Sunday marked the first time the two quarterbacks chosen at the top of this year's draft won on the same day. It won't be the last. In Tampa, Florida, Jameis Winston somehow extricated himself from a pile of tacklers to convert a critical third-and-19 late in the fourth quarter before throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to Mike Evans, pushing the Buccaneers back to .500. A laughingstock last year at 2-14, Tampa's sweep over Atlanta -- a team which beat them by a combined 52 points in two games last season -- gives them a 21.7 percent chance of making the playoffs, per ESPN's Football Power Index.
Meanwhile, Marcus Mariota was slicing through a ragged Jaguars defense for an 87-yard touchdown run, giving the Titans a three-point lead they would not relinquish in a 42-39 thriller. The move may have crushed 3-9 Tennessee's chances of claiming the first overall pick, as their chances of finishing with the worst record in football fell from 48.5 percent before Sunday to 30.9 percent afterward (per FPI), but it's hard to imagine anybody in the Nashville crowd complaining. Mariota finished with a 96.6 QBR, giving him the highest rating for any quarterback in Week 13.
Sunday was Mariota's best performance as a pro since Week 1, when he posted a perfect passer rating and threw four scores against Winston's Bucs. Winston infamously threw a pick-six on his first NFL pass attempt. On that day, Mariota was the clear victor. Given how Winston has improved since then, though, does the evidence suggest that the former Florida State star has been the better quarterback this season?
Before trying to pick the early winner between these two, let's start with some good news for both: Mariota and Winston are living up to the promise they exhibited heading into the draft, playing like two of the finer rookie quarterbacks in recent memory. Here are the rookie numbers for each top-five quarterback taken during the era for which we have QBR calculations (2006-2015) through 12 games, with the exception of Mariota and Matthew Stafford, who were limited to 10 games because of injuries:
Obviously, there is still a lot more to come for these quarterbacks, but it's better to be closer to Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan (the Falcons' QB actually led the league in QBR through 12 games as a rookie), than to Mark Sanchez and Blake Bortles. Neither Mariota nor Winston seems like they don't belong at this level, which was a genuine concern for both players, given (likely spurious) worries about Mariota's ability to perform outside of Oregon's scheme and Winston's struggles to avoid turnovers.
By QBR, Mariota (ninth among qualifying passers) has been better than Winston (17th). But much of the gap owes to that Week 1 performance; remove it and Winston's QBR is actually superior. Given what QBR can't see, let's run through the different aspects influencing each player's performance and try to figure out whether Mariota truly has outplayed Winston this year.
Let's start with one that's inevitably going to favor Mariota, especially after he torched the Jags on that 87-yard touchdown run Sunday afternoon. Mariota neutralizes a six-man blitz by the Jaguars on the play by staying calm in the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield, and stepping up in the pocket to move right by the rush. With the Jaguars failing to contain him, Mariota easily escapes the pocket and accelerates into the open field in a way that few quarterbacks can. He's so fast, in fact, he destroys the pursuit angle of Jags cornerback Dwayne Gratz, who whiffs badly on his tackle attempt, leaving Mariota to scamper down the sidelines for a stunning score. Winston doesn't have that extra gear and never will.
What's been interesting, though, is how little the Titans have used Mariota as a runner. That touchdown was a scramble on a broken pass play. Mariota has just 31 carries in 10 games this season, and 15 of those runs came on pass plays in which he scrambled out of the pocket. That's 1.6 designed runs per game, and nine of the total 31 rushing attempts came on Sunday, with interim coach Mike Mularkey finally giving Mariota license to move around.
Winston, meanwhile, has been more efficient as a runner than his tape from college might have suggested. He actually had a superior DVOA as a runner to Mariota heading into this week, although that will likely change. Winston has run for 16 first downs on 42 attempts this season. He's adding value as a runner.
He did it again Sunday, and the positives are similar to Mariota's, even if the two look different. Watch how Winston stays steady in the pocket as his line collapses and keeps his eyes upfield before taking the chance to scramble at the right time. It's incredible that Winston managed to stay upright and extend the play while being wrenched by tacklers, but even without that bit of magic, Winston made the correct move to step up and run at the right time.
It's fair to say Mariota is still the better runner of the two, but the gap isn't quite as wide as it might have seemed heading into the 2015 season.
This was supposed to be an advantage for Winston, right? By virtue of playing in a "pro-style" scheme in college, Winston was supposed to be able to adapt more quickly to the NFL game. Mariota came out of an Oregon scheme that purportedly allowed him to make simpler reads and spend far more of his time in the shotgun, so there were concerns he would struggle to deal with the pass rush and end up with too many plays in which he dropped his eyes and took off.
But that hasn't really been the case with Mariota as a pro. If anything, Mariota has been too patient in the pocket. Take Sunday's 47-yard touchdown pass to Dorial Green-Beckham, a play in which Mariota sits in the shotgun and holds onto the ball for four seconds to let Green-Beckham's deep post route develop before firing a strike into a tiny-but-open window.
When teams have successfully gotten pressure on Mariota, however, he has struggled. He has posted a lowly 6.7 QBR when under pressure this season, ranking 26th in the league. Winston was expected to do a better job of handling pass pressure, and he has. A 26.8 QBR doesn't exactly sound like it's star-caliber, but that's good enough to rank Winston ninth in the league when under pressure this season. They're both getting pressured at about a league-average rate, so it adds up to a meaningful advantage for Winston.
