Each week between now and the Super Bowl, Marc Sessler will scan the NFL landscape for people, places and things -- events both evil and just, noble and impure, delightful and inglorious filled with wise men and anti-heroes -- that burn bright on his radar.
Here's this week's briefing:
The NFL's quarterback problem will never go away
In easier times (read: this past offseason), the question was floated by more than a few: Has the NFL finally solved its signal-calling crisis?
For the first time in eons, all 32 teams had something worth clinging to under center, at least on paper: an entrenched star, promising prospect or savvy vet with starting cred. Six weeks of real-life action, though, reminds us just how far away much of the league remains.
CUT TO: Tennessee, where the Titans are back in the market for a field general after benching a scattershot Marcus Mariota for stopgap Ryan Tannehill. The second overall pick in 2015, Mariota simply became too ineffectual to stomach. He regressed before our eyes, haunted by the ghosts of pass-rushers past and held in check by a franchise cycling through offensive minds like dance partners at a Jane Austen-writ ball unfolding in some deep-Europe hall of yesteryear.
The fault also falls on a contract-year Mariota, whose inability to generate more than seven points of offense in three of his past four starts was bound to trigger the front office's wandering eye. Especially in the AFC South, where the likes of Deshaun Watson (Texans), Jacoby Brissett (Colts) and from-the-wilderness Gardner Minshew (Jaguars) all boast more touchdowns than Tennessee's slow-brewed starter.
The Titans were smitten after Mariota flung 26 scores against just nine picks as a second-year starter in 2016. The numbers dried up from there, with a measly 13 touchdown passes in 2017 and just 11 last season -- over 28 combined starts -- before Tennessee pulled the plug in Sunday's 16-0 tumble against the Broncos. Mariota isn't known for costly picks, but he isn't known for inspiration, either: He has 10 starts with sub-200 passing yards since 2018, trailing only Josh Rosen (12).
The NFL remains a Choose Your Own Adventure of bizarro subplots and unlikely comeback yarns, but Mariota's journey with the Titans appears over, save for the paperwork. He will toil elsewhere next season as Tennessee starts from scratch all over again.
The Bucs aren't far behind after Jameis Winston -- picked a spot above Mariota at No. 1 overall in 2015 -- imploded against Carolina with five picks and a lost fumble. His protection was messy, but the Winston experience has played on loop for years. He walks into sacks, holds the ball too long, tosses the rock into dangerous corners and blows up the Bucs with self-spun disasters. Winston is capable of gaudy yardage totals, hot streaks and big-boy throws, too, but his next meltdown is always in the mail. Lodged like Mariota in a prove-it campaign, Winston is disappearing from the picture, limb by limb, "Back to the Future"-style, in Tampa.
Instead of rolling out 32 functional passers, the NFL is eternally closer to fielding a fat chunk of teams on the cusp of sweeping transition. That will always be true until all 32 clubs learn how to hire the right coaches, avoid draft blunders and develop the organizational stability to put their quarterbacks in a position to succeed. Don't hold your breath.
Rumblings of change dot the map. Where will the Bears sit a year from now if the paint-by-numbers growth of Mitchell Trubisky fails to accelerate? ... The Bengals operate uniquely (to put it kindly), but we've seen Andy Dalton's ceiling, and the ceiling is tappable by a middle school student in Jordans. ... After seeing Miami put ex-first-rounder (and trade acquisition) Josh Rosen in a terrible situation, what's to suggest the Dolphins and their organic dissembling act will create the right environment for whatever rookie they draft come April? ... And would anyone be shocked if 2011 first overall pick (and 2015 MVP) Cam Newton wound up somewhere other than Carolina next autumn?
It's painful to ponder guys like the Browns' Baker Mayfield, the Jets' Sam Darnold or the Cardinals' Kyler Murray suffering the same fates as Mariota and Winston, but history tells us at least one of these players -- if not two or three -- will generate intense disappointment and cost plenty of people their jobs.
Have a nice day!
Osweiler exits stage left with a wild bag of money
Staying on the topic of problematic career arcs at the quarterback position, fizzle-out poster boy Brock Osweiler announced his retirement Wednesday at age 28. The 2012 second-rounder pocketed $41.4 million along the way in return for a 15-15 starting mark in the pros. The win-loss tally is meaningless when you consider the Texans carved out an 8-6 record under Osweiler in 2016 while overtly playing around their gaffe-prone passer.
Brock is disgustingly rich without the highlight reel to match, but he's not to blame for the four-year, $72 million contract he inked with Houston. Osweiler doesn't make that wad of cash unless a collection of powerful people decide he's worth the investment -- perhaps without an ounce of proof.
Chalk it up as another desperate swing and miss by a team trying to wish-cast a functional passer into existence. While the Texans learned from it, ultimately trading up to draft Deshaun Watson in 2017, you can be certain another needy franchise is one free agency bum-rush away from vastly overpaying a milquetoast talent to masquerade as the Second Coming.
Kryptonite found in Foxborough?
New England's long run of towering success is partially borne from the Patriots' ability to navigate injuries and periods of shaky depth. How often have we fallen prey to false-flag narratives around Bill Belichick's roster lacking a true lead receiver or playing three IKEA cashiers along the O-line?
The Patriots sit at the game table mastering "The Campaign for North Africa: The Desert War, 1940-1943," while the rest of the NFL tangles with "Chutes and Ladders."
Masking over a wayward kicker, though, is no picnic.
Instead, Belichick chose: (A) a failed run on fourth-and-1 from New York's 19-yard line; (B) an incomplete pass on fourth-and-5 from the G-Men's 32; and (C) a third botched fourth-down try saved by penalty alone. When Nugent was finally allowed to try a field goal, he crumbled on a 40-yard attempt that bonked dumbly off the left upright.
Longtime kicker Stephen Gostkowskiwent on injured reserve with a hip injury earlier this month, and New England spent the week trying out kickers left and right. Perhaps just a lone-nut concept, but what if 31 other teams united against this common threat by collectively signing every on-the-street booter known to man? Eradicate the supply chain. Toss said kickers on IR and house them away in hidden motel rooms on the edge of town while forcing Belichick to ride the NUGENT TRAIN into new dimensions of game-plan-limiting annoyance.
The one-win team with everything to play for
For all the quarterback woes stated above, new hope rises in Gang Green Land because of what Sam Darnold pulled off in Sunday's stunning upset of the Cowboys. Returning from his bout with mono, the second-year passer silenced a month's worth of Jets jokes with a flurry of crisp downfield darts, on-the-money deep shots and juicy decision-making.
One-win teams are fully cooked -- save for the Jets. They're a newfangled offense with Darnold back from the brink, while the defense has held its own from wire to wire.