For the second straight week, the first four quarterbacks selected in May’s draft attempted to push the veteran incumbent out of the starter’s role.
Blake Bortles began the weekend with a bang, while Teddy Bridgewater rebounded nicely from a scatter-brained first effort. Derek Carr looked, well, better than Matt Schaub, while Johnny Manziel, the player with the clearest road to a starting job failed to impress on multiple levels.
Here’s where the Browns, Jaguars, Vikings and Raiders sit after two preseason games.
Coach Mike Pettine has said all offseason that he planned to pick a starting quarterback before Cleveland’s third preseason game. When asked Monday night about his timeline, Pettine said “all options are on the table.”
It would be hard for Pettine or offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to find any answers mired in Monday’s quarterback quagmire. Neither Manziel nor Hoyer did anything to win the job, with each seemingly saying to the other, “No, you take it,” throughout the first half.
The highlight of Manziel’s night came when he was caught flipping the bird to the Washington sideline after an incompletion late in the third quarter, a moment that lit the hot-take world of Twitter on fire – even though it's largely irrelevant when it comes to his ability to play quarterback.
Manziel was far less headline-worthy with the ball in his hands. Although he finished with better numbers than Hoyer, they were due entirely to extra reps in the second half against Washington’s second- and third-string defense. He was mostly overwhelmed by Washington’s pressure and his play regressed after an uneven, but exciting effort the previous week against Detroit. Thanks to sloppy footwork and hesitation in the pocket, Manziel consistently missed open receivers, particularly throwing behind targets on slants. The two best throws Manziel made both came on a drive that started on his own 1-yard line. After Ben Tate picked up a yard on first down, Manziel remained calm operating in his own end zone, side-stepping pressure and checking the ball down to tight end MarQueis Gray. Seven plays later, the Browns got Manziel out of the pocket on a naked boot to the right, where he hit Andrew Hawkins for an easy 12-yard gain. They weren’t the highlight-reel plays, but they were the kinds of simple throws the Browns will have to rely on if Manziel ends up starting this season.
The fact that the Browns still don’t know their starting quarterback after Manziel’s effort mostly followed Hoyer’s performance speaks to the level of the veteran’s play. On the first drive of the game, Hoyer gave little hope to fans (or viewers) after a sack, a false start and a throw behind Jordan Cameron put the Browns in 3rd and 21 at their own nine yard line. It was his first of three three-and-outs in four series as Hoyer completed just two passes on the night for an average of 2.7 yards per completion. Although hardly a grizzled vet, Hoyer has enough NFL experience (six seasons) to not be intimidated by the moment, yet he appeared completely overwhelmed and looked nothing like the bright light he appeared to be at times during three appearances last season. His throws were consistently behind receivers and one practically rolled to Hawkins' feet.
Both quarterbacks were done in by the Browns’ short-sighted idea to alternate them every two series Monday. The positions other than quarterback never appeared in sync with either Manziel or Hoyer and the offense didn’t find any semblance of a rhythm until Manziel’s 16-play, 68-yard touchdown midway through the second half. It was a move driven by Pettine’s insistence on picking a starter by the team’s Week 3 game and it led him to make a decision that fit his personal timeline instead of the one best for the team. Hopeful of installing a starter in time to give the quarterback nearly a full game with the first team, Pettine is now stuck choosing between a rookie who’s not ready and a veteran who hasn’t done anything under this staff to earn the job – at least according to their guidelines.
If the starting quarterback is truly based on game reps, there’s no way Pettine can pick between Manziel or Hoyer without at least one more game. The only deadline now is the season opener against the Steelers on September 7 -- unless Pettine plans to alternate series again.
If there’s been a star born this preseason, it’s Blake Bortles. The UCF product has taken the NFL by storm while playing backup to starter Chad Henne, who has actually played well himself – more on that in a minute.
Bortles entered the NFL as a project who needed at least some time behind a more-experienced passer before taking the reins himself. After chipping away at that logic in his first preseason start, Bortles blew it to hell Thursday night against Chicago. With Twitter playing Flava Flav to Bortles’ Chuck D, Bortles looked extremely comfortable in Jacksonville’s no-huddle scheme and was unafraid of what pressure the Bears managed to generate. My favorite Bortles moment came early in the second quarter.
As soon as Bortles steps to the line, he recognizes that Chicago loaded up to stop the run, putting eight men in the box and leaving single coverage on the outside with a safety high. Bortles audibled out of the play and moved back into the shotgun. When the ball was snapped, he checked his first read to the right, which was blanketed. He then looked off the deep safety before dropping a picture-perfect ball over the shoulder of receiver Kerry Taylor.
It was a perfect example of Bortles being able to diagnose a defense at the line of scrimmage and challenging the defense down the field.
Unfortunately for the Bortles fan club – myself included – the Jaguars are insistent on Henne as the starting quarterback. In his second year in Jedd Fisch’s no-huddle scheme, Henne looks as good as he has since entering the league in 2008. Still just 29 years old, Henne has the big arm that was his biggest attribute coming out of Michigan and could feasibly lead the Jaguars to a respectable season with more talent around him. The problem, though, is that most of the roster surrounding Henne on offense is closer to Bortles’ age and is in no way ready to win more than four to five games this season, despite playing in the weak AFC South.