Despite Mariota's clear athleticism advantage, he hasn't been able to run his way past opposing pass-rushers very frequently. When teams have pressured Mariota, they've sacked him a whopping 30 percent of the time this season. The only quarterback who has been sacked more frequently under pressure is Alex Smith (31.1 percent). Winston, meanwhile, is 11th in the league under pressure with an 8.4 percent sack rate. And in terms of their overall sack rate, Mariota (8.2 percent of dropbacks) is being sacked far more frequently than Winston (5.4 percent). And that comes despite ...
Degree of difficulty
Winston clearly has faced more obstacles this season. That starts with strength of schedule. I use the gap between a quarterback's DVOA and VOA as a reasonable proxy of the quality of pass defenses he has faced. Heading into this week, Winston had a tiny gap between his DVOA and VOA, suggesting he had faced a league-average slate of pass defenses. Mariota, meanwhile, had the largest negative gap of anybody in the league, suggesting he had faced the easiest group of opposing defenses. And that won't be getting any smaller, given that he faced the 30th-ranked Jaguars on Sunday.
Winston has also had to deal with more injuries to his receivers. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and receiver Louis Murphy have been gone much of the year. Starting wideouts Evans and Vincent Jackson have combined to miss six games, and as a result, the likes of Donteea Dye and Russell Shepard have started at times for Tampa.
Mariota's group of receivers hasn't gone unscathed, but he's had it easier. Crucially, star tight end Delanie Walker has missed only a single game. No. 1 wideout Kendall Wright was out for three games and still doesn't look to be 100 percent, and deposed starter Justin Hunter is done for the year with a broken ankle, but Mariota has called on a deeper, healthier group of receivers.
And Mariota's crew holds onto the ball better, dropping just 3.1 percent of his throws, the ninth-best rate in the NFL for a QB. No such luck for Winston. Evans is tied for the league lead alongside Amari Cooper with 10 drops. Winston's receivers have dropped 4.5 percent of his targets, the sixth-worst figure in football.
The Bucs also haven't helped themselves when it comes to penalties. Tampa is the league's most-penalized team, and that stands out noticeably on offense. Winston's offense is responsible for 59 penalties this season, with the second-place Chargers at 50. Much of that comes from the offensive line, led by fill-in tackle Gosder Cherilus, who has 10 penalties. Tennessee, with a far more pedigreed offensive line, is in the middle of the pack.
The best case you can make for Winston getting help is from a much-improved running game, led by the resurgent Doug Martin, who is averaging a hair under 5 yards per carry this season. That helps, but given that Martin has been struggling over the past two years behind a patchwork offensive line, isn't it likely that Winston deserves some credit for being able to set protections and diagnose defenses before the snap? The threat of Mariota running also slows down opposing defenses, and on those rare times the Titans have shown a zone-read look, it has been effective: Their 31 attempts have averaged 4.8 yards per carry, with Tennessee averaging 4.0 yards per attempt on their other, more traditional runs.
This is a category that leans toward Mariota, although (again) less than the raw numbers would seem to indicate. Mariota completes 63.4 percent of his passes, while Winston is at 58.6. But Winston throws downfield more frequently than Mariota. Winston's average pass travels 9.8 yards in the air, the fifth-longest average throw in football. Mariota isn't exactly Alex Smith, but his passes are traveling 8.8 yards in the air, which ranks 11th.
And Winston is much better on those throws downfield. He is completing 46.5 percent of passes traveling 16-plus yards, posting an 82.7 QBR. That ranks 19th in the league, but far better than Mariota, who has struggled throwing deep. He completes just 37.7 percent of his deep passes, and his 37.9 QBR on those throws is the second-worst figure in the league. Only Andrew Luck, of all people, has been worse.
As you might suspect, Mariota makes up the difference by being more effective on shorter throws. On passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, Mariota has completed 69.6 percent of his throws. Winston completes only 63.5 percent of those high-percentage passes, and his QBR on those throws is a mere 60.5, ranking 28th in the league.
Winston's biggest concern heading into the pros was turnovers, and his rocky start gave every critic a chance to say, "I told you so."
But while he still takes some needless risks, he went four games without an interception earlier this year and has a 2.9 percent interception rate, not the sort of franchise-sinking rate some expected coming out of school. It's also virtually identical to Mariota's 2.8 percent, which is a mere two spots higher on the list. Winston also has five fumbles to his name, while Mariota's lost fumble against the Jags on Sunday brought his total to eight, despite playing two fewer games.
Unexpectedly -- especially after Week 1 -- Winston has been more careful with the football than Mariota.
There are other factors that are hard to measure. Winston has very quickly and obviously become the emotional leader of the Buccaneers. Video of his postgame speech after beating the Cowboys went viral. Veteran teammates like Gerald McCoy rave about Winston's vocal leadership. That's no knock on Mariota, and some of this undoubtedly has to do with the fact that Tennessee has been one of the worst teams in the league, but it's worth noting.
It's also promising to see Winston's growth in a short period. He is a totally different player after Tampa's Week 6 bye, having posted the league's seventh-worst QBR beforehand and its sixth-best afterward. Mariota is inconsistent so far, with three spectacular performances interspersed with stretches of mediocre play across the seven games Tennessee has lost with Mariota at the helm. Winston may have evolved past the struggling rookie who looked overmatched before the bye. Mariota has yet to put together a similarly lengthy stretch of above-average play.
After reviewing the two quarterbacks, I lean toward Winston as the better of the two players right now. That's not an indictment of Mariota, especially in terms of his future as Tennessee's franchise quarterback. These are two passers who are beginning to deliver on their lofty promise, and it helps that they're both in their age-21 seasons, meaning that they'll have extra development time in the years to come relative to other highly drafted passers, who often enter the league during their age-22 or age-23 campaigns. Ask me to pick now, and I choose Winston. Ask me to pick for the future, and I pick them both.