over 700 rushing yards and led New York to a playoff win in his contract season with a bad supporting cast. 

That put the Giants in a tough position. They could have let Jones walk and started over at quarterback. But drafting one is a complete crapshoot. First-round quarterbacks under the new CBA (since 2011) sign a second contract with their debut team less than 40 percent of the time. The success rate isn’t even a coin flip. 

They could have given Jones a franchise tag, but they preferred slapping the tag on Saquon Barkley, their injury prone star running back. So the Giants did what a lot of teams do in QB purgatory. They overpaid for an average starting quarterback because that’s the going rate for them. In case you don’t believe me, these quarterbacks — Joe Flacco, Derek Carr, Matthew Stafford, Jimmy Garoppolo, Carson Wentz, Jared Goff and Dak Prescott — all once got the “highest-paid QB of all time” label by some financial measure.   

Jones didn’t join that club, but he did get a four-year pact worth $160 million. It was such a lucrative deal that the Giants didn’t have an easy out when he regressed in 2024 and then missed the second half of the season with a torn ACL. It would cost New York nearly $70 million to cut Jones this offseason, hampering its ability to build the best team around a new quarterback, had they liked any of the six taken in the first round. 

Let’s not pity the Giants too much. The Raiders had Derek Carr for nine seasons. He set a few franchise records there, but put up league average numbers for nearly a decade. He made over $130 million with the Raiders despite never winning a playoff game due to his play and a terrible defense. It’s not a knock on Carr, by the way. Being an average starting quarterback (the most difficult position in sports) for any amount of time is an incredible achievement. But, as a fan I’d like to know my team either has a potential superstar quarterback or is moving to acquire one. 

So, are there ever happy endings in QB purgatory? Sure, but only a few. Here’s one way to look at it. Only seven quarterbacks have ever won a Super Bowl after failing to reach a conference championship game through six seasons. In other words, if they haven’t flirted with elite play and a playoff run yet, they probably never will. Matthew Stafford is the only one to do it in the past two decades. The others were Jim Plunkett, Joe Theismann, Phil Simms, Steve Young, Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson. 

For the most part, those are pretty good quarterbacks (with the exception of Steve Young, who is an all-time great) who had things break the right way for a Super Bowl run. Look at Theismann, Simms, Dilfer, Johnson and Stafford. Washington had the top-ranked defense in 1982. The 1986 Giants had Bill Belichick at DC and Lawrence Taylor. The 2000 Ravens and 2002 Buccaneers are two of the best defenses ever and the 2021 Rams had three potential future Hall of Famers on defense with Aaron Donald, Von Miller and Jalen Ramsey

Stafford is one of the true exceptions. Most would have said Detroit was in QB purgatory with him after 12 seasons and zero playoff wins. Not the Rams. They bet on his arm talent, went all in with pieces around him and were rewarded with a Super Bowl. 

That’s one example teams currently in QB purgatory can point to for some hope, but the stars have to align. With that being said, here’s the path out of QB purgatory for seven teams right now. For this exercise, I looked at expensive veteran quarterbacks who are either already in this range, or approaching the range of six-plus seasons and no conference title games. 

Cowboys (Dak Prescott)

You might be thinking, Dallas is in QB purgatory, really?!? Dak Prescott is a perennial top-10 quarterback who was last year’s MVP runner-up. Well, Dallas has two playoff wins in eight seasons with Prescott (despite having an all-around good team) and has never made a conference title game with him. His last contract made him the highest-paid quarterback in the league at the time, and he is now entering a contract year where the cycle seems doomed to repeat itself. I wrote Thursday about how if Dallas hasn’t gotten it done with Dak yet, they never will. That’s because no quarterback has ever won a Super Bowl with his draft team after failing to reach a conference title game through eight seasons. 

History is meant to be rewritten, so what’s Dallas’ path to getting there? It’s Jerry Jones the owner firing Jerry Jones the GM. The Cowboys are one of five teams without a conference title game since the 1996 season, along with the Texans, Browns, Dolphins and Commanders. Dallas has the same GM during that span (Jones), while the other four teams have combined for 26, and all have had at least five. Jones is the common thread amid all the coaches, quarterbacks and different struggles Dallas has had in the playoffs over that time.

Jones should hold himself accountable by relieving himself of general manager duties, but that’s never going to happen, and he’s said as much in the past. It’s time to revisit that idea, though, as Dallas has sunk to new lows. It trailed Green Bay 27-0 at home this past postseason, another one-and-done result. The Cowboys have won 36 games in the last three years, the most in a three-year span without a conference title appearance in NFL history. 

The next realistic path is Prescott elevating his play against the best competition. He is 63-18 in his career against teams that finish with under 10 wins (.778 win percentage) and 12-28 against 10-plus-win teams, including playoffs (.300 win percentage). It’s the third-largest win percentage drop-off by any quarterback since the merger, better than only Matthew Stafford and Kirk Cousins (minimum 40 starts). He has thrown far too many interceptions against those good teams (38 in 40 starts vs. 43 in 81 starts against teams with under 10 wins), including seven picks in seven playoff starts. 

Browns (Deshaun Watson)

For decades, the Browns have been in a quarterback camp where the decision is obvious. It’s time to start over at the position, and they have, famously sporting the most different starting quarterbacks in the entire NFL since returning to the league in 1999. So naturally out of desperation, they made the biggest investment in NFL history in an attempt to land a franchise quarterback, to the tune of three first-round picks and $230 million in guarantees for Deshaun Watson. It hasn’t worked out so far. Watson has been mostly unavailable due to suspension and injury, and hasn’t even been the first- or second-best quarterback on the team in the last two years. Jacoby Brissett and Joe Flacco performed better.

