NFL 2023 Year in Review: The Unstable Quarterback Position in a Changing League

By Scott Kacsmar

When the NFL calendar turned to 2023, the league looked to be in decent shape when it came to the future of the quarterback position. While Tom Brady’s retirement (for real this time) was on the way, Championship Sunday featured young MVP candidates in Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, and Jalen Hurts.

The other quarterback that day was San Francisco rookie Brock Purdy, Mr. Irrelevant in the 2022 draft, and his unexpected stardom may have been the start of another Brady-like rise from a late-round pick. Fittingly, Purdy replaced an injured Jimmy Garoppolo, who was once thought to be Brady’s replacement in New England, and Purdy’s first NFL start was a 35-7 win over Brady’s Buccaneers. Was there a passing of the torch that day?

The stars were aligning, but after injuring his elbow on the opening drive of the NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia, Purdy’s bid to become the first rookie quarterback to start a Super Bowl ended.

Fortunately for the fans, Super Bowl 57 proved to be a classic with Mahomes and the Chiefs prevailing 38-35 over Hurts and the Eagles, the most points ever scored by a losing team in the big game. Mahomes finished his MVP year with a second Super Bowl MVP award, firmly establishing himself as the new face of the league and its best player at the most important position.

The offseason promised a lot of change at quarterback with no story bigger than Aaron Rodgers getting traded from Green Bay to the New York Jets. Almost half the league was preparing to start a quarterback who had fewer than 16 starts for their team going into 2023, and Rodgers was the headliner on the list.

That is why 2023 was going to be the year of uncertainty at quarterback. But through a series of significant injuries, underwhelming development of young players, and disappointing veteran play, 2023 has become the year of unstable quarterback play in the NFL.

We saw this starting in Week 1. The quarterback issues are the main reason why offensive yards per game are at a 15-year low, scoring may finish under 22 points per game in back-to-back years for the first time since 2007, and the sack rate (7.2%) is at its highest since 1998.

The MVP award, which usually goes to a quarterback, has been a mess of a race all year as no one has been able to consistently rise above the pack. Every candidate has major warts on their resume, and the leader changes drastically on a weekly basis. Even Brady has chimed in during his first year of retirement that he’s seeing a level of mediocrity in the NFL right now that he is not used to seeing.

As we look to turn the calendar to 2024 and a postseason that could produce something crazy, we wanted to look back on 2023 and what has led to this quarterback quagmire that the league is facing as it moves further away from its golden age of passers.

2023: The Year of Quarterback Injuries

For all the hype and analysis we did leading up to the season with the Jets and Aaron Rodgers, it lasted 4 snaps in the first game before he tore his Achilles. Just like that, the Jets’ season was effectively dead in the water.

Instead of seeing how a 40-year-old Rodgers would operate that offense, we have been stuck watching Zach Wilson, Tim Boyle, and Trevor Siemian struggle their way to 16 offensive touchdown drives in 15 games for the 6-9 Jets.

Hopefully, Rodgers can come back next year, and we get a glimpse of what could have been. That was the first and most shocking major quarterback injury of 2023, but it would be far from the last.

Joe Burrow’s season in Cincinnati began in doubt with a calf injury suffered at the start of training camp, and after struggling through a 1-3 start, he seemed to get on track. But a torn ligament in his wrist in Week 11 ended his season. We have since learned some interesting things about backup Jake Browning, but the Steelers appear to be his kryptonite, and the Bengals (8-7) are in danger of missing the playoffs.

Kirk Cousins was having one of his finest seasons in Minnesota and got the team back to 4-4 after a slow start. He was leading the NFL in touchdown passes (18) in Week 8 when he tore his Achilles against Green Bay, a bad year for that injury. Since then, we’ve seen the team go through a little Joshua Dobbs craze before he was benched for Nick Mullens, who moves the ball well but throws interceptions at an absurd rate. Cousins picked a bad year to suffer his first serious injury in the pros as this team easily makes the wild card with him, and he had a win over the 49ers in hand.

Justin Herbert also had his first major injury with a fractured finger in his throwing hand ending his season for the Chargers, who were disappointing with a 5-8 record. In the first game without Herbert, the Chargers embarrassed themselves and lost 63-21 to the Raiders, which led to the firing of coach Brandon Staley the next day. Since then, we have learned about backup Easton Stick, who has shown some promise in an impossible situation in Los Angeles.

