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Rating 16 NFL teams’ QB crisis levels after an injury-laden Week 8: Sando’s Pick Six

Cover 7 | Monday A daily NFL destination that provides in-depth analysis of football’s biggest stories. Each Monday, Mike Sando breaks down the six most impactful takeaways from the week.

An already precarious set of circumstances at the quarterback position devolved into chaos in NFL Week 8.

Kirk Cousins’ torn Achilles tendon ended one of his most impressive seasons nine games before he was eligible for free agency, throwing into uncertainty his and the Minnesota Vikings’ future. Injuries knocked out the Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Kenny Pickett and the New York Giants’ Tyrod Taylor. The Atlanta Falcons seemed to bench Desmond Ridder, only to suggest that wasn’t the case.

Throw in a long list of existing conundrums — from Justin Fields in Chicago to Deshaun Watson in Cleveland to Russell Wilson in Denver to Kyler Murray in Arizona — and we need a “QB Crisis Index” to sort through it all.

The Pick Six column begins there. We’ll sort through the most chaotic QB situations before diving into the full menu:

QB Crisis Index: Chaos proliferates
Trade deadline looms, but how large?
Bills can’t fill this need by trade
Ravens’ 17-game defensive turnaround
Name a street after Sean Payton
Two-minute drill: Two Giants thoughts

1. Kirk Cousins’ career-altering torn Achilles tendon headlined a rough day for quarterbacks. Let’s sort through the carnage.

Before we get to Cousins and the others, a few qualifiers:

The Tennessee Titans get a one-week (and possibly longer) exemption after Will Levis’ productive starting debut. I’m leaving off the Washington Commanders’ Sam Howell as well — not only because he passed for 397 yards and four touchdowns against Philadelphia in Week 8, but because the organization has so many things to figure out after this season, let alone the fate of a second-year quarterback outperforming a fifth-round pedigree.

Also exempt here: Baltimore, Buffalo, Carolina, Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Jacksonville, Kansas City, the Los Angeles Chargers, Miami, Philadelphia, Seattle and Tampa Bay.

The Injury Ward

Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings: Just a few days ago, we were contemplating Cousins’ spot in the free-agent market following what was shaping up as one of his best seasons. Then, in a single step, the kind Cousins has taken thousands of times without incident, his season was over, his professional future less certain.

The Vikings in the recent past prioritized extricating themselves from Cousins’ contract. In doing so, they waived their right to use the franchise tag on him after the season. There will be time to figure out where Cousins fits in all of this, but the injury clears the way for the organization to do what it has seemingly wanted to do: consider lower-priced, higher-upside alternatives.

Cousins’ injury could push the Vikings higher in the NFL draft order, but at 4-4 after beating Green Bay on Sunday, they could finish just out of the running for the top quarterbacks.

“It’s interesting because now you have to evaluate Cousins coming back from injury vs. the field of veterans, which so rarely works, vs. the draft, which is totally speculative,” an exec from another team said. “The quarterback doesn’t put you over the top unless you get one of the five you almost never get. It’s your job to build the winning team around him. Think of it this way: Switch Cousins onto that (2012) Baltimore team. Do they win the four (playoff) games like they did with Flacco? I think they do.”

Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams: Stafford has kept the Rams competitive during a transition year, but the question was always going to be whether he could hold up physically. The absurdity of Stafford injuring the thumb on his throwing hand while laying out for a two-point conversion catch on a Philly Special against Dallas is difficult to grasp.

Stafford kept playing after banging the thumb on a helmet earlier in the game. It’s concerning that team doctors prevented him from continuing after what appeared to be a rather benign play. Stafford has played through so many hard hits over the years.

Aaron Rodgers, New York Jets: This situation feels much less stressful after three consecutive victories have pushed the Jets to 4-3. Rodgers already knows the team will wait for him to rehab from the torn Achilles he suffered in Week 1. That’s one big edge he holds over Cousins. In the meantime, the Jets have come to terms with their 2023 quarterback plight. They are riding with Zach Wilson, for better or worse.

Anthony Richardson, Indianapolis Colts: Season-ending surgery on a quarterback’s throwing shoulder is always concerning. Richardson could be ready for training camp, at least.

