We’ve seen it a bunch of times: a second-contract quarterback who due to their own averageness or organizational incompetence is dumped from one team then experiences a Renaissance with another.
Our latest example: Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill was let go by the Dolphins after years of bang average interspersed with brief flashes of brilliance – most notably a season that was cut short by a knee injury when Tannehill looked like he had finally pieced it all together.
The Dolphins bailed. Tannehill was shipped to Tennessee. He rode the bench for a little while then took the lead role when Marcus Mariota was benched for his own stretch of mundane play. Then, liftoff.
Tannehill exploded into, legitimately, one of the five best quarterbacks in the league. That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s a fact. By the metrics, Tannehill finished fifth or better in each of the following categories: DVOA, completion percentage under pressure, completion percentage to targets in tight coverage, completion percentage from a clean pocket, completion percentage on third downs.
You might be able to bluff one of the metrics, but not five. Most importantly, he ranked second in the league in big-time throws v turnover worthy throws, the single best measure we currently have of a quarterback as a “passing playmaker”. He trailed only Russell Wilson and was comfortably ahead of Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes.
And the eye test was no different. Take the nameplate of his back and you would be conceived you were watching a perennial All-Pro: throws to all levels; consistently nailing the so-called bucket throw, dropping a pass over the top of a linebacker and in front of a rotating safety; throwing on the run; running; setting and resetting protections; taking command of the whole offense; making, big, BIG time throws on third downs, the one that decide a game or not.
Tannehill was reborn. And while it’s tempting to scoff at the Titans putting out a massive contract to keep him around for the foreseeable future, what else were they supposed to do? Move on after witnessing that?
Tannehill will likely regress back to his mean: an above-average starter who needs a good deal of help around but who can move and create on third downs, create off-script, and has a cannon of an arm. But there’s a chance, albeit a slight one, that something has clicked. That his second act is sustainable, if only for another season.
So, who’s next? Across the league young veterans have switched teams, looking for a chance, any chance to land that sweet gig; that moment in time when an offensive guru meets a gifted offensive line, a pair of decent receivers and a complimentary running back. When perhaps a starter goes down and it’s your time.
The two most fascinating possibilities: Marcus Mariota and Cam Newton.
Newton, a former No 1 overall pick and 2015 MVP is still searching for a team after his release from the Panthers.
Ordinarily, that would be bonkers. Whether you think Newton is on the downside of career or not, he remains a starting-caliber quarterback in a league that’s lacking them. But Newton’s checkered injury record makes any potential signing an impossibility right now.
Any team who would be willing to commit big money to the 30-year-old – and Newton will likely command big money, even if only on a one-year deal – will want to work Newton out to make sure he still has the same oomph in his legs and zip on his fastball, not to mention have their own medical experts take a look at his files. Until the current global pandemic subsides, that’s going to be a near-impossibility.
At the peak of his powers, Newton was a singular force: A blend of size, speed and arm strength the quarterback position has never seen. He was a linebacker in the backfield, but one with just enough touch to shred defenses down the field. He helped take the Panthers to a Super Bowl in a funky offense that was built around his own quirks: his willingness to bang between the tackles and his penchant to mistime some of dropbacks, leading the team to take a whole bunch of timing routes out of the system. It worked! Newton was pretty much unstoppable. But he’s regressed since then. Injuries have taken over and his accuracy, which has always fluctuated based on his footwork, has become wince-inducing.
But think how wild that above paragraph is. How odd it is to write about the past being the peak of Newton’s powers. Right now should be his peak. He’s 30, still blessed with all the physical gifts he’s always possessed but also with all the experience and savvy of a veteran. This is when he should be staking his claim as one of the league’s five most important players on a consistent basis, serving as the linchpin of perennial Super Bowl contender, not sitting out as a street free agent trying to prove he still has it.
The spot that makes the most sense for a Newton comeback is in Los Angeles with the Chargers. Right now, LA lists Tyrod Taylor as its starter, with head coach Anthony Lynn saying he’s “their guy”. The only issue, we’ve seen systems built around Taylor before in Buffalo (with Lynn) and Cleveland. Neither started or ended particularly well.
Taylor is a fine backup, but he’s a couple of ticks below Newton on the quarterback index. If the Chargers want to move away from the dropback passing system they ran with Philip Rivers and commit to the spread option, why do that with a smaller, leaner version or Newton rather than the real deal? Taylor might be a little bit more accurate as a passer. But it’s a nominal difference, and he’s also far less aggressive. Rolling with Taylor is an admission that a team is happy to be average-to-bad.
Newton, at least, improves that risk profile to good-to-bad – that’s a gamble worth taking. Add to that, with Rivers leaving the Charges could use a little bit of star power, particularly as they get set to move into a new stadium. There are few higher-wattage stars in the league than Newton.
One other option: The Rams. Sean McVay’s team is in cap hell and have been flogging assets. And you could make a decent argument, based on scheme-fit and accuracy without pressure, that you’d rather have Jared Goff than Newton. But I’d trust in McVay to adapt his system, and I’d sooner take the quarterback who is the same when pressured and when not, rather than the guy who’s accuracy and decision-making craters when there’s pressure in his face.
Would Newton be open to a one-year, cheap deal to work alongside McVay and make a potential Super Bowl run? The idea is fairly tantalizing.
But Mariota to the Vegas Raiders remains the most likely breakout/rebirth spot.
Mariota was lethal in college in an offense that weaponized his north-south speed and lightning-quick release. He was smart, played within himself, got the ball out on time, and was all about maximizing efficiency, both with his arm and legs. He’s a timing player, not an oft-script creator. Planting him in a system that says control the game on first and second down then win it for us on third down was never his style; thrust into that position he crumbled.
“We got to rebuild him a little bit to get his confidence back,” Las Vegas general manager Mike Mayock said this week. By that, Mayock meant to restore him to his Oregon days. “I mean, he went through ‘Gruden’s (QB) Camp’ on television. I had him as the top quarterback in that draft. He knows that both of us believed in him coming out and still believe in him.”
In Jon Gruden, Mariota finds a coach who sees his skills as a virtue, not a shortcoming. Is he a game-breaker? No. Can he efficiently take a team down the field, play within structure, make sure the team gets from a bad play into a good one, follow instructions, make throws on time and in rhythm, and lead a team to eight or nine wins, giving them a playoff shot? Sure.
Mariota will have to beat out Derek Carr, who is due for his own second act any year now. Carr has been solid if unspectacular since Gruden returned to the Raiders, happy to take on the coach’s touchdown-or-checkdown mantra. But the fit remains iffy. Mariota’s arrival, as well as a brief flirtation with Tom Brady, tells you all you need to know about how Mayock and Gruden view Carr’s future with the team.
We love a redemption arc, that’s just human nature. Tannehill was last year’s feel-good story. Newton and Mariota have a chance to take the crown whenever football returns..