The Debrief  

 

NFL preseason winners and losers: Chiefs sitting pretty at QB

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Coach Andy Reid is the early winner in Kansas City's quarterback competition. Sometime late Saturday night, after another efficient Alex Smith touchdown drive and another jaw-dropping throw against pressure by rookie Patrick Mahomes, it grew clearer that the Chiefs had managed their quarterback dilemma perfectly this offseason.

The Jacksonville Jaguars' front office did the opposite. Coach Doug Marrone's decision to open up the starting job between Blake Bortles and Chad Henne after Bortles' latest desultory performance was an admission of error.

Sure, giving Bortles one more chance to turn his career around was worth a shot. Even picking up his fifth-year contract option in May made financial sense. But betting the entire season on him without looking harder for real competition was a leap of faith by Marrone, Jaguars grand poohbah Tom Coughlin and general manager Dave Caldwell.

The key decision came on Feb. 15, when the team brought back the veteran Henne on a restructured contract. That move, weeks before free agency and months before the draft, all but guaranteed the Jags' front office would settle on the same quarterback duo as it did in 2016. And 2015. And 2014. (Jacksonville went 11-37 over those three seasons.) The organization boxed itself into a corner back in February, before even seeing how the QB market would develop.

All the magical thinking about fixing Bortles' mechanics evaporated once camp started. The open signs of frustration from teammates and hesitant preseason outings gave the start to this season a familiar feel. August should be a time of hope, but the Jaguars crowd was booing Bortles' missed throws during the first quarter of the preseason home opener.

While the Chiefs have a quality quarterback option for this season and an exciting prospect for the future, the Jaguars don't have either.

This week's edition of preseason winners and losers will focus on quarterback intrigue around the league.

Winners

Andy Reid, head coach, Kansas City Chiefs: This month is going even better than Reid could have reasonably expected. Smith has responded to Mahomes' arrival with a strong training camp, highlighted by a few beautiful vertical strikes in his short preseason outings. Perhaps the Chiefs provoked more aggressive play from Smith by drafting his opposite.

Mahomes' early production is the bigger surprise. He played with improved calm in his second preseason appearance during the rare plays when he was given time to throw. Mahomes' ability to evade free pass rushers and then throw on the move is already unique among pros. His quick release and huge arm open up the playbook. Kansas City's 21-year-old quarterback of the future is ahead of schedule, and the Chiefs don't even need to use him.

Jared Goff, quarterback, Los Angeles Rams: Saturday's preseason outing was the cleanest performance by Goff in a Rams uniform. He made smart, mostly safe decisions regarding where to throw the ball. He completed 16 of his 20 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown, leading the Rams to 17 first-half points. Those numbers would've looked even better if the newest Ram, Sammy Watkins, had hauled in a potential 28-yard score on Goff's best throw of the night. Rookie receiver Cooper Kupp is exceeding all his offseason hype and could very well catch more passes than Watkins this season.

Yes, it's only the preseason, but Goff was lost at this stage a year ago. And now he has a coaching staff with a plan for him and a vastly improved group of pass catchers. The situation reminds me of the one Alex Smith was in back in 2006, when the then-22-year-old bounced back from a miserable rookie season to show he belonged in the pros with the help of a new offensive guru. Smith had Norv Turner. Goff, the No. 1 overall pick 11 years after Smith came off the board first, has first-time head coach Sean McVay, who is gunning for his own slice of L.A. celebrity.

Tom Savage, quarterback, Houston Texans: Savage all but wrapped up the Texans' starting job in the team's win over the Patriots with two long drives that showed off a variety of skills. He had success on third down and in the red zone. He connected on a deep throw and displayed accuracy on the short stuff -- despite missing his top three wideouts.

Rookie Deshaun Watson will start eventually for the Texans this season, but his erratic performance against New England should only cement coach Bill O'Brien's inclination to give Savage the Week 1 start. No matter who has played quarterback in practices or games, the Texans' offense has inspired more confidence than it ever did during the Brock Osweiler error.