Injury/Contract/Performance Trifecta

Deshaun Watson, Cleveland Browns: Watson’s fully guaranteed $230 million contract carries a $46 million base salary next season. An 11-game suspension to start last season, followed by a shoulder injury that has limited Watson to five pass attempts since Week 3, has prevented the Browns from getting a return on investment. At this rate, the Browns could plausibly go two full seasons without Watson hitting any sort of stride.

Daniel Jones, New York Giants: The Giants have $81 million in fully guaranteed commitments earmarked for a quarterback who was struggling without sufficient support before suffering a neck injury. Backup Tyrod Taylor spent Sunday night in a hospital with damaged ribs. It’s a rough situation, especially with Jones’ neck injury reportedly still creating weakness in his left arm.

Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals: This situation feels more optimistic given how well the Cardinals’ offense has performed with Joshua Dobbs. Arizona ranks 21st in offensive EPA per play. That is up from 26th last season, when Murray started 11 games. The Cardinals could have Murray back in the lineup soon. It’ll be fun to see what offensive coordinator Drew Petzing can do with him, but the long-term contract situation remains problematic until Murray reestablishes himself.

Jimmy Garoppolo, Las Vegas Raiders: Garoppolo is back in the lineup against Detroit on Monday night, but he’s already missed games with two different injuries. The Raiders owe him $11.3 million in salary next year, which makes this contract far preferable to some others …

Contract/Performance Misalignment

Russell Wilson, Denver Broncos: Coach Sean Payton has taken the ball from Wilson’s hands, leaning on the running game and an improving defense. That will have to change for the Broncos to feel better about a $243 million contract extension that doesn’t kick in until 2024. The deal carries $124 million fully guaranteed. There’s a window after the season when Denver could plausibly escape, pushing some cap pain into the future. That is where I think this is headed unless Payton shows more confidence in Wilson as the season progresses.

Derek Carr, New Orleans Saints: A productive game against Indianapolis in Week 8 eases some of the tension. It’s still early in the relationship. Carr’s $30 million salary for 2024 is fully guaranteed.

Rookie Deal Dilemmas

Justin Fields, Chicago Bears: Every game Fields misses with a thumb injury deprives Chicago of an opportunity to evaluate him. That’s problematic heading toward an offseason deadline for exercising an expensive option on his 2025 salary. The Bears should be in position to draft another quarterback in 2024. That might be the best option, but the more games with Fields, the fuller an evaluation the team can make.

Jordan Love, Green Bay Packers: The Packers spent three seasons preparing Love for what has been a colossally disappointing season. Green Bay does have Love under contract for only $5.5 million in salary next season, reducing the stakes to some degree.

Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh Steelers: Pickett has departed four of 20 starts because of injury, including the Steelers’ 20-10 home defeat to Jacksonville on Sunday. His team’s offense ranks 28th in EPA per play.

Mac Jones, New England Patriots: Thirteen first downs and 218 yards of offense against the Dolphins on Sunday was not a particularly terrible day by 2023 Patriots standards. Daniel Jones’ situation with the Giants could be instructive. New York decided against exercising the fifth-year option on him, which expedited talks on a more expensive long-term deal after the quarterback exceeded expectations in his fourth season.

Desmond Ridder, Atlanta Falcons: Ridder did not return against Tennessee after getting checked for a concussion. Coach Arthur Smith said the decision was not performance-related, but he wasn’t particularly convincing. Whatever the case, Ridder has seven turnovers over his past two-plus games. The team has only a 2022 third-round pick invested in him. Hence, the lower placement here.

Brock Purdy, San Francisco 49ers: Purdy angst is peaking after three consecutive 49ers losses and two more interceptions from Purdy against Cincinnati on Sunday. A few weeks ago, when I suggested the red-hot Purdy might have more in common with Dak Prescott than Joe Montana, the point was simply that many within the NFL questioned his ability to throw effectively when forced into more difficult situations.

One of the quotes I did not include in that story seems a little prescient now.

“They are limited, and if they get stuck behind the sticks, they are in trouble, because of him,” the exec said before the losing streak, “but they never seem to get stuck there.”

Purdy has been less efficient in recent weeks, but he didn’t have all that many plays “behind the sticks,” so to speak. He averaged 11.8 yards per attempt with nine explosive pass completions (16-plus yards) against the Bengals. The bye week would seem to come at a good time.