Deshaun Watson has always been a controversial addition in Cleveland since the trade went down in 2022. He was disappointing again this season before a shoulder injury eventually ended his year. The Browns have started four quarterbacks in multiple games, but they are thriving behind 38-year-old Joe Flacco right now in what could be one of the wildest stories in NFL history.

Anthony Richardson was the first rookie casualty this season as he only lasted 4 games with the Colts before shutting it down for shoulder surgery. Richardson flashed some real potential, but it was troubling that he only managed to play 100% of the snaps in 1-of-4 games he started. He will have to learn to protect himself better going forward, but Shane Steichen is a Coach of the Year candidate for keeping the offense afloat with Gardner Minshew and other backups at various positions.

Daniel Jones was paid handsomely by the Giants this offseason ($40 million per year), but he was not living up to the deal to start this season before he tore his ACL in Week 6. The Giants were a laughingstock on offense and undrafted rookie Tommy DeVito had some better numbers than Jones before he was benched for Tyrod Taylor on Christmas. The Giants are in no man’s land at the quarterback position.

Kyler Murray tore his ACL last December in Arizona, but he missed the first 9 games this year to fully recover from it. Joshau Dobbs did what he could to hold the fort down in Murray’s absence. Since Murray returned, his numbers have been nothing special and the team is going to have a big decision to make in the 2024 draft.

In all, 59 unique quarterbacks have started games this year with two weeks to go. The record for the 32-team era is 68 quarterbacks in 2022, so we’ll see if this year can reach that. Hopefully we are done losing starters for the rest of the year, because seven primary starters going down to season-ending injuries is a ridiculously high number for one season.

Patrick Mahomes and the Cruel Summer Chiefs

For the past five seasons, the Kansas City Chiefs had the best quarterback and the best offense in the NFL. After what Patrick Mahomes did in the 2022 season, his magnum opus, it looked like anything was possible for this team:

  • Mahomes became the first quarterback to ever lead the league in passing yards (5,250) and win a Super Bowl in the same season.
  • Without Tyreek Hill, Mahomes led the Chiefs to the No. 1 offense, No. 1 seed (14-3 record), and he led the league in QBR (79.0) and touchdown passes (41).
  • Mahomes had a salary cap hit of 17% in 2022, the highest for a Super Bowl-winning quarterback since the cap was introduced in 1994.
  • Mahomes is the only quarterback to win a Super Bowl after his team allowed 25.0 points per game in the postseason, and he has done it twice now (2019 and 2022).

For Mahomes to do all that with a high-ankle sprain in the playoffs to boot, it was the finest achievement of his career so far.

But repeating as champions is tough. No one has done it since the 2003-04 Patriots, and it is starting to look like the 2023 Chiefs are going to come up short too. The problems for this team largely stem from the decisions they made in the offseason.

First, the decision to replace offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy with Matt Nagy has likely not helped matters, but Bieniemy’s presence also would likely not solve the problems this team is having in 2023.

We warned before the season that if Travis Kelce takes a step back as a 34-year-old tight end, the wide receiver room could be the worst in the league. Sure enough, Kelce has looked slower this year as he deals with injuries and massive publicity for his relationship with the most popular woman in the world, and we don’t mean his mother.

The Chiefs lead the league in dropped passes, and some were absolutely critical like the dropped touchdown against the Eagles and Kadarius Toney’s mistakes against Detroit in Week 1. They fumble too often as well, and the Chiefs have introduced us to offensive offsides as a trendy penalty of 2023. Toney was called for that against Buffalo, wiping out his go-ahead touchdown late in the game after a lateral from Kelce that could have been the play of the year.

Rashee Rice has been good as a rookie, but Toney, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Skyy Moore, and Justin Watson have been a major burden on Mahomes and this passing game. Not bringing back JuJu Smith-Schuster has hurt but probably not as much as Kelce not being as reliably dominant as he was in 2022.

The offensive line also has downgraded at tackle as the new veterans (Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor) take too many penalties, and they have folded in big moments throughout the season, leading to Mahomes throwing incompletions on 4th-and-forever to end a handful of losses.

After a 6-1 start thanks to an improved defense to ease some of the pressure on the offense, the Chiefs are on a 3-5 slide, and you can see the frustration mounting with Mahomes each week in ways we’ve never seen before. He turned the ball over on back-to-back plays for touchdowns against the Raiders on Christmas, a shocking sequence of events after the Chiefs got too cute with the play call again on a direct snap to Isiah Pacheco, who then tried to pitch it back to Mahomes before a fumble.

