Separating fact from fiction on Week 1’s volatile QB performances

Week 1 was a polarizing three-day stretch for quarterbacks around the NFL, and that’s putting it nicely. While four quarterbacks posted a Total QBR of 75 or higher, paced by the unlikely Alex Smith, 14 posted figures at or below Russell Wilson’s 34.9 mark. One former Pro Bowler even posted a Total QBR under 1.0, a figure no starter dared to dip below last season. A whole bunch of passers will need to brush off some ugly performances.

In most cases, one week isn’t going to tell us very much of anything. Josh McCown should probably get used to the neighborhood in which his 31.1 QBR resides, but Tom Brady’s not posting a 34.3 QBR the rest of the way, even if that’s what he did in Week 1.

There are a few quarterbacks, though, who posted particularly notable Week 1 performances, both good and bad. Whether they were returning from injury or entering a year of great expectations, they made headlines hat might not match up with a deeper look at their performance. Let’s run through some of those passers and get a closer glance into what Week 1 really suggested about their season to come:

Andy Dalton was sacked five times and threw four interceptions in the Bengals’ shutout loss to the Ravens. Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

It’s difficult to do any worse than Dalton did on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens. He finished the day with an 0.6 Total QBR, the worst mark since Peyton Manning’s 5-for-20, four-pick start against the Chiefs in 2015 that cost the future Hall of Famer his starting job for the rest of the regular season. An 0.6 QBR is “Let’s see what Brock Osweiler can do” bad.

Dalton went 16-of-31 for 170 yards with four interceptions and a fumble in the 20-0 loss. If you don’t prefer QBR, his passer rating was 28.4, and his adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) was -1.0. The Bengals would have been about as effective taking a knee on Dalton’s 36 dropbacks on Sunday as they were actually trying to attempt forward passes. Dalton is not going to be this bad all season, but how much of what we saw Sunday was his fault?

The four interceptions stand out, and they’re hardly promising. One was a pass booted seemingly miles into the air by the helmet of Terrell Suggs, whom we’ll get to in a minute. It’s hard to pin that one on Dalton.

The other three are easier to pin on the Red Rifle, with two looking particularly amateurish. The first interception came on a pass tipped by inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor, who appeared to fool Dalton. Onwuasor sprinted toward the line for a play-action pass but recovered nicely. He took one step toward Joe Mixon in the flat, which was just enough for Dalton to think he had a throwing lane, but by the time he got the ball out, Onwuasor was standing between Dalton and A.J. Green. A tipped pass can go anywhere, but there just wasn’t a window for this throw.

Dalton’s interception in the red zone was even worse. The former TCU star identified a matchup he wanted to go to at the snap, seeing the 6-foot-2 Brandon LaFell working in the slot against 5-11 Ravens safety Lardarius Webb. The problem is that there just wasn’t enough space for LaFell to create any separation, and Dalton tried to force in a fade, even though LaFell was well-covered. Dalton stared down that side of the field for the entire play, so C.J. Mosley had no trouble undercutting the pass for an easy interception. It’s a terrible decision, the sort of mistake a coach would be furious at a rookie for making. It’s even worse to do on third down in the second quarter of a 3-0 game.

Dalton, a seventh-year quarterback, would later turn the ball over again on a third down in the red zone, as he held on to the ball too long and gave Suggs enough time to rush past Cedric Ogbuehi for a strip sack that Michael Pierce recovered. Again, this is a mistake you only typically see from inexperienced quarterbacks; either Dalton’s internal clock should be telling him the ball needs to get out or he needs to feel the pressure from Suggs and get to safety. In the worst case, he needs to tuck the ball, accept the sack and settle for three points.

Dalton won’t throw four picks again next week. My concern with the longtime Bengals starter, though, is that offensive line. Dalton has historically been among the quarterbacks most affected by pressure; since entering the league in 2011, he has posted the league’s worst Total QBR and fourth-worst passer rating when pressured by opposing defenses (among passers with at least 1,500 attempts).

