Several NFL teams had starting quarterback battles going into the preseason; were the right decisions made?

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Jimmy Garoppolo (#10) beat out rookie Trey Lance (#5) in a close contest for the San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback job.

The Bears, Jaguars, Patriots, 49ers, Saints and Broncos all had quarterback decisions going into the 2021 NFL preseason. With week one of the regular season in the books, did those teams make the right decision?

Chicago Bears: Andy Dalton vs. Justin Fields; In terms of the most mind-boggling decisions NFL head coaches have made in the last couple of months, Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy’s decision to start Andy Dalton at quarterback over rookie Justin Fields might be the most mind boggling. Here are some stats from both Dalton and Fields’ performances this preseason:

Andy Dalton: Game 1 – 2/4, 18 yards, 62.5 Passer Rating; Game 2 – 11/17, 146 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 86.9 Passer Rating; Game 3 – Did not play

Justin Fields: Game 1 – Passing: 14/20, 142 yards, 1 TD, 106.7 Passer Rating / Rushing: 5 carries, 33 yards, 1 TD; Game 2 – Passing: 9/19, 80 yards, 59.1 Passer Rating /  Rushing: 4 carries, 46 yards; Game 3 – Passing: 7/10, 54 yards, 1 TD, 116.3 Passer Rating / Rushing: 2 carries, 13 yards

These stats are nice, but they don’t tell the Bears, or Fields’ whole story. Not only did Fields have more opportunities to shine in preseason, but he made the most of those opportunities. Fields showed an obvious feel for the game, both throwing and running the football. His future clearly looks bright. Even though Dalton wasn’t bad, he wasn’t super impressive like Fields was. 

Nevertheless, it was the “Red Rifle” Andy Dalton who started under center in week one. A questionable decision from the coach with the least amount of job security heading into the season. As for the question of “when will Fields make his first NFL start?” It’s hard to predict given Nagy’s recent starting quarterback decisions. But, for the sake of his job and the sanity of all Chicago Bears fans, the NFL world is praying it’ll be week 2 in the home opener against Cincinnati.

Jacksonville Jaguars (Trevor Lawrence vs. Gardner Minshew II): Trevor Lawrence is the starter. Hallelujah! Gardner Minshew II was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles late in the preseason. Yikes! On the surface, it doesn’t look good. Lawrence was the #1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. New head coach Urban Meyer may have been fired on the spot if he didn’t name Lawrence the starting quarterback. There was never a “competition.” So why did Meyer act like there was one? All it did was cause Lawrence to lose half of his first team reps in practice.

Another question worth asking is why even trade Minshew ? Now, the only other quarterback on the roster behind Lawrence is C.J. Beathard. Minshew would have been a very high quality backup, had they kept him. Now, he becomes the best third-string quarterback in the league behind Jalen Hurts and Joe Flacco in Philly. 

Head coaching decision conundrums aside, Lawrence looks to be as advertised: a generational talent with sky high potential. All the Jaguars front office has to do now is put his talent to good use and build a winning team around him. No pressure.

New England Patriots (Cam Newton vs. Mac Jones):  In a surprising move, the New England Patriots released Cam Newton in the final week of the preseason. Michael McCorkle “Mac” Jones is QB1 in New England. An almost unbelievable turn of events has the future of the New England Patriots franchise starting right now. It’s no secret that Jones has exceeded expectations this preseason. He seems to have a clear understanding of the Patriots’ offensive scheme, and has really earned the respect of not just the players, but the coaching staff and front office. 

It wasn’t bad play that cost Newton his job, though. He played just as well as Jones, but a misunderstanding of the COVID-19 protocols that sidelined him for five days allowed Jones to take all the first team reps in the three practices that Newton missed. All Jones did was run away with the starting quarterback job. 

The baffling part about all of this is, why release Newton? Why not keep him on as a very high quality backup? When asked if the NFL’s rules for unvaccinated players had anything to do with the unvaccinated Newton’s release, head coach Bill Belichick responded in true Belichick fashion: “No.” 

