There's a universal truth in the NFL that goes a little something like this: A team either has a franchise quarterback or it doesn't, and if it doesn't, it should be trying to find one.
A quality starting quarterback can mask a lot of warts on even the most suspect of rosters. This is one reason why teams with long-term starters like the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers have regularly been in contention over the past 10-plus years, while teams like the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets have not.
This is also why quarterbacks are regularly among the first players selected on draft day. The problem is that selecting a quarterback early doesn't guarantee a franchise the next Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger or Aaron Rodgers. Draft busts like JaMarcus Russell, Johnny Manziel and Paxton Lynch have proven as much.
What's interesting is that in recent years, NFL teams have been quicker to apply the bust label to young quarterbacks and move on. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans parted with the No. 1 and 2 picks in the 2015 draft—Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota—when their rookie contracts expired. The Arizona Cardinals moved on from 10th overall pick Josh Rosen after only a year when the chance to draft Kyler Murray presented itself.
In the not-too-distant past, young quarterbacks were allowed to work through their growing pains. Peyton Manning, for example, led the league in interceptions as a rookie and had 100 picks in his first five seasons—12 more than Winston at that point in his career. Troy Aikman went 1-10 as a starter his rookie year while posting a passer rating of just 55.7. In contrast, Rosen went 3-11 with a passer rating of 66.7 in his lone Cardinals season.
Aikman is a Hall of Famer, and Manning is currently a semifinalist. The game has unquestionably shifted from the 1990s to the 2000s to now, and so too has the need for young quarterbacks to prove themselves quickly. It's become increasingly less acceptable for growing signal-callers to be game-managers—as Aikman was early in his career—or mistake-prone as Manning was early on.
Most recently, the Washington Football Team released Dwayne Haskins less than two full seasons after drafting him 15th overall. Unlike Arizona, though, Washington isn't guaranteed a shot at a prospect like Murray in the upcoming draft.
Sure, the Football Team could stumble into a new signal-caller like Ohio State's Justin Fields or BYU's Zach Wilson—that likely hinges on whether Washington wins the NFC East or not. However, releasing Haskins has more to do with the player himself than the team's potential draft outlook.
It's also another sign that NFL franchises aren't willing to be as patient with young signal-callers as they were in years past.
Washington's decision to part with Haskins wasn't related solely to his play on the field; Haskins has also shown problematic decision-making off of it. The latest incident involved photos of the former Buckeyes star mask-less while attending an event with strippers.
Haskins apologized shortly thereafter:
This marked Haskins' second breach of COVID-19 protocols and likely proved to be a breaking point for head coach Ron Rivera.
"I told him that I believe it benefits both parties that we go our separate ways," Rivera said in a statement. "We want to thank Dwayne for his contributions these last two seasons and wish him well moving forward."
Fans should be clear about one thing, though: Washington wouldn't have parted with Haskins for his behavior off the field if he was producing on it.
Franchises are often willing to be more forgiving with players if they can help the team win. We've seen it in the past with players like Roethlisberger, who was twice accused of sexual assault. We've seen it this year, as wideout Antonio Brown continues to play for the Buccaneers while engaged in a sexual assault lawsuit and after several other off-field allegations.
Haskins' transgressions don't even deserve to be mentioned alongside those alleged of Roethlisberger and Brown. The difference is that those two have been Pro Bowl talents, while Haskins is far from that.
In his 13 career starts, Haskins has thrown for 2,804 yards with 12 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and a passer rating of just 74.4. The reality is that he's not worth the potential headache because he's not worth a roster spot right now.
Why Are Teams Pulling the Plug Earlier?
So the Football Team decided that Haskins isn't worth keeping around. As we've discussed, there are a couple of reasons for that. The same could be said about Manziel and his tenure with the Browns. But what about Rosen? By all accounts, he hasn't been a problem off the field. He simply hasn't proven himself on it.
After signing with the San Francisco 49ers off Tampa Bay's practice squad, Rosen is now on his fourth NFL team less than three years after being drafted.
