The NFL season can dramatically affect one’s confidence — in either direction. Sometimes what you thought you knew in August turns out to be dead wrong. Sometimes you’re happy about that, and sometimes you’re not.
Which brings us to the latest edition of ESPN’s Quarterback Confidence Index, also known as the toughest one yet.
Remember, the index ranks each team’s confidence in its overall quarterback situation. It does not simply rank starters, assess 2017 performances or predict who will be good the longest. We have to factor in health — short term and long term — age, contract situations and quality of backups.
Which makes things confusing when you factor in the following:
The Patriots, who have been the no-brainer No. 1 since we started doing this last year, have traded both of the well-regarded backups to their 40-year-old starter since August.
The Vikings are winning games with a third-stringer, and all three of their quarterbacks are eligible for free agency.
The Giants’ surprise late-season benching of Eli Manning for Geno Smith.
The 49ers could have their QB of the future on their roster, but he hasn’t actually started a game for them (though he will this week).
Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Carson Palmer, Ryan Tannehill and Andrew Luck are all hurt.
The whole Bills thing.
With all of that in mind, this thing has been shaken up — starting right at the very top.
Click on the links below to go directly to your team.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
The only negative is sample size as Carson Wentz is still less than two years removed from playing for North Dakota State. But the other shoe kind of refuses to drop in Philly, where Wentz’s development has accelerated quicker than even the Eagles could have imagined. Wentz is hanging 30 points on the board every week, converting almost every third down and exhibiting total command with no sign of letting up. He’s 24 years old, which means the future is bright. He won’t cost the Eagles any real quarterback money until 2020. Nick Foles is an experienced backup who knows the system should anything happen. It’s crazy that it happened so fast, but the Eagles’ quarterback situation may be the envy of the league right now.
2. Seattle Seahawks
This was a tough call, because it doesn’t seem fair to penalize the Patriots for dealing away their backup plan when the Seahawks never had one in the first place. So in the absence of a viable backup situation for either Seattle or New England, we’re slotting the Seahawks at No. 2 mainly because Russell Wilson is 12 years younger than Tom Brady. Wilson is doing hero’s work this season, with no run game or pass protection and a defense shredded by injuries. He leads the team in rushing yards by almost 200 and is only three rushing attempts behind team leader Eddie Lacy. If Seattle had the same record as Philly and New England, Wilson would be the MVP front-runner. The Seahawks would be toast if he got hurt and they had to go with Austin Davis, but Wilson has never missed a game.
3. New England Patriots
It says everything about Tom Brady that the Patriots are still this high. He’s basically the best player in the league, and at age 40, he’s doing things players half his age can only dream of doing. Brady has given us no reason to doubt his plans to play until his mid-40s, so we take his word for it — but only to a certain extent. Continuing his level of play past 40 would be unprecedented, so it can’t be assumed he will. And with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett no longer there, the overall confidence in the quarterback situation has to take a hit — especially when you factor in the Patriots’ team goals. It’s pretty tough to imagine current backup Brian Hoyer coming back from 25 points down to win the Super Bowl.
4. Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan is not having the MVP season he had in 2016, but he’s still top five in Total QBR, and 32 years old is still part of a quarterback’s prime. It was a tough call between the Falcons and the Lions for this spot, but Atlanta gets the edge due to its confidence in backup Matt Schaub and his knowledge of the scheme, even though Ryan doesn’t miss games.
5. Detroit Lions
Matthew Stafford is not about missing games, either. Any issues he had with health are buried way back in the early part of his career. He now plays through pain and has delivered one of his most productive seasons in the wake of his record contract extension. He already has cracked 3,000 yards and has 21 touchdowns against just six interceptions. Jake Rudock is the untested backup.
6. New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees is another guy who gets marked down for age. It’s not personal, believe me. All these guys are younger than I am. I hate to do it, but Brees turns 39 in January, so you have to wonder how much longer he can sustain this. The Saints have run the ball well enough and played good enough defense this season that Brees hasn’t needed to be his usual dominant self. Still, he has shown he can be when necessary. He’s not signed beyond this season, but that’s a formality. He’ll stay as long as he wants in New Orleans, and he has no desire to leave. That’s good, because his successor isn’t on the roster.