Most of the teams listed above would love to have the 49ers’ problems.

2. As deals get done ahead of the trade deadline, we ask whether this is indeed “the most overrated thing in the NFL.”

The trade deadline is near! The exclamation point seems obligatory given how much fun we have discussing the possibilities each season.

The deadline spurs hope your favorite team will channel Howie Roseman, the always-active general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles, and pull off something to change the trajectory of the season. Except it doesn’t usually work that way, even for Trader Howie.

“I think the trade deadline is the most overrated thing in the NFL,” one team exec said. “The media spends a lot of time blowing hot air about this event that ultimately makes no impact whatsoever on any given season.”

That might be a little strong, but in the NFL, a giant distinction must be made between offseason trades and deals done at the deadline.

Roseman has indeed made a league-high eight October player acquisitions since 2017, including one this season for safety Kevin Byard. But when we look at those October deals as a whole, we see they do not even remotely resemble the meter-moving offseason trades Roseman has made while constructing a Super Bowl-caliber roster.

2017-23 Eagles October Acquisitions

Season Acquired Impact

2023

Kevin Byard

TBD

2022

Robert Quinn

2 snaps in SB

2021

Tay Gowan

2 Games Played

2021

Kary Vincent

2 Games Played

2019

Genard Avery

Starter in 2021

2019

Duke Riley

Special-teamer

2018

Golden Tate

8 Games Played

2017

Jay Ajayi

Super Bowl RB

This doesn’t mean the Eagles failed at the deadline. It just means they weren’t straining as hard at the deadline as the volume of moves would suggest. They weren’t trying to hit home runs in October. It’s their offseason acquisitions — Darius Slay one year, A.J. Brown another — that make a difference.

This is the way of the league, even as the average number of October player acquisitions has risen from 2.6 (2000-08) to 6.1 (2009-18) to 16.5 (2019-22).

“What you’ll find if you go through all these midseason trades is that very few make any kind of impact on their teams, and even fewer make an impact on the league,” the exec said.

Of the more than 80 October player acquisitions since 2017, we can count on one hand how many truly affected the league during the seasons in which they were acquired.

Von Miller helped put the Los Angeles Rams’ defense over the top in 2021. Jay Ajayi became a solid running back for the Eagles during their 2017 Super Bowl-winning season. The Rams got contributions for Dante Fowler during their 2018 Super Bowl season.

Christian McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers (2022) and Jalen Ramsey to the Rams (2019) were notable. The 49ers found a starting quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo (2017). The Seahawks found a starting safety Quandre Diggs (2019) and a starting left tackle in Duane Brown (2017). Amari Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys (2018) and Roquan Smith to the Baltimore Ravens (2022) certainly helped.

“Deadline trades can add to something that is already started and moving the right way,” another exec said, “but you don’t change your existing trajectory.”


How will the Bills, with the AFC up for grabs, manage ever-increasing pressure as the season progresses? (M. Anthony Nesmith / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

3. The Bills really do need reinforcements at the trade deadline, but the market cannot provide what they might need most. Only coach Sean McDermott can do that.

Injuries to all three levels of a once-dominant Buffalo defense make clear what the Bills could use as the trade deadline approaches. They could use a corner, a linebacker, perhaps a defensive tackle. That is the simple part of the evaluation.

A more existential question: Why does this team appear to be perpetually under stress? Nothing seems to come easy. The Bills often appear tight.

I think we’re going to find out over the remainder of this season and beyond whether the Bills’ very good, very successful head coach, Sean McDermott, is a great one. The intensity McDermott shows on the sideline and in general is part of his nature. It’s part of his success. Is it what the Bills need right now, as they try to cut back on the stress points? Does McDermott have another gear?

These thoughts came to mind while watching the third and fourth quarters end during the Bills’ 24-18 victory against Tampa Bay on Thursday night. When everyone expected Buffalo to let the third-quarter game clock expire, the Bills hurriedly snapped the ball and took a sack. The fourth quarter turned into a fire drill: a killer penalty, a ball bouncing off a helmet into Mike Evans’ grasp for a late Bucs touchdown, a Hail Mary that Tampa Bay had a shot at converting.

