The Football Outsiders Film Room is back … without any film! At the time of this writing, the NFL still has yet to release the all-22 coaches film from this past weekend, so we will have to make do with what we have.
Last weekend's debut set of games gave the NFL world plenty to talk about. From New England's quarterback run schemes with Cam Newton to Washington's defensive line nearly hitting double-digit sacks on Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, the new and exciting angles to discuss are seemingly endless. For this week's Film Room, though, we'll dive into a mustached quarterback from north Florida who threw just a single incompletion on opening weekend.
That's right, Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew only had one of his 20 pass attempts on Sunday hit the ground. Better yet, Minshew very well could have notched a 100% completion rate if rookie wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. had held onto a pass just a bit tighter. The second-year passer delivered a near-perfect ball to his rookie pass-catcher, only for Indianapolis Colts cornerback Kenny Moore to dive in for a well-earned pass deflection.
If you really want to nitpick it, maybe this ball is a smidgen high. Hitting Shenault in the numbers rather than the face mask would have been ideal. Still, this is a plenty catchable ball for even a practice squad wide receiver, but a blend of rookie pass-catching jitters and excellent coverage overrode Minshew's ball placement. Even then, it feels more like Minshew flipped a coin and it came up on the wrong side. If you replay this exact scenario 100 times over, I would be willing to bet Shenault comes down with it more times than not.
That was Minshew's lone incompletion. With a dash of better luck or stronger hands from Shenault, Minshew could have finished the day with a 100% completion rate, something no quarterback has ever done while throwing at least 20 passes. Minshew's 95% mark still almost took the top spot for completion percentage in a game -- since the merger, only three quarterbacks (Drew Brees 2019, Philip Rivers 2018, Marcus Mariota 2018) have produced a higher single-game completion percentage on at least 20 attempts.
The question with Minshew is, how does a seemingly unremarkable talent produce such a stunning performance? A pair of weak outside cornerbacks and conservative coverage shells on the side of the Colts certainly played a hand, but the most important part of the equation is Minshew understanding who he is as a passer. Minshew is physically limited, but he knows it and understands how to maximize his skill set despite those limitations.
Private quarterback coach Quincy Avery -- who works with Deshaun Watson, Dwayne Haskins, and others -- went on The Athletic's NFL podcast with Robert Mays this week and echoed the same idea. In talking about some of the pleasant surprises from last weekend's quarterback play, Avery said, "[Minshew] is limited physically, honestly, but the way that he played … it was very mindful of what his limitations are and how he can get the ball into playmakers' hands. It's a true testament to the work he has put in this offseason." Avery went on to add that Minshew will not keep up this kind of production for 16 games, which is fair considering how easy the Colts defense made things on Sunday and how incomplete the Jags offense appears to be, but it is tough not to be impressed by this particular performance.
While some of that nuance and savvy showed up during his rookie year as well, Avery is absolutely right in suggesting that Minshew has taken it a step further this year. Minshew's advanced trigger discipline, eye manipulation, and light footwork were all on display in his dismantling of the Colts' defense.
Eye manipulation, in particular, was a point of emphasis for Minshew on Sunday. On more than one occasion, Minshew was able to draw or hold a defender to a particular area in order to help get a receiver open in a nearby pocket of space. Even if just an extra foot or 2, the space Minshew helps buy for his receivers can go a long way in making life easier on everyone involved.
The Colts defense loves Cover-2. Both Minshew and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden knew it, too. In this example, the Jaguars are running a bubble screen paired with a wheel/fade route. This is a common combination because the wheel/fade pairs well with a standard bubble screen call since the wide receiver begins his route by attacking the outside cornerback as if he is going to block him. Just before the fade receiver breaks up the field, Minshew turns his body and pumps to the bubble screen. The cornerback bites on the fake and gets beat over the top, leaving Minshew a window between the split-field safety and the cornerback.