With all the talk of the Chiefs finally having to play a road playoff game this year, that assumes they win a wild card game at home. That does not look any better than a coin flip right now, and it could be worse depending on the opponent.

The Chiefs are playing a lot of bad football right now, but Mahomes is still in the top 7 in most quarterback statistics. But it is a down year for the position, and when you set such a high standard as he has, it looks worse when these are the results.

We’ll see if Mahomes and the Chiefs can turn it around for another run, but chances are, after an earlier playoff exit than usual, there will be a mass exodus of bad receivers and an influx of real talent at receiver in Kansas City. Maybe to the likes of which this league has not seen since the 2017 Rams or 2007 Patriots.

Finding someone who can line up properly and catch the ball when it hits them in the hands would be a good start.

System of a Putdown: How Brock Purdy and Tua Tagovailoa Are Changing the Discourse

For decades, the common quarterback arguments boiled down to someone with better stats vs. someone with more rings. Examples include Johnny Unitas vs. Bart Starr, Dan Marino vs. Joe Montana, Steve Young vs. Troy Aikman, and Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady.

If you were ever annoyed by those debates, get ready for something potentially more toxic for the next few years, especially if the Chiefs botch finding the next group of receivers for Mahomes to win within Kansas City.

This is a rare time where the top statistical quarterback is also the game’s biggest winner, but that is no longer the case in 2023 given what the Chiefs are doing. Instead, we have this situation where teams like the Dolphins and 49ers have elite offenses, potentially can earn No. 1 seeds and be Super Bowl favorites, so we end up entertaining the idea of Brock Purdy and Tua Tagovailoa as elite quarterbacks. The best of the best.

Throw in Tyreek Hill going from Kansas City to Miami to help elevate Tua and that offense and it creates a volatile debate involving system quarterbacks, the value of coaching, weapons, and things like screen passes, play-action passing, and YAC.

It could potentially inform the usual quarterback arguments with all the data out there, but when biased fans are involved and agendas are getting pushed, it could also create something way more toxic in this social media age.

This was already building last year but it was easier to ignore since Mahomes still led the league in several key categories without Hill and brought home the hardware for the top-ranked offense. But Purdy no doubt put up some crazy numbers for a rookie in San Francisco, and Tagovailoa led the NFL in several passing efficiency metrics in 2022. He just didn’t get full acknowledgment for it since he missed 4 games due to concussions.

This year, Tagovailoa has the Dolphins ranked No. 1 in points scored thanks in part to that 70-point game against Denver, the first time in NFL history an offense scored 10 touchdowns in one game, and he leads in passing yards and completion percentage.

Purdy is leading in a long list of passing efficiency metrics, including touchdown pass rate, QBR, passer rating, yards per attempt, yards per completion, and adjusted net yards per attempt. Basically, the statistical profile of the league MVP in most seasons, but people struggle to see Purdy as that guy because of the talent around him and coach Kyle Shanahan’s vaunted system that has proven to elevate numerous quarterbacks over the years, including Jimmy Garoppolo, who was benched in Vegas this year.

They struggle to see Tua that way too because we know from his first couple of seasons that it was a slow start in Miami for him. Enter Mike McDaniel, a Shanahan disciple, and the unique speed of Hill, and Tua went from an offense with no separation to the fastest offense in the league, if not in league history when you consider Jaylen Waddle and the additions in the backfield with Raheem Mostert and De’Von Achane. According to Next Gen Stats, there have been 18 plays this season where a ball carrier reached a top speed of at least 21.5 miles per hour and the Dolphins have recorded 8-of-18 plays, by far the most of any team.

These offenses thrive at producing yards after the catch (YAC). Purdy (6.9), Mahomes (6.3), and Tagovailoa (5.8) rank as the top three quarterbacks in YAC per completion in 2023. This has been commonplace for the 49ers and Chiefs in recent years, but the way they get to these YAC numbers can be very different.

The 49ers have some of the greatest YAC creators in NFL history in Deebo Samuel and George Kittle, who are so strong with the ball in their hands. They can be very hard to tackle right away, and Christian McCaffrey isn’t too shabby either as a receiving back. The Dolphins are more about pure speed, Tua getting the ball out quickly, and good luck to anyone keeping up with those receivers in the open field.

