It was the spring of 2015 and there was a sense of clarity within NFL draft debates.
Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota had each won a Heisman Trophy. They each led their teams to the College Football Playoff. Mariotta’s Oregon Ducks actually beat Winston’s Florida State Seminoles in the semifinals, but the year prior, it was Winston who led FSU to the national title. Each had big arms and a world of potential.
There were questions, of course, everything from throwing motions, accuracy and off-field issues. Those were brushed aside.
Nearly four-and-a-half seasons later, hindsight isn’t on which one should have gone ahead of the other, but how far down the draft order either would be selected if there was a redo.
The top two picks are at career crossroads after dual disasters on Sunday highlighted their lack of development as this begins to look like a historic draft failure.
Winston threw five interceptions, was sacked seven times and lost a fumble in a 37-26 loss to Carolina. Mariota followed that up by going just 7-of-18 for 63 yards and two picks in a 16-0 loss to Denver. His play was so bad, he was benched in the second half and there is a groundswell of opinion he should be replaced by Ryan Tannehill.
Neither is completing over 60 percent of their passes. Both the Bucs and Titans are 2-4.
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Certainly, neither is approaching all-time bust categories – the NFL has seen far worse from even No. 1 picks. Yet they entered the league together and were named immediate starters – and famously played each other on Week 1 – only to do little to inspire across the years. Maybe Mariota has been better than Winston at times, but neither has been good enough.
Tampa hasn’t made the playoffs. Tennessee has, and even won a postseason game in the 2017 season, but Mariota has never led them to better than 9-7. Each is in the team-option year of their rookie deal, with no certainty as to whether they’ll return.
It isn’t what everyone expected.
“Things happen for a reason,” Mariota said after the Denver game. “I truly believe that. I can learn from this. I’m going to grow from this and I’ll become a better player.”
He’ll need to, quickly … if he even has the opportunity. Tannehill had plenty of struggles during his six seasons in Miami, but he’s more than capable to take the starting job on a potentially good Titan team and never give it back. That would be an inglorious and unexpectedly fast end to the Mariota era in Nashville, where he was once hailed as a savior.
“Every decision we make, we try and do in the best interest of the football team at every position,” Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel said.
Winston, meanwhile, isn’t in jeopardy of seeing the bench, but mainly because backup Ryan Griffin is 29 but has never taken a single NFL snap. He’s the only option. For now.
Just seven times in the Super Bowl era have quarterbacks been selected 1-2 in the draft and never before have both selections failed to pan out.
In 2016, Jared Goff (Los Angeles Rams) and Carson Wentz (Philadelphia) topped the draft and started strong.
In 2012, it was Andrew Luck (Indianapolis) and Robert Griffin III (Washington). Injuries shortening and greatly impacting both careers, although Luck had a much longer run as an elite player.
In 1999, Tim Couch (Cleveland), Donovan McNabb (Philadelphia) and Akili Smith (Cincinnati) went 1-2-3. McNabb became a star. The other two faded quickly.
In 1998, Peyton Manning went first to Indianapolis and became an all-time great while San Diego took Ryan Leaf No. 2 only to see his career implode via poor play and substance-abuse issues.
In 1993, Drew Bledsoe (New England) went first and enjoyed an excellent career. Rick Mirer (Seattle) followed and was generally mediocre at best on a few bad teams.
In 1971, two strong individual careers were launched when Jim Plunkett went first to New England and Archie Manning second to New Orleans.
Which leaves Winston and Mariota, the crown jewels of a 2015 quarterback class that is on the brink of cratering. None of the guys picked behind them (Garrett Grayson, Sean Mannion, Bryce Petty, Brett Hundley, Trevor Siemian) has done much of anything, either.
Winston and Mariota have had plenty of chances, multiple coaches and lots of development time to show something. Thus far, not so much. Can that change, on the fly, in the middle of the season? Or is this pretty much it?
“I see the preparation,” Tampa coach Bruce Arians said of Winston. “I see what he’s trying to do.”
Yet it isn’t working.
“The fumbles, we have to get rid of the fumbles,” Arians said of Winston’s performance Sunday. “We have to start throwing balls away and we don’t need to take those sacks. You don’t take those hits, either. The interceptions, I have to go back and look at the film.”
This is all stuff the top NFL picks and future stars should have worked out by now. For whatever reason, Winston hasn’t. Neither has Mariota.
The top of that 2015 draft is in trouble, with few signs of better days to come.
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