- - Monday, December 16, 2019

Missing the mark on quarterback assessments is an NFL tradition, probably since the days when quarterbacks primarily were blockers in single-wing formations.

Before he became an all-time NFL great with the Baltimore Colts, Johnny Unitas was selected 102nd overall by Pittsburgh in 1955. Quarterbacks chosen ahead of Miami Dolphins legend Dan Marino in 1983 draft included Ken O’Brien, Tony Eason and Todd Blackledge.

Three-time Super Bowl MVP Joe Montana remained on the board in 1979 until San Francisco took him with the final selection of the third round. He was a steal compared to New England’s Tom Brady, who famously lasted until the sixth round — pick No. 199 — in the 2000 draft.

Conversely, history is littered with the figurative corpses of first-round busts under center, including co-poster boys JaMarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf. Recent vintage includes Paxton Lynch (2016), Johnny Manziel (2014), and Christian Ponder (2011).

Making the right call at quarterback is a front office’s most important decision. It’s also the easiest to botch. Consider the NFL outposts in Miami and Tampa Bay.

The Dolphins drafted Ryan Tannehill eighth overall in 2012 and stuck with him for seven fair-to-middling seasons. Finally weary of meh, Miami shipped him to Tennessee for a fourth-rounder and late-round pick swap in March. With Marcus Mariota entrenched as the Titans’ starter, Tannehill was expected to be the backup quarterback.

Instead, he became the starter in Week 7 and proceeded to play elite football while leading Tennessee into playoff contention. The Titans lost on Sunday for just the second time since Tannehill took over.

He entered Week 15 at No. 1 among qualified passers in yards per attempt (9.8), adjusted yards per attempt (10.2) and passer rating (118.5).

The change of scenery has helped Tannehill. But the Dolphins must wonder if they traded away a late-blooming franchise QB.

By comparison, officials with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers must wonder about their next move with quarterback Jameis Winston.

They clearly weren’t sold on the 2015 overall No. 1 pick in the offseason, when they picked up his fifth-year option rather than signing him to an extension. A long-term contract with Tampa Bay seemed iffy until Winston began posting some ridiculous numbers during a four-game winning streak.

On Sunday, he became the first NFL quarterback to pass for at least 450 yards in back-to-back regular-season games. He had 458 yards and four touchdowns against Detroit — including 308 yards and three touchdowns at intermission. In the previous game, against Indianapolis, Winston threw for 456 yards and four touchdowns.

But Winston remains a turnover machine, typically anathema for his position. He leads the league with 24 interceptions, six more the nearest passer (Phillip Rivers). His arm strength and decision-making prowess seem to be at opposite extremes, leading to extraordinary plays for better and worse.

Bucs coach Bruce Arians was noncommittal earlier this month when asked about an extension for Winston. Regardless, the quarterback has a big payday ahead next season with another team if not Tampa Bay.

“I hope I helped myself, because I definitely want to be here in Tampa,” Winston said after Sunday’s game.

The demand for franchise quarterbacks continues to outpace the supply, which can create desperation among the have-nots.

There will be a market for Tannehill, despite his pedestrian act prior to this season.

Winston will enjoy overtures, too, despite the prospect of 5,000 passing yards and 30 TDs accompanied by 30 picks.

Teams might convince themselves that a different established passer is the answer. New Orleans’ Teddy Bridgewater is headed toward free agency and quarterback-needy franchises could go that route instead of the draft. Bridgewater is still just 27 with a Pro Bowl season on his resume — 3,000-plus yards and a 65.3 completion percentage during his playoff run with Minnesota in 2015.

Only one thing is certain: Franchises will continue to swing-and-miss badly on quarterbacks. It’s the only way to eventually get a hit.

If Nick Foles could get $88 million over four years from Jacksonville, anything is possible at the position, including franchise tags for Tannehill, Winston and maybe Dallas’ Dak Prescott. I suspect that trio will sign long-term deals and at least one quarterback won’t live up to his contract.

Good luck separating the counterfeit from the legit.

That’s a never-ending task for quarterback evaluators and years can go by before final grades are in. We’ll have to check back in a few to see where Tannehill and Winston end (not to mention the 2018 quarterback class).

Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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