Keys to the Super Bowl: Quarterbacks
Ivan Cole made a perhaps unexpected point in his recent post:
The player to watch here is Landry Jones. I am already on record in declaring Joshua Dobbs the likely camp darling. And there is the possibility that Dobbs has the talent and the smarts to leapfrog over Jones. But for that scenario to be a positive one, Jones would have to push Dobbs hard. Otherwise, you have to rooting hard for Jones to improve and retain the number two position.
As Ivan went on to point out, this is not a popular position, as Jones is one of those players who for whatever reason fans generally aren’t pulling for.
So why is this? I have some theories, which I’m going to throw out without any implication given that they are correct, only worth thinking about. I’m taking them in reverse order of probability:
Landry? After the great Tom Landry? (At least that’s what my dad, an ardent Cowboys fan, would have called him. I wasn’t paying attention back then.) He could have at least changed his name to “Franco” or “Mean Joe” or some other name which would appeal more to Steeler fans. And “Mean Joe Jones” has a real ring to it.*
He doesn’t look like a football player
I won’t be talked out of this one as quickly as the first one. These things matter. He is admittedly exactly the same height and weight as Tom Brady, or at least the ones listed on their NFL.com stat pages, and Brady has by this point put to rest the fears that he might not succeed at the NFL level which dogged him before the (1998) draft. But Jones lacks that studly je ne sais quoi we expect out of our quarterbacks. Why do you think such a large percentage of Steeler Nation considered Charlie Batch to be fragile, despite the evidence to the contrary? I rest my case.
There’s only one thing wrong with this theory—he doesn’t. Is he the reincarnation of Joe Montana? No. Is he a backup quarterback? Yes. Was Joe Montana a backup quarterback? Not for long.
And this is a good place to explore Ivan’s other statement—that Josh Dobbs would be the “camp darling.” I posed the question of who would be this year’s camp darling to Mark Kaboly in last week’s Q-and-A column on DKPittsburghSports, and he also came down firmly in favor of Dobbs—but you heard it here first. Does Dobbs have the “talent and smarts to leapfrog over Jones?” We won’t know until the end of camp, but here’s what Bob Labriola of Steelers.com had to say on the subject:
Landry Jones was a four-year starter at Oklahoma, and he ended up starting 51 of the 53 games in which he played for the Sooners. His career numbers were: 2,183 attempts and 1,388 completions (63.6 percent) for 16,646 yards, with 123 touchdowns, 52 interceptions, and what would have been an NFL passer rating of 95.7. His career totals rank him No. 3 all-time in attempts, No. 3 all-time in completions, No. 3 all-time in yards, and No. 6 all-time in touchdowns. And those all-time rankings are all-time NCAA rankings, not just all-time Oklahoma rankings. In 2010 Jones won the Sammy Baugh Trophy after a season in which he completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 4,718 yards, with 38 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, and what would have been an NFL passer rating of 101.1. During his career at Oklahoma, Jones was 39-12 (.765) as a starting quarterback. At the NFL Combine, Jones ran a 5.11 in the 40-yard dash, he had a 31.0-inch vertical jump and a 9-6 in the broad jump.
Joshua Dobbs started 35 of the 37 games in which he played during his four seasons at Tennessee. His career numbers were: 999 attempts and 614 completions (61.5 percent) for 7,138 yards, with 53 touchdowns, 29 interceptions, and what would have been an NFL passer rating of 88.7. In addition, Dobbs rushed 438 times for 2,160 yards (4.9 average) and another 32 touchdowns. He also caught two passes on gadget plays for 62 yards and two touchdowns. During his career at Tennessee, Dobbs was 23-12 (.657) as a starting quarterback. At the NFL Combine, Dobbs ran a 4.64 in the 40-yard dash, he had a 33-inch vertical jump, and a 10-2 in the broad jump. Dobbs’ Combine totals in the 40, vertical, and broad jump represented the best in each category in 2017 among all of the quarterbacks in Indianapolis.
These are pretty interesting numbers. Clearly Jones had the better college career, but it was rather unexpected, at least to me, that Dobbs was substantially better in every one of the three categories Labriola listed at the combine than Jones. There are two other categories they both completed at the combine, the 3-cone drill and the 20-yard shuttle. Not surprisingly, Dobbs was considerably faster at the 3-cone drill. Only in the shuttle were they essentially equal (4.31 seconds for Dobbs, 4.3 for Jones.) So perhaps Dobbs does have what it takes. He’s certainly smart enough, although that isn’t always the advantage it seems. But only time will tell.
In the meantime, we can, at this juncture, reasonably predict that we will see Landry Jones, or whoever is anointed as the backup, on the field for a non-trivial number of snaps this coming season. Why do I say that? Because Ben, that’s why.
He gets hurt and he misses games. And he’s 35. And there are a lot of hard miles on that 35-year-old body. He has started all 16 games in his career only three times—in 2008, 2013, and 2014. (Admittedly 2010 was non-injury-related.) He has also missed chunks, sometimes substantial ones, of other games. It’s reasonable to assume he will miss some time.
