It was August 30th 2015, and excitement was building in Draft Town, Chicago. The NFL Draft was being hosted outside of New York City for the first time in 50 years and the American Football world was eagerly anticipating commissioner Roger Goodell’s approach to the podium for his customary announcement of the first team on the clock, along with the crowd’s customary booing of ’Rog’.
Nowhere was the excitement more palpable than in Tampa Bay and Nashville. The Buccaneers and Titans had the first and second overall picks respectively and were guaranteed one of the top two quarterbacks in the draft. In the ultimate team sport, the quarterback position is the one role that can change the entire outlook of a franchise overnight; having a top QB is the difference between being optimistic of reaching the postseason every year for a decade-plus or being mired in mediocrity.
The 2015 draft class had the unique distinction of having a pair of quarterback prospects who were both winners of the Heisman trophy; the award given to the best player in college football each year. Jameis Winston coming out of Florida State had taken the prize in 2013, while Marcus Mariota of Oregon was the 2014 recipient. Winston had led his team to the college football national title in his Heisman year, while Mariota’s Oregon side had actually beaten Winston’s FSU en route to their own title game appearance the following season.
These are the sort of resumés that general managers dream of.
There were knocks on both players of course, but the only real discussion was in what order they’d go on draft day.
Winston, seen as having a bigger arm and being the more pro-ready of the pair, ended up going first overall to the Bucs. Mariota, as the more athletic of the two and without Winston’s off-field baggage (like shoplifting crab legs) went to the Titans with the next pick, and both were anointed the saviours of their respective franchises.
April 30th, 2015 was a new dawn in Tampa and Tennessee, and two franchises could dream of better times ahead.
On October 13th, 2019 those dreams seemed to die for good.
Winston, playing in London against the Carolina Panthers, conspired to throw five picks and lose a fumble in a blowout 37-26 loss made look better by garbage time scoring. Mariota had probably his worst game as a professional football player, throwing just seven completions for 63 yards with two picks before being benched in the third quarter for former Miami Dolphins starter Ryan Tannehill. It was an embarrassing day for the top two draft picks from four years previously, but the writing had been on the wall for both players long before last Sunday.
Both have shown their ability in the NFL. Jameis consistently stacks up stats, and his average yards per game of 264.5 places him 6th on the all-time list, sandwiched between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Not bad. This stat hides the problem that his pass-happy style is so risk-heavy, it inevitably leads to turnovers. He’s averaged over one INT per game in his last 62 starts and a fumble lost every 2.3 games. The man is a turnover machine. It’s no coincidence the Bucs has failed to make the postseason since he arrived.
With Mariota and the Titans, the problem has been the opposite; he doesn’t take enough risks. He’s made a playoff appearance (and indeed notched a playoff win) during his time in Tennessee, and also played in consistently run-heavy offences. However, leaning on your running backs and keeping passes short and quick is a means of masking the shortcomings of a limited quarterback.
Has the offence been holding Mariota back, or has it been the other way around?
There are mitigating circumstances which may help to explain each players’ failure to live up to expectations. Both Winston and Mariota are already on their third head coach, and instability can hinder the development of even the most talented player. They have both had injury issues for themselves and their supporting casts, but injuries are to be expected.
Ultimately, the two young hopefuls have lost the trust of the organisations that drafted them. It’s telling that both QBs are now in the final year of their rookie contracts, with no negotiations for an extension on the horizon. The year after Tampa and Tennessee took the plunge on potential saviours, another pair of quarterbacks were drafted first and second overall.
However, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz have both already been signed to lucrative long-term extensions by the Rams and Eagles respectively, and with multiple postseason appearances each they will feel like they have the support of their teams for years to come. Meanwhile, Winston’s coach is still talking about analysing how he can help his starting QB eliminate poor decisions with ball security, and Mariota’s has decided to switch to backup Ryan Tannehill for next week’s game.
It may well be that both players can still be salvaged, and could yet have respectable NFL careers, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that it may be best for all involved to have a clean break and start again.