Similar to the Jaguars, if Jones were ever to go down with an injury, the only other quarterback on the depth chart is Jarrett Stidham, who is a fine backup, but would not be as good as Newton.

 As for Newton’s future, it’s hard to imagine a world in which a team takes a chance on him now. Newton will likely be unemployed until a starting quarterback goes down and some team isn’t comfortable with their backup. The heir to Tom Brady has been appointed: Mac Jones, welcome to the NFL. 

San Francisco 49ers (Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Trey Lance): The 49ers waited as long as they could to make their starting quarterback decision between incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo or their first round draft pick, the promising young stud, Trey Lance. They went with Garoppol0.

Lance didn’t look super efficient in preseason, but it wasn’t entirely his fault. His true talent has yet to be unleashed as head coach Kyle Shanahan did not draw up many designed run plays for Lance, something with which he proved to be very good at North Dakota State. His receivers didn’t do a great job of catching the ball as Lance ranked first among all quarterbacks in the preseason in dropped passes. Another factor has simply been rust. Lance opted out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so this year’s preseason was his first action since 2019. Given the circumstances, Lance did well. 

Despite the enormous upside to Lance, Shanahan decided to go with Garoppolo, the safer choice. Lance was the youngest quarterback in this year’s draft class. At just 21 years old, Lance can sit and learn behind Garoppolo for this whole season, and make his first start next year at age 22, which will still be younger than most other NFL quarterbacks. The future is bright and there’s no reason to rush Lance onto the field. Let’s not forget Garoppolo led these 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance just two years ago, but Garoppolo has a rough injury history, and is nothing more than an average-level player. It stands to reason that at some point during the season, maybe the rookie simply gives them a better chance to win football games, or maybe he just needs some game experience. It’s not a matter of “if” for Trey Lance, but rather a matter of “when.” It’s unlikely that it will come before their week 6 bye, but at some point later this season, Trey Lance will be unleashed to the NFL.

New Orleans Saints (Taysom Hill vs. Jameis Winston): Post-lasik eye surgery Jameis Winston looks like a whole new quarterback. So much so, that he has gone from third-string quarterback to the starter in the span of one season. Last year, Winston sat on the sidelines behind the now retired legend Drew Brees, and current backup quarterback Taysom Hill. 

It appears as though Winston learned a thing or two, because he came out this offseason and stole the starting quarterback job from Hill. “Famous Jameis” secured the job in week two of the preseason on national TV in a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Winston completed nine of ten passes for 123 yards and two touchdown passes, and earned a whopping 157.5 passer rating. A perfect passer rating is 158.3, a difference of just 0.8 points.

Hill will still likely be used in his “swiss army knife” role for the Saints, but as the Drew Brees era ends, a new era begins in The Big Easy: the career revival of Jameis Winston.

Broncos (Drew Lock vs. Teddy Bridgewater): Perhaps one of the more surprising quarterback decisions was Broncos head coach Vic Fangio’s decision to start Teddy Bridgewater over Drew Lock. This decision was a safe choice, as Bridgewater did a great job in the preseason of taking care of the football, while also producing scoring drives. However, Lock played well too, showing an explosiveness that Bridgewater hasn’t shown since before his knee injury back in 2016.

 Lock is what people in the NFL world call a “low-floor, high-ceiling” player, or a player who doesn’t produce consistently on a week to week basis, but has shown flashes of stardom and has sky-high potential. Bridgewater is the opposite, a “high-floor, low ceiling” player, or a player who is a very safe and reliable choice, but is unlikely to go above and beyond expectations. 

The Broncos have a very talented roster, one that can possibly make a wild card playoff spot in the AFC, but the difference between making and missing the playoffs for them could come down to quarterback play. 

The way Bridgewater can win football games for the Broncos this season is by thriving in “situational football.” These are third downs, two-minute and four-minute drills, and scoring touchdowns both in the red zone and on the goal line. “Situational football” can often be the difference between winning and losing, especially for fringe playoff teams like The Torch expects the Broncos to be this season. 

Time will tell if the Bridgewater experiment works out for the Broncos, but Lock is a very ready, and capable backup if it doesn’t.

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