The last 6 years of NFL quarterback competitions
Seaside Joe 1156: What is reasonable to expect of a competition between Geno Smith and Drew Lock, based on how similar competitions have gone lately?
I’m not breaking any news when I say that the Seattle Seahawks are in a dire situation at quarterback. I also don’t want to spoil any hope that some of you may have for a future with Drew Lock or Geno Smith, though the latter of those two options becoming an above-average NFL starter seems unconscionable if we’re going off of the past 100 or so years of professional football.
Though I want to avoid words like “impossible” because the Hall of Fame career of Kurt Warner was once “impossible” too, we lack any historical comparisons that would show that sometimes QBs do get a deserving career back after turning 31. The only recent name that comes to mind is Josh McCown.
At 34, McCown had been shunned by the NFL several times (he spent his age 31 season in the United Football League—the Bears actually offered him an opportunity after he signed with the Hartford Colonials, but McCown said that it “didn’t sit well” with him if turned his back on the Colonials after giving them his word that he’d play for them) but when Chicago needed a starter for five games in 2012, he had 13 touchdowns and one interception in place of Jay Cutler.
McCown then made 22 starts over the next three seasons, splitting time with the Buccaneers and Browns, going 2-20 in those contests but putting up decent enough stats to get another opportunity in 2017, this time with the Jets…the year they officially parted with Geno Smith.
McCown, 38, entered a QB competition against Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty, one that he would win for obvious reasons. Then he had his best career season, ranking fourth in completion percentage at 67.3%, and his 94.5 passer rating was only a tick behind the 95.4 of Russell Wilson. McCown was back in a fight for the QB position in 2018 when the team drafted Sam Darnold, a job that he would not win, spelling the end of McCown’s run as an NFL starter.
And this is the best example of a late-career resurgence that I could think of over the last 20 years. Am I forgetting someone? Let me know in the comments.
For most teams in most years, when you have a “QB competition”, you probably have a young upstart option who everyone expects to take over eventually against an underwhelming veteran who’s highest compliment paid is that he’s a serviceable “bridge” to the future. In rare cases, like for example Kurt Warner vs Matt Leinart with the Cardinals in 2006 (a year earlier, Warner beat out McCown for the starting gig), the bridge turns out to be the future.
But when a team’s competition does not include the upstart, what the franchise is really saying is, “We will only have a starting quarterback in title this year.”
The Seahawks have been on a collision course with that sort of situation ever since the March 8th trade of Russell Wilson to the Broncos. Drafting a quarterback early was never a serious option. Entertaining a partnership with Deshaun Watson, Baker Mayfield or Matt Ryan seemed just as unlikely for a number of reasons, including that it’s not really the “Pete Carroll way”, the 2023 draft is overloaded with talent, and Seattle has to improve the rest of the roster before adding in the most important player to the franchise.
As Bleacher Report’s Sean Tomlinson wrote in 2016, the last time the Seahawks had a quarterback competition, they uncovered a gem:
Please recall it was only a few years ago when a certain Seattle Seahawks quarterback—who’s appeared in two Super Bowls—had to secure his starting job against (big gulp) Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson. We can laugh now at the mere thought of Russell Wilson having to hold off Flynn. So please also recall that Wilson was a third-round rookie, and Seattle had just given Flynn $10 million guaranteed. It was Flynn's job to lose, and he did just that.
Wilson’s growth since 2012 is just one example of how quarterback decisions made during training camp can either shape a franchise’s upward trajectory or lead to a job search for coaches and members of the front office.
But prior to 2012, the Seahawks had to have quarterback competitions in 2010 and 2011, neither of which would foretell the story of how Seattle won its first Super Bowl. At least, not directly.
The following is a recent history of quarterback competitions, the end result of which will show you that even if the job is “won” in August or September, the end of the season often tells a much different story anyway. More often than not, these competitions are only the precursors to more competitions.