Just another week for the Bills. They entered the season set on showcasing a more circumspect Josh Allen, only to have him suffer four turnovers on national TV against the rival Jets. They had a home game moved to London, and when they got there, the Jacksonville Jaguars had already been there for two weeks. The Bills never had a chance, losing big.

Much has been written about some of the bigger-picture stressors in Buffalo. The final 13 seconds at Kansas City in the playoffs were rough. Team owner Kim Pegula’s debilitating heart attack and safety Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest fall into another category.

These would be difficult things for any coach to navigate.

“I just think that team has been through a lot,” an exec said. “They remind me of a team that won it twice and is trying to do it again, like they are barely hanging on.”

It’ll be fascinating to see McDermott, who counts Andy Reid among his mentors, lead his team from here. Only Kansas City, New Orleans and Baltimore have as many regular-season victories as Buffalo has since McDermott became the Bills’ coach in 2017.

“Some of these guys like Doug Pederson look relaxed in the games, going for it on fourth down, running Philly Special when their quarterback suggests it, and the team can play accordingly,” a veteran coach said. “You want them to play opportunistically and loose. Kansas City looks like they have fun. They are running ring-around-the-rosey. Buffalo does look like they play tight in some of the big situations.”

4. The Baltimore Ravens just played their 17th game with Roquan Smith at linebacker. Check out these splits.

Smith is not the only key addition Baltimore has made to its defense over the last year or so, but he was a big one.

Sunday’s 31-24 victory against Arizona marked Smith’s 17th game with the team, a good opportunity to compare the Ravens’ defensive performance in his first full “season” (17 games) to how Baltimore’s defense performed over an equal number of games previously.

Ravens Defense Before/After Roquan Smith

Ravens D Pre-Trade Post-Trade

Start Date

2021 Wk 11

2022 Wk 10

End Date

2022 Wk 09

2023 Wk 08

# Games

17

17

W-L

8-9

11-6

PPG Allowed

17th

1st

DEF EPA/Play

27th

1st

DEF Success %

24th

3rd

The defensive turnaround, from 27th to first in defensive EPA per play, has allowed the Ravens to improve their win-loss record even though the offensive production declined while Lamar Jackson was injured and even into this season.


A variety of pertinent stats show the positive impact Roquan Smith (0) has had on the Ravens. (Joe Camporeale / USA Today)

5. The Broncos finally defeated Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. Let’s name a street after Sean Payton right now.

Payton has won a Super Bowl, so a regular-season victory isn’t moving to the top of his career accomplishments, but the Broncos’ 24-9 victory against the Mahomes-led Chiefs was significant. It was Denver’s first in 13 tries when Mahomes was Kansas City’s quarterback. Denver hung with the Chiefs in Kansas City two weeks ago and won this time with a similarly conservative plan on offense. This time, the defense won the game, which would have seemed unfathomable not long ago.

The Broncos’ recent run of competitive play shows that a 70-20 defeat at Miami was the exception, not the rule. Denver was competitive in all its other games. Not necessarily good, but competitive. The season did not spiral out of control after the Miami debacle. Payton gets some credit for that during a season in which his actions have invited more criticism than at any point.

There was nothing conventional about this victory. Consider:

A Denver defense that allowed 10 touchdowns to the Miami Dolphins five weeks ago handed Kansas City its worst offensive EPA game of the Mahomes era, displacing from the top spot Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl masterpiece. Mahomes is now 29-4 against the AFC West.

This game marked the 68th time a Payton-coached team passed for at least three touchdowns, but the first time in those games his offense finished with negative EPA (minus-2.1). In other words, the Denver offense was a net negative statistically in a victory over Mahomes. How? Well…

The Broncos took over possession in plus territory five times, tied for their most drives starting on fields that short since at least 2000, per TruMedia. Russell Wilson’s three touchdown passes came on early downs and averaged seven yards in length, which is how they produced less combined EPA (5.4) than the six sacks he took subtracted (9.3) from the offensive equation.

6. Two-minute drill: Two Giants thoughts

The Jets’ 13-10 victory against the Giants in one of the worst offensive games imaginable — more punts (24) than points (23) — caught my attention on two levels.

Shortly before the half, the Jets ran out of bounds on second down, then threw incomplete on third down, leaving the Giants’ offense time to operate. Under normal circumstances, this might have counted as poor game management. But not in this game! For much of this game, the defenses wanted to play as many snaps as they could, because this was when their teams held the upper hand.