The reason teams are willing to pull the plug on young quarterbacks appears fairly straightforward. The longer they keep projects around under center, the longer the delay in finding a true franchise signal-caller. The Cardinals decided that Murray could be a franchise quarterback, so they drafted him and dumped Rosen on the Miami Dolphins.
The Dolphins, in turn, believed that Tua Tagovailoa could be a franchise quarterback and waived Rosen this past offseason.
It's becoming worth it for teams to dive back into the draft pool because building a roster around a rookie quarterback contract can be a recipe for success, even a Super Bowl. The Seattle Seahawks did it with Russell Wilson during the Legion of Boom era, and the Kansas City Chiefs just did it with Patrick Mahomes.
Murray's rookie contract—he'll carry a cap hit of less than $10 million next season—gives the Cardinals the financial flexibility to take the same approach. If Washington can find an upgrade on a rookie contract, perhaps it can too.
What About Extending Early?
This impatient approach to young quarterbacks is a double-edged sword, however. While some teams are eager to find a new quarterback of the future, others have been too quick to lock up the signal-callers they have.
The problem for NFL teams is when their young quarterbacks get to their second contract. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, for example, is set to carry a cap hit of nearly $35 million in 2021. Building around Wentz—assuming the Eagles don't decide to replace him with Jalen Hurts for the long term—is now going to be a challenge.
The Eagles are projected to be more than $73 million over the cap next season.
Had the Eagles waited to give Wentz an extension, he would likely be playing on the fifth-year option. Based on the way he's struggled, Philadelphia might have let him leave in the offseason.
The Los Angeles Rams are in a similar situation with Jared Goff. He too would be in the final year of his rookie deal. However, he was given an early extension and will carry a cap hit of nearly $35 million next season.
Goff has been an above-average starter for Los Angeles—and more productive than Wentz this season—but his play hasn't warranted top-market value.
So while it makes sense for a team to make the call early if it doesn't believe a quarterback is the long-term answer, it's not necessarily wise to make a premature choice on a quarterback that might be. The Dallas Cowboys, for example, aren't in an ideal situation with franchise-tagged quarterback Dak Prescott, but they didn't lock him up with a big-money extension before fully realizing his ceiling either.
The Chicago Bears have gotten several good games from Mitchell Trubisky late this season. Will the decision to decline his fifth-year option bite the team in free agency next spring? Perhaps, but Chicago won't be stuck with a quarterback who has remained a question mark for much of his pro career.
So Where Is the Middle Ground?
This is a question the Browns and Jets will likely ask themselves in the offseason. Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold are eligible to receive extensions after this season, though neither has played well enough to justify one.
In the Jets' case, even sticking with Darnold would probably be out of the question had they not botched the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes. They'll now likely hang on to him for at least another season while possibly drafting and developing a new quarterback behind him.
Mayfield has played well enough to get Cleveland to the cusp of the postseason, so the Browns probably aren't pulling the plug on him either. Had Darnold or Mayfield played as consistently poorly as Haskins and Rosen have, however, it would be a different story.
For the Jets and Browns, it's worth riding the wave with their current quarterbacks, at least for now. Unless a team has a Mahomes-level talent, it doesn't make a lot of sense to lock him up before it's necessary to do so.
If a franchise has a quarterback conducting himself on and off the field as Haskins has, though, making an early decision could be the right call.
It was the right call for Arizona and may be the right decision for Washington. Will Haskins reemerge as an elite talent elsewhere in the future? Perhaps, but Washington's playoff window is beginning to open, and there's no sense in wasting it while also trying to develop a quarterback who just doesn't seem to be getting it.
The NFL has long been a "What have you done for me lately?" league. However, we're at a point now where rookie contracts, the need for coaches and executives to win now and the competitive balance of free agency are eliminating the grace period for young signal-callers.
Young quarterbacks entering the NFL are increasingly likely to see win-or-be-replaced scenarios within their first few seasons. Haskins is simply the latest example.