Washington Football - Ryan Fitzpatrick vs Taylor Heinicke vs Kyle Allen
Most games started: Heinicke, 15
Team record: 7-10
Competitions are commonplace for Fitzpatrick and this was another one that he “won” out of training camp. But a hip injury suffered in Week 1 shelved him for the entire year. A full season of Heinicke compelled the team to trade for Carson Wentz, Fitzpatrick remains a free agent.
New England Patriots - Cam Newton vs Mac Jones
Most games started: Jones, 17
Team record: 10-7
There was some real hype around Newton being a “franchise” type of player for the Patriots when he joined in 2020, but the team released him after he lost a QB competition last season because in Newton’s own words: “I was going to be a distraction.” Jones’ rookie season success shouldn’t come as a surprise—however, New England can’t be certain yet that they have their true QBOTF. Newton remains a free agent.
Chicago Bears - Andy Dalton vs Justin Fields
Most games started: Fields, 10
Team record: 6-11
This is what I refer to as one of those “doomed” situations. As soon as former GM Ryan Pace traded up for Fields, Matt Nagy was doomed, Andy Dalton was doomed, and Chicago’s 2021 season was doomed. Pace was also doomed, it turned out. There weren’t many loud voices in football, whether that’s Twitter, fans, or the media, who were going to allow the Bears to run the 2021 season with Fields as the backup to Dalton. Nagy insisted all offseason that there was NO competition, that Dalton was the starter, but Chicago was clearly not good enough to compete for the NFC playoffs and so eventually his time would come to an end; six games into the season, it was time for Dalton to be benched. After the season, it was time for Nagy and Pace to be fired.
Fields will now be playing for head coach Matt Eberflus and offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, while Dalton signed with the Saints and could be entering a competition against Jameis Winston.
Denver Broncos - Teddy Bridgewater vs Drew Lock
Most games started: Bridgewater, 14
Team record: 7-10
It seemed most were hoping, if not expecting Lock to beat out Bridgewater for the gig, but that didn’t happen. It does seem as though former head coach Vic Fangio may have not been a fan of Lock and certainly that will hold back anyone from starting. But losing a competition to Teddy Bridgewater is never a good sign. Denver started 3-0 last season—however that was against the Giants, Jaguars, and Jets. Bridgewater started the first 14 games, then Lock the final three. Bridgewater signed with the Dolphins and he could find himself starting over Tua Tagovailoa eventually because sometimes there aren’t necessarily “competitions” but there are plenty of incumbents sitting on the hot seat. Fangio was fired after the season.
New Orleans Saints - Jameis Winston vs Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian
Most games started: Winston, 7
Team record: 9-8
The actual competition to replace Drew Brees was between Winston and Hill, but Siemian ended up starting four games (0-4) by season’s end. Hill made five starts as a QB (4-1), after Winston (5-2) went on IR with a torn ACL. The signing of Dalton effectively ends Hill’s run as a quarterback. Winston is in another fight for his job as the starter—he also lost a competition to Fitzpatrick in Tampa Bay four years ago. You’ll notice that many of these names, including Lock and Geno, appear multiple times and that is actually not a good sign.
Last season also featured “competitions” with the Jaguars, Jets, and 49ers—but Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Jimmy Garoppolo were all but guaranteed to be the starters and it’s early to say if Lawrence, Wilson, and Trey Lance have long-term NFL careers… or long-term NFL competitions.
Chicago Bears - Mitchell Trubisky vs Nick Foles
Most games started: Trubisky, 9
Team record: 9-8 (playoffs)
It’s not great if your team has competitions at the position year after year. Trubisky “won” this job but Foles entered a Week 3 game against the Falcons and threw 3 touchdowns to lead Chicago to a victory. He started the next seven games—then Trubisky returned to action after four straight Bears losses. Foles spent 2021 as third string, and is now a free agent. Trubisky spent last season as a backup in Buffalo and is entering a QB competition against Kenny Pickett in Pittsburgh.
Washington Football - Alex Smith vs Dwayne Haskins
Most games started: Smith/Haskins, 6 each
Team record: 7-10 (playoffs)
Haskins won the job but went 1-5 as a starter. Smith went 5-1 when he returned from that devastating knee injury, but was not the same player as before. Kyle Allen started four games and went 1-3. Then out of nowhere, Heinicke started the wild card game against the Bucs and put up a fight—the score was 28-23 late in the fourth quarter.
