By Jason La Canfora
(CBS Sports) — Pressure does different things to different people. It can bring out the absolute best in some, and it causes others to crumble.
Whether driven by an individual trigger — a family matter, having to perform in a contract year, carrying the weight of personal expectations — or born of more collective factors (a team that can’t get over the hump; one that repeatedly fails in the postseason), there is no denying that not all situations are the same. The 2018 season has the chance to be more defining for some more than others.
No position in professional sports bears more weight than the quarterback. As is well documented, he is more likely than not to get too much of the praise and too much of the blame. Of the 80-odd men who end up filling that position on the active rosters of NFL teams (depending upon how many clubs carry three QBs and how many stick with just two), all have to deal with unique circumstances and stresses that go with having the ball in his hands on virtually every offensive snap.
Some thrive on it. Some wilt. Some have already progressed to a strata — financially and within the hierarchy of the game — that it no longer seems to impact them at all. Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are seemingly immune to pressure. Some youngsters will be facing it at the professional level — where livelihoods and careers are at stake — for the first time. Some will be clinging to rosters trying to squeeze out one last paycheck in the NFL. Some will be playing to prove they still belong. And some will be hopeful they make the most of what might be their one and only shot to ever show they can be a starting QB.
The recent remarks by new Browns receiver Jarvis Landry — who apparently couldn’t wait to tell the world within a few weeks of OTAs opening that to what he worked with his entire career in Miami — got me thinking about this concept this week. As if Ryan Tannehill didn’t have enough to deal with — trying to get healthy and reestablish himself as a starter and prove he is worth his contract and keep the people who have drafted and developed him employed in what could be a pivotal year in Miami. Now, he has the former face of the Dolphins‘ offense and one of the highest-paid receivers in the league lobbing passive-aggressive jabs at him from Cleveland.
Not ideal. But that’s life in the big leagues, I suppose. Who else is dealing with similar circumstances? After much internal debate, I put this list together of the 10 quarterbacks I believe are under the most pressure in 2018, for various reasons. It’s a subjective exercise, to be certain, and feel free to play along at home, as your list may very well differ from mine:
Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins
I already documented much of what is hanging over this young man. He suffered a knee injury just as he seemed to be blossoming in 2016, getting hurt before he could play in the postseason. Then 2017 was lost to injury. And now, with Jay Ajayi and Landry and Mike Pouncey gone, he has to find a way to stay healthy, get back to that prior form and do so with ownership having gutted some of the roster and taking a very critical eye to everyone in the organization. Oh, and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still in the AFC East last I checked. Some thought it was a reach when the Dolphins took the converted college receiver early in the first round in 2012, and the NFL has always been something of a pressure cooker for him due to factors largely outside of his control.
The last man standing after a wild and unprecedented quarterback trade and free agent carousel, he ended up in Buffalo somewhat by default. And the team now has two younger quarterbacks this regime drafted, including Josh Allen, whom they dealt a bevy of veterans and picks over the course of 10 months to be in position to draft. This might be McCarron’s only shot at being a starter, and he’ll do it with three veteran offensive linemen gone and few skill players in the pass game he can count on, with a team that is very much rebuilding. Those heady days when Hue Jackson was trying to trade for him in Cleveland seem like an eternity ago. And after a far more established and successful quarterback (Tyrod Taylor) was benched quickly in Buffalo a year ago, on a team that would still eventually reach the playoffs, how could McCarron not be looking over his shoulder now at the guy who briefly took Taylor’s job (Nathan Peterman) as well as the seventh-overall pick? If McCarron doesn’t shed the backup label now, will he ever?
Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
Kansas City looked like the best team in the league for a while in 2017, had real Super Bowl ambitions, were led by Alex Smith in a near-MVP season, hosted a playoff game… And then they traded that veteran QB to hand the reigns to Mahomes, who has one start to his name. Don’t get me wrong, I have long championed this kid, going back to before the 2017 combine, and believe he will be the real deal. But he is still young and raw, and the Chiefs gave up a lot to move up and draft him. In the meantime, this already bad defense might be worse, and good luck keeping Sammy Watkins healthy and productive enough to live up to that monster contract K.C. threw his way. It’s a lot for anyone to handle, let alone a kid getting regular reps with the first team for the first time. Again, I believe Andy Reid will help him develop into a top starter over time, but the hype train is already a little off the rails.
