There aren't many expectations attached to either the New York Jets or the Carolina Panthers, so the Jets' nondescript loss to the Panthers on Sunday isn't likely to create many headlines. But the game encapsulated one of the NFL's biggest offseason stories. From New England to Los Angeles, this was the offseason of the frantic shuffling of quarterbacks and all the hopes and risks that attend the desperate search for a signal-caller that consumes so many teams.
On Sunday, 15 teams -- nearly half the league -- opened the season with a different quarterback than they started in Week 1 last year, the result of months of big trades, free-agent signings, the ascension of backups, the anointing of rookies. That is tied for the second-most quarterback switches since at least 1950. It's probably worth noting that there were also 15 changes in 2018 -- just three seasons ago. The results Sunday were hardly decisive, with new quarterbacks going 8-7. There was no argument about which of the moves yielded the most spectacular first-game success. That was Jameis Winston, whose career has been reborn with Sean Payton, after a year as Drew Brees' understudy in New Orleans.
"Drew always preached it's about the decision, not the result," Winston said after the Saints' big win over Green Bay.
Both Winston's decision-making and the result validated the Saints' approach -- to sign Winston as a backup last year and let him learn from Brees before he retired. It is the kind of patient, long-term thinking that is increasingly rare in the NFL.
In Carolina, Sam Darnold rejected the idea that this was a revenge game for him, but Darnold was traded to the Panthers in April to clear the way for the Jets to draft Zach Wilson with the second overall pick a few weeks later. That Darnold himself was one of those quarterback changes in 2018, when he was the third overall draft pick by a previous Jets braintrust, is as good an explanation as any for why the Jets have the worst record over the last five seasons and have the longest active playoff drought in the NFL.
Darnold, after all, replaced 2017 Jets starter Josh McCown, who replaced 2016 Jets starter Ryan Fitzpatrick, who on Sunday replaced Alex Smith as the Washington Football Team's starter before suffering a hip injury. A flow chart should be provided.
Wilson was under siege most of the day behind the Jets' overwhelmed offensive line, and the game sometimes looked too fast for him. But the Jets can take comfort in knowing that Wilson kept getting up after getting drilled -- head coach Robert Salah called him "fearless" after the game -- and he had two second-half touchdown passes. Those are things the youngest team in the league can build on. Darnold was better, completing 24 of 35 passes, and he had one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown. Darnold, by the way, replaced last year's Carolina starter Teddy Bridgewater, who on Sunday replaced Drew Lock as Denver's starter. Bridgewater was outstanding in Denver's win over the Giants, completing 28 of 36 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns.
Trash, treasure, rinse, repeat.
"The premium is on selling season tickets and selling boxes, so even if it's not the right move, you change coaches or quarterbacks and bring in the next guy and try to resell those season tickets and boxes," said Tampa Bay quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen, who can view this situation from a comfortable remove, considering he currently coaches Tom Brady. "Quarterbacks are like coaches now. You switch coaches and you don't give the coach a chance, but at least you're selling a new guy. 'This is new! This is new! This is new! Come get your season tickets!' It's trickled into quarterbacks. It's bad for football and bad for establishing really good franchises year after year.
"For me, the thing that's disturbing, is you're switching systems and coaches -- you don't get a chance to get comfortable. Brady and Peyton [Manning] were two great examples. They ran the same systems for two decades, switched very few coaches, got a chance to develop a maturity and a system, that the average young guys don't get nowadays. That's really hurt the development of young quarterbacks. The impatience, new head coaches, the expectations are unrealistic. It doesn't matter if you're the first pick of the draft, to turn around a place that's lost for a decade? That's not realistic."
That is the reality for the two rookies in that spot right now. Wilson and the Jaguars' Trevor Lawrence both struggled in losses with their rebuilding teams and neither was alone in contributing to the loss. The Jets' offensive line was abysmal. Lawrence threw three interceptions, but the Jaguars also committed 10 penalties, while Houston's new quarterback Tyrod Taylor showed the benefits of having veteran, poised leadership.
The Jets and Jaguars are what rebuilding teams under new head coaches look like, and it is why Christensen warns not to rush to judgment about the quarterbacks. Undoubtedly, New England's Mac Jones will be judged more kindly than Lawrence and Wilson after Sunday's games. The Patriots' lost to the Dolphins, but Jones completed 29 of 39 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown pass. Does that mean he will have a better career than Wilson or Lawrence or even Tua Tagovailoa, the Dolphins' new starter this season? It's far too soon to know that. It does mean Jones joined a better team than Wilson or Lawrence did, a team that has consistent, top-level coaching. Tagovailoa benefitted from the Dolphins' investment in big-play receivers and a top defense and a year of NFL experience.
Christensen bemoans the lack of development for young players, most of whom come out of college with no pro-style offense experience. That only steepens their learning curve.
"We're more of a play-driven league, not fundamental driven," he said. "For the head coach or offensive coordinator, you need a good quarterbacks coach who teaches the fundamentals. All those things make it hard. Most of these young guys are going to franchises that have failed for whatever reason. That accentuates all those things -- there's panic and gigantic expectations on them that isn't realistic."
Interestingly, Jones said after the game that he could do a better job of taking command of the team. He let too many things slide in practice, he said, including his own issues.
"It's not good enough," Jones said.
Jones, of course, has the highest bar to reach in New England. He beat out Cam Newton, last year's quarterback, for the starting job, but he is really striving to be Brady's successor. The Patriots haven't had this kind of quarterback turnover in nearly three decades, since before Drew Bledsoe became the starter in the early 1990s, before he was supplanted by Brady in 2001. Brady held the New England job for 19 years. And now, he is the reason Christensen was playing golf this weekend, having just enjoyed a season-opening win to start the Bucs' Super Bowl defense.
Christensen joked about how nice it was to relax for a few days while all the other coaches still had the anxiety of game day ahead of them this weekend. The Bucs, of course, went through their own dramatic quarterback shuffle last year, when they moved on from Winston and signed Brady as a free agent -- a switch that undoubtedly has spurred more than a little of the aggressive maneuvering for quarterbacks that has taken place around the league ever since.
"We found our quarterback of the future," he said.