The goal of finding a franchise quarterback is the same for every NFL team.
But as the four members of the AFC East have shown, there are different ways to conduct the search.
The New England Patriots, for example, are the rare team that hit the lottery. With Tom Brady at the helm, they continue to enjoy their riches.
The Miami Dolphins went about finding a starter in the most common way, using a first-round draft pick in 2012 on Ryan Tannehill. They’ve pushed all their chips into the middle of the table, betting on him being the right guy by giving him a contract extension worth up to $97 million over the next six years.
The Buffalo Bills rolled the dice on a free agent in Tyrod Taylor, who they hope just needed a chance to play.
And the New York Jets are staring at the realization that they’ll need to start a new search sometime soon. Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick is merely a placeholder for either Geno Smith when he returns from injury or whoever the Jets bring in next.
That means different approaches to winning football games. The Patriots, for example, are perfectly comfortable relying heavily on Brady, who makes a strong case as the greatest quarterback of all time.
The Dolphins are banking on Tannehill becoming the type of player who can carry his team to victories. They wouldn’t have given him the type of contract that they did if they didn’t believe in him.
The situation is different, however, with the other two teams.
“Buffalo and the Jets, it’s more about being a game manager,” said former NFL safety Rodney Harrison, now an analyst for NBC Sports’ Sunday Night Football broadcast. “You have a lot of talent around you, but it’s about taking care of the football and not trying to force the issue too much and just going out there and playing within themselves. To go out there and give themselves and their team a chance to win by not making mistakes.”
Harrison said the AFC East contains a “whole bunch of unknowns,” including what the Bills will get from Taylor.
“They have so much talent and a really good defense,” Harrison said. “LeSean McCoy, two explosive wide receivers … a good, young athletic tight end to complement Tyrod Taylor.
“He puts a lot of pressure on the defense because he’s probably the fastest, most athletic quarterback in the league at this point in time. I think he’ll bring them some excitement, and he’ll be a pain in the butt to try to gameplan for because some of the things, kind of like Russell Wilson, you go into a game trying to say, ‘Let’s stop this guy,’ but he makes so many plays.”
While Taylor coming out on top of a three-man quarterback competition has dominated the headlines in Western New York, here’s a look at the quarterback situations in the rest of the AFC East heading into 2015:
New York Jets
Fitzpatrick has reunited with offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, under whom he had his greatest success with the Bills during their time together from 2010-12.
Fitzpatrick took over the starting job after Smith suffered a broken jaw when he was punched by former teammate IK Enemkpali during training camp. Surely, that isn’t the type of mess new coach Todd Bowles thought he’d be cleaning up when he came over from the Arizona Cardinals.
“One time have I been in a locker room where I saw a quarterback pinned up against the wall by a teammate and man, we all came running fast,” Sunday Night Football analyst Cris Collinsworth said. “I guess they just didn’t have a feel for it was going to escalate to something like that that soon, but it’s bizarre. Poor Todd is up there trying to figure this whole thing out, and Chan Gailey, all those guys are trying to piece it together.”
Smith, who is expected to miss the first month of the regular season, isn’t guaranteed to get the job back when he’s healthy.
Collinsworth said a “calming hand” can sometimes work for teams at quarterback, which he feels Fitzpatrick can provide. Bowles, who previously served as defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals, will have a strong defense to work with in New York.
“You don’t want that team, I don’t think, being a 35-passes-a-game kind of a team,” Collinsworth said. “If they’re not giving away games on the offensive side, then you’ve got a pretty good chance. You just don’t think Ryan’s going to do that. If the formula starts to work – and with some of the corners they have on that team, the formula could work – so you want a little more cautious hand at the quarterback position. I don’t think they would change if it were working when Geno got back.”
After leading the Jets to just 10 point on nine drives in their first two preseason games, Fitzpatrick put in a better performance against the New York Giants, going 9 of 14 for 127 yards, two touchdowns and a 133.0 passer rating in five possessions.
The 32-year-old looked like his old, bearded, “Fitzmagic” self with the Bills, even throwing blocks downfield.
