There is a famous thought experiment called Schrödinger’s Cat. Essentially, the experiment proposes a scenario in which there is a cat in a chamber with a device that has an equal probability of killing it at any moment. The cat also has an equal probability of surviving the chamber, and the outside world isn’t able to observe the cat while it is in the chamber. To the outside world, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead until the box is opened and the cat is observed. Two parallel situations are unfolding right now in the NFL, and two players—Tyrod Taylor of the Houston Texans and Jordan Love of the Green Bay Packers—exist in a state where they’re both simultaneously the backup and the starter. Neither player has any control over their situation, which distinguishes them from quarterbacks that are battling for the starting job like in New Orleans between Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston. Introducing Schrödinger’s Quarterback.
In Houston, quarterback DeShaun Watson has had one of the most high-profile and shocking offseasons that any NFL player has had in recent memory. The sexual assault allegations levied at Watson are potentially career-ending if true—and rightfully so. Even before these allegations started coming out, Watson expressed dissatisfaction with the Texans and demanded a trade from the organization. While there are many things to criticize the Texans over, they also now face a near-impossible situation where their quarterback wants a trade but no other team can take the risk to bring him on. That said, while he’s still under contract for the Texans there’s a non-zero chance that he still ends up suiting up for the Texans again. If Watson reports and is able to escape the Commissioner’s Exempt list or a suspension, it’s impossible to imagine the Texans benching him in favor of Taylor.
The other contender for “Most High Profile NFL Offseason 2021” is Aaron Rodgers, who has taken turns hosting Jeopardy while apparently growing increasingly dissatisfied with the Green Bay Packers and is widely considered to want a trade at risk of retiring. I personally expect that Rodgers will play for the Packers next year, although his absence from organized team activities could be interpreted as the sort of “escalating incident” that I felt was missing from Adam Schefter’s infamous Draft-day story.
Watson’s continuing absence and Rodgers’ absence from OTAs have thrust Taylor and Love into situations where they are simultaneously the starters and the backups. The problem is that these circumstances just don’t feel sustainable. While every backup says that they try to prepare as if they are the starter because they can be one on a single play, there’s a difference in the kind of preparation and expectations between quarterbacks whose roles are clearly set and what is happening in Green Bay and Houston. How beneficial is it for Taylor and Love to work with the first units for an extended amount of time if Watson and Rodgers swoop in and have to rebuild their chemistry with the offensive weapons? Is there a lack of buy-in from their teammates, all of whom would almost certainly rather be working with the more proven alternatives and wouldn’t bat an eye if the established starters returned?
As for Taylor and Love themselves, they may hope to get the opportunity to start this year, but both face near-impossible odds to succeed. While he experienced, Taylor has become a near punchline as one of the least exciting quarterbacks in the league. Both of Taylor’s last two teams—the Browns and the Chargers—have been significantly more dynamic offensively without Taylor in the starting lineup. In 2018, Taylor averaged just 221.5 passing yards and totaled a 2:2 TD/Int ratio in his first two starts before leaving his third game due to injury following a dreadful performance where he completed 4/14 passes for just 19 yards. The Browns under Baker Mayfield would go on to average 266.1 yards over 14 games—including the game in which he replaced Taylor—and set a rookie record for passing touchdowns.
Taylor would go on to win his only start of 2020 against a hapless Bengals team, but only passed for just 208 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He ceded the starting role to Justin Herbert after suffering one of the most bizarre injuries in NFL history and was forced to watch another historic performance in his stead. This doesn’t mean that Taylor was just two injuries away from these historic seasons himself—an almost Gase-ian narrative formed around him where teams get better when he isn’t there. Despite his experience, Taylor hasn’t shown the ability to carry a team or elevate the players around him, and it is hard to imagine him doing so with the Texans’ meager supporting cast that is considered to be among the worst in the league.
Of the two teams, the Packers are certainly more capable than the Texans of absorbing the blow of losing their star quarterback, but they also have the much more inexperienced replacement who very well may not be ready for the starting gig. Love hasn’t even suited up for a preseason game so far in his NFL career, let alone a regular season game. Although the Packers have a roster that is capable of a deep postseason run with Rodgers, and while Love could certainly surprise everyone, it’s hard to imagine him leading the Packers to even a winning season this year.
Love’s impact would obviously extend to the myriad important players on the Packers for fantasy purposes, including early-round players Davante Adams and Aaron Jones, not to mention presumptive TE1 Robert Tonyan. I don’t think it would necessarily crater their fantasy value—especially Adams, who is the best receiver in the league in my mind—but it would be hard to justify even a second-round pick for either player without the ceiling provided by Rodgers. There are very few Texans that are fantasy-relevant anyway—David Johnson and Brandin Cooks are somewhat interesting options as volume-based RB3 and WR3s, respectively—but those options have virtually no value without Watson.
It’s worth wondering if Taylor and Love should even want these opportunities. They obviously want—they’re world-class athletes with the competitive drives that come with that—but are these opportunities good for their careers and health? I would argue no. Houston’s supporting cast is not very good, and if Love isn’t ready, he could very easily find himself in a play that gets him hurt.
Another uninspiring season from Taylor could force him out of the league instead of allowing him to follow the Matt Schaub trajectory of a decade-plus collecting checks as a backup. Meanwhile, Love could certainly afford another season of development. On top of the pressures of suddenly being thrust into the starting lineup in lieu of a future Hall of Famer—as someone once said, “you never want to be the guy that replaces The Guy”—we’ve seen that NFL teams are giving an increasingly short rope to even highly drafted quarterbacks that don’t immediately live up to expectations. Love has fewer excuses and was less heavily invested in than most recent examples of quarterbacks who were cut bait from relatively quickly: Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold. While Darnold is getting a fresh start and second chance, Love could just as easily end up like Rosen, who is barely hanging on to an NFL roster spot just three seasons after being a first-round pick.
Taylor and Love’s situations could be clarified at literally any moment—either player could find themselves returning to the second units or the permanent starter—but it is just as likely that their dual role will remain murky until the first game is played. No matter what ends up happening, we will get some sort of answer when the season starts in roughly three months. I hope that the ambiguity surrounding Taylor and Love is cleared up before then, but no matter what, the chamber is opening on September 12th, and we’ll know what kind of cat we have.