During his breakout season in 2015, Dalton had a bevy of talented receivers, a group of playmakers the Bengals are hoping to re-create by selecting Mixon and John Ross in the 2017 draft. More importantly, Dalton had a great offensive line that made it through 78 of 80 total starts. Dalton blossomed in a quarterback-friendly scheme designed to get the ball out quickly and keep him away from pressure.

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The two best players on that line were left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Kevin Zeitler, who left in free agency this offseason. The Bengals anticipated their departure by using their first two picks in the 2015 draft on Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher. It hasn’t worked out. Ogbuehi was a mess at right tackle last season, and he was tormented by a 15-year veteran in Suggs on Sunday after moving to the left side. Suggs had two of Baltimore’s five sacks.

Fisher had a quieter day on the right side against a team that really has no secondary pass-rusher behind Suggs. Andre Smith, a starter in 2015 who was brought back to the Bengals to fill in as a possible right tackle, lost a training camp battle at guard to practice squad veteran Trey Hopkins; when Hopkins went down on Sunday with what appears to be a serious injury, the Bengals turned to T.J. Johnson ahead of Smith, which was telling. Smith was active but did not play

After one week, it looks like the line is every bit as bad as expected heading into the season. It’s hardly as if the Ravens have a great pass rush, and after this, the Bengals face the Texans and the Packers, who have multiple threats to rack up double-digit sacks in 2017. Four interceptions or not, the missing pass protection might be enough to torpedo Dalton and the Bengals.

Cam Newton completed only 56 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and one interception in Week 1. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Newton didn’t have much to do during Carolina’s 23-3 drubbing of the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, California. Making his return after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery and throwing just two passes during the preseason, Newton ran the ball only three times and dropped back 25 times. He completed 14 of those passes, generating 171 yards with two touchdowns and an interception on a throw into double coverage that was picked off by the otherwise-disastrous Jaquiski Tartt.

I wouldn’t be concerned about the interception, which was a reasonable shot to take from midfield with the 6-5 Kelvin Benjamin running against 6-2 Dontae Johnson. Tartt had to make an incredible play for the pick. Newton also had a slant nearly picked off by Reuben Foster, the sort of ill-advised throw Newton has been able to make in years past thanks to unreal velocity on his intermediate passes. As his shoulder strength returns, it’s likely Newton will be able to carve out those windows again.

More concerning were the throws Newton missed. He had Greg Olsen running wide open for a would-be touchdown but couldn’t see his tight end under pressure. Two plays later, Newton had Ed Dickson about as wide open as you can have a receiver in the end zone, and missed the backup tight end by 4 yards. The 2015 Cam Newton? The guy who won league MVP? He makes this throw in his sleep:

Newton was inconsistent throughout the day. His passes weren’t often in stride, although there were exceptions, like Benjamin’s lone reception. Newton didn’t quite have the sort of otherworldly zip he used to get on those slant and dig routes, but he was certainly functional, and he had no problem getting loft on that deep attempt to Benjamin. He was better during the second half, completing all six of his passes, but those throws traveled an average of just 6.3 yards in the air.

Inconsistent velocity on his passes is one thing, but Newton’s shoulder strength should continue to improve over the next few weeks. Even given the minor woes, what was really promising about this game was that Newton didn’t take a beating. He stayed down for a moment after scrambling to the sideline on a hit, but got up without any qualms. He had only those three meaningful carries, and he wasn’t sacked once across 25 dropbacks, taking just two hits in the process.

With Christian McCaffrey in the lineup, Newton’s average pass traveled just 8.4 yards in the air, way down from the 10.2 air yards he averaged per pass between 2015 and 2016. Shorter passes limit the amount of time opposing pass rushes have to tee off on him. We’ll have to see how Matt Kalil and company perform against better pass rushes later in the season, but with the Bills, Saints, Patriots and Lions on the way, Operation Protect Cam appears to be off to a successful start.

