With the Detroit Lions on the board in the 2003 draft, analyst Jimmy Johnson, then with ESPN, made a case for Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington.
"They've got to go after the quarterback," he said. "Because if you don't have a winning quarterback, as I've said before, you're not going to win in the NFL."
The Lions took Harrington third overall, but they didn't find their winning quarterback. And it cost them dearly. They eventually cratered in 2008, becoming the first team since the 1976 Buccaneers to lose every game.
When selecting a quarterback at the top of the draft, it's a crapshoot. As Johnson's commentary illustrates, no one really knows. For every hit — Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Andrew Luck — you can cite a miss — Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch, Robert Griffin III (for now).
So it's understandable that the subtext to the Jameis Winston-Marcus Mariota debate last winter and spring was the specter of failure. The assumption was that only one would succeed. Drafts like 2004 — the Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger draft — don't come around all that often.
Winston's and Mariota's perceived weaknesses added to the tension. Much of the concern about Winston was related to his "character" and "off-the-field conduct," which is a tidy way of saying "he was accused of sexual assault as a student at Florida State" and "he was cited for stealing crab legs." As for Mariota, some called him a "system quarterback" at Oregon and questioned whether he was too nice and too quiet to lead an NFL offense.
Since the Bucs drafted him, Winston has been squeaky clean. The only off-field activities you've heard about have been charitable appearances and visits to hospitals and schools. Mariota, meanwhile, has shown in Tennessee that yelling and arm-waving aren't essential leadership qualities and that he can indeed take a snap from under center.
After one full season, the future is brighter than ever for both Winston and Mariota. Each flashed superstar potential, rewrote their respective franchise's record books and built strong cases for NFL offensive rookie of the year.
So, who had the better season? Before I give that away, let's review Winston's Week 17 performance. (Mariota did not play for the second straight week because of a right knee sprain.)
Winston vs. the Carolina Panthers
When the Panthers and Bucs first played back in Week 4, Winston was overmatched. In the 37-23 loss, he completed 26 of 43 passes and threw two touchdowns and four interceptions. Outside of the season-opening loss to the Titans, it was his worst performance of the season.
He was not much better Sunday, throwing two more interceptions, one of which effectively ended the game in the second quarter.
With the Bucs trailing 10-3 midway through the period, Winston tried to force a pass to Adam Humphries through the Panthers' Cover 3 defense. No one was open — not Donteea Dye down the left sideline and not Mike Evans down the right — but Humphries was blanketed. The Panthers had three players in the area — linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in front of the route and safety Tre Boston over the top.
Davis picked it off easily, and the Panthers scored a touchdown on their ensuing possession.
Dye might not have been Winston's first read, but it might have been the most favorable matchup as he was one-on-one with Charles Tillman, who didn't have safety help. Or, considering that it was first down, he could have thrown it away.
Winston's second interception resembled Josh Norman's Week 4 pick-six in which Carolina's coverage baited the rookie into a throw.
The Panthers initially showed a single-high safety look, but it was a disguise. Just before the snap, safety Roman Harper started retreating. Carolina switched to a Cover 2 zone with two safeties deep and four defenders underneath.
If it had been Cover 3, cornerback Robert McClain would have tracked Dye down the right sideline. But because he wasn't responsible for the deep route and because he kept his eyes on Winston, he anticipated the throw and jumped in front of tight end Cameron Brate, who slipped.
"I have to do better," Winston said. "I can't turn the ball over. This team, we're capable enough. We're capable. I just can't turn the ball over."
All game, Winston and the Bucs struggled to push the ball downfield. On passes targeted 10 or more yards down the field, he completed eight of 17 and threw one interception (this includes three passes that landed out of bounds, one of which was a potential touchdown pass intended for Evans). On passes targeted inside 10 yards, Winston completed 21 of 30.
Here's how Winston and Mariota compared over their final four games:
Plays of the season
**CRAZY PLAY ALERT** Watch this Jameis Winston fumble + run and try to figure out how he got 20 yards & a 1st down https://t.co/dbR4NeHEbH— NFL (@NFL) December 6, 2015
Because Winston played in all 16 games and Mariota played in 11 (technically, he played in 12, but his knee injury knocked him out of the Titans' Dec. 20 game against the New England Patriots early in the second quarter), Winston holds a significant lead in traditional counting statistics.
|Team record||Comp||Att||Comp %||Yards||Yards/att||Touchdowns||Interceptions||Sacks||4Q comebacks||GW drives|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
Beyond counting statistics, however, the difference between the two is almost infinitesimal.
