The 2014 NCAA football season was concluded with the first ever postseason tournament. It was simply dubbed the ‘College Football Playoff’.
The Ohio State Buckeyes ended up winning the inaugural event thanks to their electric running back Ezekiel Elliott. Most notably, the first ever playoff match-up pitted the Oregon Ducks against the Florida State Seminoles. Oregon entered the game with just one loss, while Florida State were 13-0 and on the heels of collecting a second-consecutive National Championship. Additionally, both teams had Heisman Trophy winners under center who happened to go No. 1 and No. 2 overall in the following NFL Draft.
Mariota’s Ducks smoked Winston’s Seminoles in that game to the tune of 59-20. While Mariota and his team failed to capture the national title, there were no doubts over who the two best quarterbacks in the nation were. Just three months later, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans decided to make Winston and Mariota the faces of their respective franchises.
All things considered, Year 1 went fairly well for both QB’s. While neither player took home the Rookie of the Year award (Todd Gurley), Winston made the Pro Bowl and Mariota recorded the third-longest rush by a QB in NFL history (an 87-yard touchdown scamper). It was a strong campaign for the quarterbacks, and both teams were certainly pleased with their picks at the time.
Fast forward just two years later, and both Mariota and Winston find themselves on the hot seat.
Let’s start with Mariota, as his story is a bit less complicated. Injuries have plagued the passer for much of his career. The most significant ailment Mariota suffered came at the back-end of the 2016 season. On a Christmas Eve game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Mariota blew out his knee — forcing him to miss a majority of the summer. While he was healthy by Week 1 the following season, the 2017 version of Mariota was a far more tentative one. He didn’t trust his legs quite as much, and didn’t possess the same kind of zip on the ball he once showed. He ended the year with more interceptions than passing touchdowns.
On a team success front, the Titans have been mostly good when Mariota is in the lineup. Tennessee boasts a 17-13 record over the past two years with Mariota at the helm. This includes an impressive victory on the road in Kansas City during last year’s playoffs. Still, the Titans expect more out of their No. 2 pick. They were mostly let down last season.
Among the top 32 qualified quarterbacks, Mariota checked in at 27th in terms of passer rating in 2017. The only names behind him were Mitchell Trubisky (rookie), Trevor Siemian (backup), Brett Hundley (backup), C.J. Beathard (backup), and DeShone Kizer (rookie). This exactly the company you want your franchise QB to be surrounded by.
Some of Mariota’s woes can be attributed to scheme. The Titans have featured one of the more vanilla offenses league-wide during Mariota’s tenure. A strong commitment exists with inside runs and ball control. Tennessee also hasn’t had much in the way of quality receiving options over the past few seasons. Outside of Delanie Walker, Mariota has never had a target on the outside that he can fully depend on. The Titans attempted to rectify that by selecting Western Michigan wide-out Corey Davis with the No. 5 overall pick in 2017. However, the early results haven’t been promising.
Winston, on the other hand, could be in serious trouble of losing his job. The turnover-prone QB is as likely to lead the league in interceptions as any player in the league. In just 45 career games, Winston has tossed 44 picks whilst also losing 15 fumbles. That adds up to 59 turnovers in his first three years in the league. For comparison’s sake, Aaron Rodgers played all 48 possible games from 2014-2016, and turned the ball over less than half as many times (28) in a similar span.
It’s easy to go on and on about Winston’s on-the-field woes, his turnover propensity, his poor judgement near the end zone, as well as his lack of touch. However, the most troubling aspect of the Bucs’ QB is how he’s conducted himself off the field. Dating back to his college career, Winston was suspended for vulgar comments made in a university cafeteria. That same year, Winston was cited for shoplifting crab legs from a Tallahassee market.
Even more worrisome have been the sexual assault allegations launched at Winston. He’ll be serving a three-game suspension to start the upcoming season for an incident in 2016 (in which he allegedly groped an Uber driver). This isn’t the first time Winston has been accused of sexual assault. A case that dates back to 2012 involving Winston was eventually dropped — though his accuser was paid out six-figures by the university in an ensuing lawsuit.
It’s easier for coaches and front offices to control stuff on the field rather than off of it. Teams don’t want unpredictability out of their quarterback. Winston’s shaky play and impending suspension makes him arguably the most erratic gunslinger in the entire NFL.
There’s still some time for both guys to turn it around. Mariota has been usually excellent at taking care of the ball, and is still one of the more athletic QB’s in all of football. New head coach Mike Vrabel will inject some life into that franchise, and hopefully open up the playbook some. Winston started off his career with two straight 4,000-yard seasons, and possesses an absolute rifle for an arm. He also has a flair for the dramatic, and is one of the winningest QB’s in college football history.
Mariota’s and Winston’s stories have yet to reach their conclusions. With that said, another disappointing year from either of them will be detrimental to their careers moving forward.
Sources: Joe Robbins/GETTY Images