Book ’em, Roger

Ian Book, New Orleans’ fourth-round pick in the 2021 draft, made his professional debut at quarterback in tonight’s Monday Night game against Miami.

Not surprisingly, it didn’t go well. Book didn’t pass the Akili Line until a long catch-and-run late in the fourth quarter (56 yards to Lil’Jordan Humphrey). He ended up 12-20-135 with two interceptions. The first was a pick-six on his second career pass attempt. This essentially put the game out of reach in a 20-3 loss. This included eight sacks (the second-most a quarterback has gone down in the NFL this season). The Saints generated only 81 passing yards for the game.

The Akili Line is named for Akili Smith, the third overall pick in the 1999 draft. Smith stuck around for four seasons for Cincinnati, starting 17 games and averaging 125 passing yards in those starts (by far the lowest average in the NFL in the last 50 years for quarterbacks with more than ten starts). The Bengals went 3-14 in those games.

It’s inspired by the Mendoza Line in baseball, named for Mario Mendoza, who was a decent-fielding shortstop in the 1970s who failed to hit .200 for a season as often as not. Anyone struggling to reach a .200 batting average is said to be having trouble reaching the Mendoza Line.

Similarly, any quarterback who struggles to throw for 100 yards in a game is struggling with the Akili Line. Ironically, Smith was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates (the same team that discovered Mendoza and signed him) in the seventh round years before he played college football, but he was released for failing to get even close to .200 as a hitter in parts of three seasons in the low minors.

Book may be a fine quarterback in the making. But he’s not ready to play in the NFL and he was fourth on the depth chart going into the season, kept inactive each week as he learned in practice. However, starter Jameis Winston suffered a season-ending injury a few weeks ago. The two backups, Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian, are in the COVID protocol this week. Drew Brees apparently considered and declined an offer to come out of retirement and play this week.

The NFL is proud of the fact that during the COVID crisis, every game on the schedule has been played. You might remember last season’s Broncos/Saints game, when the entire Bronco quarterback room was out with COVID and wide receiver Kendall Hinton started at quarterback in a 31-3 loss, completing only one pass. This spectacle helped change the roster rules a little, but when a team is suddenly, without any warning, down to its fourth quarterback on the depth chart, it’s still a spectacle.

The Broncos were 5-11 last season, and 4-6 and still fighting when they had to start Hinton. New Orleans is 7-8 now, and a win tonight would have seen them tied for the last playoff spots.

I’m not sure what you can do as a league when you have 18 weeks to play 17 games and a spike in COVID knocks more than 100 players out of games in just a few days. But I don’t think this was fair to Saints players or fans or even to Book.

Since it seems that COVID and its variants are here to stay and even evade vaccines (far more easily than Book evaded Miami pass rushers), it would be nice to see a schedule for 2022 that makes room for games to move in the event that a team can’t put a professional product on the field – whether it’s due to quarterback outages or large numbers of outages elsewhere. Either that or hope that the newer variants pose less of a risk of serious harm to otherwise young, healthy individuals – enough so that the league can consider dropping the protocol. Obviously, medical professionals need to learn more before that could be considered. Our knowledge of COVID changes every week.