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C.J. Stroud and Week 4's quarterback clarity
One month in, we're seeing the QB plans of some teams work out. Others... not so much. The Houston Texans blasted another AFC contender on Sunday.
The reflection sounded innocent enough when, in truth, it was loaded with the sort of wisdom typically found in the calloused and retired. Not 21-year-old quarterbacks who’ve played professionally all one month.
C.J. Stroud was fresh off shellacking the Pittsburgh Steelers, 30-6 . Which came one week after upsetting the Jacksonville Jaguars, 37-17.
The Houston Texans — a franchise that’s gone 4-12, 4-13, 3-13-1 the last three seasons — are suddenly teeming with hope. The reason is Stroud. Afterward, he correctly stated that the Texans don’t have any expectations and that they’re only concerned about attacking “one play, one thing” at a time.
Once the ball’s kicked off, everything changes. So, why stress?
“That’s how I live my life,” Stroud said. “Living where my feet are at. I’m working really hard to make that one thing happen. Doing my job because I trust my brother to do his. When you put in that work during practice, you expect success. But you only give yourself a chance. Nothing is set in stone in this league. So, it’s really hard. You only give yourself an opportunity to make the play. It’s up to you to go do it.”
Now, compare this state of Zen with what we saw in London on Sunday morning.
The Atlanta Falcons, conversely, have scored six and seven points the last two weeks. Desmond Ridder admitted he did a “terrible job” of taking care of the ball. His back-to-back interceptions were the difference. Give head coach Arthur Smith credit for doing everything in his power not to shake his QB’s confidence — he’s been a very, very loud source of support. The Falcons have been adamant since March that Ridder is their guy. We could take all of Lamar Jackson Trade Theories and shoot ‘em to the sun.
But even Smith admitted his offense (vis a vis, his quarterback) was pressing in the first half.
“When we don’t get going early and fast,” the QB said, “that’s when you feel the press.”
All offseason, NFL teams sold fan bases on their vision. Specifically, why you should believe in their quarterback plan. Big picture, I loved it. The death of quarterback groupthink is a beautiful thing. Nothing’s worse in sports media than mock drafts dropping in freakin’ September. We all lose a few more brain cells every time one of those graphics nudges its way onto our feed because this also feeds the assumption that the only way to build a winner is by chasing a white whale of an elite college prospect.
Sometimes, it works. Usually, it doesn’t. Now that we’re four weeks into the season, we’re starting to gain clarity on all bold paths taken.
The hard part for all coaches and GMs involved is balancing the present and the future on the fly.
Anybody can spend six months piecing together a detailed plan but, to paraphrase the epic Mike Tyson quote, it only takes six seconds to then get punched in the mouth.
How much should a rookie play in Year 1? Carolina, Houston and Indianapolis hit the gas without thinking twice. At what point do those teams gambling on mid-round picks — Atlanta, Washington — turn to the veteran backup? The name “Taylor Heinicke” was trending at one point Sunday morn. Sam Howell had the gutsiest drive of his young career. And nobody was blindsided worse than the New York Jets. After losing Aaron Rodgers, they’ve been unflinching in their support of Zach Wilson. Was Wilson’s performance Sunday night a glimmer of brighter days ahead or nothing but a franchise lost in the Sahara hallucinating an oasis of fresh water?
Starting first with the quarterback and the team we didn’t see coming.
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Rookie quarterbacks rarely ever appear so confident in their own skin. Public comments typically sound as if they’ve been meticulously brainstormed and poll-tested with handlers. Or maybe they’re trying too hard. Good luck finding a more likeable quarterback than Mitchell Trubisky. Ex-Bears personnel man Josh Lucas detailed what led Chicago to drafting Trubisky in 2017 on the Go Long Show, and I’ve sat down with Trubisky twice for features. Once before that draft; once into his second pro season. In retrospect, he might’ve been viewing this whole Face of the Franchise thing in the exact opposite fashion as Stroud. Right down to manually constructing a leadership style after reading “The Captain Class” by Sam Walker, an author who spent 11 years studying leadership on the best sports teams in the world. At one point, Trubisky flashed a screenshot on his phone from the book. It was the seven traits Walker found in the world’s best captains, starting with “extreme doggedness and focus in competition and ending with “ironclad emotional control.”
Added Trubisky: “Not once does it say, ‘I want this guy to cuss his teammates out’ or give a big halftime speech.”
The effort he poured into being the leader of this cursed Bears organization was admirable. But, perhaps, a pinch forced.
As Lucas explained, the pressure and the scrutiny became too much. He pressed.
