With the news this week that the Jacksonville Jaguars are returning Nick Foles to the starting lineup, football fans are left to wonder about the future of Gardner Minshew. Was returning to Foles the right decision, both for the present and the future of the Jaguars?
To address these questions, we can begin with what made Minshew Magic possible. Three areas stand out watching his film: Deep touch, pocket management and processing speed.
Coming out of Washington State, this is one area where I wondered about Minshew from a scheme fit perspective. I loved what he could do in the short and intermediate areas of the field, but I questioned whether he could drive the football into tighter throwing windows downfield, or whether he could fit in a vertical passing system. But from what we have seen this season, Minshew can deliver the deep ball with touch into a bucket downfield.
Here is the first example of this, from Jacksonville’s Week 2 game against the Houston Texans. Facing a third-and-9 in the fourth quarter, the Jaguars need a big play to get back into this game. They line up with Minshew in the shotgun, and he will take a deep shot on a vertical route to Chris Conley (18) who is split wide to the right:
Houston shows Minshew a two-high safety look before the play, but they rotate the coverage into a Cover 1 look. The rookie quarterback reads this perfectly and uses his eyes to freeze the safety in the middle of the field, before throwing the deep route to Conley along the right sideline:
The placement here is impressive, as the defender has inside leverage on Conley, so Minshew puts this ball towards the outside, almost like a deep back shoulder throw. The defender would need to work through the WR to get to the football, almost guaranteeing a big play for the offense.
Minshew truly exploded on the national stage in Week 3, when he led the Jaguars to a victory during a nationally-televised game on Thursday night. Midway through the first quarter, Jacksonville faced another third-and-9, this time on the Tennessee Titans’ 22-yard line. Minshew takes advantage of single-high coverage once more, this time on a perfectly placed fade route to D.J. Chark (17) along the left sideline for a score:
While the author may have questioned Minshew’s vertical passing prowess during the draft process, the rookie passer has shown an ability in the deep passing game so far this season.
An area where Minshew impressed me on film while at Washington State was with his footwork. He showed the ability to keep his feet right in line with his mind as he worked through reads, and he also was able to maneuver in pockets while staying ready to deliver throws from chaos. That trait has certainly translated well for him to the professional game. A number of his biggest plays for the Jaguars this season have been when he is forced to work through chaos in the scramble drill.
We start with yet another 3rd and 9 situation, this time from Week 2. (Maybe Jacksonville should just play for 3rd and 9 situations?) The Jaguars face this third down late in the game while trailing by 7. Minshew will face a stunt here from the defense, but in contrast to some younger passers, the QB actually - and adroitly - scrambles away from the stunt while keeping his eyes downfield:
Here is another look at this play. You will see how the defense uses this end/tackle stunt with outside linebacker Jacob Martin (54) looping to the inside behind J.J. Watt (99):
Often times when a young quarterback sees a stunt like this, he will run into the looping defender, assuming he has a crease to exploit with his legs. In this piece for Pats Pulpit I highlighted both Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen doing exactly that. However, Minshew actually reads this stunt right, attacks the crease that is actually created, and keeps his eyes downfield to make a throw:
Now here is an example of Minshew again keeping his eyes trained downfield in a chaotic pocket situation, leading to a huge play for his offense. Last week he spurred a comeback win on the road against the Broncos, thanks to a big second half. Trailing 17-6 in the third quarter, the visitors face a third-and-14 on the Denver 43-yard line. They break the huddle and put Minshew in the shotgun, and this is the route concept they dial up:
However, Minshew barely hits his drop depth in the pocket before he is forced to create with his feet and legs. The pressure off the left edge has him start to climb the pocket, but then he encounters interior penetration as well. Somehow the rookie QB escapes the clutches of the defense and rolls out to the right. He manages to keep his eyes downfield, never panic, and find Keelan Cole (84) late in the play. What stands out - in addition to everything just mentioned - is how the QB is calm enough to set his feet before delivering this throw. The old adage about the position is “never throw late down the middle,” but by resetting his feet, Minshew ensures that he can get enough on this throw:
A play like this definitely merits the end zone angle:
Minshew’s ability to create and extend with his legs has also given this offense a huge boost.
Let’s close this piece out by looking at perhaps Minshew’s strength coming out of Washington State, and something that he was more than happy to stress during Senior Bowl week: His processing speed. If you think back to that week down in Mobile, Alabama, I became enamored with the passer when he addressed me during a media session, which I wrote about for Pro Football Weekly. Here is a snippet from my Day 1 recap:
When asked about his favorite passing concept to run under [Mike] Leach, Minshew spoke glowingly about the Y-Cross design. “I kinda liked how we ran our Y-Cross at Washington State. It’s a full field read that had a bunch of options, it had a beater for every coverage. It was something that we had a lot of success with.” But Minshew took it a step beyond that, when I asked him about Leach’s offense and how it prepared him for the NFL draft process. “[Full-field reads] is something that we did a good bit was read the full field and we had a lot of five-man progressions which a lot of teams, even pro-style teams in college, are only reading half the field. So, there’s a lot of ways that our offense prepares players for the league and that’s why you see so many young quarterbacks right now having so much success from that system.”
