“The sense is, I’m sure a bunch of people are jumping off the bandwagon, which is fine with us, because we know what we’re capable of,” Prescott said Thursday after a 36-33 overtime loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. “We know the team we have. More importantly, we know the men that are in that locker room. That’s the most important thing — our belief in each other. That’s not going anywhere. It’s not fading.”
Round 12 of this exacting NFL season has barely begun, and we couldn’t get past the Thursday holiday slate without the most baffling — and gripping — complication of the year striking again.
The league’s best quarterbacks have endured some unexpected trials in 2021, and the problems have been so widespread, so simultaneous and so varied that it seems to be the most preposterous script ever written. It would be an exaggeration to suggest this has been a bad year for QBs, especially with Tom Brady performing at an MVP level at 44 and Lamar Jackson a candidate to win his second MVP award at 24. But those two also have had their challenges, emblematic of a season in which no amount of star power or statistical brilliance can keep even the elite QB crop safe from the falling debris.
You can’t name a franchise quarterback who has cruised so far. Russell Wilson, who missed time with the first major injury of his career, is halfway through what figures to be his first losing season. Aaron Rodgers, though still directing a Super Bowl contender, is playing with a broken toe and clumsily handling the controversy over his decision not to get a coronavirus vaccine. Patrick Mahomes is fighting through his first prolonged slump. Josh Allen has been frustratingly inconsistent. Kyler Murray was rolling until an ankle injury cost him the past few weeks. The list goes on, and the symptoms differ, but the theme is the same: These oft-celebrated stars have been forced to grind.
There is no single factor to explain why this season has been challenging for some of these quarterbacks. For most of them, their version of bad is still full of enviable productivity. They’re both victims of the absurdly high standard they’ve created during a pass-centric era and stars who need to play smarter to cover up roster deficiencies and adjust to defenses showing signs of catching up to them.
Because most of the issues, injuries and illnesses surfaced this month, it has felt dizzying. The top teams have been exposed, or at least experienced glitches, and quarterbacks tend to reflect the best and worst of their franchises. If Brady isn’t immune, who is? Just two weeks ago, he channeled his terse old coach, Bill Belichick, in frustration after a 29-19 loss to the Washington Football Team. He wasn’t happy with himself or his complacent team, and he didn’t want to talk about it.
The defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 7-3 and playing just fine overall. But after that setback to Washington gave them back-to-back defeats, Coach Bruce Arians said of his squad, “We’re a very dumb football team.” The Bucs seemed to recover Monday in a victory over the New York Giants. Still, Brady has thrown five interceptions over his past three games.
Compared to his peers’, his trouble is minor. But when you’re vying for an eighth Super Bowl title, everything is a big thing. Brady is concerned with the tricky task of balancing urgency and the need for proper pacing.
“We’re at a decent point, but we can play a lot better than we’ve played,” Brady said after the 30-10 win against the Giants. “Hoping our best football is ahead of us.”
Perhaps the yards and touchdowns had come too easily for quarterbacks the past few seasons. They had reached a point in which a 90 passer rating — exceptional a decade ago — qualified merely as solid. Offensive systems generate high passing efficiency now. Low-risk completions are readily available. Coaches have better strategies to accentuate players who can run. Functional quarterbacks don’t have to do too much to be productive. More than ever, players at the position separate themselves on third down and in the red zone.
In 2010, four quarterbacks posted a passer rating of at least 100. By 2020, there were 10.
In 2010, five quarterbacks threw for at least 30 touchdowns. By 2020, there were 10.
On Thanksgiving Day, Prescott threw for 375 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t throw an interception. His team scored 33 points and lost mostly because of defensive breakdowns and Anthony Brown’s four pass interference penalties. But Prescott drew criticism for his uneven play and inability to lift his team, even though he was playing without his top two receivers. And those assessments weren’t too harsh. Despite the big numbers, he wasn’t as steady as Dallas needed him to be. And he’s no longer among the MVP favorites.
At times, it seems easier to play the position. But the expectations have shifted, too. They have changed so much that Wilson’s 101.2 rating this season doesn’t mask his issues. Mahomes ranks second in the NFL in passing yards and is tied for second with 25 touchdowns, but this has been, by far, the most trying time of his career.
We evaluate the stats differently. However, the final judgment involves more of an eye test, as well as what is often an illogical feeling and a skewed perception of a player’s impact on winning and losing. If the bumpy rides of contenders define the season so far, it makes sense the travails of these quarterbacks would share attention.
It’s their game. And right now, it’s their headache.