The Chiefs love a good screen game as an Andy Reid staple, but unless Travis Kelce shows some good wiggle after the catch, they really don’t have any speed demons or tackle breakers ever since Hill was traded to Miami. A lot of their big YAC plays need to be created by Mahomes extending plays and playing backyard football.

It is weird how the narrative around Purdy is about the screen passes when the 49ers do much more damage on schemed-opened deep shots using play-action passing. Purdy’s passer rating jumps nearly 45 points using play-action, and his yards per attempt on those plays is a staggering 10.9 yards per attempt. The Chiefs rarely use play-action this year despite it being effective for them.

Consistent, high-level play will always win out for identifying the best quarterbacks in the NFL. If Purdy is still averaging nearly 10.0 yards per pass a couple of seasons from now, it would be hard to deny he isn’t a great franchise quarterback. That’s an absurd number to average in this league no matter who your receivers are or how many play-action passes you throw. Purdy’s 9.7 yards per attempt is on track to be the highest in NFL history for a season with at least 400 pass attempts, beating out Matt Ryan’s 9.3 in 2016 for Atlanta. Who ran that 2016 Atlanta offense? Kyle Shanahan. You can see why the system argument persists.

But right now, the 49ers and Dolphins are putting unbelievable talent in great positions to succeed because their coaches are ahead of the curve offensively. It happened for years with the Chiefs too before defenses adjusted after seeing what happened in Super Bowl 55 against Tampa Bay, the game the Chiefs lost 31-9. That game basically created the shift in NFL defense today to playing two-deep safeties to take away deep shots and less frequent blitzing to make it harder on the smarter quarterbacks who can see the blitz coming and adjust.

This happens all the time in NFL history. A new offense takes the league by storm, defenses adjust, players get hurt, traded, sign for more money elsewhere, or meet up with Father Time, and you’re left trying to recapture those glory days.

These are glory days right now for the 49ers and Dolphins on offense. We’ll see how long they can make it last and what hardware they can get from it. But it won’t always be this good for Purdy and Tua.

Vets on the Move: Grass Isn’t Always Greener

Veteran quarterbacks are on the move more than ever these days. When they leave their team for another, that creates another opening, so we have seen some cases of musical chairs in recent years.

Teams likely got a little spoiled from the instant success of Tom Brady (2020 Buccaneers) and Matthew Stafford (2021 Rams) when they won a Super Bowl in their first season with their new team. It also is easier to do that in an NFC that is used to flashes in the pan.

A couple of AFC teams tried this in 2022 to disastrous results. Matt Ryan (Colts) and Russell Wilson (Broncos) switched conferences and despite playoff expectations, they bombed with some of the worst offensive numbers in the league in 2022.

Ryan slipped into quasi-retirement while Wilson returned to Denver in 2023 with Sean Payton as his new head coach. Payton has made some improvements to the offense, but things are still not working well, and the Broncos are likely to miss the playoffs after losing to the Patriots at home on Christmas Eve. Wilson is performing closer to Taysom Hill than he has Drew Brees in Payton’s offense. You have to wonder if Wilson has crushed his Hall of Fame chances with this trade from Seattle the way Donovan McNabb did when he left Philadelphia in 2010.

Geno Smith filled the void of Wilson in Seattle last year and made the Pro Bowl in a legitimately good year that resulted in a playoff appearance. Smith has not been quite as sharp this year, but he’s led some clutch drives and the Seahawks (8-7) have another shot at making the tournament. At the very least, Geno is 2-for-2 at outplaying Russ since the trade. Crazy league.

While vintage Russell Wilson looked like he was on a Hall of Fame path in Seattle, you have to say Smith’s performance has been very respectable in replacing him. It has definitely gone better than the other attempts to replace a Hall of Famer like what the Saints have done since 2021 after Drew Brees retired.

Derek Carr was supposed to be the answer this year in New Orleans, but he has rarely strung together good games. The offense struggled early in the season and now the defense is getting exposed when they play a good team. Despite an easy schedule, the Saints are only 7-8 and in danger of losing the division again to Tampa Bay, which has done a wonderful job of replacing Tom Brady with Baker Mayfield, who looks like the best quarterback in the NFC South.

