Even as the coronavirus pandemic has shut down college basketball, the NBA, MLB and NHL, NFL free agency has delivered some uplifting news to fans in Eastern Washington and northeast Florida who have a shared admiration for former Washington State and current Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew.
On Wednesday, the Jaguars effectively committed to a future with Minshew as their starting quarterback, sending 31-year-old Nick Foles to the Chicago Bears in exchange for a compensatory fourth-round draft pick.
Two years removed from his lone season at WSU, which Minshew used to resurrect his career and grab the attention of professional franchises, the “Mississippi Mustache” secured one of 32 coveted starting jobs in the NFL, only 11 months after the Jaguars selected him on the last day of the 2019 draft.
How did Minshew go from a late-round pick who some thought would struggle to make Jacksonville’s 53-man roster to the quarterback who’ll lead the Jaguars onto the field in September? We look back at five events key to the ex-WSU quarterback landing QB1 duties in Jacksonville.
1. With the 178th pick
Last March, when the Jaguars offered Foles a hefty contract worth $88 million over four years, it seemed certain they’d settled the most important position on the roster. Foles couldn’t unseat Carson Wentz in Philadelphia, but his production in a backup role had convinced the Jaguars – and other clubs around the league – he’d be a reliable franchise QB elsewhere.
The Jaguars were targeting a potential backup for Foles when they selected Minshew with the 178th overall pick of the 2019 draft, and clarified as much when they phoned the WSU quarterback to share the news.
“You made a great impression on us at the combine, and you’ve had a helluva year and bring that energy and preparation to us as vying for a backup quarterback spot,” general manager David Caldwell said. “Can you do that?”
There was some uncertainty as to whether Jacksonville would retain its sixth-round pick, especially if the club kept just two QBs on its 53-man roster, but Minshew made an imprint on the locker room and front office with his magnetic charisma and undeniable work ethic. Coaches stored enough confidence in the reigning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year to start him in three preseason games and reward him with the backup role.
2. Foles shelved
Jacksonville’s regular season wasn’t even a quarter old when Minshew was elevated from backup to starter. On a 36-yard touchdown throw to D.J. Chark, Foles was flattened by Kansas City defensive tackle Chris Jones, who crunched the QB’s clavicle as he dropped to the turf.
The blow to Foles signaled an unexpected opportunity for Minshew, who didn’t waste the moment, completing 88% of his passes for two touchdowns and one interception in a 40-26 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Chiefs.
“It’s hard to ask for that kind of performance out of a rookie, definitely Game 1 against Kansas City Chiefs,” Chark said afterward. “To see he did that, we’re just very optimistic about the season.”
Even though he was the 10th quarterback taken in the previous draft, Minshew became the first from that group to take an NFL snap. His 13 consecutive completions were the most by a QB making his professional debut in 40 years.
3. Testing Houston, beating Tennessee, winning over Jacksonville
The same way he endeared himself to WSU fans by beating ranked Oregon and Stanford teams in back-to-back weeks, Minshew boosted his approval rating in Jacksonville with a two-game stretch against opponents from the AFC East.
Two days after his former college teammates took down Houston at NRG Stadium in the Advocare Texas Kickoff, Minshew made his first NFL start against J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson and the Texans. As Jacksonville’s offensive line struggled to keep its quarterback upright, the Jaguars were forced to punt on their first four possessions and trailed 13-6 with fewer than 4 minutes to play. Minshew completed four passes and scrambled for 18 yards, then 4 more on the next play to set up a 4-yard touchdown pass to Chark. The Jags put the ball in Leonard Fournette’s hands on the two-point conversion, but the running back was stood up short of the goal line, giving Houston a 13-12 win.
“We did some good things, we’d get a penalty, did some good things, I’d get sacked,” Minshew said. “I fumbled too much, missed a couple balls, so there’s room to grow, but we also see the potential of what we could be out there. So that’s exciting.”
There was something better in store for the rookie four days later, as Jacksonville hosted Tennessee with a national Thursday Night Football audience – much of the country watching Minshew for the first time.
He completed 20 of 30 passes for two touchdowns and no interceptions to win his first NFL game 20-7. His popularity only increased after a postgame interview on the NFL Networks set, then another on ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt SportsCenter segment.
4. Finishing touch
Minshew briefly relinquished his starting job when Foles returned for a Nov. 17 game against Indianapolis, but the Jaguars weren’t necessarily better off, losing three consecutive games during which they managed just 44 combined points. Foles threw two touchdowns and two interceptions during the stretch and was sacked eight times.
Doug Marrone made the permanent switch to Minshew before the next game, against the Los Angeles Chargers. Even after a 45-10 loss, the rookie convinced his coaches to keep him under center the remainder of the season – a three-game span with visits to Atlanta and Oakland before hosting Indianapolis.
Minshew completed 17 of 29 passes and guided the Jaguars on a seven-play, 56-yard drive at the end of the fourth quarter, before delivering a 4-yard touchdown to Chris Conley that secured a 20-16 comeback win over the Raiders in the final game the franchise played in Oakland.
Neither the Jags nor Minshew fared too well in a 24-12 loss to the Falcons one week later, but they closed on a positive note, beating Indianapolis 38-20 in the season finale – six weeks after a Foles-led Jacksonville team lost to the Colts 33-13.
Minshew’s final statement to a front office that spent much of the offseason contemplating its situation at QB read as such: 27 of 39, 295 yards, three touchdowns, one interception. In his final four games, Minshew recorded seven touchdowns with only one interception and completed nearly 60% of his passes.
“I think he’s going to be someone that gets better and better,” Marrone said after the Colts game. “There are still a couple of things that go on out on that field that I’m sure Gardner wishes he had back … but those things are natural. Those things take a little bit of time.”
5. Committing to Minshew
The decision to unload Foles wasn’t always an obvious one for Jacksonville, even after Minshew won two of his final three games to close out the 2019 season. On Feb. 11, the organization’s president, Shad Khan, called the position an “embarrassment of riches” and teased a quarterback competition between Minshew and Foles.
“I think as we move forward in this season – training camp or whatever – the coaches will have their work cut out to determine who gives us the best chance of winning as we move forward,” Khan said.
On Wednesday, the front office stripped that decision from Marrone and his staff months before they could make it. Foles and his robust contract were sent to Chicago for a compensatory pick, leaving Minshew and Joshua Dobbs – whom the club signed when Foles was injured – as the only quarterbacks on Jacksonville’s roster.
Now Minshew, who threw for 21 touchdowns and six interceptions with a passer rating of 91.2, no longer has to deal with the uncertainty of whether he’ll play for Jacksonville on Sundays, meaning he can focus on parlaying a promising – and surprising – rookie season into something better this fall.
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