Trubisky reappeared as the Steelers’ quarterback on Sunday when Kenny Pickett suffered a knee injury. There’s a coolness to Stroud’s play style (and disposition) that hints he won’t press whenever his own bad times inevitably strike. Honestly, this should’ve been the month that breaks Stroud’s spirit. He’s a rookie adjusting to NFL speed, and there was that concerning S2 score. He hails from Ohio State, a school notorious for its quarterback flops. By Week 2, he was already down to one starting offensive lineman. And, no, this Texans roster isn’t bursting with weaponry on the outside.
Yet, not only has Stroud gone 151 pass attempts without throwing an interception — he’s taking shots down the field. He has thrown for 1,212 yards with six touchdowns and a 100.6 passer rating. Against the Steelers, Stroud passed Andrew Luck (1,208) for the second-most passing yards in NFL history by a QB his first four games.
The 6-foot-3, 214-pounder casts a strong presence in the pocket with both a strong arm and enough athleticism to escape. His day began with a third-and-3, red-zone dash. He took off, found himself 1-on-1 with eight-year vet Elandon Roberts and slid underneath the linebacker to dive and nearly score. Shortly after, he connected with Nico Collins for a score off play-action. Offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik called an excellent game with Stroud’s quick release and quick decisions negating the threat of T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith off the edges.
Stroud did not resemble the product of a system. Leading 16-6 with a full quarter to play, Stroud closed out the win with a sequence of plays that’d be impressive from any quarterback at any age. First, he was flushed right and hit Collins on the run for 24 yards. On third and 11, his pocket caved and he didn’t bail. He stood tall and floated a 14-yarder to Collins, who effectively boxed out cornerback Levi Wallace. Slowik dialed up a halfback pass to increase the lead to 23-6. Then, Stroud stuck the dagger in Pittsburgh on third and 7 with less than 4 minutes to go. His pass on a flag route was placed perfectly over the shoulder of Collins, tightly covered by 13-year vet Patrick Peterson.
“For me,” Stroud said, “it’s just the beginning.”
Houston won’t be the Homecoming Game many teams expected.
We may be surprised by Stroud’s play. He is not.
We may be surprised that the Texans could compete for a playoff spot in 2023. They are not.
After coasting through seasons with David Culley and Lovie Smith, the Texans hired DeMeco Ryans and executed a whopper of a draft-day trade that we all should’ve taken as a sign that they want to win sooner rather than later. Stroud was the pick at No. 2 overall. And to move up to No. 3 overall for Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr., the Texans traded their No. 12 and No. 33 picks in ’23, as well as first- and third-rounders in ’24. No, the Texans aren’t counting on landing another top 5 pick.
The Texans, under Ryan, are adopting what Stroud labels a “killer mindset.”
The prospect of trying to block Watt and Highsmith — pass rushers who signed four-year deals worth $112M and $68M, respectively — may seem bleak for an injury-ravaged offensive line. There’s a blissful ignorance to this team. As if they don’t realize such a predicament should be an all-out crisis.
“That defense is a great defense,” Stroud said. “But when we’re rolling, we’re going to be hard to stop.”
Stroud hasn’t been sacked in two games and, now, his line gets healthier.
Second-round pick Juice Scruggs out of Penn State will make his debut soon.
Teams have ruined the confidence of rookie quarterbacks by playing them before they’re ready. Houston is showing us the upside of game reps. Stroud and Slowik are growing together — fast. A first-year playcaller ran circles around one of the league’s best defensive coaches of the last 15 years: Mike Tomlin. As backup Case Keenum has been saying: “He calls it, we ball it.”
Entering Luck territory as a rookie is nice, but Stroud sounded genuinely unsatisfied.
“I want to do more,” he said. “I want to be really great at this game. I want to put in the work every week. They’ll love you one week. They’ll hate you the next.”
Quietly, Stroud must be thrilled that he’s doing exactly what he did at Ohio State in the pros. That hasn’t been the case for the busts before him. But what seemed to enthuse Stroud more than anything is that his Texans are becoming the embodiment of a true team. Every coach, every quarterback harps on the need for sincere bonds throughout the roster. Whether it’s the 2021 Bengals or 2022 Jaguars, it’s easier to build those bonds when 99.9 percent of the country is counting you out. When you’re left to rot.
It’s early. Only Oct. 2. But Stroud had a good feeling back to draft day when he received “over 50, 60, 70 text messages” from people in the organization. Mostly teammates.
He wasn’t sure if the NFL would be anything like college. Because at Columbus, he said the Buckeyes built a true “brotherhood.” (Added Stroud: “I would put my head on the block for those guys. I would die for those guys.”) The fact that so many people kept telling Stroud how much they believed in him — before he even played a down — went a long way.
