Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 22, 2020

The Other Quarterbacks In The News

There are no contests to report on and nothing but wild guesses as to when some semblance of normalcy might return. Like the rest of our culture, the sports world has come to a halt even as Americans hunker down (excluding of course, idiot spring breakers on Florida beaches), in a desperate effort to stem the seemingly inexorable spread of COVID-19. Yet even during a pandemic, one can count on the National Football League to continue making news. Would one expect any less of our national obsession?

The new league year officially began earlier this week, and while not yet a national holiday, the day carries special significance to football fans. It’s the end date for all expiring contracts and thus the moment at which the 2020 free agent class is officially able to sign new deals. It’s also the point by which teams have designated franchise players and, at least front offices hope, inked extensions for those players with existing contracts whose services clubs want to secure for seasons to come.

All that makes late March a time of player movement and contract news, virus be damned. Obviously, the biggest story of 2020’s start to the new NFL year was the decision by New England Patriots icon Tom Brady to decamp from Foxborough for the warmer climes of Tampa and the Buccaneers home at Raymond James Stadium. But behind the unrelentingly grim news on the front page, Brady’s was not the only story of a big contract for a veteran quarterback to grace the sports section.

Ryan Tannehill’s NFL career appeared to be on a downward slide after seven indifferent seasons in Miami during which the Dolphins had just one winning campaign and played in a single postseason contest, which Tannehill missed due to injury. When he was traded to Tennessee last March as part of a complete roster overhaul in Miami, it was easy to see Tannehill becoming one more journeyman signal caller, drifting from one team to another for a few years before finally exiting the game with a retirement announcement that few would notice. But with the Titans season sputtering, head coach Mike Vrabel opted to replace starter Marcus Mariota with Tannehill midway through Tennessee’ Week 6 game against the Broncos. While he was unable to turn that contest around, the 31-year-old was given the starting job and guided the Titans to 7-3 record over the team’s final ten games, good enough for 9-7 mark overall and a spot in the Wild Card Game against the Patriots.

While that season record was identical to what Tennessee achieved in each of the previous three years with Mariota under center, what happened next was decidedly different. The Titans won a pair of stunning playoff upsets on the road, first shocking Brady and the Patriots 20-13 in Foxborough, then scoring an even more improbable victory in the divisional round, downing the Baltimore Ravens and fledgling superstar quarterback Lamar Jackson 28-12. The sixth seeded Titans even led Kansas City 17-7 midway through the second quarter of the AFC Championship before Patrick Mahomes and company finally got organized.

As he resurrected the Titans fortunes Tannehill put up numbers even Brady would envy. He finished the regular season leading the league in quarterback rating, yards per completion and adjusted yards per pass attempt with numbers that were all (obviously) career highs. He also had a career best completion rate of more than seventy percent. Just before the new year league started Tennessee rewarded him with a four-year, $118 million contract extension. When the third year of the deal fully vests next spring, $91 million will be guaranteed, a phenomenal amount for a quarterback who had been relegated to backup status for whatever was left of his career at this time last year.

The deal is so rich that more than a few NFL pundits have questioned the Titans’ wisdom in making it. But even if Tennessee and its fans eventually rue the day Tannehill inked it, the contract left no doubt Mariota’s time in Nashville was over. Which, in a six degrees of separation way, brings us back to Brady’s signing with Tampa Bay. For that deal also spelled the end for another starting quarterback, the Bucs’ Jameis Winston, who will forever be linked with Mariota.

As a redshirt freshman for Florida State, Winston was the winning quarterback in the 2014 BCS National Championship game, and the youngest collegian ever to win the Heisman Trophy. The following year Winston’s Florida State team lost to the Oregon Ducks in the Rose Bowl, which that season was one of the semifinal contests for the College Football Playoff. Oregon’s quarterback was Mariota, who just a few weeks earlier had become the first player born in Hawaii to win the Heisman. The Ducks went on to lose the National Championship game to Ohio State, but that did little to diminish Mariota’s standing in the 2015 NFL Draft. When the league’s springtime extravaganza was staged at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater that April, Winston’s was the first name called and Mariota’s was the second.

To say that so far in their NFL careers both young quarterbacks have fallen short of the expectations that accompanied their gaudy draft positions is an understatement. Winston’s numbers have generally been better than Mariota’s, though Tennessee has posted better records than Tampa Bay, and Mariota has avoided Winston’s proclivity for throwing to players wearing the uniforms of opposing teams. Both are certainly still young enough that a second act with some other team is very possible. They need only look to Tannehill’s recent season and new contract for proof of that.

Still, it has been a precipitous fall for both Winston and Mariota from the heady days of being the NFL’s top two draft picks to the dismissed afterthoughts in this week’s stories of big new contracts for a pair of veteran quarterbacks. At the very least that should be a warning to fans looking forward to this year’s draft, now only a month away. Though it will be a television-only event in our current COVID-19 environment, fans will still debate and dissect the promise and potential of the top picks. But in sports, as in life, promise and potential don’t come with any guarantees.

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