Losers

Paxton Lynch, quarterback, Denver Broncos: The Broncos had no choice but to name Trevor Siemian the team's starter after Lynch's struggles during the preseason. Coach Vance Joseph officially announced the move Monday, saying the move to Siemian was "permanent."

The lack of development from Lynch in his second season must be disappointing for Broncos GM John Elway, although it shouldn't be stunning for a raw prospect learning his second offense in as many seasons. Lynch dropped back to pass 14 times against the 49ers on Saturday, with those plays gaining a total of 32 yards. Only two of his nine completions went for more than 5 yards, with Broncos coaches calling a Hackenberg-inspired series of short throws seemingly designed to build Lynch's confidence. It didn't work.

Lynch was repeatedly late on his intermediate passes. He failed to locate open receivers multiple times and didn't identify free blitzers coming at him. It was almost as concerning for Denver that Lynch said after the game he thought he "did pretty well" in his start. The Broncos should realize by now they have a promising young quarterback on the roster worth committing to. It's just not the one Elway expected.

Siemian was as professional as ever against the 49ers. He delivered under pressure and made quick decisions. He is forever fighting uphill because of his draft pedigree, which is silly. If Siemian were the first-round pick and Lynch had been taken in the seventh round, there'd be no battle.

The patience of ... Chuck Pagano, head coach, Indianapolis Colts: Last week in Indianapolis, I witnessed two of the worst offensive practices imaginable. Completions were few and far between, even during drills designed to favor the offense. The word at Colts camp was that I didn't stumble into a cold stretch by current starter Scott Tolzien and backup undrafted rookie backup Phillip Walker.

Pagano didn't hide his frustration. Normally positive in the face of adversity, the Colts coach said that some of his young players "don't have a clue" how to prepare for training camp, a possible cause for the team's rash of injuries in recent weeks. Pagano said the team had a "long way to go" as camp broke, words that sounded prophetic when the team's starters were dominated in Dallas two days later.

"We can't move the ball down the field. We can't get first downs. It's pitiful," Pagano said after the game. "I don't care who's in there."

Tolzien remains in there after leading the Colts to three points in the first half. Pagano hinted that the team would consider elevating third-stringer Stephen Morris, who has performed well late in preseason games. Time is running out on Andrew Luck to come back and save the day, with the team's franchise QB still having yet to throw a pass in practice since January shoulder surgery. It's past time for Indy to consider something dramatic like a veteran signing (Colin Kaepernick?) or a trade, because the Colts risk throwing their season away in September before Luck is ready. Pagano, usually so resolute, isn't trying to hide his exasperation.

"We need a lot more grown men in that locker room," Pagano said. "More grown men on this football team."

Christian Hackenberg, quarterback, New York Jets: Through 15 pro seasons, Josh McCown probably figured he'd experienced everything the NFL has to offer. But winning a starting job with a baseball hat on is a new one. Jets coach Todd Bowles' decision to start Hackenberg against the Lions on Saturday made sense for Gang Green in the long run and benefitted McCown in the short run. Hackenberg, a second-year pro who didn't play a snap during the 2016 regular season, needs reps, and the Jets need to see what they have -- even if it's hard to watch.

Hackenberg has now failed to lead the Jets to a single point in 13 preseason drives. He dropped back to pass eight times in five drives against the Lions, creating zero yards, with as many fumbles (one) as positive plays. Bowles blamed the protection for the team's struggles, but Hackenberg also was way off on a few outside throws, nearly picked off on another and had the ball slip out of his hand once because of indecision. The team once chose to run on third-and-long instead of letting Hackenberg throw. These performances must be torture for general manager Mike Maccagnan, who put his reputation on the line when he drafted Hackenberg in the second round last year.

The Jets should continue to give Hackenberg preseason snaps, because it's the preseason. Anything beyond that, including a roster spot, shouldn't be promised just because of the QB's draft status.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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