Did anyone expect the game to end up being 45-14? Stroud was a rookie quarterback against the veteran Flacco, who was making his 16th career playoffs start and is a former Super Bowl MVP.
Last year at the NFL Draft, the Carolina Panthers chose Alabama quarterback Bryce Young first overall, leaving the Houston Texans to snatch up Stroud from Ohio State at 1.02. Young over Stroud was the chalk pick across most pundits.
C.J. Stroud vs. Bryce Young: Chapter One Ends in a Landslide
The Season of Stroud
Last season, the Texans finished 3-13-1, resulting in the organization firing head coach Lovie Smith. They then brought in DeMeco Ryans, defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, to be the new head coach. Along with Stroud, the Texans also drafted linebacker Will Anderson Jr., plus wide receivers Tank Dell and Xavier Hutchinson. From most standpoints, this looked like a franchise in total rebuild mode. Few expected the team to go 10-7, take the AFC South and now win their Wild Card matchup against Cleveland.
Was Stroud the magical piece to make all this happen? Was it Ryans? Stroud averaged 273.9 passing yards per game this year during the regular season, the most among all quarterbacks. For reference, notable elite quarterback Josh Allen averaged 253.3 passing yards per game. In addition, Stroud passed for 274 yards in this first postseason game, sticking in line with his average. Did the California native just secure his place among the elite quarterbacks while still in his rookie season?
Young & Reckless
Let’s take a quick peek at his counterpart, Bryce Young, who was drafted by the Carolina Panthers.
The Panthers ended the 2022 season with a record of 7-10. The Panthers fired coach Matt Rhule early on in that season after their struggling start. Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks took over head coaching duties for the remainder of the season. They brought in Frank Reich as head coach in the offseason. Reich and the Panthers chose Young in the 2023 NFL Draft with the 1.01 pick. The 2023 season was another struggle for the Panthers, and Reich was fired after a 1-10 start.
The 2023 season concluded with a 2-15 record for the Panthers, and it’s clear things did not go as planned for the team with Young at the helm. Young averaged 179.8 passing yards per game this season. In the one game Young missed, veteran Andy Dalton led the team with 361 passing yards. Granted, that’s a one-game sample set, but that’s a huge disparity from Young’s average.
Is there a shortcoming in Young’s talent? Was he not as ready to play at the NFL level as Stroud was?
The Wrong 1.01?
There are various reasons why a player is selected as the first-overall pick. Still, looking at the base college production, Stroud had the edge on Young with 84.8 more passing yards and .5 more passing TDs per game, plus a passing efficiency rating 17.4 points higher.
Did the Panthers and Reich make an error in choosing Young over Stroud? If these picks had been switched, would the outcome have been different? Would we be seeing Stroud and the Panthers in the playoffs?
Supporting Casts & Culture
It’s also important to note the playmakers the Texans surrounded Stroud with. Nico Collins has emerged as a big-time threat. Dell was enjoying a breakout rookie season before being injured. Noah Brown has shown flashes and Dalton Schultz is a rock-steady tight end.
Meanwhile, Young had Adam Thielen, DJ Chark, Jonathan Mingo and Tommy Tremble as pass-catching options. While it might not have appeared that way to begin the season, there’s a big difference in talent as a whole and productivity.
I also wonder if there’s an element of grit at play. Being relegated to the second pick may have given C.J. Stroud more motivation to “prove” to the world that he should’ve been the 1.01. Also, Ryans had never been a head coach before. There’s a hunger and undeniable motivation coming into a new role and wanting to show your worth. Before the season, few believed the Texans would do much. Being severely underrated makes a person work that much harder.
Maybe there’s a tired work culture in Carolina that needs shaking up. Things did not come together at all with a seasoned head coach in Reich. Panthers owner David Tepper made the news for throwing a drink at a fan at the Dec. 31 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. This isn’t something a respectable leader does. The leadership style at the top makes a huge difference for the team members. Perhaps the Panthers need a motivated and energized coach to come in now and lead the team to success. Maybe then Young can show why he was picked as the 1.01.
But for now, it’s the season of Stroud. He’s taking his place among the elite NFL quarterbacks, and we are all here for it.
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*Photo Credit: Thomas Shea – USA TODAY Sports*