By Chris Dagonas
Back on April 30th, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, by virtue of their 2-14 record in the 2014 season, had the right to the first overall selection in the NFL Draft.
They were faced with a difficult choice. There was no doubt they were looking for a quarterback; the Bucs had been lacking stability and talent under center since the departure of “good” Josh Freeman in 2012. But who to choose? There was Florida State’s Jameis Winston, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner and National Champion. On the other hand, there was Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner.
Winston was seen as the more NFL-ready quarterback, but he also carried some significant baggage, including allegations of shoplifting and rape during his time at Florida State. Mariota, for his part, had a squeaky clean college record, but had played in a spread offense at Oregon. Quarterbacks from spread offenses have struggled to adapt to NFL defenses.
Perhaps buoyed by Winston’s results, both on the field and in the combine, and by Florida State’s eventual dismissal of the rape allegations, Tampa Bay opted to select the Alabama native over the Hawaiian Mariota.
The Tennessee Titans, selecting immediately after Tampa Bay, chose Mariota to take charge of their offense. He had the fastest 40-yard-dash time for quarterbacks at the combine, and appeared to be a quick study of the Titans offensive system during the preseason.
The schedule-making gods of the NFL saw to it that Winston’s Bucs and Mariota’s Titans would immediately match up against each other in Week 1, in order for observers to determine which team made the better pick and which quarterback would have the stronger career.
Of course that’s ridiculous, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that Mariota blew Winston, and the Buccaneers defense, away on Sunday afternoon.
Mariota’s stats speak for themselves (13 of 16, 209 yards, 4 touchdowns, 158.3 quarterback rating), but I was impressed with his quick release, impressive decision-making, and variety of ways to find receivers. On his first career touchdown, a 52-yarder to Kendall Wright (on which the receiver did most of the work), Mariota ran a decent playaction to Bishop Sankey, before snapping a quick strike to a moving Wright, who sprinted past the moved-up secondary.
Winston’s first career pass, on the other hand went for a touchdown, just not for his team. He was picked for a defensive touchdown on a poorly aimed floater towards the sideline. He was later picked again, trying to throw a screen pass to Doug Martin.
Mariota threw another touchdown, this time to Sankey, on a rollout to the right, showing his ability to throw on the run. His third touchdown was a bullet into a crowded end zone for tight end Delanie Walker. Watch Mariota’s Week 1 highlights here.
Falling far behind by halftime, Winston was forced to drop back and force passes, and the Titans defense made him pay for that, sacking him four times and rushing him even more.
It seems clear that Mariota has entered a better situation in Tennessee, with a more solid offensive unit and far superior defense. Tampa Bay was missing number two receiver Mike Evans, but tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins looked to be a favourite for Winston, and could prove to be a dangerous weapon for the Buccaneers.
Winston will suffer through a much more difficult season with a Buccaneers team with far less talent than Mariota’s Titans, but that does not have to necessarily define his career. In 1998, Peyton Manning’s Colts went 3-13 and he threw 28 interceptions, and I don’t need to record the accolades Manning has received in his career since then.
It is too early to declare anything about either quarterback, but in the inevitable list of comparisons between the two quarterbacks, Mariota, at this early stage, holds the upper hand.
Observations from Week 1:
Rex Ryan began his tenure in Buffalo with a big win over the AFC runner-up Indianapolis Colts, shutting out the high-powered Colts offense for the entire first half. Ryan is known as a defensive expert, and his Jets teams were among the league’s most feared defensive units during his time in New York. While Buffalo did carry some talent to combine with Ryan’s schemes, few expected the Bills to even give the Colts a hard time, let alone shut them out for 30 minutes and, ultimately, win their matchup. Given that the Colts started 0-2 last season before reeling off five straight wins, and 6-of-7 before their bye week, I think it’s fair to give them a little more time.
Week 1 was the week of the tight end, with big days from the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, the Bengals’ Tyler Eifert, Bucs’ Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and of course, New England Patriot Rob Gronkowski. All had over or close to 100 receiving yards (Gronk brought up the rear with 94), and two or three touchdowns. Tight ends are tough for opposing defenses to game-plan for, especially in Week 1 with no prior evidence from which to work (and Gronk is pretty much impossible to stop anyway.) The role of the tight end has expanded with the development of their physical abilities, and Week 1 was just another reminder of the importance of rostering a versatile, athletic, half-man, half-mountain.
Is the AFC East the best division in football? It was the only division to escape Week 1 with all four of its teams victorious. The Patriots are who they always have been with Brady back on the field, the Jets and Bills looked very sharp under their respective new coaching regimes, and my Miami Dolphins, as they seemingly have forever, look good on paper and very good in warm weather. The Patriots look the favourites to emerge from the division on top, but there are likely to be some very tense and interesting games come December involving the other three teams in the AFC East.
The longer extra point had an effect on Houston kicker Randy Bullock, who missed his first XP try of the season. Trying to combat a 99.3 percent success rate from last season, the NFL made the decision to move the line of scrimmage back to the 15-yard-line on extra points, which meant a 33-yard kick instead of the old 20-yarder. That’s still a chip shot to most NFL kickers, but we could see a drop in that percentage, as well as more coaches opting to try a 2-point conversion, which still starts from the 2-yard-line, instead of a less-than-automatic extra point.
Here is a video of Travis Kelce’s first touchdown celebration, and just know that I feel the same way about football starting up again.