7. Los Angeles Chargers
Rinse, repeat. Philip Rivers isn’t as old as Brees or Brady, but he’ll turn 36 in December and is obviously closer to the end than to the beginning. He’s also on fire right now, and could lead the Chargers to a stunning comeback in the AFC West. He’s another never-missed-a-game guy; he’s scheduled to start his 188th consecutive regular-season game on Sunday against the Browns. Kellen Clemens and Cardale Jones are the backups, and Jones is at least an interesting long-range prospect.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger is 35 years old, and of course you’ve heard by now that he publicly contemplated retirement last offseason and likely will again each offseason. Armed with the best receiver and running back in the game, Roethlisberger has a shot at a third Super Bowl ring this season, even if he doesn’t seem like his old, spry, accurate self. Landry Jones and rookie Joshua Dobbs are the backups. Jones has shown he can at least play a little if needed. Dobbs could turn out to be the future, but who knows?
9. Dallas Cowboys
A couple of weeks ago, we were ready to rocket the Cowboys into the top tier of this list. Dak Prescott still feels like one of the best bets to assume the quarterback greatness mantle for the next decade, but he has thrown five interceptions and no touchdown passes in the first three games of running back Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension. This serves to remind us that Elliott, not Prescott, should have been offensive rookie of the year in 2016 and leads us to at least tap the brakes on the Prescott hype train until Zeke gets back. Still high on Dak, but it has been a good few weeks for those who wonder whether he’s a product of his environment.
10. Green Bay Packers
Because Aaron Rodgers is hurt. We expect him to come back — maybe even later this season. And the way backup Brett Hundley played last week against the Steelers, a Rodgers return would make Green Bay a strong candidate for the No. 1 spot on this list. But Rodgers still can’t play and Hundley is obviously not a finished product. The Packers remain this high because the confidence is high in Rodgers for 2018 and beyond. But right now, he’s hurt.
11. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders committed big money to Derek Carr in the offseason, so they’re confident in him. And he’s on track for career highs in completion percentage, yards per attempt and Total QBR. His interceptions are up since last season, but they almost had to be, with the season not going the way the Raiders hoped it would. Still, they remain confident in Carr, who’s just 26 and likely to be their guy for a long time. EJ Manuel and Connor Cook form a better backup group than what a lot of teams have.
12. Carolina Panthers
Total QBR is a 0-to-100 scale. Cam Newton has had five games this season in which his QBR was under 35.0 and three in which it exceeded 87.0. That’s a wide range of potential outcomes, and it makes for a roller-coaster ride for a player who remains one of the game’s top enigmas. Newton has dealt with shoulder and now thumb injuries this season, but he has played through them all and has the Panthers at 8-3 — one win from what would be just the third winning season they’ve had in his seven as their starter. See? Enigma. The Panthers have confidence in him, and a good bit of it in backup Derek Anderson as well. But sometimes you have to wonder where the consistency is.
The easy gag here is, “If Washington were really confident in Kirk Cousins, why wouldn’t the team sign him long term?” And there’s more than a kernel of truth to that. Cousins is in his third straight season of elite-level quarterback production, and he’s doing it while his offensive line crumbles around him, his top two running backs are on injured reserve, his tight end can’t get on the field and his overhauled wide receiver corps has taken three-quarters of a season to sort itself out. At this point, Washington must have confidence in Cousins as a guy who can deliver at a high level. But since he’s unsigned and it would cost Washington a fortune to use the transition or franchise tag on him next season, the team can’t be confident it will have him much longer. Colt McCoy remains the backup, if you can believe that.
14. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams’ confidence in second-year man Jared Goff is light-years beyond what it was at the start of the season. The way Goff has responded to new head coach Sean McVay and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur makes it seem that his No. 1 overall pick pedigree could pan out after all and that the Rams could stay out of the Cousins market this offseason. Goff is still young and has a ways to go before we’re sure about him. But all of this season’s signs are positive confidence-builders. Sean Mannion and Brandon Allen are the backups, which means an injury to Goff could kill the Rams’ hopes for playoff success this season. But who knows, maybe McVay is a magician.
