Will it be Baker Mayfield or Sam Darnold starting at quarterback in Carolina?
In Pittsburgh, will Mitchell Trubisky or Kenny Pickett (or maybe even Mason Rudolph) be under center for the opener against the Bengals?
In Seattle, will Geno Smith win the job, or does Drew Lock fool them again? Maybe Jimmy Garoppolo enters the competition in Seattle or New York against Daniel Jones?
Of the 32 NFL teams, only two have “open vacancy” signs shining brightly in their front window; two others might be open shortly. Currently, the Giants’ sign is flickering, half-lit as they try to convince themselves Jones can become a viable starter, after the evidence suggests otherwise. The Seattle sign hasn’t been turned on -- yet. We know at some point in the coming weeks, head coach Pete Carroll and general manager Jon Schneider will need to flip the switch, because based on past starting performances neither Smith nor Lock has been successful.
Bettors are anxiously awaiting the outcomes of these battles, as they have placed wagers on selecting the right starter -- even though they are not privy to watching practice or understanding how the job is decided. The market is set based on perception and probability, especially when they are close calls in an open competition. Simple logic prevails, as Mayfield has been more successful as a starter than Darnold, so the betting odds favor him -- and they should. However, inside the team’s facility, perception never enters into the equation.
If you’re Matt Rhule or Mike Tomlin, you are basing this decision based on limited practice time and limited reps in games with real competition. To make the right choice, both have to make some critical assumptions. What many fans never understand about competition in football is mathematics plays a huge role. There are only so many reps each day and game, and those reps have to be divided to ensure the players are learning, improving and -- most of all -- demonstrating their true skills. You cannot practice all day. Mental reps and physical reps are important and go a long way in the evaluation process. With these limitations, the initial winner might not be the long-time winner as wisdom may have to come later. Trubisky might look better now, but as Pickett gets more reps, will be he better later? Only Tomlin can answer that question. Darnold might be ahead now, because he had an entire offseason to integrate himself into Ben McAdoo’s new offense. Once Mayfield learns the offense with more reps, will he be better? Only Rhule can make that determination. Because the “who will be better later” question is reserved for the one person that understands the needs of the entire team.
Even the best judges of talent regarding quarterbacks make a bad choice. In 1988, when 49ers head coach Bill Walsh boxed himself into a quarterback controversy between Joe Montana and Steve Young, he was supposed to make a choice. Instead, Walsh made no choice. He played them both, starting Montana for 13 games and Young for three. It caused great conflict within the team’s chemistry and finally Walsh declared Montana the starter for the rest of the year, which culminated in a Super Bowl victory. Tomlin and Rhule don’t have to pick between Hall of Famers, yet the decision is still formidable.
To make the best decision Tomlin and Rhule have to weigh several factors. When they watch practice and games, they must focus on these five areas.
What player operates with consistent functional intelligence
Having functional intelligence means the player plays smart, not conservative. It’s not about throwing interceptions or fumbles -- it goes deeper. They execute within the framework of the offense, taking the profits, not trying to be a hero, or as Matt Nagy would have at the bottom of his play calling sheet in Chicago: “Be You.” Being “you” doesn’t work, unless the play breaks down. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow played with great functional intelligence all through the playoffs. Instead of forcing the ball into tight windows, he took sacks, protecting the ball and understood his kicker was on fire. He understood the game situation perfectly, as his defense was playing well so why force a throw? Sometimes a punt isn’t a bad play. Playing with functional intelligence also means making sure everyone knows their job, their assignments and the individual preparation will benefit the team. The quarterback has to understand how to win the game, not how to gain the most passing yards.
What player preforms with emotional stability
The quarterback position requires calm confidence under extreme pressure. As the main communicator of the offense, the quarterback has to always maintain emotions to get the team prepared for the next play. Football isn’t like the NBA, when players are constantly complaining to the referees for a call, then not getting back to defend. The next play is the most important play and unless the quarterback remains in control of his emotions, the next play will be worse than the last. Kyler Murray plays without emotional stability at times, as he is always complaining to his teammates when something goes wrong. His bad body language is obvious, whereas Patrick Mahomes doesn’t gesture or move his hands when his receiver drops a pass. It’s on to the next play. The next play is the most important one in the game.
Can he play faster than he practices?
Often, practice in the NFL is more of a rehearsal. Coaches script for success to build confidence, ignoring the value of making mistakes. Then when the game starts, mistakes occur, in part because the game has sped up. Preseason games are played at a slow rate. Regular season games are much faster, yet they vary in level of speeds. The first quarter of an NFL game is fast, but not near as fast as the fourth. These variations of speed from summer to fall, and from quarter to quarter, are hard for the coaches to simulate, especially when they are more interested in building confidence. Giants quarterback Daniel Jones is the perfect example of a player with skills to tease you into thinking he could be a starter. Strong arm, athletic, smart, works hard. However, when the game speeds along, Jones gets lapped. He cannot adjust the level of speed in his processing and then looks bad. Ryan Tannehill in Miami played slow. His first year in Tennessee he was operating fast on all downs but over the last two seasons, he has reverted back to being the slower version of himself. Trubisky has always played slow and will often use his athletic skills to run when he cannot process.
Can he play well when the play doesn’t go as it was practiced?
Most teams run their passing offense with plays (called “beaters”) designed to beat a certain coverage. Classic NFL jargon. The great offensive minds of today and yesteryear never ran beaters, they run plays to attack the adjustments in the coverage, not the coverage itself. Beaters work, when the offense aligns in certain formation, with specific personnel group, predicting with great accuracy the opponent’s called coverage. Then the design of pass play will beat the coverage. In practice the defense runs the opponent’s call, the offense gets what it wants and the quarterback makes the throw -- and everyone is happy. Until the defense doesn’t act predictably.
Remember the first play of the Cincinnati-Tennessee playoff game? Tannehill runs a play-action pass play one I am sure they practiced all week with great success. He predetermined the throw because in practice during the week, he always threw the ball to Julio Jones … because he was always open. The problem was that in the game, he wasn’t open and Tannehill threw the ball to Bengals safety Jesse Bates. To become the starter and stay the starter, quarterbacks must be able to make plays when the play break downs. Trubisky is really bad in this area and one of the reasons he can never become a full-time starter. If it goes like practice, Trubisky looks like the second coming of John Elway; when he doesn’t, he looks like Mike Glennon.
Can the head coach tell the team with confidence who is the starter?
A head coach’s success rate lies with having believability with his team. He must stand in front of the team and deliver his message with authority and confidence. He cannot fool or trick the players. Players know two things well: The first is money and the second who is good and who isn’t. When Tomlin or Rhule proclaims a starter, the players must believe in his decision. If there is any doubt, then the team will sense the decision wasn’t the head coach’s and that someone else higher in the organization mandated the move. And for the quarterback to lead the team, the players have to believe in his talents. Garoppolo made every 49ers teammate believe he could win and if Kyle Shanahan tried to start Trey Lance last year, he would have lost credibility with his players. With Garoppolo gone, this clears the way for Shanahan to maintain credibility as long as Lance plays well. If he doesn’t, then Shanahan will have to admit the mistake and move along, or risk losing his team.
Vince Lombardi once said, “Confidence is contagious, so is a lack of confidence.” If Trubisky or Darnold don’t demonstrate confidence with their head coaches or the team, then they cannot become the starter, making the decision easier for Tomlin and Rhule. The lack of developing confidence is the main reason why the Giants and the Seahawks will fully light their vacancy signs in the coming weeks. You cannot fake confidence, no matter how hard you try. Words never matter. All that matters is how you play.
I’m excited to watch these battles unfold.