Radical Rookies: Mariota, Winston, and The Climb

Jameis Winston and Mike Evans have been connecting for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2015, during the former’s rookie season. (Photo: Merson, Wikimedia Commons / Keith Allison, Flickr)

by Kolby Solinsky

White Cover Magazine

It’s easy to be cynical. And often, it’s warranted.

With quarterbacks, for example. How many busts have we seen, over the years, in that position? How many teams have wasted first rounds and millions of dollars in promotion and development – not to mention TIME, which is the most elusive luxury and resource in every industry, especially sports, where championship windows evaporate as soon as they appear, if they ever come – by convincing themselves they’ve drafted the next Joe Montana, the next Tom Brady, the next Peyton Manning, or the next whoever.

Forget the fact that being the next of any of them – John Elway, Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, or whoever else, as well – is absurd. All of the greats came from their own, unique situations. Their own backgrounds. With their own heroes, with the dreams of being the next one of someone they viewed worthy of trying to copy and paste from.

It’s crazy. And when a quarterback is drafted with the hope that he’ll ride into some cramped stadium on Sunday and save an obese, drunk crowd from decades of footballing futility, like some sphinx rolling backwards and inevitably into Bethlehem, he’s going to disappoint. And even when he puts together a useful or steady career, it still won’t be enough. It hasn’t been enough for Peyton Manning, who’s no doubt one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, but who’s only won one Super Bowl. It won’t be enough to buoy the post-retirement opinion of Drew Brees, who will always be seen as a regular season quarterback, even though he had the greatest single Super Bowl performance I’ve ever seen (and I believe any of you have ever seen) in 2010. It wasn’t even enough for Tom Brady, who’s last Super Bowl will get stale if the Patriots don’t win another in 2016.

Managing expectations. That’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it?

And it’s not bad, necessarily, to be cynical or negative or doubtful. In fact, doubt and cynicism are tools in learning, in improving, in innovating. Doubt and cynicism lead you to question the incumbent, to remove the irrelevant, to shed the fat.

But it can be poisonous when the suspect is actually the victim.

So take Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, the two pivots drafted first and then second overall this past year, who are currently leading Tampa and Tennessee to a sunrise. And their leading, and playing, in their own ways. With their own styles. And to different results – the Bucs, under Winston, are in playoff contention while the Titans, under Mariota, are warming up for next season.

But when they were drafted, it was so easy to roll out the long list of guys who had failed at the same position, for any number of rumoured reasons. Ryan Leaf, Matt Leinart, JaMarcus Russell, Tim Couch, Akili Smith, even still-tenured guys like Robert Griffin III, Sam Bradford, and Johnny Manziel… they’re the first ones who come to mind, but very literally just a few of hundreds of quarterbacks who have been drafted and dumped into the NFL’s $5 bin.

Some of them failed for and from their own personal reasons. Some were never as good as they seemed. Others probably peaked in college. Others were ruined by the franchises – or coaches – who chose them.

It was easy to assume – to predict – the same thing would happen with – or to – Mariota and Winston. Why? Well, because, why not?

Mariota is one of the game’s best-ever college pivots. He wouldn’t be the first who couldn’t translate that to the NFL.

Winston is infected with skill and an outgoing personality – the same outgoing personality that has led to several much-covered off-field issues and events, some laughable but regrettable, and others vile if true.

Winston was compared to JaMarcus Russell by several pundits, which is a lazy comparison. (Also, just a tad racist. Just because one black, top-heavy prospect collapsed on himself, does that mean every black, top-heavy prospect will collapse on themselves?)

Mariota was compared to a few players, mostly inaccurately. Some projected him to be Russell Wilson, even though Wilson scrambles left-to-right and improvises while Mariota runs point-to-point and orchestrates. Others said he was like Colin Kaepernick because, well, he’s lanky and he sprints – We may not be right, I can hear them reason, but you can’t say we’re wrong! Or brave. Or clever. Or much of anything.

Both have impressed in their rookie seasons, mainly because they’ve been only the average level of impressive.

Winston hasn’t exploded, like Manziel did 12 months earlier, and has even been a fantasy stud. Mariota has been the port in the storm, a growing dynamic threat in the black hole that’s been Titans football.

But what’s best is, they haven’t been awesome. They haven’t been terrific. Their occasional excellence has been realistic.

They won’t win a Super Bowl out of the gate. They’re not phenoms. We’re not counting down to their Hall of Fame eligibility. They’re just playing football, and they’re playing it very well.

“You’re just seeing a pretty talented guy who has great mobility,” said Dick LeBeau, Tennessee’s defensive coordinator, on Mariota, as quoted in an ESPN article by Paul Kuharsky.

As Kuharsky notes, Mariota’s first-season highlights aren’t showing up in the standings – the Titans are 3-9, in contention for another first or second overall pick – but they’re more impressive because of where and when he’s been better.

“What’s supposed to be especially hard for a rookie quarterback – working against the blitz, working in the red zone – is coming most easily for him,” he writes.

Mariota’s Quarterback Rating is 90.0 against the blitz and 120.1 in the red zone, Kuharsky notes, which are both best in the NFL. (Of course, there’s an asterisk here – Mariota’s rating outside those two scenarios has been pedestrian if not occasionally awful, and his red zone/blitz stats mirror RGIII’s from his rookie season. And RGIII has fallen apart since 2012.)

Mariota’s also on-pace to either tie or break the mark for most TDs by a rookie quarterback, currently held by Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson, who had 26 in their debut years.

As for Winston, his interception problem doesn’t seem to matter when he’s throwing scores.

The other Heisman winner’s tossed 17 scores in 12 games. His 11 interceptions are a blemish, but there’s a brighter way to colour that stat – eight of Winston’s 11 picks have come in three games, meaning he’s only tossed three over the other nine.

And the Bucs are winning and, apparently, winning because of Winston.

“It’s not easy to ask any quarterback to consistently push the ball downfield, with deep drops, but Winston is doing it well,” writes Yahoo‘s Greg Cosell. “(The Buccaneers) don’t feature a short passing game, which can boost a quarterback’s efficiency numbers. This offense has deep crossers, deep comebacks, skinny posts and “7 stops” (a corner route in which the receiver stops) as a foundation.

“Don’t underestimate how much pressure that puts on Winston, or how impressive it is that he’s handling it all well.”

If you don’t get carried away, the best way to summarize each quarterback’s early good-ness would be to say, They’re exceeding expectations. The word impressive will be used a lot. They’ve been too inconsistent, week-to-week, to say anymore. But they’ve been SO DAMN CONSISTENT over the whole season, with shock wins and multi-touchdown games. And those excellent outings have always followed some of their worst performances – both Mariota and Winston rise from the rubble, it seems, as easy as Manziel and RGIII and their less-successful predecessors recline in it.

It’s a nice change, seeing two very different, hyped rookie quarterbacks excel steadily, subtly, and slowly in their rookie seasons. Apart from temporary dives, they keep climbing from Game 1 to 16. They’re a stock Warren Buffet would buy.

The NFL needs Mariota, Winston, Blake Bortles, Derek Carr, even still-young guys like Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, and Tyrod Taylor for its own health – the league needs Tennessee, Tampa, Jacksonville, Oakland, Carolina, Cincinnati, and Buffalo to improve if it wants parity and a future.