“They had confidence in me before I even had confidence in myself in this league,” Stroud said. “That was probably around the time that I knew we could be special. If you’re in the NFL, you’re probably a really good football player. But when you have guys buying in to do it for one another? That’s when it turns special. The energy we’re bringing every day to practice to pregame to halftime to postgame, we’re bringing that swag and that juice that DeMeco talks about. That Texan Way of football. We’re starting to show up. We don’t want anybody to think we’re good or bad — we don’t really care. We’re going to do what we do because we’re the Man in the Arena. We’re the ones doing the work. We’re the ones getting hit. We’re the ones playing. For us, we want to prove ourselves right more than prove other people wrong.”
His Ohio State teams didn’t establish that die-for-you chemistry overnight. It took time.
Stroud believes these Texans are finding it faster.
The Texans’ gamble to go all-in on the quarterback from the school that’s produced Dwayne Haskins, Cardale Jones, Terrelle Pryor, Troy Smith is paying off. He’s been more comfortable in the pocket these four games than Justin Fields has in 28. And he appears equally comfortable as the face of the team. Nothing’s forced. He’s himself. Stroud finished his presser by saying he wants to give Texans fans something to be proud of this season, wants them to walk around town with the same “swag” as the players.
“It’s just the beginning,” he said again. “We’re just getting started. Excited for the future.”
Next up for Game No. 5? A date with the Atlanta Falcons. You know, that team that Calais Campbell chose over the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars and Philadelphia Eagles amongst others.
A major reason why the 37-year-old, ring-chasing Campbell insists he would’ve taken less money to sign with the Falcons than play for four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers was the work ethic of the team’s new starting quarterback: Ridder.
Smith convinced him that they could produce on offense with this quarterback. The season’s far from over. Maybe they still can. The formula to build a machine that modern defenses aren’t equipped to stop could still work. Guard Chris Lindstrom is capable of mauling any defensive tackle in the sport. Bijan Robinson is obviously a special talent. But this Falcons offense has all of one touchdown in two games. The fourth-quarter flurry vs. Green Bay was fun, but every offense needs a semblance of a downfield passing game.
There’s a reason wide receiver Mack Hollins looked like he wanted to fight Ridder when the QB tried to high-five him.
This outburst was the result of Ridder under-throwing a wide-, wide-open Hollins. What should’ve been a 77-yard touchdown with 1:37 left in the first half was nearly Ridder’s third interception in as many drives. On the first pick — Darious Williams’ pick-six — Ridder said he didn’t get his eyes over quick enough. On the second, he tried finding tight end Kyle Pitts and Ridder’s eyes never moved. He stared down Pitts all the way, which allowed safety Andre Cisco to easily drive on the ball.
Taking care of the football was supposed to be his strength. As Campbell said, anything on top of this would be gravy.
Interceptions like these would be a lot easier to stomach if Ridder was an improvisational playmaker. That’s not the case, at least not in this scheme. The Falcons put their belief in the 2022 third-round pick because they envisioned him serving as more of a Rajon Rondo type. A distributing point guard.
Week 5 could serve as a moment of truth. Both head coach and GM are in Year 3. Owner Arthur Blank needs to see results this season — especially in a weakened NFC South, especially with a solid roster. Even in this loss to the Jaguars, the defense held Trevor Lawrence to one touchdown. On a busted coverage, no less. Travis Etienne mustered only 2.8 yards per carry. The Falcons are running the ball well. And did we mention Bijan?!
“If you start slow, that’s going to put yourself in some really pressure situations,” Smith said, “and you’re trying to overcome a lot.”
That’s true, but eventually your quarterback needs to win a game himself.
Atlanta doesn’t need to abandon its entire offensive philosophy but, my goodness, every offense needs to get something through the passing game. The team’s Top 10 picks, Pitts and Drake London, combined for 49 yards on five catches. I’m not ready to discount Ridder yet. His fourth quarter against the Packers was impressive. The trick may be coaches cutting him loose. Let him use his athleticism. And if Ridder endures another turnover avalanche against the Texans, the calls for Heinicke will be loud — extremely loud — inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
In the interest of preserving hope for 2023 (and his job), Smith should probably listen, too.
As for a few other quarterbacks on new teams…
Sam Howell, Washington: Drove the Commanders 64 yards in the final 1:43 of regulation — on the road — to tie the defending NFC Champs. Washington lost in OT but Howell bounced back from his four-interception, nine-sack disaster vs. Buffalo in a major way. Threw for 290 yards, ran for 40 and it’s worth watching that last drive in its entirety. Inside of a deafening stadium, Howell has complete command of the clock and the down and distance. He turns a third and 17 into a manageable fourth and 2. As the play-by-play man begs Howell to speed it up, he calmly delivers a strike to Terry McLaurin down to Philly’s 10 with five seconds left. And he capped the drive off with a TD to Jahan Dotson. Both teams are 2-2 but, so far, Washington is seeing everything in Howell that Atlanta wishes it was seeing in Ridder.