Carr’s departure from Vegas led to Jimmy Garoppolo replacing him, which seemed like a possible upgrade given his experience in Josh McDaniels’ offense. But that experiment blew up in a hurry. The Raiders embarrassed themselves on a Monday night against the Lions, McDaniels was fired, and Garoppolo was benched for Aidan O’Connell, an unimpressive fourth-round rookie who just beat the Chiefs despite not completing a pass in the final three quarters of the game. The Raiders are going to need to find an upgrade at quarterback.

Just remember the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. The ultimate quarterback move this year was supposed to be Aaron Rodgers for the Jets, but the lack of an offensive line proved costly as we saw him run for his life on each of those few dropbacks in Week 1 against Buffalo. Even if Rodgers didn’t tear his Achilles, watching this line struggle to run block and protect, it may not have been a great offense anyway.

Speaking of without Rodgers, Jordan Love got his shot to replace him in Green Bay in his fourth season this year. There have been some very amusing numbers to come out of this like both quarterbacks having the exact same records and number of passing yards in so many games to start their careers. Love has picked things up recently and looks the part for the Packers, so they may luck out and continue this run of incredible quarterback lineage. But it is early.

Developmental Issues: The 2021 and 2022 Draft Classes

Every season seems to come with the caveat that “next year’s quarterback class is better” but what if there are two bad ones in a row?

The 2020 draft has pulled off the rare feat of having four hits (Burrow, Tua, Herbert, and Hurts), and Jordan Love hasn’t been too bad so far in Green Bay.  But the 2021 and 2022 draft classes have been underwhelming, to say the least, and NFL history shows that if a quarterback is going to work out as a franchise player, they often show it in their first or second season. Not many third-year bloomers, like Josh Allen in Buffalo, exist, and going four years or longer is even more unusual.

Trevor Lawrence may be the best example of why the 2021 draft is disappointing so far. He was considered one of the best prospects ever, had a bad rookie year under Urban Meyer, turned things around under Doug Pederson last year, then won a playoff game only after he fell into a 27-0 hole to the Chargers after he threw four early interceptions.

That game was shaky, but expectations were higher this year with Calvin Ridley joining the receiving corps. But the results just haven’t been there. Lawrence hasn’t made that leap, statistically, and the Jaguars are on a 4-game losing streak and in danger of blowing a division title. Injuries have been piling up for Lawrence too, and while he continues to never miss a start, he may want to consider taking a seat until he can stop turning the ball over and play better.

Still, at least Lawrence is playing and has a good game from time to time. The No. 2 (Zach Wilson) and No. 3 (Trey Lance) picks in that draft are proven busts at this point.

Justin Fields has developed a solid connection with D.J. Moore in Chicago this year, but the offense is still underwhelming. Fields threw 8 touchdowns against Denver and Washington earlier this year and has 7 touchdown passes in his other 9 games combined. Just goes to show what it’s like when you face a team that allowed 70 points in Miami and the No. 32 scoring defense from Washington. Fields has been less dynamic as a runner this year too, so the Bears may need to decide if they want to use their great draft capital to move on to a quarterback like USC’s Caleb Williams in the 2024 draft.

While Fields is 3-15 (.167) at game-winning drive opportunities in his career, the lowest active quarterback (min. 10 games) is also from the 2021 draft class.

Mac Jones is just 2-13 (.133) at game-winning drives in New England, and while it has not always been his fault there, he gives the team no edge in the close games they used to win with Brady at quarterback. Bill Belichick has benched Jones multiple times this year before finally going with Bailey Zappe as his starter, which has led to some upset wins in Pittsburgh and Denver. But quarterback play has been a huge culprit in holding the Patriots back, and they are likely going to have to move on with someone new in 2024. It also likely won’t be with Belichick coming back to coach them.

Kenny Pickett was the first quarterback drafted in 2022 with the No. 20 pick, which should have raised some red flags by itself. It is not controversial to think he never got drafted that high by Pittsburgh if he went to a different college than Pitt, but the Steelers believe in tradition and didn’t want to pass up hometown hero Dan Marino again as they did in 1983.

But Pickett is no Dan Marino. He’s closer to Dan McGwire of the Seahawks. While Pickett has received every excuse from the incompetence of fired offensive coordinator Matt Canada to the immaturity of his receivers, the fact is he doesn’t play aggressively and has the lowest passing touchdown rate (1.8%) in NFL history for anyone with at least 700 pass attempts.

