It couldn’t have been easier for the Philadelphia defense.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Landry Jones, the starter in week two of the 2016 NFL pre-season, made a rookie mistake. Actually, he made an undrafted-free-agent-in-his-first-game mistake. He stared down his primary receiver. Not just a little, either; it was as if Jones was actually trying to control his receiver’s movements via extra-sensory perception, the way he was concentrated on receiver Sammie Coates.
The defender, Nolan Carroll, never took his eyes off Jones. He never had to. He knew where his receiver was going to be just by watching Jones’ eyes. Thirty-eight yards and six points later, the Eagles had the only points they would end up needing. That, too, was due to more of Jones’ mistakes as the first half dragged on, and it pulled a fanbase already antsy about the backup quarterback situation along for a very bumpy ride.
I won’t blame the second interception on Jones, as the receiver, Cobi Hamilton, appeared to be interfered with, and the ball took a bounce that was fortunate for the Eagles.
The third? Iffy. Coates is going to have to do a much better job of using his size to keep defenders from taking his positioning away. But he was covered well the whole time, and Jones should have seen that. It was first down, for crying out loud. Take something short and live to play again another down.
The fourth, though, was the worst. It has nothing to do with the fact that the throw looked more like a place-kick, the way it tumbled. That was because Jones’ arm was hit as he threw. It was the fact that he, once again, made a mistake he’s been known for making since he was drafted: he failed to step up in the pocket.
And that’s the problem: he keeps making the same mistakes. For all the growth we’ve seen in him over the last twelve months, the things he struggles with the most are things that should have been fixed long ago. They aren’t nuances, they are fundamentals. Don’t stare down your receiver, especially on out-routes and comebacks, where the defender can make the first break on the ball. Don’t stand in one place in the pocket; move around and use the constantly morphing space to your advantage. Go through your progressions and, if no one is open, just throw it away. Don’t force a bad throw.
His accuracy has improved. In fact, it’s gotten so much better that he seems to think he has the pinpoint type of accuracy his mentor, Ben Roethlisberger, possesses. The truth is, few quarterbacks can thread the ball into the small windows like Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Palmer and Tony Romo. And, for someone like Jones, who isn’t supposed to ever see the field under ideal conditions, it’s something that shouldn’t be attempted in his rare opportunities to play.
The problem, though, is that we haven’t seen the same improvements in his decision-making and awareness that we’ve seen in his accuracy. He may not be over- or under-throwing every last receiver, but he’s not demonstrating the knowledge of the intricacies of the game that’s expected of someone by their fourth year. He takes two steps forward, and draws you into the belief that he’s turned another corner. Then he stumbles three steps back, and you wonder if he’ll ever get it.
As a backup, Jones’ job isn’t to win games. It’s to not lose them. But right now, with failures in the fundamentals of the game, Jones may be more of a liability than current third-string quarterback Dustin Vaughan. Vaughan’s accuracy at this point in his career is markedly better than Jones’ was at the same point, and he moves in the pocket like a veteran. He’s certainly no number two right now. But, all things considered, neither is Jones.
And there, to quote William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is the rub. If Roethlisberger can play the entire season healthy for the third time in four seasons, this is a moot point. But if he is forced to miss any time, the backup situation us as shaky as it’s been in years. They have Jones, who is infuriatingly close to solid, yet at the same time far enough away to make you shudder at the thought of him playing extended time; and they have Vaughan. If they are counting on Vaughan for an extended stretch, the conversation is likely to be more about how high of a draft pick the team can manage with the season already a lost cause than it is about any remaining outside chance of making a playoff run.
Now, though, with training camp already behind us and the first round of roster cuts looming, it isn’t a good time to be having this discussion. The team nobly and loyally waited for Bruce Gradkowski to heal from last year’s injuries, but now it appears he is done for the season, if not his career, with a significant hamstring tear. But, given his age, maybe waiting for Gradkowski wasn’t the wisest decision — loyalty be damned. Now, there’s no one left of value to even bring in for a tryout. The best the team can hope for is to find someone in another team’s scrap heap after rosters are trimmed to 75, then to 53. Otherwise, it’s Jones and Vaughan, or bust.
Keeping Jones now is a necessary evil. But maybe it’s time to start looking for the first opportunity to cut and run.