Nick Foles or Gardner Minshew? Jaguars' quarterback decision looms

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars had two Pro Bowl quarterbacks in the franchise’s first 24 years. Now they potentially have two stars on the same roster.

It’s up to coach Doug Marrone to choose which one will be his starter.

For the past seven games, it's been rookie Gardner Minshew, who stepped in for Nick Foles after he got injured in the first half of the season opener. Foles, whom the Jaguars signed to a huge contract in the offseason to be the starter, is eligible to come off injured reserve after Nov. 6 and could be cleared to play at Indianapolis on Nov. 17.

Should the Jaguars go with the established, highly paid veteran who has proved himself in big games -- a Super Bowl winner -- or stick with the exciting rookie who has captivated the fan base and could turn into a 10-plus-year starter? It will be the most scrutinized decision of Marrone’s three-year tenure with the franchise, and maybe of his career.

“I haven’t really thought about it, but I think every decision’s always a tough decision, unless it’s an injury thing where someone just has to go in there,” Marrone said. “I’m trying to focus on what we have going this week, which is a unique week, going to London.”

Marrone will likely put off the decision until after the bye week, which follows Sunday’s game against Houston at Wembley Stadium.

It’s pretty clear the fans want Minshew. They’ve fallen in love with his headband and mustache, his jorts and don’t-care-what-anyone-thinks personality.

All that stuff is interesting and amusing, but none of it should factor into the decision. What should is Minshew's mobility, improvisation skills and the fact that he’s thrown 13 touchdown passes and two interceptions. Three of those TD passes came on plays where he bought time with his scrambling ability, including a dart to DJ Chark in the front corner of the end zone in a 29-15 victory over the New York Jets last Sunday.

One of the biggest compliments Marrone has paid Minshew -- and a major argument for him to stay in the lineup -- is that the coach keeps forgetting Minshew is a rookie.

“Sometimes I look out there and you're like, 'That's a veteran move, that's a veteran player,'” Marrone said after the Jets victory. “And here's my problem. This is all me now. I can't get over that we gave away three points. So for me, it's like he should've hit Leonard [Fournette] in the flat, he should've hit the crosser. Now that's unfair to him. You know what I'm saying? That's unfair of me to ask all of this from him, but that's what's on my mind right now.

“He does not play like he was brought into this league [as] a sixth-round draft pick.”

Minshew is 4-3 as a starter heading into Sunday’s game. Had you told Marrone before the season that he would lose Foles in the season opener and still have a chance to have a winning record going into the bye, he undoubtedly would have taken it.

But is that enough? The Jaguars targeted Foles as a replacement for Blake Bortles the moment the 2018 season ended. Owner Shad Khan said this past April that “our dream was to get Nick Foles,” and agreed to give Foles a four-year, $88 million contract that includes a franchise-record $50.125 million guaranteed.

Foles lost his job because he suffered a broken collarbone when Kansas City defensive lineman Chris Jones landed on him as he threw a touchdown pass. Foles wasn’t playing poorly, and the coaching staff and front office had raved about his leadership. So should the Jaguars go with the vet?

No way, former NFL general manager and current ESPN NFL front-office insider Mike Tannenbaum said. The Jaguars should stay with Minshew.

“I learned this from coach [Bill] Parcells: The best players play,” Tannenbaum said. “Obviously when you have a contract like that you deserve the benefit of the doubt, but right now the object of the exercise is to win professional football games and Minshew has earned the right to do that. ... While Foles didn’t do anything wrong, this guy’s come in and he’s played at a high level. We were talking about this on one of the [ESPN] shows. If you took the name off the jersey and you said, ‘Hey, Daniel Jones has played as well as Gardner Minshew has,’ [New York Giants GM] Dave Gettleman would be doing backflips. Or Dwayne Haskins. Or Kyler Murray.

“He [Minshew] is playing at a high level as a rookie quarterback, so the fact that the other guy got paid what he got paid is what it is.”

Foles does bring something Minshew doesn’t: significant experience. He has 45 starts in eight seasons and an additional six starts in the postseason. That includes Super Bowl LII, when he threw for 373 yards and three scores and caught a touchdown in Philadelphia’s 41-33 victory over New England, earning MVP honors.

Foles has seen nearly everything a defensive coordinator can throw at a quarterback, so he would have been better equipped to deal with the two-deep look New Orleans used to flummox Minshew and shut down Chark earlier this month.

Foles, however, doesn’t have Minshew’s mobility. He moves well in the pocket and he can handle rollouts, but he’s unlikely to make the kind of escape plays that Minshew did against Denver (a touchdown pass to Ryquell Armstead) and the Jets (the TD pass to Chark).

It’s the biggest advantage Minshew has, and it might be what keeps him on the field.

“His off-schedule plays,” Tannenbaum said. “All the defensive coaches I’ve always worked with, they always talked about it’s so hard to defend the quarterback that can make plays with his feet. And he’s done that really, really well.

“He’s running with a purpose. He’s not trying to bail out on a play. He looks at the progressions the right way. There’s a lot of seasoned aspects of his game.”

Foles hasn’t spoken to the media since his injury, and Minshew said he’s keeping his focus on the weekly opponent. Up next are the Texans, who beat the Jaguars 13-12 in Houston in Week 2 after Jacksonville failed on a 2-point conversion try with 30 seconds to play. Minshew, in his first start, drove the Jaguars 68 yards for the potential game-winner, but Fournette was stopped short of the goal line on the conversion try.

“This is too big of a game to really think about anything else,” Minshew said. “We’re sitting at a pivotal point, 4-4, playing a divisional opponent. This’ll be the last time we get to play them, so it’s definitely a big one.”

While everyone is naturally focusing on which quarterback Marrone will choose, here’s an important thing to remember: It’s a good position for the Jaguars to be in.

Choosing between a former Super Bowl MVP and the front-runner for the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year is a decision many NFL coaches and execs would call a dream scenario.

“It’s a great situation that they’re in and one that most teams are very envious of,” Tannenbaum said. “I would say [stick with Minshew], for now, absolutely. With that said, I think it’s reasonable that both could play because, again, the season’s literally just half over and you look at [the number of quarterbacks who have started games], the numbers are like literally on a historic pace.

“Any team that has the depth that they have right now, they have a built-in advantage. And they deserve a ton of credit for that.”