In John Hughes classic movie, “Home Alone,” Kevin, the child left behind tells everyone he meets: “Christmas is the season of perpetual hope.” The NFL has its version of “perpetual hope” and it occurs from May through July, until the pads come one and the reality sets in. Once the rookies arrive, the free agents integrate into the team, hope rises to Super Bowl-winning levels -- for all teams.
I’m serious, even the Atlanta Falcons, and Jacksonville Jaguars believe they can win it all. Talk to any executives or scouts after they examine practice, they tell everyone within an ear shot that roster decisions will be challenging and players on the bubble are easily tradeable. I can hear them now saying, “this roster will be tough to cut.” It happens every year at this time as predictable as the sparrows flying south from winter. The assistant coaches love the rookies, love the additions to the roster and feel their problems have been solved. Again, until the pads return, hope makes every NFL building come alive. When the preseason games begin, and teams determine most rookies are not ready for prime time and the holes once thought were plugged, are wide open again, then reality sets in.
Which leads us to the key for success of any team: their best player playing better. The true hope springs from the core players playing better, not the rookies. And often the reason the team failed to fulfill its promise from a year ago, is the best players didn’t play their best. The hardest admission for fans and even team executives to acknowledge is its best player isn’t playing his best. Everyone assumes it’s not them, they cannot be the problem and the excuses for poor play are overflowing.
Here are four QBs that need to play better in 2022:
Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes
If Kansas City is going to get back to the Super Bowl, then the Chiefs need Mahomes to play better than he did in 2021. You might think I’m joking, but I’m dead serious and this has nothing to do with the skill players, or the offensive weapons around him. It has everything to do with accepting Mahomes wasn’t the same Mahomes we have grown accustomed to watching.
From Week 3 of the season, when he threw four INTs (one on the final drive of the game against the Chargers) until the three horrible passes he threw in overtime against the Bengals in the AFC Championship Game, Mahomes wasn’t close to the player he was in 2018 or 2019. He had moments of his old self, but he was never consistently the same player. Last year, Mahomes averaged 7.4 yards per attempt, the lowest in his career; he also had the most interceptions he has thrown in a season with 13. His QBR was 62.2, compared to 80.3 in ‘18, and 77.7 in ‘19. The most staggering decline occurred in adjusted pass yards attempted, dropping from 8.89 in ‘18, and 8.38 in ‘19 to 7.07 in ‘21. You might claim his offensive line wasn’t the same, but in 2018 his sack percentage was 4.3 and in 2021 it was 4.1.
Mahomes can play better. He knows he has to play at the level he set when he took over in ‘18. The tape doesn’t lie. His fundamentals are consistently inconsistent which affects his throws and then he sprays the ball, which is some of the reason for his increase in turning the ball over. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is confident Mahomes will play better, as am I. However, we both know the key to the Chiefs winning the West isn’t whom takes over for Tyreek Hill, rather does Mahomes become the ‘18 version of himself. For all the hope the draft and free agency provides, Reid knows getting Mahomes back on track is the key.
Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson
As everyone discuss the Jackson contract extension, we fail to mention that he wasn’t even close to his MVP form from 2019. Jackson was a full yard below rushing yards per attempt in ’21. In the 12 games he played, he attempted 11 rushes a game (same as 2020), but his longest rush of the season was only 31 yards, as teams were defending him differently in terms of their rush lanes. His passing numbers came crashing down as his adjusted yards passing went from 8.19 in ‘19, to 5.78 last season; his percentage of being sacked increased from 5.4 in ‘19 to 9.0 in ‘21. These are staggering numbers and an indication of the problems the Ravens had with their offensive line. With left tackle Ronnie Stanley set to return and either Morgan Moses or Ja’Wuan James at right tackle, Baltimore will be improved. The addition of first-round pick Tyler Linderbaum at center giving the Ravens better inside protection for Jackson. Then with JK Dobbins returning at running back, Baltimore should have a better supporting cast around Jackson.
Still, Jackson needs to improve in all areas, most specifically attacking the deep third part of the field. If Jackson were a 3-point shooter in basketball, no one would guard him at the line until he proved he could consistently knock them down. Jackson has too many long foul balls on deep throws. When at Louisville, Jackson threw a great deep ball, on over and post routes. He could hit the facemask of the receiver on the move, so his coach Bobby Petrino would often start game with a deep over throw to get Jackson a big completion and back the defense off from packing the middle of the field. Jackson struggled even back then at throwing outside the numbers, right or left. Jackson is widely erratic in that area, which then shrinks the field and allows the defense to pack its defenders inside. Everyone now knows Jackson is best when throwing the ball in the middle of the field, between the numbers, which is why tight end Mark Andrews was the target on 153 passing attempts, the most on the team. Andrews also had the second-highest yards per reception on the team, and he led the team in receiving yards per game. Jackson needs to find an outside receiver who can make plays and it wasn’t Hollywood Brown, whose lack of size made him a hard target to find down the field. Jackson was second in targets with 146, yet averaged a pedestrian 11.1 per catch, the sixth best on the team. Wonder why they traded him? How did they get a first-round pick for him? That’s a whole other story -- and column -- for later.
Jackson has been indifferent to doing a new deal and the Ravens haven’t forced the issue, in part because they have to be wondering which version of Lamar will show up this year: the 2019 version, or the 2021 one? The ‘19 version is worth top quarterback money; the ‘21, isn’t. For the Ravens to win the North, they need Jackson to play at the MVP level we’ve seen in 19. Anything short, will not allow the Ravens to compete for the North title.
Denver Broncos QB Russell Wilson
There is so much fanfare around Wilson and the Broncos that we fail to mention Wilson wasn’t his normal self in last season, and unless he rekindles his play Denver won’t be as good as we might think.
Last year, Wilson only had one-game winning drive all season and no fourth-quarter comebacks, which was his signature. No one wanted Wilson to have the ball with a chance to lead the team to victory in the final seconds. We as a betting network at VSiN know the Wilson in 21 wasn’t the same one who often helped cash tickets. His QBR dropped from 71, in 2019, to 54.7 last year, in part perhaps because of the injury, his return too soon and the lack of protection his line offered him. The real issue with Wilson was his lack of mobility and running skills to avoid tacklers and make plays down the field. Wilson’s rushing attempts were down to a 3.1 per game and his yards per rush were 1.2 yards below his career average. For all the excitement in the Mile High City, Wilson needs to play better. Can he? My guess is yes, but based on last year, I’m not 100% confident.
Tennessee Titans QB Ryan Tannehill
Tannehill admitted the playoff game against the Bengals caused him to seek counseling. Clearly Tannehill takes great pride in his performance and his play in that game, and the season sent him into a deep funk. Tannehill is another player who must improve this season and revert back to his normal Tennessee numbers. Missing running back Derrick Henry placed responsibility on his shoulders and the numbers show that he fell well short.
Tannehill’s adjusted yards per attempt were 2 yards less (7.98 in ’19; 5.89 in ‘21) than his best season. His yards per attempt in ‘21 averaged a modest 7.0, whereas in ‘19 it was a staggering 9.6 and 7.9 in ‘20. That’s a huge drop in passing yards gained which could be from the departure of Arthur Smith as the coordinator, the lack of production from Julio Jones at receiver and missing Henry in the backfield. All those are legitimate reasons, yet, they only offer excuses. For the Titans to win the AFC South again, Tannehill has to play better all year, not only in the playoffs.
We all have hope for the rookies, the free agents, and the new additions, yet, if the best of the best doesn’t play well, or to the level we know their capable, then nothing else matters. Great players can carry teams when they play great; they can’t when they don’t.