This time around, Minshew shows off some of his eye manipulation on the fly. Whereas the eyes and pump fake in the previous play are somewhat built into the design, that is not the case on this rollout play. As Minshew starts to get his head around when he comes out of the fake, he wants tight end Tyler Eifert in the flat. That will be the case for most quarterbacks on these simple rollout concepts. However, knowing he has some time to work with, Minshew slides his eyes back towards the middle of the field and towards some of his deeper options. As he does so, nickel cornerback Kenny Moore (23) and linebacker Anthony Walker (54) both trail backwards to prevent any deeper passes, giving Eifert a ton of space for an easy catch-and-run.
In all honesty, Minshew's efforts on that play likely netted the Jaguars just a couple of extra yards. However, let's say that Minshew does something along these lines five times a game. Two more yards here, one more here, another three there. After a while, those plays start adding up, as the difference between having to punt and earning a fresh set of downs is often just a couple of yards. That drive in particular illustrates that point well. After this pass, the Jaguars failed to gain any yardage on second down and barely converted on third-and-2 with a 2-yard gain. Two plays later, Minshew tossed the go-ahead touchdown pass.
It is not just eye manipulation that keeps Minshew one step ahead of defenses, either. Minshew's footwork also helps him remain in a comfortable position to throw at any time, from any platform, to any area on the field. Especially for a young player, Minshew's feet and mechanics are as fluid as any in the league, even if his natural arm strength only allows him to make use of that flexibility on short to intermediate throws.
First, notice how light Minshew plays on his feet. His heels almost never hit the ground and he is not applying much pressure in planting his foot with each step. Every movement Minshew makes allows the following movement to be easy and natural. The value of that freedom of movement is best seen when Minshew starts moving his front foot to the left. With three rapid steps -- front foot moves left, back foot moves right, front foot resets and lightly pushes off the ground -- Minshew fully unlocks his hips and torso to make this throw without turbulence. Not a single person is going to say Minshew is anywhere near Aaron Rodgers, but this kind of light footwork is something Rodgers has mastered and is a key pillar to his game. It is encouraging that Minshew can show shades of the best quarterbacks with plays like this.
The eye manipulation, footwork, and accuracy are all important in Minshew's success. That being said, to circle back to Avery's comments from earlier, Minshew's understanding of what he can and cannot do is the glue that holds his game together. His ability to play within his skill set is his cornerstone as a capable, if uninspiring, starting quarterback. All of the other nuances in Minshew's game are built off that foundation of him knowing and embracing exactly who he is.
According to NFL's Next Gen Stats, Minshew attempted tight-window throws at the second-lowest rate (5%) in the league in Week 1. Only one quarterback had a lower rate: Russell Wilson, facing a horrid Falcons defense, did not attempt a single tight-window pass. Minshew's 4.5 average intended air yards was also the second-lowest in the league, topping only Jared Goff. Moreover, Jacksonville's second-year quarterback attempted just one official pass attempt beyond 20 yards: a wide-open play-action pass for a touchdown, much like the concept the Rams scored with against the Vikings in 2018. Minshew's only other 20-plus-yard pass attempt was an underthrown go ball that drew a defensive pass interference call.
How bright Minshew's star can shine will be defined by how much he can grow as a playmaker. Due to the limitations of his arm strength and modest mobility, Minshew is unlikely to be a true game-changer. The deep passing, tight-window skills, and dual-threat capabilities required to be a legitimate game-changer may not ever be there with Minshew. Last weekend's game did not give him much of a chance to prove any developments in those areas, either.
What the Colts game did prove, however, is how high Minshew's floor is. As just a second-year quarterback, Minshew is already among the league's best at taking what the defense gives him and making the most of it. The subtleties in his game are well beyond his years and only suggest he will be able to continue building on those finer aspects of quarterback play. Time will tell if Minshew ever becomes a quarterback that takes over games, but there is already a degree of trust that he can be the one to keep the boat afloat in Jacksonville.