15. Minnesota Vikings
How are we defining confidence? Regardless of your answer, how do we apply it to the Vikings’ quarterback situation? Yeah, they’re winning with Case Keenum somehow. But you want to try to convince me he’s not one three-interception game away from getting benched for Teddy Bridgewater, who hasn’t played in a game since 2015? Oh, and by the way, both of these guys are free agents after the season, as is Week 1 starter Sam Bradford, who’s out for the season with a knee injury. Will any of them be back? Will all of them be back? Kudos to coach Mike Zimmer, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and the Vikings for making this work. There’s no reason to doubt their ability to continue to do so. But there’s as much volatility in this situation as there is in all of the ones that aren’t working. The difference is, this one is.
16. Cincinnati Bengals
Smack-dab in the middle always feels like the right spot for Andy Dalton, whose current Total QBR of 42.1 would be a career low if the season ended today. He has some of those same week-to-week consistency issues we talked about with Newton, minus the running and the potential for the razzle-dazzle. AJ McCarron remains one of the better-regarded backups in the league, which pushes the Bengals’ ranking up a bit, but he might not be in Cincinnati next season.
17. Tennessee Titans
Who saw a step-back season coming for Marcus Mariota in Tennessee? Something’s off track here, and while the future remains bright for Mariota and his talent, you always have to wonder when the development doesn’t happen as smoothly as you anticipated it would. Mariota also brought health questions into the season and has been a bit nicked up this year, too. He has veteran backups in Matt Cassel and Brandon Weeden, so maybe they could hold it down if they needed to. But Tennessee’s confidence is all tied up in Mariota’s health and the hope that he busts out of his slump to finish this season.
18. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It already felt like a step-back season for Jameis Winston. Then came the injury. He’ll make his first start in three weeks on Sunday against the Packers. He’s still the quarterback the Bucs plan to build around for the long term, and they believe in him. But with a potential coaching change looming, there’s volatility here, and Winston remains an unfinished product. Ryan Fitzpatrick is what he is, but he’s a veteran backup who hasn’t embarrassed the Bucs in a lost season.
19. Houston Texans
Fast-forward to next season, and if Deshaun Watson is back to full strength, the confidence at quarterback in Houston will be through the roof. That’s how impressive Watson was before his knee injury, and with a full recovery expected, Houston ranks ahead of a lot of teams on this list. But with Tom Savage in there for now and turning it over three times a game, confidence for the rest of this season is low.
20. Kansas City Chiefs
What on earth has happened in Kansas City over the past two months? Alex Smith was an MVP front-runner, in line for a big new contract next offseason from the Chiefs or someone else. Now, having lost five of the past six games, the fans want him benched for Patrick Mahomes — who could be great but also a huge disaster. Confidence? Oh, confidence? Wherefore art thou, confidence?
21. Indianapolis Colts
A couple of reasons to like the Colts’ situation more than the ones that remain on this list: 1) It’s a better bet than not that Andrew Luck is back next year, and 2) Jacoby Brissett looks like a young developmental backup who might have the goods. They’re down here because Luck is out for the season, but if he comes back, the Colts will shoot up the list.
22. Baltimore Ravens
It says a lot about Joe Flacco and where he is in his career that the Ravens fall below the Chiefs and Colts. To watch this past Monday night’s game was to see a team win in spite of its quarterback play. The Ravens have nothing going down the field, are living on checkdown throws that anyone could make and are stuck with Flacco and his monster contract for at least two more years after this one. Backup Ryan Mallett is not viable. This could be a playoff team because of the defense, but it’s hard to imagine the Ravens matching up with other playoff teams with this quarterback situation.
23. Chicago Bears
Too soon to have confidence in Mitchell Trubisky, too late to believe in Mike Glennon. What the Bears have is hope for the future because of Trubisky’s talent. The QB has the chance to show over the final five weeks that there’s something on which to build. But no one knows who will be coaching him next season or beyond. This situation is too tough to forecast.