Jared Goff went 21-of-29 for 306 yards and a touchdown in his 2017 debut against the Colts. Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

After a horrifically bad rookie season, there was nowhere for Goff to go but up in 2017. The Rams doubled down with infrastructure to support their struggling 2016 first overall pick this offseason, trading for Sammy Watkins, signing Robert Woods and the aforementioned Whitworth in free agency, and hiring Washington wunderkind Sean McVay to take over as head coach.

The early returns are shockingly good. Goff had his best performance as a pro by a comfortable margin on Sunday, throwing for 306 yards and a touchdown as the Rams cruised to a 46-9 victory over a scarily hapless Indianapolis Colts team in the opener. The Los Angeles defense chipped in with 16 points and limited the Colts to just one drive lasting longer than five plays all game, and Goff held up his end of the bargain, posting a 61.6 Total QBR.

  • Houston made a quarterback change (again). Andy Dalton couldn’t stop throwing interceptions. The Jaguars and Rams looked … pretty awesome? Let’s just say the first week produced some unexpected outcomes.

  • The Bengals had plenty of things to worry about going into the season opener, but quarterback Andy Dalton wasn’t supposed to be one of them.

  • Carson Wentz was at the helm of a helter-skelter offense that clicked often enough to beat the Redskins, but left some questions about the future.

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Even before the Rams were comfortably in front, it was clear that McVay’s game plan was to make life easy for Goff. His first pass attempt was a straightforward run-pass option (RPO), with Goff reading a linebacker and dropping in a simple slant to Watkins for 13 yards. Given that Goff’s confidence appeared to be completely sapped by the end of last season, it’s not a surprise that McVay started him off with a quick pass.

As the game went on, McVay’s playcalling created easy completions for Goff. An end-around to Tavon Austin yielded a first down early, so the Rams faked the end-around later in the first half and Goff threw a screen to Todd Gurley for 23 yards.

Play-action was a huge differentiator for this Rams team. The running game wasn’t particularly effective, even during Los Angeles’ lightning-quick sprint to the lead in the first half, but that didn’t matter. In 2016, Goff posted a 65.0 passer rating and a 30.3 QBR on play-action passes, which was 41st in the league. On Sunday, though, Goff was 6-of-8 for 127 yards after those same play fakes, producing a 95.2 QBR. McVay used the play fakes to free up the intermediate level for Goff, who found comfortable throwing lanes and looked both comfortable in the pocket and decisive in where he wanted to put the football.

Naturally, Goff wasn’t perfect. Several times he dropped back on third-and-long and threw a pass to a covered, contested receiver nowhere near the sticks, although I wonder if that might have been McVay insisting that the league’s most-sacked quarterback get the ball out to avoid strip sacks. Goff whiffed on a third-and-3 throw to an open Cooper Kupp that ended the opening drive and forced the Rams to settle for a 49-yard field goal. Kupp would later be forced to make a circus catch on a Goff overthrow despite being wide open on a corner route, although Goff would make up for it by throwing his prettiest pass of the day to a streaking Kupp for an 18-yard score.

It’s virtually impossible to evaluate Goff outside of the context in which he played. The Rams led the entire way. They faced a lethargic, self-destructive Colts team missing its best players on offense (Andrew Luck) and defense (Vontae Davis). Indy’s offense went 0-for-11 on third and fourth downs. Coach Chuck Pagano couldn’t even get the opponent’s name right after the game. Adam Vinatieri missed an extra point. Adam Vinatieri!

At the same time, though, Goff faced a similarly dreadful 49ers team in Week 16 last season, and he didn’t look competent then. In a winnable game at home against the league’s 28th-ranked defense by DVOA, Goff went 11-of-24 for just 90 yards with a touchdown off a short field, two picks and four sacks.

This Goff is unquestionably better, even allowing for how awful the Colts looked. He also gets a relatively easy slate of defenses to start the year, given that the Rams will face Washington, the 49ers and the Cowboys during the first quarter of the season. It’s too early to say that Goff has turned things around and will deliver on the promise he held coming out of college, but this was the first time Goff looked like a viable professional quarterback in the NFL. That alone is progress.

