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Breaking Down the N.F.L.’s Biggest Quarterback Battles

The problem with a quarterback competition between Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles is that the winner will be either Mitch Trubisky or Nick Foles.

Trubisky is a flailing prospect with spotty accuracy and jittery pocket presence whom the Chicago Bears famously selected instead of Patrick Mahomes and DeShaun Watson in the 2017 N.F.L. draft. Foles is an affable-but-turnover-prone journeyman who parlayed his heroics for the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII into a lucrative reputation as a “proven winner.” Both are only semi-effective in four-game bursts, so if the Chicago Bears juggle them just right, they might be poised to go 8-8 again.

The Trubisky-Foles competition is typical by N.F.L. standards: an organizational effort to solve one problem by throwing a slightly different problem at it. Other quarterback controversies this season also follow traditional story lines: fading superstar vs. heir apparent, injury-plagued veteran vs. healthy upstart, and so forth. But 2020 also features its share of nontraditional competitions pitting quarterbacks against their employers, their reputations, or the ravages of time.

Here’s a brief recap of the league’s most compelling quarterback-centric dramas, comedies, and potential tragedies that will get you ready for the season.

It would take a team of marriage counselors working around the clock in hazmat suits to safely isolate and document all of the toxicity that exists between Aaron Rodgers and the Packers organization. Rodgers, a two-time most valuable player in incremental decline from his early-2010s peak, has been signaling his dissatisfaction with his receivers and his disapproval with the team’s game plans for years. By trading up to draft Utah State’s talented-but-erratic Jordan Love with the 26th pick, instead of a receiver or potential starter at another position, the Packers gave a clear indication that the feelings were mutual.

Love represents a long-term exit strategy, not an immediate threat to Rodgers’ starting job. Still, his presence ensures that every Packers game will feel like dinner with a couple that’s only staying together for the sake of the kids.

Despite the festering dysfunction, the Packers went 13-3 last season, meaning that this year they could become the first team to win the Super Bowl out of sheer passive-aggression.

ImageDallas’s Jerry Jones with Dak Prescott, who will play for $31.4 million this season under the team’s franchise tag.
Credit…LM Otero/Associated Press

Dak Prescott finished second in the N.F.L. in passing yards (4,902) and fourth in passing touchdowns (30) last season, but Jerry Jones’s ongoing effort to balance the Cowboys’ budget on Prescott’s back creates the impression that the organization is somehow dissatisfied with its quarterback.

Jones reportedly wants to sign Prescott to a five-year contract, because Jones is the sort of financial planner who uses a credit card to make payments on his luxury sedan’s lease so he doesn’t fall behind on his 40-year mortgage. Prescott wants a four-year contract because quarterback salaries increase significantly each year and he wants to re-enter the market as soon as possible. Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes and others have signed market-resetting deals during the impasse, meaning Jones has spent two years losing bitter contract negotiations against himself.

Prescott will earn $31.4 million this year as the team’s franchise player. If the Cowboys really are still making up their minds about him, then the presence of the 32-year old backup and Cincinnati Bengals castoff Andy Dalton provides some leverage. For Prescott, not for the Cowboys.

Credit…Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Brady’s yards-per-game average, touchdown rate, completion rate and efficiency rating all have been in decline since 2016. The Buccaneers signed Brady, who turned 43 in early August, for $50 million guaranteed over two seasons and will surround him with impressive talent both young (Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, who each had more than 1,000 receiving yards last season) and old (Rob Gronkowski returns as Brady’s kooky sitcom nephew). They’ll try to help Brady defy the unstoppable passage of time.

All that now stands between Brady and a seventh Super Bowl ring are his obviously diminishing skills. Oh, and a radically different offensive system. And an unfamiliar supporting cast. And a much tougher division, And a much weaker organization than the one he left. Otherwise: smooth sailing.

Credit…Pool photo by Michael Dwyer

Newton, the 2015 M.V.P. and three-time Pro Bowl selection, is technically battling the career backup Brian Hoyer and the quasi-prospect Jarrett Stidham for the Patriots’ starting job. More accurately, Newton is battling four years of foot and shoulder injuries which have eroded his athleticism, as well as Tom Brady’s legacy, high expectations, and the perception among a vocal segment of N.F.L. fandom that the Patriots replaced a nigh-immortal warrior demigod with a flighty guy in a romper and head scarf.

The Patriots’ 2020 roster is depleted because of free-agent departures and Covid-19 opt-outs, and their receiving corps is built for Brady’s precision micropassing, not Newton’s bombs-away style. If the Patriots somehow remain Super Bowl contenders, all credit will go to Bill Belichick and “The Patriots Way.” If they tumble, the polarizing Newton will be blamed for the downfall of western civilization.

Credit…Alex Brandon/Associated Press

The N.F.L.’s generic team was planning to stage a generic competition between Dwayne Haskins (their 2019 first-round pick, abandoned by the outgoing regime) and Kyle Allen (a security-blanket backup brought aboard by the incoming regime). Their plans shifted when Alex Smith was cleared to return to the field, 22 months after a devastating 2018 leg injury followed by severe complications and months of surgeries and setbacks.

Smith’s return is nearly miraculous, so only a coldhearted scoundrel would point out that the rebuilding Football Team would be better off with one of the youngsters than a battered 36-year-old like Smith. Whether as a starter or a mentor, Smith will provide leadership, inspiration and a feel-good story for a franchise that would otherwise be little more than the sports equivalent of the empty pedestal where an offensive statue used to stand.

Credit…Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Credit…Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Tagovailoa, the fifth overall pick in April’s draft, has recovered from the November hip injury that ended his college career. But the Dolphins are building for the future, so Tagovailoa is expected to spend this season watching and learning from the beloved 37-year old Harvard alum and hipster-for-hire Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Quarterback Controversy in 2009, 2012, 2013, 2018 and last year.

The rookie Justin Herbert’s battle with the well-traveled scrambler Tyrod Taylor for the right to replace Philip Rivers is sure to keep hypothetical Chargers fans on the edges of their theoretical seats.

Having lost his starting job to the faded prospect Ryan Tannehill, the faded prospect Marcus Mariota signed with the Raiders to challenge the incumbent faded prospect Derek Carr. The stage is now set for Carr to lose the Raiders job, then sign with the Jets next year once Sam Darnold inevitably fades, freeing Darnold to eventually sign with the Titans once they sour on Tannehill.

It’s a quarterback controversy merry-go-round of futility, and staying off it is the reason that neither signing an over-the-hill legend nor ruffling a superstar’s feathers by drafting a challenger is as foolish as such tactics might sound.

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