It was when Minshew looked me in the eyes and used air quotes when saying “pro-style” that will likely stick with me from that encounter.
That ability to quickly decipher a defense and make the right decision - that Minshew attributes to Mike Leach’s offense - is evident now in the NFL.
On this play from last week against the Broncos, Jacksonville faces a first-and-10 on their own 41-yard line, late in the game. Trailing by one with just over a minute remaining, the Jaguars need to get into range for kicker Josh Lambo. They put Minshew in the shotgun and align with three receivers left:
The route that Minshew wants to throw here is this deep out to Dede Westbrook (#12) to the left. But he will need to confirm that the vertical route along the boundary truly pulls the outside cornerback, and he will also need to confirm that the defenders do not switch coverage between the two inside receiver.
Once he hits his drop depth, however, Minshew has all the information he needs:
This is a fantastic anticipation throw, made as Westbrook is getting into his break, that the QB puts on the money. In a huge spot, late in the game on the road. Very impressive.
Yet, I want to close this piece out by looking at one more play, this time all the way back in Week 1. Pressed into action unexpectedly when Foles went down, Minshew performed admirably in relief. But I was extremely impressed by this deep shot to Chark off of the Yankee concept:
Now this route design, which is becoming very common in the league, pairs a deep post route with a crossing route underneath it. It is popular with a number of teams, such as the New England Patriots and the Texans. However, defenses have started to use a call in the secondary, either “cut” or “nail” depending on the team’s terminology, to defend this play. In that rotation adjustment, a deep safety vacates the middle of the field and breaks downhill on the crossing route - the cut or nail part of the play - and the cornerback originally over the crossing route replaces him in the middle of the field:
If that sounds vaguely familiar, you might be thinking about Super Bowl 53 and the Patriots:
So when running this concept, the QB needs to be aware of the potential cut call and make sure to read it properly. That’s why Minshew’s deep shot here impressed me:
Minshew even double clutches, making sure that no cut call is in play, before uncorking the deep shot.
Now, I took about five minutes of your life explaining all this, and Minshew executes it in a split-second.
That’s processing speed, friends.
Now what might have sealed Minshew’s fate was a poor performance in Week 9 against the Houston Texans in a game across the pond. Minshew threw a pair of interceptions in the loss to Houston, and also had a pair of fumbles. The two interceptions came on successive drives, and eliminated any chance of a Jacksonville comeback.
The first interception was simply a miss from a crowded pocket. Minshew looks to hit Cole on a crossing route from right to left, and while the receiver is open, the quarterback misses this throw badly. The pass sails over Cole’s head and is easily intercepted:
Jacksonville’s defense quickly gave Minshew the football back, forcing a fumble on Houston’s next possession. What did the rookie quarterback do on his next passing attempt?
Basically the same exact thing:
Back-to-back throws where the quarterback misses high from a crowded pocket. Yes, on the second throw Minshew was under duress with a pass rusher off the right edge, but the quarterback needs to make a better throw.
Then there was this interception earlier this season:
On this throw, Minshew stares down his target in the middle of the field and never moves his eyes. That, plus the throw being off the mark, ends in an interception.
Despite the mistakes, was moving back to Foles the right decision for this franchise?
That depends on what Jacksonville’s goal is for the 2019 season. If the team believes that they can get back into the AFC South race - and sitting just two games behind Houston they do have a shot - then going to Foles might be a wise decision. Especially when you consider that the Jaguars are also a game behind Indianapolis in the division. To get above Houston they’ll first need to leapfrog the Colts, and Jacksonville still has two games against them, with the first coming after their bye this week. Turning the reins over to a Super Bowl MVP who just last season lead a team back into the playoffs down the stretch makes sense.
But if the goal is the long term health of this franchise, perhaps sticking with Minshew was the right move for Jacksonville. Nothing can replicate the process of getting live game action for the development of a rookie quarterback. Especially when the games do matter. Giving Minshew the opportunity to guide this team during a late-season drive for the playoffs would be an incredible experience for him, preparing him to be the starter for this franchise in 2020 and beyond.
Yet head coach Doug Marrone looked at the experience of Foles and that tipped the scales. “Looking back at all the work we put in and I just go back to the experience of what he’s going to be able to do,” Marrone said. “I think that’s going to give us the ability, a better chance of winning right now.”
We will see over the next few weeks whether that decision was smart in the short-term, and in the long-term.