Miami Dolphins - Ryan Fitzpatrick vs Tua Tagovailoa vs Josh Rosen
Most games started: Tua, 9
Team record: 10-7
Fitzpatrick was in one of those “doomed” situations with Tua—it was inevitable that Brian Flores was going to give into pressure if the record suffered, and the Dolphins started 1-3 that season. Then Fitzpatrick led Miami to a blowout win over the 49ers, and a 24-0 shutout of the Jets, only to have Flores confoundingly bench Fitzpatrick despite the odd timing of the switch. Perhaps pressure from ownership is what caused the decision to be made at that time, which again, is why I say some of these teams were doomed once the draft decisions were made. Flores, as it turned out, was also doomed.
If the Seahawks had drafted a QB at nine, Lock and Geno were doomed. That’s mostly only concerning because there were no QBs in this draft who appeared to be capable of contributing at a high level in 2022 and that’s exactly what we saw during Tua’s stints as a rookie in 2020. It hurt the Dolphins to make that switch but they did it anyway. It may have hurt the Bears to switch to Fields, but they did it anyway. More than anything else though, we know that these teams were doomed the moment that the QB position came down to two or three players who were never going to be top-20 players that season and Seattle’s been staring down that barrel since March 8th.
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Miami Dolphins - Ryan Fitzpatrick vs Josh Rosen
Most games started: Fitzpatrick, 15
Team record: 5-11
Every time I hear sentiment along the lines of, “Oh my God, team needs to go get THIS GUY, because THIS GUY was recently drafted so high!” I think of Josh Rosen. An absolute zero at the NFL quarterback position, Rosen was traded for a second round pick in 2019 and people were still legitimately buying the remaining hype that he’d become a star—and at least would beat out Fitzpatrick. Rosen started three games (0-3) in 2019 and was waived at final cuts in 2020. He’s currently a 25-year-old free agent.
Baker Mayfield is better than Josh Rosen. But when people text me about him, “Hey what’cha think about Baker maybe starting for the Seahawks?” I just don’t care. I find the scenario flat out BORING. I would honestly rather have Baker Mayfield when he’s a 32-year-old career journeyman who most of the world has given up on over the current version that many people still believe in simply because the Cleveland Browns made another bad draft decision. I won’t disparage your opinion if you believe otherwise, but I can’t conjure up an ounce of enthusiasm for that move so I find the whole thing to be an annoyance since NFL media keeps popping off random “rumors” when the news gets too slow for them to handle.
Washington Football - Colt McCoy vs Case Keenum vs Dwayne Haskins
Most games started: Keenum, 8
Team record: 3-13
Really bad team and not a good landing spot for Haskins, the 15th overall pick in 2019. Keenum’s had an odd career, several teams have believed in him as a starter, and he’s since found another home with the Buffalo Bills. McCoy is playing for the Cardinals now because he finds no greater success than he does when facing the Seahawks. Head coach Jay Gruden was fired midseason.
New York Giants - Eli Manning and Daniel Jones
Most games started: Jones, 12
Team record: 4-12
This was “not” a competition, but Eli Manning was doomed to watch his career end from the sidelines once the team drafted Jones with the sixth overall pick. Jones went 3-9 as a starter and head coach Pat Shurmur was fired after two seasons.
Cleveland Browns - Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield
New York Jets - Josh McCown vs Teddy Bridgewater vs Sam Darnold
Buffalo Bills - Nathan Peterman vs Josh Allen vs A.J. McCarron
Arizona Cardinals - Sam Bradford and Josh Rosen
Baltimore Ravens - Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson
Every 2018 competition was essentially just a first round QB against a doomed veteran situation. Taylor beat out Mayfield, but Hue Jackson would make the switch once any injury opened the door. I think we all forgot that Bridgewater was on the Jets—he signed a one-year deal but was traded back to the Saints in late August after Todd Bowles had settled on Darnold as the starter.