When fans are chanting for third-string quarterback Mason Rudolph, you know you have issues. Pickett has also left 5-of-25 games injured in his career, so durability appears to be an issue. He’s led some clutch drives to win games, but the Steelers need a lot more production than this out of the quarterback position if they are ever going to stay competitive in the AFC with its deep quarterback pool. By competitive, we mean advancing in the playoffs. Not just finishing 9-8 to avoid a losing record.

Desmond Ridder was given his shot to go into this season as Atlanta’s No. 1 quarterback, but he has been benched multiple times for Taylor Henicke. Ridder has shown a little fourth-quarter moxie that sets him apart from Jones and Fields, but he also has committed some awful turnovers that cost his team games, including the interception in Carolina that was the last straw for him. We’ll see if Arthur Smith goes back to him, but we’re also not sure if Smith survives to return for 2024 himself. He has not used his offensive talent properly down there.

The 2022 draft is so amusing right now as Brock Purdy looks like the steal of the draft as the final pick, but what would we think of Sam Howell had he gone to the 49ers instead of the Commanders in the fifth round? Howell has flashed some ability this year, but that better be the case when he spent most of the year leading the league in pass attempts. Now he only leads in sacks taken (60) and interceptions thrown (17). Howell has been benched the last two weeks for Jacoby Brissett, who immediately moved the offense for multiple touchdowns. The Howell experiment may be over, but it was always risky to give an unheralded fifth-round pick the job like this to start a season.

C.J. Stroud: Houston’s Great Rookie Hope?

The early returns on the 2023 draft class look a little brighter, and that is mostly thanks to Houston sensation C.J. Stroud, the overwhelming favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Stroud did not come into the league with the hype of being able to run like Anthony Richardson, who was injured for the Colts. He didn’t have the improv skills of Alabama’s Bryce Young, who has mostly struggled for the Panthers and already got his coach (Frank Reich) fired after 11 games.

But Stroud has been a young star in running an offense from Bobby Slowik, a Kyle Shanahan disciple from San Francisco. The results have led to a receiving corps we didn’t think much of coming into the year exploding for big numbers when healthy. The 2023 Texans became the first offense ever to have three different receivers (Nico Collins, Tank Dell, Noah Brown) have multiple games with over 140 receiving yards in one season. Stroud had four straight games with over 300 yards passing as a rookie, including a rookie-record 470 yards in a 39-37 win over Tampa Bay.

The future looks bright with Stroud, though he is dealing with a concussion now that has cost him the last two games. He looks to return in Week 17 and finish strong with the playoffs still a possibility in Houston.

The AFC South is really the epicenter for this 2023 draft as not only does it have Richardson and Stroud, but the Titans drafted Will Levis with a high pick too. He threw 4 touchdowns in his NFL debut, tying the record. He also became the first rookie to ever pass for 300 yards on Monday Night Football, doing so in a thrilling 14-point comeback in Miami that was one for the ages. Levis has not been very consistent in his play this year, but at least the flashes have been there to think the team might have something going forward.

Speaking of flashes, Bryce Young did take advantage of a good matchup with Green Bay last week and had his first 300-yard passing game and led the Panthers to a season-high 30 points. It would be silly to write off a No. 1 overall pick after one season as Jared Goff on the Rams is great proof of how quickly that can turn around. But the Panthers are going to have to find a better coach and more receivers for Young in 2024. The flashes have been rare there this year.

Overall, the 2023 class is encouraging for the future. But Young and at least one of Levis or Richardson will have to join Stroud to become stars for it to come anywhere close to the impact the 2020 quarterback class is having on the league.

From Jalen Hurts to Lamar Jackson, Forcing the MVP in 2023

Not to belabor the point about the MVP award in a season where no one has truly earned it yet, but it does present an interesting narrative about the seasons Jalen Hurts and Lamar Jackson are having.

When no one trustworthy is having a statistically dominant season at quarterback, the MVP race can get messy as it has this year. Hurts was the MVP runner-up last year, and while it was a very good breakout year for him, it was never quite up to MVP level.

That is why it felt weird when Hurts was getting the MVP boost this year even though his numbers were down, and the team was clearly not as dominant. In the big showdown with Kansas City in Week 11, Hurts only passed for 150 yards, threw an interception, and took 5 sacks, but because the Eagles pulled out a 21-17 win after the Chiefs messed up, his MVP odds actually went up to the top of the leaderboard despite it being his second-worst game of the season to that point.