Baker Mayfield, Tampa Bay: You heard Dave Canales’ plan of attack. Baker Mayfield is bringing it to life through the Bucs’ 3-1 start. Even the most Anti-Baker of the bunch watching Tampa Bay’s 26-7 win in New Orleans would admit he looked like someone taken first overall in a draft. Mayfield was exceptional, completing 25 of 32 passes for 246 yards with three touchdowns. Canales wants to build his passing game off of the play-action, and that’s always been Mayfield’s strength: Turning his back to the defense… quickly snapped around… delivering an accurate ball. Mayfield also gives the Bucs an element of movement they lacked with Tom Brady. On the first TD, defensive end Cam Jordan has the QB all alone, and Mayfield quickly scooted up into the pocket to find tight end Cade Otten. There’s no wasted motion on his play fakes, too. Everything was purposeful and decisive against the Saints. The OC worked his magic with Geno Smith. So far, so good with another reclamation project.
Bryce Young, Carolina: It’s been ugly. Really ugly. And while it’s insanely early to make any declarations about this 2023 draft class, how could the Panthers not wonder if they should’ve taken Stroud No. 1? They’re doing Young zero favors, obviously. His offensive line is caving. His running game is MIA. The Panthers needed to trade away D.J. Moore to get him, thus don’t have wide receivers capable of getting separation. No, the sprained ankle cannot help matters. Still, it’s been an uninspiring start to Young’s career. He looked small and played small against a Vikings defense that’s been one of the worst in the NFL. The scouts in Bob McGinn’s series mostly loved Young’s moxie and calm under duress. Thus far, however, one scout’s perspective has proven most true. Russell Wilson was short, but he wasn’t this thin: “It’s hard for me to live with that size. … This kid’s got enough arm but he’s not as well built as you’d like. He looks like a high-school kid.”
Anthony Richardson, Indianapolis: The Colts decided the best way for this raw project to learn was by playing. Not sitting. Essentially, the opposite of what the Packers have done with Jordan Love. We’ll see if this helps or hinders long term. Richardson is the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to rush for a touchdown in each of his first three games. Man, he’s fun to watch. Richardson brought the Colts back from a 20-0 deficit in the third quarter to force OT, before falling to the Rams. He’s also inaccurate. Richardson threw more incomplete passes (14) than complete passes (11). The same sort of stuff we saw in Allen here in Western New York. What Richardson does next offseason will be almost as important as anything he does during this rookie season.
Utter domination of the NFL’s hottest offense? What a day for Sean McDermott’s defense. After surrendering two long scoring drives, the Buffalo Bills slammed the door on the Miami Dolphins with four straight three-and-outs. Accumulating four sacks and nine QB hits against an offense that’s been spitting the ball out faster than anyone in the league is a statement.
Where do the Bengals go from here? They chose to play Joe Burrow despite real concerns over his pulled calf. He re-injured the calf and Cincy has now started 1-3. Not good! Cincinnati got smacked around by the Tennessee Titans, 27-3, and Burrow again struggled to drive the ball downfield (5.5 yards per attempt). He can’t move nearly as well as he did in 2021 and 2022, so defenses are teeing off. As excellent beat reporter Paul Dehner Jr. noted, the Bengals are on pace to face 47 more blitzes than last season. Burrow is 2 of 22 on passes of 15+ yards. It appears he’s physically incapable of shaking a defender loose, resetting his feet and firing the ball downfield — his strength the last two seasons. The offense’s problems are exasperated by a defense that has regressed sharply. Cincy has already surrendered 35 “explosive” plays (Rushes of 10+ yards, receptions of 20+ yards) through four weeks. That’s tied with Denver for the most in the NFL. We’ll probably need to devote more space to figuring out how the Bengal turn this around.
Sunday may go down as a great day in Chicago Bears history. Not only did they successfully blow a 28-7 lead to the anemic Denver Broncos, but the Minnesota Vikings managed to back into a win over the Panthers. There’s a chance GM Ryan Poles holds the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks next season. Then again, we’re also talking about the Bears. All of this losing will likely poison Halas Hall beyond repair.
Arguably no defense was better through three weeks than Jim Schwartz’s Cleveland Browns unit, and all Lamar Jackson did in Week 4 was complete 15 of 19 for 186 yards with two touchdowns, no picks and another two touchdowns rushing. The Ravens are the team to beat in the AFC North.
Bill Belichick suffered the worst loss of his 29-year coaching career, a 38-3 drubbing in Dallas. His worst loss before this? When Sam Adams was rumbling to the end zone back in 2003. The Bills won that season opener, 31-0. Mac Jones turned the ball over three times and was benched. If you’ve got an idea to improve the Patriots’ offense, Belichick would probably like to hear it.