The best-laid plans — the things we’re virtually certain of in the NFL — don’t always work out.
We’re taught this every season, by stars who regress, celebrated coaches who fail and deeply talented teams that melt down in the face of expectations. And in recent history, few lessons have been more memorable than those delivered by the league’s presumed franchise quarterbacks. Guys we were supposed to be sure about coming out of their third seasons, only to have a flaw in their career matrix emerge in the most pivotal of developmental moments. Some kind of miscalculation that changed the trajectory of careers ascending into prime years, and leaving behind little more than a vapor trail of first-round disappointment.
The last half-decade has been littered with these mistakes, from Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota to Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Mitchell Trubisky. It's a collection of talent and lessons that showcases how the best maneuver a team can make at times is not doing the big deal.
This is what I think about as Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson enter their fourth season, which will be a defining moment of measurement in the Super Bowl builds of the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens and the future viability of Mayfield and Jackson as cornerstones in the long-term design. That’s what is on the line for both — two case studies for the entire league in waiting to do the big deal. Not necessarily because the franchises have doubts about their quarterbacks, but most definitely because both front offices crave more data in the system before making a commitment that will shape the DNA of their teams for the next decade.
It’s a decision that will resonate, and even be privately applauded, by some other general managers and head coaches, some of whom grouse about the recent trend of teams trying to get ahead of the financial curve on quarterback contracts after only three years. That kind of maneuver that saves money, but at the expense of taking on significant risk in a sample size that is almost always greatly expanded by having one more year of data to process.
As one head coach put it, “If you do all the work to draft a first-round quarterback and still don’t know exactly what he is after four years, that’s a pretty obvious answer. Something went wrong.”
And as a general manager put it, specifically about Mayfield and Jackson: “Financially, what’s the difference in buying that extra year? If he’s what you want him to be, then you’re going to pay him an extra $5 million a season. Is it worth another $5 million a season to be sure? I think we’ve seen that it is.”
If you didn’t catch it, that latter comment is a thinly veiled reference to Goff and Wentz, two players who have become cautionary tales. For Goff, it was that he wouldn’t be able to grow and change when his offensive system required it. And for Wentz, it was understanding that his fragility was going to be a problem undercutting his growth and consistency.
If the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles had chosen to buy one more year of data on either player rather than doing massive contract extensions after three seasons, it’s likely that both would have gone the way of Winston, Mariota or Trubisky — three players whose demise with their first NFL teams were disappointing, but far less costly from a salary dump standpoint.
None of this is to say that Baker Mayfield or Lamar Jackson are on the verge of revealing some unknowable flaw in their fourth seasons. Both have shown considerable talent through their first three years. But looking back, we stared in wonderment at the high ceilings of Goff and Wentz, too. It was a focus that was so singular and upward, it kept us from seeing the hole opening beneath their feet.
That’s the lesson the Browns and Ravens are showcasing now with Mayfield and Jackson. That when it comes to seeing the top-to-bottom picture of a franchise quarterback, one more year can make all the difference.