It would be nice to think the missing time would be due to sending Landry Jones out for mop-up duty, but it would also be nice to think the Pirates are going to win the 2017 World Series. In other words, it isn’t completely out of the realm of impossibility, (yet,) but is quite unlikely. So let’s return to the idea that Landry Jones doesn’t suck, and see whether there is any evidence for it.
I’m betting most of us have forgotten his performance in the first Patriots game. He didn’t win the game, but he certainly didn’t lose it either. That, and what he did against the Browns with an inferior supporting cast, is what you would hope for in caretaking role as Ben’s backup.
More specifically, Jones’ career passer rating (in the NFL) is 82.8. Last season’s rating, with a career-high number of games played and attempts, was 86.3. Let’s compare that to some starting QBs. (The first figure will be career average, the second 2016’s passer rating): [order is alphabetical]
- Teddy Bridgewater (MIN): 87.0/88.7 [this was 2015, as he missed all of 16]
- Joe Flacco (BLT): 83.5/84.5
- Eli Manning (NYG): 83.7/86.0
- Cam Newton (CAR): 86.1/75.8
And just for kicks, here are Ben’s numbers: 94.1/95.4
In other words, Jones’ numbers don’t look that bad. I’m guessing pretty much everyone in Steeler Nation would prefer one of the above-mentioned guys for Ben’s backup. And pretty much everyone in Steeler Nation would be delusional, because those guys are all franchise quarterbacks.
And note that Jones improved with more experience, unlike, say, Brock Osweiler, who got worse.
So hopefully this establishes what we already knew in our heart of hearts—a) Landry Jones is about as good a quarterback as we can expect to have for a backup, and b) there is a considerable difference between him and Ben. Enough of a difference, at least, that if there is any reason to believe that one of Ben’s inevitable injuries is season-ending, there goes our hopes for a Super Bowl, unless said injury were to occur in the last five minutes or so of the Super Bowl, with the Steelers up by a substantial margin. Unless, of course, the defense turns out to be one of the great ones, and isn’t all used up by that point in the game.
And this isn’t a knock against Landry Jones. What happened to the teams last season who had to play a back-up in the post-season? I’ll wait here quietly while you check. Yes, that’s right, they all lost early in the process. There aren’t enough really good quarterbacks to stock all 32 teams with. What makes us think we should have two?
So having painfully established all of this, now let’s turn the tables and look at the man we are resting our hopes upon. There are a couple of areas of concern in addition to Ben’s durability—his home/road splits and his unnerving tendency to throw the ball to the guys in the wrong unis. I’ll take them in order.
The whole home/road splits thing wasn’t a thing at all until recent years. I published some charts in an article last fall, Roethlisberger Rust, and updated them for a later article which looked specifically at his home/road splits. I used the same tables and updated them through the playoffs (in all cases Landry Jones-led games were eliminated, as the point was Ben’s numbers.) Here they are, with an added filip—I used Pro Football Reference’s league passer rating average for each year. That’s the yellow line. I thought it might be an interesting point of comparison. (Similar figures weren’t available for ESPN’s QBR.) First, the NFL Passer Ratings:
Other than 2011, which seemed to be an outlier, Ben’s home/road splits tracked pretty closely, as you can see. It was really in 2014 that they split off, and they did so abruptly and rather dramatically, with over a 20-point diffence. Up until last year these figures only represent the regular season, but I included the post-season figures for last year. Interestingly, those didn’t change the eventual outcome much. Also notice that most years even Ben’s road numbers were better than league average, but that changed in 2015, and the trend is not a happy one. Here’s the ESPN figures:
If anything, the split last year looks even more dramatic in QBR. (Note, BTW, the top of the chart is 100, the maximum for this ranking, and 155 for the NFL passer rating, which is close enough to the maximum, but in neither case is the minimum 0—it just means there isn’t quite as much dead space in the chart…)
Do we have any reason to believe that these splits will improve? Well, not really. Here’s another figure which is pretty interesting—since 2010, a time we might view as Ben coming into the prime of his career, he has never had less than a 2-1 touchdown to interception ratio—at home. Last year it was 2.7—1. In that same time span he has never had a better than 2-1 interception ratio on the road. Last season it was 1—0.9. He throws the majority of his interceptions on the road. In fact, before the playoffs he was more like 6—1 at home.
Why is this? I’m sure a lot of people, including Ben, are looking for the answers. And perhaps the answer may lie as much at the feet of the crop of young receivers vying for playing time as anything. After all, if you hit a receiver right in the chest with a ball and they drop it (hem, hem, looking at you, Cobi Hamilton, Sammie Coates, et al) it doesn’t seem fair to blame the quarterback. Perhaps this, as much as anything else, explains the drafting of Juju Smith-Schuster.
So what does this season hold? We do know that Ben holds the keys to the Super Bowl Train (if trains even have keys…) I’m guessing we are going to see Ben at training camp and once again write that he looks in the best shape of his life. I don’t fault his effort, at least in his later, responsible years. But many a slip can happen between the cup and the lip, or even between the center and the quarterback. Let us hope those slips are kept to a minimum…
*And no, I don’t think Landry Jones should have changed his name, or even that many people hold his name against him. But in the great Steeler Nation subconscious, who knows?