FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The “AA-RON ROD-GERS” chant from the crowd seemed to mock the contrast.
New York Jets fans attending their teams’ joint practice with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Wednesday focused primarily on the four-time MVP quarterback their team acquired this spring.
But past the fan-adjacent field featuring the Jets’ first-team offense and the Bucs’ first-team defense lay each unit’s counterparts. New York’s first-team defense lined up primarily against 2021 second-round pick Kyle Trask.
Except for when they faced 2018 first overall pick-turned-journeyman Baker Mayfield – who has alternated first-team snaps with Trask by day.
There is logic, in theory, to head coach Todd Bowles’ approach. Do the Bucs want to follow their Tom Brady chapter with an undersized, big-armed talent brimming with moxie? Mayfield arrives with 69 career starts, during which he completed 61.4% of pass attempts for 16,288 yards, 102 touchdowns and 64 interceptions. Or would Tampa rather opt for Trask, who excelled at Florida and demonstrates more deft touch than Mayfield but has just nine attempts, three completions and zero starts at the pro level?
Seeking to answer these questions made sense when the Bucs reported to camp on July 25. But 22 days later, with 31 of 32 quarterback battles essentially settled, the Buccaneers have dragged out the competition to a point that’s more detrimental than beneficial.
Tampa Bay players and coaches are intentional to support both QBs’ progress. But in a more candid moment at the Jets facility after practice, four-time Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans admitted perhaps this contest has run its course.
“We want to know who the starter’s going to be soon,” Evans said, “so we can just keep working and they can take control of the offense.”
Mayfield, Trask produced differently vs. Jets
Training camp observations should always be contextualized: How much does a player’s performance resemble his own ability, and how much does it reflect the depth he’s playing beside or against?
Perhaps the Jets’ defensive depth lags the Bucs’ offensive depth, skewing Mayfield’s Wednesday production accordingly.
Whatever the reasons, Trask struggled when given the nod against first-team opposition.
A throw on the run from Trask to receiver David Moore looked good until Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley battled it down. Trask found Chris Godwin on a subsequent pass to the middle, but Mayfield would later connect with Godwin on a crosser in even riskier traffic.
During one series, Trask was swarmed in what would likely have been a sack in live play, but he tried to find Godwin downfield anyway. Godwin never touched the ball, and the Bucs’ relief came from Jets cornerback D.J. Reed dropping a near-interception. Trask successfully handed off consecutive snaps before the series ended.
Trask threw the best Tampa Bay highlight of the day when he found sixth-round rookie Trey Palmer on a well-placed 40-yard touchdown against reigning defensive rookie of the year Sauce Gardner in coverage.
Trask can flash. But if the Bucs seek imminent consistency in production, Mayfield looks more the part.
On the series after Trask most struggled, Mayfield found Evans on a quick release to the left, receiver Ryan Miller for a short pass to the right and then Godwin for that crosser in traffic. His decisiveness exuded command.
Bowles eschewed analysis by claiming he’d need to watch the film, but his comments from the previous day echoed. Joint practices, he had said, teach more about first-team readiness than preseason games.
“You put a lot into it because you’re playing your first-teamers, so you get them ready for the season right away,” Bowles said. “You know you’re going to see everything you’re going to see during the season, as opposed to the (preseason) games, where it’s going to be basically vanilla football and you’re not getting what you would normally see on certain down and distances.”
This week, the Bucs’ joint practice reflected what their first preseason game told them: Mayfield is readier. His 132.9 passer rating dwarfed Trask’s 53.8 in a 27-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mayfield’s 1:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio also besting Trask’s 0:1.
Mayfield’s preseason, regular-season and joint-practice resumes all pace the group. And with the Bucs installing a new offense this year, Trask’s previous familiarity doesn’t translate to an advantage. Bowles said both quarterbacks have demonstrated increasing command and comfort over the course of training camp, Evans similarly positive about both even as he itches for a decision.
“They both have big arms, they’re both mobile,” Evans said. “Obviously they’re a little different in size. But they have a similar play style: really good NFL quarterbacks.”
Even in context, Bucs’ decision doesn’t add up
Developing a second-string quarterback is crucial for any NFL organization. Only eight quarterbacks started every game of the 2022 NFL season. A full half of the league called up another starter for two or more games.
Considering long-term strategies to return to the Super Bowl is also defensible. But as long as the Buccaneers keep framing their decision about the now, they shouldn’t develop depth at the expense of establishing the first-team offense’s rapport. The Bucs have reached that point.
So assuming Tampa is not set on a word that starts with the letter “T” and rhymes with the word “banking,” it’s in the team’s best interest for Bowles to announce a starting quarterback.
And if Bowles doesn’t want to formally give one quarterback the nod, he should at least gift his preferred starter the bulk of snaps.
That’s what the Washington Commanders have done with Sam Howell, who’s taken almost all first-team snaps ahead of veteran journeyman Jacoby Brissett even as Howell awaits his official crowning as starter.
The Houston Texans, similarly, have not formally named rookie second-overall pick C.J. Stroud their starter for Week 1 of the regular season. But Stroud has received all first-team reps since Aug. 4, per Brooks Kubena of the Houston Chronicle, and it’s a matter of time before he joins fellow first-round rookies Bryce Young (Carolina Panthers) and Anthony Richardson (Indianapolis Colts) as top-five 2023 picks given the keys out the gate.
Even the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers have not minced words about who starts when healthy, as Kyler Murray’s ACL recovery continues to sideline him while Brock Purdy’s UCL tear-induced pitch count ended this week.
Only the Bucs continue to delay this decision. And while players are making the best of it – Godwin says “there’s a lot of optimism” and “everyone likes where the competition is right now” – the split is no longer productive.
“You have to do a little bit more communicating because you’re trying to talk to two different guys and figure out how they see it, respectively,” Godwin conceded. “Certain windows, certain throws, what they like or don’t like necessarily.”
Two preseason games against what Bowles described as “vanilla” looks shouldn’t decide this competition. The Bucs have the data to make a decision, even if they later want to change it.
It’s time to end the last true quarterback battle of the 2023 NFL.