On a day when the Giants set a franchise low for net passing yards with minus-9, eclipsing by three yards the mark set in the 2021 game known for precipitating then-coach Joe Judge’s legendary rant, their kicking troubles stood out.

Graham Gano missed from 47 yards on fourth-and-1 in the second quarter before his attempt to extend a 10-7 lead late in regulation missed from 35.

This was notable because the Giants over the 2020-22 seasons were even better than the Justin Tucker-led Ravens in field-goal kicking, ranking No. 1 in field-goal EPA (63.1 over 50 games). Their kicker, Gano, added 1.3 points per game of value above expectation across those three seasons.

This wasn’t going to last forever, but no one knew when it would end. The Giants rank 32nd in field-goal EPA this season. It’s one small reason the 2023 team has scored 85 points, its lowest output through seven games since 1976.

The 47-yard miss against the Jets was especially costly because, on most days, fourth-and-1 from the 29-yard line is an attractive situation to go for it. The Giants missed more than a kick there. They missed whatever upside existed from that short-yardage situation. Which, on a day that saw the team reach new depths on offense, might not have been much, after all.

Will Levis tossing four touchdown passes, including a 33-yarder in the fourth quarter to put away the game, exceeded all expectations for the rookie making his first career start against a solid Falcons defense.

Marcus Mariota also had four scoring passes without an interception for Tennessee in his 2015 starting debut as the second player chosen in the draft that year.

Titans QBs Since 2000: First Starts

Yr QB TD-INT EPA/Pass Play Result

2015

Marcus Mariota

4-0

0.94

Beat TB

2023

Will Levis

4-0

0.13

Beat ATL

2003

Billy Volek

2-0

0.11

Beat BUF

2012

Jake Locker

1-1

0.04

Lost to NE

2014

Zach Mettenberger

2-1

-0.05

Lost to HOU

2022

Joshua Dobbs

1-1

-0.16

Lost to DAL

2010

Rusty Smith

0-3

-0.37

Lost to HOU

2006

Vince Young

1-2

-0.42

Lost to DAL

2005

Matt Mauck

0-1

-0.72

Lost to JAX

Levis carried no such expectations into Tennessee’s 28-23 victory Sunday. If anything, he was expected to struggle, which had to make the performance and victory even sweeter.

Seattle taking sole possession of first place in the NFC West also would have been a surprise not long ago. The Seahawks gutted out a 24-20 victory against Cleveland even though the Browns had P.J. Walker at quarterback.

A trip to Baltimore awaits Seattle next week. Facing rugged AFC North defenses generally is not ideal, especially for a team missing multiple starting offensive linemen, but it can be good experience for a young Seattle team finding its identity on both sides of the ball.

Despite shaky moments Sunday, including two more Geno Smith interceptions, Seattle’s offense became the first all season to manage the following against Cleveland’s defense: positive EPA overall, positive rush EPA and fewer than two sacks. That was with 41-year-old Jason Peters playing 24 snaps at right tackle, allowing one pressure on 18 pass-blocking snaps, per PFF. Peters last played in January, while with Dallas.

The Dolphins handled the Patriots 31-17, but this marks three consecutive weeks of relatively competitive play from the Patriots since their 34-0 and 38-3 defeats in Weeks 4-5. Before the game, Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel noted that New England teams typically improve over the course of a season under Bill Belichick. I wondered whether that was true in a post-Tom Brady world, and it’s generally the case, as the table below shows.

Patriots Trajectory

Season Game #1-6 Game #7-17

2020

2-4

5-5

2021

2-4

8-3

2022

3-3

5-6

2023

1-5

1-1

Totals

8-16 [.333]

19-15 [.559]

McDaniel became the fifth coach to sweep a regular-season series from New England with Belichick as the Patriots’ coach. McDermott did it in 2020 and 2022. McDaniels’ Miami predecessors, Brian Flores (2021) and Dave Wannstedt (2000), also did it, as did the Jets’ Al Groh (2000). Note that it’s been done six times, all either before or after Brady was the Patriots’ starting quarterback.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

What we learned in NFL Week 8: Feed Tyreek Hill and A.J. Brown; Jets in playoff hunt?

(Top photo: Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)


“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, is on sale now. Order it here.

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