That doesn’t mean the Jaguars are going to change their view on the non-competition. Coach Gus Bradley said that Bortles will get to play a quarter with the first-string offense against the Lions on Friday, but that has likely more to do with wanting to give Bortles competitive reps in the third preseason game, which is mostly devoted to the first teamers. Barring an injury to Henne, there’s no chance Bortles starts Week 1, even though it’s the better option long term.
Similar to the Jaguars, the Vikings have an age vs. youth dilemma. Matt Cassel is the current leader in the QB clubhouse after another strong performance Saturday against the Cardinals. Cassel is an adequate holdover for a team unsure of its rookie QB and can make all the throws necessary in offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s west coast system. As an added bonus, Cassel has a strong rapport with tight end Kyle Rudolph, who has slimmed down and figures to be a big part of Minnesota’s passing game regardless of the quarterback. Despite some high praise for Bridgewater in spring OTAs and minicamps, Cassel had clearly been the better immediate option through most of training camp and through the first preseason game against the Raiders -- until Teddy Bridgewater threw a bit of ice water onto the Cassel fire Saturday night.
With the opening-night jitters no longer an issue, Bridgewater displayed the skills that made him the top quarterback prospect in the country last season at Louisville. He was calm under pressure and succeeded in, as Rotoworld’s Josh Norris puts it, winning from the pocket. He made several excellent adjustments and moved to avoid the pressure before resetting his feet and delivering a strike to an open receiver. Playing mostly against twos and threes, Bridgewater stood tall, read the defense and made decisive throws instead of hesitating and taking a hit like he had the week before. The best throw Bridgewater made was also the last. After orchestrating an impressive one-minute (and seven second) drill against an overly-aggressive Cardinals defense, Bridgewater had the Vikings on the the Cardinals' 2-yard line with 22 seconds left and the Vikings down four points -- a field goal will do them no good. Look at what Bridgewater sees when he come to the line of scrimmage.
Just before the snap, Bridgewater is able to see that he's facing a seven-man rush with six in to block -- one rusher will be coming free. He also knows that he'll have single coverage to his right.
When the ball is snapped, the linebacker directly in front of Bridgewater shoots the gap, but, unlike last week, he never hesitates in the face of pressure. He stares down a seven-man rush, knowing he could get drilled, and delivers a perfect fade pass for a touchdown.
Most impressive to me was where Bridgewater places the ball here. On his first drive, Bridgewater had made a similar throw, but the pass fell incomplete after he throw it to the inside shoulder, allowing the cornerback to knock it down. This time, Bridgewater placed the ball so that only the receiver could make a play on it. Yes, it was against the last-string defense, but it was still a sign of a rookie quarterback not backing down against pressure and learning from a mistake in a key moment in the game.
The difference between the Vikings and Jaguars is that unlike Henne, Cassel has yet to officially be named the starter. Bridgewater’s performance Saturday night wasn’t enough to unseat the favorite – and it shouldn’t be given how well Cassel is playing – but it was a strong step in the right direction. Right now, it looks like Cassel’s job to lose, with Bridgewater likely entering the picture before Halloween.
Matt Schaub isn’t an NFL quarterback anymore – definitely not a starting one. We already knew this by the end of the 2013 season, but it’s been confirmed through two preseason games. Schaub no longer trusts whatever arm he has left and refuses to throw the ball further than 15 yards downfield. Multiple times Friday night against the Lions, Schaub had the opportunity to test a shaky Detroit secondary but hesitated and either ended up taking a hit, throwing the ball away or dumping it off for a nominal gain. The times when Schaub did attempt a pass, the ball fluttered, especially on passes across his body or outside the numbers. It’s OK when Peyton Manning’s passes flutter because Manning is more accurate and timely than Schaub, who hesitated on far too many throws behind a leaky offensive live.
Playing mostly against backups, Derek Carr was still clearly better than Schaub. His throws outside the numbers were crisper than his veteran counterpart’s and he looked more at ease in an NFL pocket. That said, Carr’s footwork is still sloppy and he throws off his back foot far too much, especially when under duress. He also took too many hits, one of which concussed the rookie and forced him to exit the game in the fourth quarter.
Carr’s best throw of the night was a perfect example of both his positives and his faults. With 2:56 left in the third quarter, Carr took a seven-step drop, looked off his first read to the left before quickly shifting his eyes right and lofting one to a wide-open Greg Little 38 yards down the field. The ball was slightly underthrown, which caused Little to tumble while adjusting to make the catch. But take a look at Carr's body position and footwork before the throw.
Carr's weight is completely on his back leg and even though he's under pressure, he has enough room to step into the throw. Instead, Carr doesn't transfer his weight forward and throws off his back foot, 40-plus yards down the field. It's an incredible display of Carr's arm strength and it's impressive that the ball nearly landed on target. However, if the ball is out in front, Little walks into the end zone. (Disclosure: Carr ended up throwing a TD pass a few plays later, so I know I'm nit-picking to a degree, but I just wanted to use this as an example of things that can hold him back at other times.)
None of this is to say Carr is ready to start. He’s not, but he’s a better option than the utterly-predictable Schaub, who limits what the Raiders can do on offense. With Schaub in the game, defenses will crowd the line of scrimmage, stop the run and dare Schaub to beat them over the top. Carr at least provides energy and makes one aspect of the Raiders offense dynamic. Of course, coach Dennis Allen doesn’t seem to understand this, which is why he’ll probably be the first coach looking for work this season.
Corey Griffin is an editor and writer for NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @CoreyGriffinNBC.