Fitzpatrick has bounced around since leaving the Bills, spending a year in Tennessee and a year in Houston. Last year with the Texans, he started 12 games with a 6-6 record, completing 63.1 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
“He’s a lot more mature in that his knowledge has grown even more, if that’s possible,” Jets quarterbacks coach Kevin Patullo told New York reporters. “I can tell his knowledge has grown. He’s a lot more mature in that aspect, seeing looks, which is great because you want the quarterback to see defensive looks right away.”
You know what that means. Get ready for 100 more references to Harvard during Jets broadcasts.
“Fitzpatrick … is going to be a good bridge to the future, but you still have to find where the future is,” ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said. “Is it Geno Smith? I think it’s too early to give up on him. Hopefully Fitzpatrick can play solid football until they have an opportunity to decide for themselves.”
Tannehill has a 23-25 record in three years as the Dolphins’ starter, failing to finish better than .500 in any of those seasons. But his completions, yards, touchdowns and passer rating have improved in each season. Last year, he completed 66.4 percent of his passes for 4,045 yards, 27 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 92.8 passer rating.
“Ryan Tannehill is the surprise to me,” Harrison said. “Everyone looks at his record and says he’s an average quarterback, but I’ve seen this guy continually get better week in and week out. I think he’s going to be the ‘X’ factor. I think he can be a top-10 quarterback in this league. I really like him and his development.”
The challenge now for Tannehill becomes to ascend from good to great. That’s done by having success in the postseason.
“I’m concentrating on winning,” he told ESPN’s John Clayton. “Frankly, there hasn’t been enough winning. That’s the one thing we are really focusing on. It’s just a matter of being consistent. Last year, we had games where we were great, but we have to find consistency week in and week out.”
Tannehill’s numbers in the preseason have been impressive – particularly his 80.5 completion percentage and an average of 7.4 yards per attempt to go along with three touchdowns. He has worked extensively in the offseason on improving as a deep-ball passer.
“It’s a factor,” he said. “We didn’t throw deep balls last year. Whether it was the routes, the protections or the throws, we didn’t complete enough. We have to find a way of stretching the field. It will open things up.”
Gruden said Tannehill has taken “a real positive turn.”
“I like this team a lot because of the development of Ryan Tannehill,” he said. “I like watching him play the position. He takes care of the ball. He’s a threat to run a number of different kind of plays. He’s not just a bubble screen, read-option quarterback. He can drop back to pass. He can function in the pocket.”
New England Patriots
Whether it’s Tannehill, Taylor or Fitzpatrick, though, each quarterback is competing to be the second best in the AFC East behind the 38-year-old Brady.
“He’s going to be the best quarterback in the division when you’re coming into December and January, and that’s the one thing you can never forget,” said former Pittsburgh receiver and current NBC analyst Hines Ward. “The other guys, how are they going to play when the games are really critical? That, again, is what you don’t know with these young guys. Tyrod Taylor is showing flashes, Tannehill has been pretty good, but when you get in that big game in December that you have to win, that’s going to be the question mark with all the quarterbacks other than Brady. I still think you have to say New England has the advantage at quarterback.”
With Brady’s status uncertain over the summer because of his role in the Deflategate scandal, New England spent time getting backup Jimmy Garoppolo ready to play.
Garoppolo, who’s in his second year out of Eastern Illinois, took 158 snaps in New England’s first three preseason games. Brady, meanwhile, took 43.
Garoppolo’s most extensive playing time so far in his NFL career came in Week 17 last season against the Bills, when he played the second half of a 17-9 loss. Garoppolo completed 10 of 17 passes for 90 yards.
At some point, the Patriots will need to determine whether he is Brady’s successor. Unfortunately for the rest of the AFC East, that time doesn’t appear to be any time soon.
“I love this game and I love working hard at it,” Brady said at the start of the 2014 season. “I’ve had a lot of people over the years tell me the things I couldn’t do and I think that’s always been great motivation for me to try to go out there and accomplish things that I think I can do, so hopefully I can continue to play at a really high level for a long period of time.”