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Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota can get back on track — just probably not this season

Two of the game’s most exciting young QBs a year ago are struggling this year. Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz explains why.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Tennessee Titans The Tennessean-USA TODAY Sports

The quarterback position is what drives the NFL game. We know the elder statesmen at this position: first ballot Hall of Famers like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and so on. There’s the next tier of quarterbacks after that: Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, etc. Then we have an entire bunch of young unproven quarterbacks, guys we all hope will be the future of the NFL: Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Mitchell Trubisky, etc.

Sandwiched in between those last two groups of quarterbacks are the players who have shown that they have what it takes to succeed. The question for that bunch now is whether or not they can continue their upward path.

These are guys we expected to make the leap in 2017 to become upper echelon quarterbacks: Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, and Jameis Winston. None of three has had much success in 2017.

I’m going to use this space to discuss Carr and Mariota because they took the same path to their 2017 seasons, and they have something in common with last year’s injuries. Their struggles can be explained, to an extent, but not excused.

The teams are struggling around them

Both Carr and Mariota have struggled this season, and it reflects on their teams’ overall play. The Oakland Raiders were 12-4 last year and a preseason pick to win the AFC West. They are still in the hunt for that division title at 6-7, mostly because the AFC West winner might get in with just eight or nine wins.

The Tennessee Titans were preseason darlings, a team everyone, including myself, thought would make that next jump and challenge AFC stalwarts like the Patriots and Steelers. That isn’t happening, even if the Titans still are likely to make the playoffs.

Carr and Mariota have both seen a significant drop in their passer ratings from 2016 to 2017. Mariota’s has dropped 18 points, from 95.6 to 76.9, good for the second-worst drop between the two seasons. Carr’s hasn’t dropped as much, down almost eight points, but it’s good for fourth-worst.

You will find throughout this article that, statically, Carr looks about the same as last season. Mariota is currently at 10 passing touchdowns and 14 interceptions, compared to last season’s 26/9 campaign. He’s been sacked 22 times in 12 games, compared to 23 in 15 games last season.

On paper, Carr’s numbers look about the same as last season, minus the interceptions, which are up, but the overall production isn’t there. Carr’s receivers also have failed him often, dropping 32 passes. Only the Giants have dropped more (33). Besides one Thursday game, Amari Cooper has been a no-show.

Deep-ball issues

Where both Carr and Mariota have struggled mightily this season compared to last is the deep ball. In 2016, Carr had a passer rating of 117.6 on balls thrown over 20 yards. Mariota had a rating of 101.2 in the same situation. This season, Carr is at 58.6 and Mariota is at 72.

In general, both of their offenses are built to run first, pass second. They aren’t aggressive passing offenses; the run sets up the pass. In 2016, this worked perfectly. The Titans were third in yards per game and the Raiders sixth. When an offense can run the ball, it will see more single high safety, thus allowing more one-on-one matchups on the outside. Some home run balls have a better chance to get caught.

An offense isn’t run through the quarterback. Third down tends to be easier because it’s shorter as well. This season, the Titans are 10th in rushing, while the Raiders have fallen to 26th, which for them is unacceptable. I’ve written previously about their coordinator change and how it’s affected the run game. Neither offense, because of the way each is designed, can help a quarterback when things aren’t going right.

Injuries and the long road to recovery

I lumped Mariota and Carr together for this article because they have something in common that hurt them both coming into this season. Both quarterbacks were playing well last season when they fractured their ankles in Week 15.

I should know something about this because I’ve both fractured and dislocated my ankle and then fractured it again. Typically when you fracture your ankle, the non-weight-bearing fibula bone in the lower leg breaks. A plate is inserted to stabilize it, and you’re not able to put weight on it for a few weeks to let it heal. Then, gradually, you start the rehab process. To my knowledge, none of these quarterbacks had any ligament damage, as I did.

I predicted that both quarterbacks would have an easy rehab and get back on the field to start training camp. They are both young and athletic, and that should speed up the healing process. And in fact, both quarterbacks were ready to go for camp.

But there’s a common misconception that when athletes are rehabbing, they are also training at 100 percent. While the training sessions are 100 percent of what you’re able to do at that moment, the point of rehab is trying to get that affected body part back to where it was so you’re able to fully train like usual.

For example, I was rehabbing from my ankle surgery from December to the start of training camp at the end of July. My ankle wasn’t fully back to normal. I was told it was closer to 80 percent, which is about what it felt like to start camp. My typical offseason training regimen had been full speed ahead starting in March. Squats, sled pushes, offensive line drills, and so on, working at near 100 percent and getting the most out of training.

When you’re rehabbing, you’re not working at that same capacity for the amount of time as you’re accustomed to. I didn’t feel close to my usual training tempo until four weeks before the season started. So I missed out on months of my usual training for the season while getting my ankle healthy again.

Did I squat? Yes. Did I do sled pushes? Yes. However, those weren’t at the same capacity as previous offseasons. This is why you often hear it takes two years to fully recover from an injury: one year for rehab and the following offseason like usual.

Carr and Mariota had to deal with similar offseasons. They were rehabbing their ankles, not taking the usual amount of reps, and not having the usual amount of training sessions. On top of that, throw in Carr having a new offensive coordinator.

Both have shown this season that they missed that time to improve and train like usual. Neither quarterback has been as crisp. They’ve played tentatively at times, reluctant to take the downfield shots they used to throw more consistently. With the lack of practice reps nowadays, every rep is important, especially at a cerebral position like quarterback. This is one of the main reasons for their struggles this season.

Carr and Mariota are supremely talented. I believe both guys can be in the next wave of elite quarterbacks, but they won’t get back on track until they’re both completely healthy. I’m already looking forward to seeing them in the 2018 season.

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