Similar things happened a week later against Buffalo where Hurts was awful in the first half before another Philadelphia rally led to an overtime win, and the Eagles were 10-1. But statistically, they were one of the worst 10-1 teams in NFL history, suggesting some regression should be expected as the schedule only got tougher. Sure enough, the Eagles were smoked by 20-plus points to the 49ers and Cowboys the next two games, then dropped another game to the Seahawks after Hurts, in his version of a flu game, threw two picks in the fourth quarter.

Hurts (+3400 at FanDuel) has all but fallen out of the MVP race since, but it was always a case of trying to fit a narrative around the Eagles having the best record in the league around Thanksgiving. His play was never really MVP caliber.

Having said that, Hurts may still be a better MVP candidate than Lamar Jackson, who is the latest player to receive a huge boost for a prime-time result. At least Jackson played well against the Jaguars and 49ers in prime-time wins the last two weeks, but it was also easy to see his defense forcing 7 takeaways in those games had as much to do with it as anything.

The Ravens now have the No. 1 scoring defense and Jackson (-175 at FanDuel) gets to enjoy that and the best starting field position in the league. He is one of 17 quarterbacks to have at least 19 touchdown passes this year, and his offense only ranks No. 10 in yards per drive and No. 7 in points per drive – MVP winners are almost always in the top 4 in those categories.

But since the Ravens have the best team record at 12-3, we must fit an MVP narrative around a season that would never pass a normal MVP standard.

Oddly enough, you could argue Hurts is a better MVP candidate than Jackson since he has overcome a poor defense (25th in scoring) that has fallen off this year to still win 11 games, and many of them have been due to clutch plays from him. Hurts has 4 game-winning drives. Jackson does not have a single game-winning drive, though he did lead a comeback win against the Rams. It just happened to be decided in overtime by a punt return touchdown. Hurts is also money on the Brotherly Shove, and while the line deserves credit, he does too for making that play practically unstoppable.

If Jackson flops against Miami this weekend, does the MVP go to Tua Tagovailoa (+850 at FanDuel) or Tyreek Hill (+2200)? This reactionary thing for an award that is supposed to be about a full-season performance is getting very confusing this year.

Hurts is having a good year but it’s not MVP caliber. Jackson has stayed healthy and that is fantastic given the way his 2021 and 2022 seasons ended in Baltimore. But while his play is very good, it is not an MVP-caliber season, and it is a far cry from his 2019 MVP performance. He doesn’t have to match that high standard to win another MVP, but he should at least match some standards of past MVP winners to be considered. Jackson may not even finish with 30 total touchdowns in 17 games as he only has 24 scores right now. He’s also not surging with a hot streak of play down the stretch like we saw with Cam Newton (2015 Panthers), Tom Brady (2010 Patriots), or Peyton Manning (2008 Colts).

But this is what happens when people try to force the narrative of team record around the MVP award, and not only that, but it’s now about who won the most recent prime-time game. It has gotten ludicrous.

Is Anyone Thriving?

So, is any veteran quarterback stepping up and having their best season in 2023? There is one name that has a case for that.

Dak Prescott is embracing his “yeah, here we go!” cadence as he is in full control of the Dallas offense, which ranks among the best in points and yards per drive this year. Prescott’s 30 touchdown passes lead the league and his QBR (71.5) is just a smidge behind leader Brock Purdy (71.7). Prescott had that slow start in this new offense from coach Mike McCarthy, but since Week 8, he has thrown 24 touchdowns to 3 interceptions for a 112.0 passer rating. That sounds like an MVP hot streak.

But Dak’s problem from an MVP perspective is that all of his best games come at home – largely against bad teams – and his worst games are on the road – largely against good teams. Prescott was briefly the MVP favorite before he threw for just 134 yards in an ugly 31-10 loss in Buffalo in Week 15. But the season is not over, and he is playing some of the best ball of his career.

If not Dak for a sneaky MVP pick late in the year, then Josh Allen in Buffalo is another option as he is sitting on 40 total touchdowns (27 passing, 13 rushing) and has a chance to finish on top in QBR when the year ends. He also could be 11-6 and get the No. 2 seed if this team can sweep the Dolphins for the AFC East (Miami also must lose in Baltimore first).

