This weekend's showdown between Patrick Mahomes and Jimmy Garoppolo in Kansas City is a reminder of how quickly the crown of the NFL's Next Big Thing can change hands.
It's not that Jimmy G is an afterthought during this, his first full season as a starter. It was only seven months ago that Garoppolo briefly became the highest-paid player in football, and his uneven start to the season is hardly cause for alarm. It's the next logical step in his progression, one that Mahomes will likely go through once he tires of lighting opposing game plans on fire.
Garoppolo made a few mistakes while getting harassed by the great Vikings defense in Week 1, but he also made a number of impressive throws. Week 2 was more concerning, and he admitted to holding the ball way too long while taking six sacks against the Lions in Week 2.
"When you do have the success that Jimmy had last year, when you do get that big contract off a limited sample size, I think when he does really good, I think people are going to make a little bit too big a deal of it," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said on Wednesday. "And I think when he doesn't do really good, I think we're all going to make a little bit too big of a deal of it also."
Shanahan is consistently one of the most incisive coaches at a podium and makes a great point here. That doesn't change the reality that Garoppolo's two-game stretch to open this year is worse than any two-game stretch he had a year ago. While I am deathly afraid of drawing many conclusions after just two games, I wanted to highlight five ways that the 2018 season has looked different at the quarterback position, starting with Jimmy G.
1) Opponents are making Garoppolo uncomfortable
In Week 1, Minnesota's pass rush forced Jimmy G to take a few extra chances. That's to be expected when facing a superior defense, and he didn't play nearly as bad as the box score indicated. Last week's approach by the Lions was more surprising. Detroit sacked Garoppolo six times by playing man coverage and forcing the fifth-year pro to hold on to the ball. Dave Lombardi of The Athletic noted that the Niners QB held the ball for more than seven seconds on four of his sacks, which is an eternity. He held the ball for more than four seconds on the other two sacks, which is still a long time. The Lions' sacks did not come from quick pressure, rather by Garoppolo not seeing what he expected to see. The 49ers' wideouts couldn't create separation on their own and Shanahan's concepts to beat Detroit's man coverage only intermittently worked, resulting in the team's on-brand 4.9 yards per pass play.
I'm already looking forward to Shanahan and Garoppolo finding their way out of this early swamp. This week's matchup against a Chiefs pass defense that ranks dead last in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders, should be a good place to start.
2) Drew Brees needs more options
The scheme is sound. The depth may not be. I loved the Saints' aggressive approach late in their Week 2 win against the Browns. Facing second-and-11 with 35 seconds left, the Saints went for the fatality against Cleveland by calling two throws down the field. It was surprising that Brees didn't hit either of them.
On third-and-long, second-year slot receiver Austin Carr had one-on-one coverage and a ton of real estate in which to work. Brees and Carr couldn't connect. While the former Patriot impressed in training camp practices, he's seen only three targets in 76 regular-season snaps, resulting in 20 yards. A Saints offense without a quality slot receiver is not a Saints offense. Payton's system is also incredibly kind to tight ends, but five throws to 37-year-old Benjamin Watson against Cleveland only resulted in 19 yards.
The Saints' offense is too top-heavy. Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas are superstars who open up opportunities for the rest of the roster. Thus far, Carr, Watson and rookie receiver Tre'Quan Smith aren't taking advantage. Restricted-free-agent pickup Cameron Meredith hasn't been active on game days. Brees is at his best when he's spreading the ball around -- he needs the team's secondary options to step up.
3) Andrew Luck looks good by throwing short
Watching Luck play again is one of the early joys to this season. His Week 1 performance went under the radar despite its excellence. While his Week 2 game in Washington had more errors, Luck already looks comfortable running coach Frank Reich's offense.
It's hard to overstate how different -- and professional -- the Colts' attack looks. The early stages of Luck's career were defined largely by his need to push the ball down the field. Reich has Luck getting rid of the ball quickly to targets that uncover quickly. Scott Barrett of Pro Football Focus noted that Luck's average depth of target (aDOT) is last in the league, a marked change from his track record. Luck has thrown only four passes over 20 yards downfield in 84 attempts. I don't expect that low rate will last all season unless it's by necessity. Throwing short was a sound approach over the last two weeks against quality defensive fronts.
It's as if Reich is building Luck back up again from scratch, knowing this is the beginning of a long-term relationship. I'm thrilled to see where they go from here.
4) Kirk Cousins is reaching another level down the field
It's not that Cousins struggled to go vertical in Washington; it was a huge part of his game. It's just that he's attacking the field even better in Minnesota, with better receivers to throw to. PFF notes that Cousins has hit 5 of 10 passes thrown at least 20 yards down the field for 155 yards and four touchdowns.
While the sample size is small, the wow factor on a handful of these throws is hard to ignore. In Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, Cousins has two receivers superior to any wide receiver he played with in Washington. They routinely win contested catches, and Cousins has shown he's capable of fitting passes to them in tight windows.
I was worried about the learning curve that Cousins could experience in Minnesota with coordinator John DeFilippo installing a new system, but the transition has been seamless thus far, despite a banged-up offensive line.
5) Russell Wilson, Sam Bradford and Tyrod Taylor all look uneasy in new systems
It shouldn't be a surprise that Wilson is experiencing growing pains working with only the second offensive coordinator of his career, especially when that coordinator -- Brian Schottenheimer -- has a long track record of middling production. The issues in Seattle are numerous, and Wilson's comfort level is not where it should be. He's not decisive as a passer or runner.
Bradford's struggles in Arizona are even less surprising, but the depth of the Cardinals' offensive misery is jarring. Head coach Steve Wilks talked about paring back the team's offense this week, which seems to happen to every group coached by coordinator Mike McCoy at some point. Bradford is playing a losing hand, with his 4.0 yards per attempt being a stark reminder of how different he looks than he did in 2015 and 2016, the best two seasons of his star-crossed career.
Taylor, like Bradford, is a man unfamiliar with continuity. Taylor has been forced to learn a new offense four years running. He has spoiled his supporters by looking like the same player through all those changes, but the early returns on his fit with Todd Haley in Cleveland aren't promising. Taylor couldn't shoot straight in the opener, albeit in poor weather. He veered between playing it too safe against the Saints before making two uncharacteristic unforced errors in the fourth quarter ... and then he nearly saved the day in the end.
The Browns have the No. 30 passing attack after the season's first two weeks, according to Football Outsiders. Taylor's struggles against the Jets on Thursday night before he suffered a concussion should end Baker Mayfield's time on the bench.
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