Questions are swirling around Marcus Mariota's future. And they have nothing to do with his right knee.
Moments after the Philadelphia Eagles announced they had fired Chip Kelly on Tuesday, attention turned toward Mariota's employers, the Tennessee Titans. Unless the Titans decide to remove the interim tag from Mike Mularkey's job description, they'll be shopping for a head coach this offseason. Will Kelly head to Tennessee and reunite with Mariota, his quarterback at Oregon?
Kelly's high regard for Mariota is well-documented. And he's tried to orchestrate a reunion once before. At this April's draft, he tried to move up from No. 20 and bring Mariota to Philadelphia but said he found the Buccaneers' and Titans' asking price too steep. He denied an NFL Network report that the Eagles offered a package of two first-round picks, a third-round pick and multiple players, including quarterback Sam Bradford and defensive lineman Fletcher Cox.
"It's like driving into a nice neighborhood and looking at a house and saying, 'That's really nice,' and they tell you the price and you turn around and go the other way," he said. "So we didn't walk in the front door and take a look around."
Despite Kelly's two 10-win seasons, speculation that he would return for a prestigious college job — Southern Cal, Texas, LSU — never ceased. In the same way, speculation about a reunion with Mariota will continue until the Titans hire someone else or until he lands a job elsewhere.
As for Mariota's knee, the Titans have not yet decided whether their quarterback will play in the season finale against the Indianapolis Colts.
"His health is the No. 1 for us,'' Mularkey said Monday. "He's got such a great future ahead of him. He's got plenty of games, lots of games to go. We won't expose him at all if there is anything there."
Winston has taken a beating this season as well — the Bucs' and Titans' offensive lines have each allowed 100 hits, fifth-most in the NFL — but has avoided obvious injury. He'll take the field against the Carolina Panthers this Sunday with a chance to solidify his case for offensive rookie of the year. Becoming the first rookie in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in a season would be a difficult achievement to overlook.
In a 26-21 loss to the Chicago Bears Sunday, he didn't do much to help or hurt his rookie-of-the-year cause. He also found himself in several challenging pass situations.
The Bucs committed to Doug Martin and the run game, and when the Bears limited their gains, Winston saw numerous second-and-longs and third-and-longs. As identified in Monday's "Turning Point", seven of the Bucs' eight third downs were situations in which they needed to gain 8 or more yards.
On those third-and-longs, Winston completed two of five passes for 30 yards and scrambled for another 7 yards (center Joe Hawley botched a snap on the other third-and-long). Mike Evans broke up a potential interception on a third-and-15 at the start of the second quarter, but Winston was not as fortunate late in the third quarter when safety Harold Jones-Quartey picked off a red zone pass intended for Charles Sims.
"Thank God for Mike (Evans) making a great play, knocking that ball that I threw straight to the dude," Winston said after the game, "but it hurts our chances when we're trying to convert from third-and-15, third-and-20. We've been a great third down team for the year. These last three weeks we haven't converted on third down over 50 percent — we lost the last three games. I take full responsibility for that. We've got to convert, but we also can't hurt ourselves and put ourselves in those situations."
In the Bucs' first 12 games, they converted 42.9 percent of their third downs, the seventh-best percentage in the league. Over their past three games, they've converted just 31.0 percent, the sixth-worst percentage.
Overall on third down, Winston and Mariota have performed similarly.
|Comp %||Yds/att||TD||INT||First downs||QB rating|
|Winston (15 games)||55.2||6.9||8||7||55||74.9|
|Mariota (12 games)||56.9||7.6||4||4||41||78.0|
|NFL team average||59.4||7.4||6.5||4.3||57.6||83.2|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
One thing that jumps out on Winston's Week 16 pass chart: He threw six passes that traveled 30 or more yards through the air. He completed two, one to tight end Cameron Brate down the left sideline on a broken play and one to tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins on a hail mary at the end of the game.
And he came close to completing three more. On a second-and-12 midway through the third quarter, Evans had a step on cornerback Tracy Porter, but Porter knocked the slightly underthrown ball away.
On a second-and-9 early in the fourth quarter — the Bucs trailing 20-14 — Evans beat Porter again, but Winston's pass landed over Evans' outside shoulder rather than his inside shoulder. Evans couldn't adjust, and the ball grazed his fingertips.
On the next play, Winston targeted Donteea Dye, but again his throw hung in the air long enough that the cornerback could contest the catch.
"If I want to be good in this league I have to make those throws, and the good quarterbacks in the league make those throws and complete those throws," Winston said. "When you've got Mike Evans, and arguably one of the fastest guys on our team (Dye) wide open, you've got to put it in the bread basket and those have got to be touchdowns."
Passing charts (past four games)
Winston's 96.2 rating against the Bears doesn't seem bad at all. It fact, if you look at his rating and nothing else, you might guess that he played well and the Bucs won. After all, quarterbacks with a rating above the totally arbitrary cutoff point of 96 have won 73 percent of the time this season.
But passer rating has a number of flaws. It considers only five variables: attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns and interceptions. Down? Doesn't matter. Distance? Doesn't matter. Time remaining in the game? Doesn't matter.
Winston's 43-yard Hail Mary touchdown to Seferian-Jenkins was meaningless. It counted for only six points, and the Bucs needed 12. When he caught it, one second remained in the game — not enough time to try an onside kick, recover it and try one more Hail Mary.
Still, the completion had a substantial effect on Winston's quarterback rating. If the Bears had knocked down the pass, Winston's stat line of 14-of-29, 252 yards, one touchdown and one interception would have produced a rating of only 75.6 — more than 20 points lower than the rating he ended up with. That 75.6 is much more representative of his performance and in line with his 79.8 rating in Bucs' losses this season (he has a rating of 98.4 in wins).
While Winston's season-to-date rating increased from 85.4 to 86.1, he still trails Mariota by more than five points heading into the final game of the season. Even if he duplicates his season-best performance of 19-of-29, 246 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions against the Eagles, he won't catch Mariota, assuming the Titans hold him out. To have a chance, Winston would have to throw for 400 yards and six touchdowns.
Through 16 weeks, Mariota's 91.5 rating ranks fourth among quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 1980, while Winston's 86.1 rating ranks sixth, behind Matt Ryan (89.7) and ahead of Cam Newton (85.0).
Total Quarterback Rating (QBR)
Unlike conventional quarterback rating, ESPN's QBR accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and time. It rates quarterbacks on a 0-100 scale.
Against the Bears, Winston earned a 56.0 QBR, which dropped his overall rating from 60.8 to 60.6. In terms of QBR, he and Mariota (61.0) have had seasons similar to Phillip Rivers (61.7), Eli Manning (61.0), Jay Cutler (60.8), Matt Ryan (60.8) and Matthew Stafford (60.6).
Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA)
While Winston and Mariota are close in quarterback rating and QBR, there's a significant gap between the two in DVOA, a Football Outsiders metric that measures a quarterback's value on a per play basis relative to the league average. Like QBR, DVOA factors in down, distance and time. But unlike QBR, it also factors in strength of opponent. A positive percentage indicates an above-average player and a negative percentage indicates a below-average player.
For the first time since Week 12, Winston's DVOA reached positive territory and now sits at 0.7 percent. He ranks 17th, behind Cam Newton (2.2) and Aaron Rodgers (1.9) and ahead of Brock Osweiler (0.4) and Brian Hoyer (minus-0.4). Mariota ranks 27th with a DVOA of minus-14.7 percent.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at email@example.com. Follow @tometrics.