So what’s next in Cleveland? Ideally, Watson would return to superstar form and lead a Browns team to a Super Bowl with the help of a No. 1 defense and a host of weapons that includes Nick Chubb, Amari Cooper, Elijah Moore, Jerry Jeudy and David Njoku. That’s unlikely to happen, though. Watson’s running ability is only going to continue to diminish, plus his deep ball has suffered in Cleveland, and that was before he had surgery on his throwing shoulder. We also have no idea where the mental part of his game is at after he faced roughly two dozen lawsuits for alleged sexual misconduct. The most likely path out of this mess for Cleveland is for Watson to get Wally Pipped. It happened to Drew Bledsoe, Tony Romo and Alex Smith among others, so it could happen to Watson, especially considering what Joe Flacco came off the streets to do last year. The quarterback to supplant him is probably not on the current roster, though former No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston could have something to say about that.

Giants (Daniel Jones)

The Giants dilemma is well documented at the top. So what’s the next move? See if Jones can prove himself healthy in 2024 and capable of making plays down the field after New York drafted WR Malik Nabers sixth overall. Jones was a game manager at times in 2022, posting the lowest interception rate in the NFL, coupled with the second-shortest average pass length in the league. That formula isn’t going to work for a deep playoff run unless this defense suddenly becomes one of the best in the league. If Jones can’t take a step forward with a better supporting cast, I’m sure Giants fans are hoping they can draft someone like Shadeur Sanders in 2025, or Arch Manning in 2026. 

Buccaneers (Baker Mayfield)

Baker Mayfield signed a three-year deal worth $100 million to stay in Tampa Bay after leading the Bucs to a playoff win last year. Given Mayfield’s up-and-down career, his mostly average season in 2023 before breakout performances down the stretch and in the postseason, I’d say the Buccaneers are firmly in QB purgatory. 

The way out? Well, Tom Brady isn’t coming out of retirement and neither is the 2002 Buccaneers defense, so I think this Tampa Bay team has probably hit its ceiling. For what it’s worth, Ryan Wilson has them drafting Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers in his way-too-early 2025 mock draft

Saints (Derek Carr)

Derek Carr has been an average NFL starting quarterback for a long time, and nothing happened last year to change that as New Orleans couldn’t win a weak division with a top-10 defense and veteran quarterback. Drew Brees isn’t walking through that door anytime soon so the Saints need to draft a quarterback in the first round for the first time since 1971 when they selected Archie Manning second overall. How fitting would it be if they ended that drought by picking his grandson Arch Manning? The Saints’ path out of QB purgatory is to draft a QB in 2025. They could also wait to potentially take Manning in 2026, when he is first draft eligible. 

Seahawks (Geno Smith)

I’m a big Geno Smith fan. I loved his comeback story in 2022 and believe in his arm talent. However, his numbers fell off a bit in 2023 despite a nice trio of WRs to throw to. He’s also never won a playoff game in 11 seasons, which have been mostly spent as a backup. For now, the plan has to be to give Smith one more year to lead Seattle on a playoff run, or else he’s probably a bridge in 2025 to a quarterback of the future. 

Seattle’s path to a playoff run has to do more with its defense than Smith. They hired former Ravens DC Mike Macdonald as their head coach, so it’s time for the Seahawks to return to the “Legion of Boom” days. There are pieces on defense with Devon Witherspoon, Tariq Woolen, Boye Mafe, Leonard Williams and rookie first-round pick Byron Murphy II. Seattle still needs to follow the 2021 Rams blueprint and look for any way to upgrade its defense by the 2024 trade deadline. Edge rushers are king, so if I’m Seattle I’m looking at these players in a contract year in case their teams fall out of contention: Khalil Mack (Chargers), Matt Judon (Patriots) and Haason Reddick (Jets). 

Cardinals (Kyler Murray)

Apparently, Kyler Murray showed the Cardinals’ new regime enough in 2023 coming off a torn ACL to get a vote of confidence and a brand new No. 1 WR in Marvin Harrison Jr. This doesn’t change the fact that Arizona is in QB purgatory. Murray is among the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL and enters Year 6 with zero career playoff wins and more questions than answers regarding his future. Arizona’s hand was pretty much forced as cutting Murray would have cost over $100 million in dead money this offseason. 

The path out is Super Bowl contention by improving Murray’s supporting cast enough to help him take a leap similar to how No. 1 wideouts helped the careers of Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts. Also, you only have to go back to 2021 when the Cardinals were 7-0 and Murray was an early season MVP candidate, surrounded by weapons like DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk. It fell apart down the stretch, as it often did with Kliff Kingsbury, but at least Murray showed MVP flashes. Murray ranked bottom three in the NFL in completion rate to wide receivers last year, and on passes 15-plus yards downfield. Let’s see how much Harrison can elevate Murray and if second-year head coach Jonathan Gannon can eventually build a good defense.

Coming soon (Dolphins and Tua Tagovailoa)

If there’s one team heading toward QB purgatory it’s the Dolphins with Tua Tagovailoa. Whether it’s been injury, cold weather or poor performance, Tua and Miami have crumbled down the stretch in back-to-back years after getting off to historic starts on offense. The Dolphins should hold off on extending Tagovailoa until the team proves it can make a playoff run with him under center. He was just 1-6 with eight touchdowns and seven picks vs. playoff teams last year, which doesn’t inspire enough confidence for a long-term deal worth $50 million per year. He can play on the fifth-year option in 2024 and they can franchise tag him in 2025 if necessary. 

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