This man has made his money, and he and agent Mike McCartney have maneuvered the league’s tricky contract landscape expertly. But once you become the first man to get a fully-guaranteed three-year deal (worth $90 million no less), after being franchised two years in a row, and you do it with a team that came this close to hosting a Super Bowl in its home stadium a few months back, um, the stakes are high. It’s Super Bowl or bust for a long-suffering franchise. Cousins has already bet on himself several times and won huge, but he has yet to win a playoff game. He should have a chance to silence the doubters who question whether or not he is a big-game quarterback, because the Vikings stand to be playing in a lot of big games.
Manning has already made more money than most and won two Super Bowls, so what’s to see here, right? Well, he is playing for his legacy and Hall of Fame credentials, and with that Manning name — quarterbacking royalty — comes a certain burden. Peyton went out a champion even though he wasn’t a quality starter anymore. The Giants have been in free fall in recent years and are coming off a 3-13 season. Ownership benched Manning, ending his consecutive-game streak, and then now they’re trying to rally the franchise around him. Manning is again in a national vortex. Should this team stink again, does it eventually just make sense in December to hand it over to Davis Webb or Kyle Lauletta, as the Giants have used day-two picks on QBs two years in a row? Could Eli be defrocked two years in a row? Should the Giants have traded him at the combine? Can he reinforce his legacy with one of the game’s iconic franchises and stave off a seeming decline in recent years? Everything gets magnified in The Big Apple, and especially with this particular little brother.
This is kinda like Eli in that he, too, has a Super Bowl MVP trophy and has made more money than all but a very small handful of NFL players the past six years. But Flacco has not been the same the past three years, and injuries have taken a toll. Baltimore drafted his eventual replacement in the first round in Lamar Jackson. It always seemed highly doubtful that Flacco would be in Baltimore in 2019 within a career renaissance, as that was always the point the franchise could get out of his contract. And within that return to top form, he won’t be making $25 million with the Ravens in 2019, or perhaps anywhere else. Thing is, the bigger the stage, the better Flacco has performed pretty much his entire career. Although with a talent like Jackson waiting in the wings and likely getting on the field right away in certain packages, Flacco hasn’t faced this situation.
He staved off whatever threat McCarron was going to pose, but his contract is essentially year to year now, with no guarantees or hurdles preventing the team from going in a different direction. Same thing with his coach, Marvin Lewis, who, like Dalton, has yet to win a postseason game. And the cast around them isn’t what it used to be. At some point, even Mike Brown has to make a major change or two. Mediocrity might not be enough in 2018, and with guys like Cousins and Smith changing teams, you have to wonder if the trend continues.
You could certainly argue he belongs higher on this list. The fate of coach Dirk Koetter, who many thought would get fired a year ago, clearly rests on his shoulders. They have surrounded him with big-money talent, yet, while peers like Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr and Dak Prescott and Jared Goff (several of whom nearly made this list themselves) have already reached the postseason, the Bucs have been perpetual underachievers. And with all of Winston’s off-field foibles and bizarre sideline stuff (acting out, starting melees, trying to eat his damn fingers or whatever the hell that was), the leadership and maturity and results have to come now, in year four. He played very well after returning from injury and has looked like a franchise quarterback more than enough to let you know what is in there. But it needs to manifest itself on a near weekly basis, or this franchise could be blown up by ownership.
A horrible knee injury derailed his career. And the emergence of Case Keenum with the Vikings a year ago, and their subsequent pursuit of Cousins, ended what looked like it might be a long career in Minnesota, where he was a first-round pick. Had Bridgewater not been injured before the 2016 season, he may be the guy with the $25 million contract on a contending Vikings team. Now he is backing up Josh McCown with the rebuilding Jets (oh yeah, third overall pick Sam Darnold is there, too), but is looking healthy again. And if Bridgewater gets a window to play, say, 4-6 games this season, he could set himself up to be a starter somewhere in 2019. If his knee holds up, and he fulfills his promise, he could change this script, though the specter of consecutive lost seasons is very real, too.
He got some monkeys off his back — at least temporarily — by keeping his starting job, reaching the playoffs, winning in the playoffs and getting a new contract. But that contract guarantees precious little into the future, and the Jags are considered Super Bowl hopefuls now. Bortles wasn’t asked to do much a year ago, but after the Jags made a huge investment in new weapons, that could change. Has he turned the corner? Can the Jags and Bortles pick up where they left off? Will Jacksonville regret not jumping on that sweeping QB carousel this offseason? The national spotlight is on this franchise now.