I've tracked each quarterback's passer rating throughout the season, not because it's a valid measure of a player's value but because it's frequently cited and its flaws need to be considered. It's easy to calculate, but that doesn't mean it's trustworthy. In fact, I trust it about as much as I trust someone in a windowless van seeking help finding his lost puppy.
Quarterback rating takes into account five things: attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns and interceptions. All completions carry the same value, regardless of whether it's a 5-yard completion on third-and-5 or third-and-15. Down, distance, time, quality of opponent — none of that matters. For those reasons, I am not considering passer rating in my final evaluation.
With that said, Mariota finished with a 91.5 rating while Winston finished with an 84.2. If you include Mariota's six lost fumbles, his rating drops to 84.7.
Unlike conventional quarterback rating, ESPN's proprietary Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) considers situational factors such as down, distance and time. The formula, which rates quarterbacks on a 0-100 scale, also considers a player's contributions as a runner.
After Week 15, 0.2 points separated Winston and Mariota. The difference increased slightly after Week 16 to 0.4 points.
By QBR, Winston was the seventh-worst quarterback in Week 17. As a result, his overall rating dropped to 58.6, which ranked 21st in the league, one spot above Josh McCown (53.9). Mariota finished with a 61.0 QBR, which ranked 16th, between Matt Ryan (62.1) and Jay Cutler (60.7).
Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) metric, which measures a quarterback's value on a per play basis relative to the league average, favors Winston. Like QBR, DVOA considers situational factors, but unlike QBR, it also considers strength of opponent. A positive percentage indicates an above-average player and a negative percentage indicates a below-average player.
Mariota started the season in positive territory but has rated below-average since Week 5. He finished with a minus-13.2 percent DVOA, which ranks 28th out of 37 qualifying quarterbacks.
After a horrendous first four games, Winston had a minus-37.3 percent DVOA. As bad of a start as it was, it still represented an upgrade over Josh McCown's league-worst minus-41.9 percent DVOA in 2014. From Week 5 on, however, Winston climbed steadily toward league average.
Only 16 quarterbacks finished with a positive DVOA this season, and Winston (2.2 percent) was one of them, besting Aaron Rodgers (minus-0.5), Matt Ryan (minus-1.8) and Eli Manning (minus-1.9). That's right. According to DVOA, Jameis Winston was almost 3 percentage points better per play than Aaron Rodgers in 2015.
DVOA's cousin, VOA, which isn't adjusted for opponent, suggests that Winston played the more challenging schedule. Without the adjustment, Winston's value increases only 0.7 percentage points, while Mariota's value increases 6.8 percentage points.
Winston and Mariota's rookie seasons would be outstanding by themselves, but when you consider their shaky offensive lines and thin supporting casts (and for Mariota, a coaching change), they're especially remarkable.
Injuries absolutely ravaged the Bucs' receiving corps. Vincent Jackson, hobbled by knee injuries, played in his fewest games (10) since his holdout season in 2010. No. 3 receiver Louis Murphy was lost for the season when he suffered a torn ACL in the team's Week 7 loss to Washington. The tight end is supposed to be a rookie quarterback's best friend, but Winston was without his. Austin Seferian-Jenkins missed nine games.
Mariota's tight end, Delanie Walker, played in all but one of his starts. But Kendall Wright, his No. 2 target, played in only seven.
And then there are the drops … oh, so many drops. The Bucs dropped 5.1 percent of their passes, fourth-most in the NFL. The Titans were a little better, dropping just 4.2 percent.
The temptation is to pick them both, but the clickbaitey headline demands that I choose one. When you consider the injuries, the reliance on undrafted free agents, Pro Football Focus' lowest-graded offensive tackle tandem, my pick, after one season, is … Jameis Winston.
Going forward, his confidence, drive and competitiveness are indisputable strengths. But to continue his upward trajectory, he'll need to improve against the blitz. His 50.7 completion percentage against the blitz this season was the second-lowest (Sam Bradford, 50.6 percent).
Mariota, on the other hand, handled blitzes well, completing 61.9 percent of his passes, 10th-highest. Overall, he's an efficient passer on short and intermediate throws but has trouble on deeper throws. His 20.4 accuracy percentage (a Pro Football Focus formula that accounts for dropped passes, throwaways, spikes, batted passes and passes thrown while the quarterback is hit) on passes thrown 20 or more yards was the lowest in the league. The deep ball isn't everything, but the mere threat will keep defenses from cheating up next season.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at email@example.com. Follow @tometrics.