Week 1 of the NFL season featured nine quarterbacks starting for new teams. In my previous article, I graded the new NFC QBs to see if their first performance was a sign of good things to come, or if their fans should be worried about the new man under center.
Reminder, we are grading on a curve. It's a salary cap league so this is critical. Cheaper quarterbacks that outperform expensive ones are worth even more than the dollars you save by not paying them the big bucks. Those savings amount to salary cap space that can be used to pay other key players on the team. Every dollar a team spends has and additional opportunity cost associated with it, and how a team chooses to spend each dollar counts. That perfect financial and schematic recipe is what makes a team NFL champions.
Let's look at the four new AFC starters and see what their first starts with their new teams might mean for the future.
Russell Wilson, Denver Broncos
Well I am sure this was not the return to Seattle that Russell Wilson visualized while sitting next to Ciara in his new $25 million dollar home. Sixteen total points, including only three in the second half, capped off by a laughable final drive, is not going to get it done for the new crown jewel of the Broncos organization. The Broncos are in what looks to be the most competitive division in football, and it will likely be that way for several years. To keep up with the likes of Mahomes and Herbert, Denver is going to have to score in bunches, and they have to learn how to finish winnable games outside the division. Every game matters when you could very well be watching the playoffs at home despite double-digit wins by the end of the season.
The stat sheet looks fine for Wilson, who finished with 340 yards passing with a touchdown and no picks, but that doesn't tell the whole story. The Broncos had five drives inside the Seattle 30-yard line that led to only nine Broncos points -- three of those drives were inside the 5-yard line. $240-million dollar quarterbacks have to finish those drives with touchdowns.
The lack of familiarity with the offense and the volume of opposing fans in Seattle definitely showed up on Monday. Several false starts and issues with formations as the play clock wound down were evident. This was not the Wilson we saw command the offense so impeccably for years in Seattle. I suspect that more time with the coaching staff will clear up some of these issues and the Broncos will be just fine, but fine might not be enough in the AFC West.
The Broncos traded and paid a boat load for a guy who is supposed to give them a chance to win it all, which is all Wilson talked about wanting this off-season. That money comes with expectations and when 'money-time' came on the road in the fourth quarter, he couldn't deliver. That has to change soon with road divisional games in Las Vegas and Los Angeles next month, or a last place finish in the AFC West is a real possibility for Denver.
Jacoby Brissett, Cleveland Browns
Replacing Mayfield in Cleveland (although not the first choice to do so) is journeyman Jacoby Brissett, who started his 38th career game against Mayfield and the Panthers on Sunday. Brissett is one of the more competent backups in the NFL, who thrives on putting his teams in the best chance to win by not making many mistakes, as evidenced by the 20 more touchdown passes than interceptions in his career. Thrust into the starting role following the suspension of Deshaun Watson, his Browns teammates seem to respect Brissett's football IQ enough to give him the nickname of 'The Shaman'.
In Week 1 Brissett did everything Browns fans could hope for. Though his passing numbers were modest, he consistently put the Browns running game into correct looks and defended the team's early lead by taking only one sack and not turning the ball over. He then led the team on a game winning field goal drive with under 1:13 left on the clock, completing two critical passes and managing the clock perfectly.
You know what you're getting with Brissett if you are the Browns, which is more than can be said for the $230 million dollar investment in another quarterback on the roster. It's critical that Brissett stays healthy, as the rest of the Browns' active QB depth chart looks like who you select as backups on 'Madden Franchise Mode', because if your starting QB gets hurt you are just going to quit and restart anyway. Tough strategy without the restart button, so the Browns should hope 'The Shaman' has some powers of health that come along with that nickname.
Mitch Trubisky, Pittsburgh Steelers
Mitch Trubisky finds himself in a familiar spot as a guy who seems to win games despite playing poorly, and a QB who will eventually be replaced regardless if he wins or not. When Trubisky signed a modest two-year deal to come to join the Steelers this off-season, it was clear the plan is for him to keep the team functioning while the staff waits for first-round draft pick Kenny Pickett to progress enough to take over as the starter.
Yes, Mitch managed a last-second overtime win on the road in one of the strangest Week 1 games in recent memory, but without looking at the results he was extremely unremarkable. The Bengals had 19 more first downs than the Steelers, turned it over five more times and Joe Burrow was sacked 7 times. Add in a missed extra point and a chip shot field goal and it's all pretty horrific. It took every single one of those mistakes for Trubisky and the Steelers to win. It's also apparent that the Steelers staff hasn't invested too heavily in catering the offense toward what Mitch does well. Trubisky's success in Chicago came when he was running RPOs, throwing on the move, and using his athleticism. Instead, Pittsburgh seemed content to use the same game plan as last year, plow Najee Harris into the line for less than three yards per carry and throw a myriad of quick short passes into tough coverages for about five yards a pass.
Even if Harris is forced to miss games after leaving this contest with an injury, the Steelers will likely remain conservative on offense asking Mitch to not make mistakes and hope their defense can give them a chance to win low scoring games.
If I use my patented crystal eyeball emoji and peer toward the Steelers schedule, the Week 10 contest coming out of the bye against the Saints at home is when we will see Pickett make his first start regardless of how Mitch performs.
Matt Ryan, Indianapolis Colts
This game should have been easier for Matt Ryan than it turned out to be. You look on paper and the Colts actually led the NFL in total offense in Week 1. They were able to run it 30 times with Jonathan Taylor for more than five yards per carry. Ryan himself had over 350 yards passing against a weak Texans secondary and immediately seems to be gelling with top receiver Michael Pittman Jr.
The problem was most of these yards (and 17 of the 20 points) came in the fourth quarter or overtime. It took the Colts a long while to get started and cash in. They also had great fumble luck as Ryan put the ball on the ground four times, while being fortunate to lose only one. All this just to tie with the Texans, presumably one of the bottom feeders of the league.
Matt Ryan showed that his arm talent and acumen are still there, but he needs to get off to a faster start and start winning in the red zone when defenses stack the box even more aggressively against Jonathan Taylor. You aren't going to get a strong grade when you need a late-game flourish just to tie the Texans, but if I'm a Colts fan I have confidence this upgrade at QB will keep trending up as the season goes along.
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