Allen’s best season is still 2020 when he broke out, and nothing he does in the next two games will change that, but he has been better this year than given credit for as not all the turnovers, like with Prescott in 2022, have been his fault or relevant to the outcome of games. The Bills would already be in line for a high seed if the defense could just stop Mac Jones, the least clutch quarterback out there, in crunch time, or not send 12 players on the field for a game-deciding field goal against Denver.

There are a few other veterans doing well right now with an eye on the playoffs.

Matthew Stafford is playing his best ball since the 2021 Super Bowl season for the Rams. He has 14 touchdowns to 1 interception over the last 5 games and has the Rams (8-7) well in the playoff hunt, overcoming a slow start and what looked like a lost season at 3-6.

Jared Goff is quietly leading a top-5 offense in Detroit for the second year in a row, showing he is not just a product of Sean McVay in Los Angeles. Goff was a No. 1 overall pick for a reason in 2016. He’s a talented thrower of the football and he just has to avoid getting into a turnover funk.

Baker Mayfield has a chance to throw 30 touchdowns for the first time in his first year with Tampa Bay, a tip in the cap to new offensive coordinator Dave Canales who also coached Geno Smith to a career year in Seattle last season. Given Baker had his best numbers in Cleveland in 2020 during the pandemic when the offense was off the charts with empty stadiums, you could say what he’s doing right now in Tampa is more impressive in a season where so many offenses and quarterbacks are struggling.

Conclusion: Will Something Weird Happen to Start 2024?

This concludes our year in review of the 2023 NFL season from the quarterback position. We wanted to finish with a look ahead to the playoffs and what kind of craziness could happen there after such an inconsistent season.

Doesn’t it feel like we are overdue for some unheralded quarterback run to a Super Bowl ring? The last time was Nick Foles on the 2017 Eagles, which was similar to some highly improbable runs like Eli Manning (twice for the Giants) and Joe Flacco for the 2012 Ravens.

Who are some quarterbacks who could pull those runs off to start 2024?

When Eli Manning won with the 2007 Giants, he was a No. 1 overall pick and a turnover machine in his fourth season. The Giants were left for dead in December, but they ran the table in the playoffs against elite teams and ended New England’s 18-0 season in Super Bowl 42.

What if Trevor Lawrence can do that for the Jaguars? He’s a No. 1 overall pick going through some turnover problems and a late-season slide right now. His coach (Doug Pederson) has won it all before. His defense was leading the league in takeaways this year. Maybe the Jaguars will go nuclear this postseason and run through a revenge tour by beating the Browns, Ravens, and Chiefs before avenging their 34-3 loss to the 49ers in the Super Bowl.

When Eli won his second ring with the 2011 Giants, he was a much better quarterback and playing his best ball. Their defense really transformed in the playoffs and took care of more elite teams, including the Patriots again in Super Bowl 46.

What if Jared Goff could do that for the Lions? He’s been to a Super Bowl before with the Rams in 2018 when he lost 13-3. He’s playing some of his best ball now, he has a great offense, and maybe the defense can chew some kneecaps for Dan Campbell this postseason and beat teams like the Eagles and Cowboys on their way to avenging their 38-6 blowout loss to the Ravens in February. It would be the first Super Bowl ever for Detroit, which has not won a playoff game since the 1991 season.

Finally, who better to play 2012 Joe Flacco than 2023 Joe Flacco? They still look alike. Flacco is airing it out with great success right now, and he has a championship-caliber defense behind him. Imagine if the Browns get that No. 5 seed and trounce the AFC South winner, which could be a Jacksonville team they already beat. Maybe they get a Baltimore team in the divisional round, a chance for Flacco to knock out his former team. The Ravens are only 1-3 in the playoffs in the Lamar Jackson era and already lost the last matchup with Cleveland this year.

Which defense really made Brock Purdy look his worst in the NFL? It was Cleveland in Week 6. The Browns already have wins in hand over the Ravens and 49ers this year. Imagine if Flacco came off the couch in December at 38 years old to lead a Super Bowl run for the Cleveland Browns and knocked off the likes of Lamar, Mahomes, and the best in the NFC in the playoffs for his second ring. Could even be his second ring over the 49ers.

Flacco would probably end up in the Hall of Fame for that run because it would be the stuff of legends. One last win for the old guard and that golden era of passers.

These new cats have some work to do before we can start trusting them to produce on a yearly basis. No one should be crowning Purdy as the new Drew Brees just yet.

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