This week, they are rivals. It is not likely to last.
This week, the nation is taking sides in the duel between Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. This week, Winston leads his bad team and Mariota leads his, and finally there is something interesting about the Bucs and the Titans. This week, you can pretend that this is a competition with legs, a fledgling Wilt Chamberlain-Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier, Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe, Arnold Palmer-Jack Nicklaus type of battle between two quarterbacks at the starting line.
But the odds are, there is no staying power to the confrontation of Winston and Mariota beyond Sunday. Yes, both teams want to win – both of them won only twice last season – but really, Winston and Mariota figure to be only of passing interest.
Look, a real rivalry is built on regular competition. For instance, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have played 16 times over the years (Brady has won 11), and they’ve built a rivalry with little similarities to their draft status. There is familiarity between the two.
That isn’t likely to happen with Winston and Mariota, however. The Bucs and Titans have played only four times in the previous 14 seasons. With the teams in different conferences, it isn’t likely to be much more often. Which means the two of them would have to meet in the Super Bowl. What are the odds that one team will turn things around well enough to get there, and that the other will be waiting on them?
Look, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers have both become very good quarterbacks, and they went close to each other in the draft (Manning was No. 1; Rivers No. 4). But they are in different confernces, too, and as a result rarely have played each other. Certainly, not enough for you to look at the schedule and think, “Wow. It’s a Manning-Rivers matchup.”
Then there is the skill level. Both Winston and Mariota may become fine quarterbacks, but history says not to count on it. Remember when Ryan Leaf was Peyton Manning’s big rival? That was after they went 1-2 in the 1998 draft. But it didn’t take long before Manning turned out to be the real deal and Leaf turned out to be … something else.
Remember Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III? That seemed like it might spawn a few arguments for a year. But Griffin has faded out of sight and isn’t starting for the Redskins these days. Luck has become the brightest young quarterback in the league.
In fact, No. 1 vs. No. 2 is rarely what it’s cracked up to be. In 1993, the 1-2 picks in the league were Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer. There was Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb in ’99. In ’02, David Carr and Joey Harrington were the No. 1 and No. 3 quarterbacks picked.
None of those guys quite turned out to be Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird, did they?
The first thing that Winston and Mariota need to become rivals is relevancy. Their games have to matter. The second thing is something has to be on the line, records or great seasons. The third thing is excellence.
For now, both franchises are trying to grow into something that will make you notice.
Both quarterbacks, too.