24. New York Giants
Welp, we had to change this one on the fly. Geno Smith gets the start this week, with totally untested (and lightly practiced!) third-round rookie Davis Webb expected to see plenty of action before season’s end. No way to have any confidence in this situation for the rest of the season, or even beyond that. Will a still-healthy but ego-bruised Eli Manning be back in 2018? Will the Giants draft a quarterback with what’s sure to be a very high pick next spring? No way to answer the staggering number of questions this team has created for itself at QB. The best thing we can say is that the Giants are the only team in the league with a backup quarterback who has never missed a game due to injury and has been named Super Bowl MVP twice. So that’s something.
25. San Francisco 49ers
Another unknown. Rookie C.J. Beathard has shown some flashes, but he’s hurt and the new guy in town is Jimmy Garoppolo, who was acquired last month from the Patriots for a second-round pick. The Niners think Garoppolo could be their quarterback of the future, and if he plays well over the final five weeks and they sign him long term, that will indicate a high level of confidence. But he has yet to prove anything, and it remains possible (though not likely) that they move on from him and look elsewhere (Cousins?) in the offseason. Stay tuned on confidence in San Francisco.
26. New York Jets
Entering a grim zone now. Josh McCown has played more than well enough to deserve the Jets’ confidence as their starter for the rest of the season, but then what? He’s 38 years old and has never played like this before. He’s surely not the long-term answer, and bringing him back to start next season would be like repeating the Ryan Fitzpatrick mistake of 2016. The Jets have no idea what they have in Christian Hackenberg, who still hasn’t played. And their record might not be bad enough to put them at the top of the draft. This is a team that can’t possibly have any confidence in its long-term QB situation, which is as great an unknown as any in the league.
27. Miami Dolphins
Hard to imagine Jay Cutler putting off broadcasting another year to come back and do this again. Ryan Tannehill should be back from injury in time for next season, but where was the confidence in him to begin with? The Dolphins can escape that contract and start over if they want. Matt Moore is a fine backup but no more than that. There are more questions than answers in Miami.
28. Buffalo Bills
We don’t have to wonder about coach Sean McDermott’s confidence in Tyrod Taylor. It was pretty clear that he doesn’t have much once he benched Taylor for Nathan Peterman. Peterman, as you might have heard, threw five interceptions in the first half of his first start in Week 11 and hasn’t played since. Not too confidence-inspiring. The Bills are back to Taylor, which means they’ll enter the offseason back at square one. Taylor is better than a lot of people think and could get the Bills to the playoffs this season. But this is a confidence ranking, and again, we know they don’t have any in him.
29. Arizona Cardinals
So much is unknown here. Will Carson Palmer, out for the year with injury, retire at season’s end or come back in 2018? If he doesn’t come back, can Blaine Gabbert play well enough from here on out to get a shot as the 2018 starter? Will Arizona finally draft a QB? Will Bruce Arians retire from coaching, and if so, how does that affect the team’s vision and decisions at the position? No solid answers here, no real confidence.
30. Cleveland Browns
Still a long way from confidence, but rookie DeShone Kizer has actually been pretty good in two of the past three games. They were road games, too — in Detroit and Cincinnati — and he handled himself pretty well. He has a strong arm, adds something with his legs, and if receiver Josh Gordon has anything to offer, it’s possible the group around Kizer will offer opportunity to build some confidence in the final few games of the season. Hey, you never know. But he has shown enough to keep this team out of the basement of these rankings.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
Blake Bortles is exactly what the Jaguars thought he was before the season. As usual, a completion percentage under 59 with 12 touchdowns against eight interceptions. The Jags win with their run game and their defense, and when they have to ask Bortles to win it for them, they end up disappointed. They’ll almost certainly move on at season’s end, which puts them in the bucket of teams that have no idea what they’ll do at the position in 2018 and beyond. Current backup Chad Henne is not the future.
32. Denver Broncos
What a mess. Paxton Lynch finally gets in there, and now he’s hurt. So they’re back to Trevor Siemian, whose once promising season went so far off the rails they had to go to Brock Osweiler before Lynch was healthy. They still don’t know what they have in Lynch (except a guy who has been hurt a lot), and what they’ve seen from Siemian and Osweiler doesn’t offer short-term or long-term answers. It’s possible there’s no team in the league more lost at QB than John Elway’s Broncos.