Carson Wentz threw for 307 yards with two touchdowns and one interception against Washington. Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports

The most memorable moment to come out of Sunday’s games was the incredible touchdown pass Wentz threw to Nelson Agholor. You’ve seen it already, but Wentz’s ability to elude pressure from the pocket and escape to safety before finding and firing a strike to an open receiver downfield was positively Russell Wilson-esque. Everything from the footwork to the consistent vision looking downfield was textbook. You couldn’t ask for more out of Wentz than you got on that play.

Wentz’s numbers, by the end of the day, were pretty: He finished 26-of-39 for 307 yards with two touchdowns, although the second-year passer also threw in an interception, a lost fumble (of sorts) and a couple of passes which the announcing crew characterized as near-picks.

Indeed, a closer look at Wentz’s day wasn’t quite as rosy. All brilliance on that one play aside, Wentz was wildly inconsistent during Philadelphia’s 30-17 win in Washington, showing some of the same problems that frustrated Eagles fans during an up-and-down rookie campaign.

While Wentz turned the ball over twice, he’s not entirely at blame for the giveaways. The pick-six he threw to Ryan Kerrigan was tipped slightly by Stacy McGee at the line of scrimmage, and the lost “fumble” was a backward swing pass that Agholor couldn’t hold on to. Wentz deserves some of the blame for a throw that wasn’t easy for his oft-criticized receiver to bring in, but Agholor was only put under pressure to make the catch because Torrey Smith whiffed on his attempt to block Kendall Fuller and then basically stood up and watched as Washington recovered the fumble.

Smith was at fault there, but Wentz might have cost Smith one of the biggest games of his career. Multiple times, Smith got open for what might have been a long touchdown, but Wentz missed on his pass. Wentz’s first throw of the game was a play-action pass with a seven-step drop and a bomb to Smith, who ran by Josh Norman, but Wentz underthrew the pass and Norman nearly picked it off:

Later, in the fourth quarter, coach Doug Pederson went back to the well and got Smith matched up against Norman, who never really shadowed Alshon Jeffery across the field despite the pregame hype. Smith ran by Norman for what should have been a long touchdown, but this time, Wentz overthrew his new wideout by 2 yards.

In between, Wentz left another would-be touchdown on the field with a poor pass, this time to Agholor. Pederson brought Agholor in motion for a would-be jet sweep but then sent him back out from where he came after the snap on a wheel route for what should have been an easy score, given that Washington had essentially vacated that entire side of the field and pushed D.J. Swearinger up toward the line of scrimmage. Wentz’s pass was behind Agholor, who had to make a one-handed catch to bring the ball in and pick up a first down.

The Eagles were able to survive the mistakes because Wentz responded with special plays. He followed the first missed pass to Smith with that remarkable touchdown pass to Agholor. After missing Agholor in the red zone, Wentz would eventually throw a touchdown pass to LeGarrette Blount, which might have been the most miraculous and unlikely thing the former North Dakota State star did all day.

To be fair, there were plenty of things to like about Wentz’s performance on Sunday outside of those super throws. Wentz did a great job of handling pressure and free rushers, even beyond that magical pass to Agholor. He wasn’t drastically impacted by the absence of left tackle Jason Peters, who went down with a groin injury during the first half and gave way to Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Wentz was generally crisp on intermediate routes, hitting his receivers in stride. He was also effective over the middle, mostly finding Agholor and Zach Ertz, and showed few signs of being the quarterback who sailed a league-high seven interceptions between the hashmarks last season.

Wentz is still a work in progress. It will be great if he can perform his Wilson impression on a weekly basis, but it’s more plausible that Wentz won’t be spinning away from free rushers and firing 60-yard strikes from game to game. He’s going to have to take advantage of these windows and hit these big plays. The deep pass was the big concern about Wentz after his rookie season, given that the Eagles starter was 24th in QBR and 26th in passer rating on throws 16-plus yards downfield last year. The new receivers were supposed to solve those problems, but Wentz left two long scores to be had against Washington. Nobody hits 100 percent of those passes, but Wentz’s execution on big plays could be what determines whether the former second overall pick turns into a good quarterback or a superstar. – NFL