Sean McDermott actually named Peterman as the 2018 starter, but he was replaced in the middle of Week 1 and never looked back—Allen missed some games with injury, however.
Bradford and Flacco were not really fighting for their jobs but the writing was on the wall. Of these five competitions, only McDermott and John Harbaugh still have their jobs; Cleveland is starting neither Taylor nor Mayfield; the Jets are starting neither McCown nor Darnold; the Cardinals are starting neither Bradford nor Rosen.
Houston Texans - Tom Savage vs Deshaun Watson
Chicago Bears - Mitchell Trubisky vs Mike Glennon
Patrick Mahomes was never in a competition with Alex Smith in Kansas City. Because the Chiefs were already a good team and Smith was a good starter, Mahomes didn’t make a start until Week 17.
Glennon and Savage were both doomed Week 1 starters.
New York Jets - Josh McCown vs Christian Hackenberg vs Bryce Petty
Most games started: McCown, 13
Team record: 5-11
As previously noted… It’s so odd that people were pushing for the Seahawks to draft a QB on day two and that some fans/media are actually treating this situation as if Seattle passed on the next Mahomes or Allen by doing so. What is the evidence to suggest that is even a possibility? Hackenberg was a player who had “all the tools in the world to be a great quarterback” and many did criticize several teams for passing on him in the 2017 draft despite him being…Christian Hackenberg.
There’s already talk in Tennessee about how Ryan Tannehill is not a good leader because he’s not interested in mentoring Malik Willis. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of any talk like this before over a third round pick—and that’s the exact situation that Seattle avoided by not picking Willis or Desmond Ridder in the third round.
Jacksonville Jaguars - Blake Bortles vs Chad Henne
Most games started: Bortles, 16
Team record: 10-6 (playoffs)
There actually wasn’t a competition until Bortles put up some awful tape in the preseason, so Doug Marrone opened things up. Bortles won the job and was fine, Jacksonville made it to the AFC Championship because of a great defense, and that’s what Pete Carroll is hoping for in 2022. Is the defense and run game good enough to overcome the imminent struggles at quarterback?
I would rather Seaside Joe readers and Seahawks fans be prepared to watch BAD play at quarterback—while rooting for the run game and defense and Michael Dickson—than give you any false hope for Drew Lock and Geno Smith. If Lock is one of the very few QBs in NFL history to become good after three seasons of being bad, so be it, but I think it’s a disservice to Lock and yourself to expect that much from him.
Denver Broncos - Trevor Siemian vs Paxton Lynch
Most games started: Siemian, 10
Team record: 5-11
Trevor Siemian won a job in 2017. That’s the feeling I’ll have if Geno Smith is starting in Week 1. Brock Osweiler ended up starting four games that year (0-4) and Lynch started two (0-2), so in actuality Siemian really was Denver’s best option. Head coach Vance Joseph was fired after the following season’s Keenum competition.
Cleveland Browns - DeShone Kizer vs Brock Osweiler vs Cody Kessler vs Kevin Hogan
Most games started: Kizer, 15
Team record: 0-16
Before he went 0-4 for the Broncos, Osweiler lost a QB competition to DeShone Kizer. No, that needs an exclamation point: Osweiler lost a QB competition to DeShone Kizer! Then went 0-4 that same year for a different team.
San Francisco 49ers - Blaine Gabbert vs Colin Kaepernick
Cleveland Browns - Robert Griffin III vs Josh McCown
Houston Texans - Brock Osweiler vs Brandon Weeden
Denver Broncos - Mark Sanchez vs Trevor Siemian plus Paxton Lynch
Los Angeles Rams - Case Keenum and Jared Goff
Philadelphia Eagles - Sam Bradford and Carson Wentz
I got tired of writing, but here are some more. I think you can draw your own conclusions from the list. Noticing all these same names again are we? Competitions do not spell good quarterbacks. Quite the opposite, unless your team did draft a fantastic quarterback prospect.
The Seahawks didn’t do that because there were no fantastic quarterback prospects this year. Pete’s accepted what he has and what he had the opportunity to obtain at the position. It’s not great—maybe it doesn’t have to be.