Jameis Winston, the infamous, reckless turnover machine, threw for five touchdowns in the tidiest 20-pass performance you’ll ever witness. Sam Darnold, just 24 but staring across the field at his old team, flashed the skills that made him a high draft pick. Most notably, Matthew Stafford looked like the championship-caliber quarterback the Los Angeles Rams sought when they traded Jared Goff to Detroit to nab a more advanced veteran leader.
Some acquisitions with lower profiles shined, too. The biggest surprise was Tyrod Taylor, the 32-year-old now playing for his fifth team. The rebuilding Houston Texans carried meager expectations into this season, but Taylor — who is starting while the team figures out what to do with its embattled star, Deshaun Watson — threw for 291 yards and two touchdowns as Houston ruined the Jacksonville debuts of Trevor Lawrence and Urban Meyer. And Teddy Bridgewater, who is almost always steady, looked fantastic leading the Denver Broncos to a road victory over the New York Giants.
The quarterback carousel defined the NFL offseason, but despite all the movement, it ended up feeling anticlimactic because big names such as Watson, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson didn’t force trades. Nevertheless, as the opening week showed, the offseason shuffling still mattered. For all the attention paid to elite quarterbacks, the NFL reality is that the overwhelming majority of franchises must figure out a way to compete without such a rare talent. And how those teams work around it paints an important picture.
Teams without elite quarterbacks always must be careful about committing too much to a player who can’t carry them. For the past few years, the reluctance to be aggressive had been noticeable. The Stafford-Goff swap could be the start of another shift in philosophy. But there is also something at play with the movement involving younger quarterbacks who haven’t accomplished as much, such as Carolina targeting Darnold and New Orleans promoting Winston, who was a backup last season, to replace Drew Brees.
It’s normal for interesting quarterbacks under 30 to receive second chances. Bridgewater has a winning record as a starter. Darnold had moments with the New York Jets. Winston, who threw for 5,109 yards two years ago, has the ability to be incredibly productive. In any era, these are quarterbacks who would receive second and third chances. What’s different, however, is that they are receiving their do-overs during an era of offensive experimentation and ingenuity.
It makes me wonder about the potential for reclamation. It seems like there’s more room now for stories similar to Ryan Tannehill’s improvement in Tennessee. Offensive coaches are more flexible than ever, and while the motivation has been to adjust schemes to fit the nontraditional quarterbacks coming out of college, perhaps this spirit of adaptability can extend to talented but raw QBs who need a change of scenery.
In Carolina, Darnold is with 31-year-old offensive coordinator Joe Brady, whose college/pro hybrid system is full of wrinkles that may prove to be cutting edge. But I’m even more fascinated with what Sean Payton is attempting to do with Winston in New Orleans.
Winston, who created his own 30-30 club in Tampa Bay (33 touchdowns, 30 interceptions in 2019), sat and watched for most of last season. He learned from Payton and from Brees. He learned an offensive system with space for the kind of aggressive, playmaking that Winston craves, as well as the smart, streamlined, timing-oriented simplicity that he needs to comprehend to be considered dependable.
In the Saints’ stunning 38-3 victory over the Green Bay Packers, you saw Winston manage a team that remains balanced on offense, defense and special teams despite missing several players to injury. Top wide receiver Michael Thomas isn’t healthy, but Winston still played quality situational football. He completed 14 of 20 passes for 148 yards and found the end zone those five times. The New Orleans defense — and the uncharacteristic lethargy of Rodgers and the Packers — made it easier for Winston. Most importantly, he didn’t do anything to make it harder for himself.
There were some aberrational aspects to the game, but for New Orleans, it should be considered a reassuring indicator that, even with Brees enjoying retirement, the bones of a contender remain. It’s a huge season for Payton, a great, Super Bowl-winning coach who doesn’t receive enough acclaim. This is Payton’s chance to be known for more than his legendary collaboration with Brees. If he can mold Winston into a more patient quarterback, he could avoid the hardships of life after losing a surefire Hall of Famer. And right now, Winston sounds like a man who spent last season absorbing all of the right lessons.
“Drew always preached that, ‘It’s about the decision, not the result,’ ” Winston said after Sunday’s performance. “Sometimes, the decision is throwing the ball away. Sometimes, the decision is tucking it and running, and sometimes, the decision is to take a sack. The more times we make the right decisions, the game will take care of itself.”
Great offensive coaches can do a lot with quarterbacks who throw with anticipation. For all his past warts, Winston always has been a player capable of seeing the field and throwing a receiver open. The Rams also have found an instinctive talent. Stafford is 33, and he has thrown for 45,430 career yards. He should surpass 300 career touchdowns this season. He has done some special things, but the Lions went to the playoffs just three times in his 12 seasons. Stafford was selected to the Pro Bowl once despite posting eight seasons of more than 4,000 passing yards.
Even though he played for a Lions franchise with a long history of losing, Stafford had to deal with the question: Is he a winner? In Los Angeles, his transformation won’t be about elevating his performance. It’s about transferring his talent to a team more equipped to utilize all that he has to offer. In watching Stafford throw for 321 yards and three touchdowns against a good Chicago Bears defense, the impact he could have on the Rams became clear. Rams Coach Sean McVay did a lot of hand-holding with Goff, and Los Angeles still made it to a Super Bowl two years ago. Stafford can simply do more.
“His command, his swag, like everything was great,” Rams all-pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey said of watching Stafford. “That’s like a debut that probably should go down in history.”
Week 1 swag only leads to greater expectations. But for Stafford and this crop of starting quarterbacks in new places, perhaps the hope is warranted.