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HIS FATHER? HIS S2 COGNITION TEST? C.J. STROUD BURIES ALL NFL CONCERNS
The league’s hottest new quarterback blew away wretched reports about a failed exam and his imprisoned father, already turning the Houston Texans into a playoff contender as other performers flop
He has no girlfriend. C.J. Stroud is all about balling, making him the antithesis of Patrick Mahomes, who has a wife and two children and the most broadcast ads in football. We also will include Travis Kelce, who might be married before Taylor Swift finishes her latest song in Argentina, something about “karma is the guy on the Chiefs coming straight home to me,” which is what she sang to him the other night at Estadio River Plate.
Let the Super Bowl champions, in their presumed dynasty, dominate the NFL’s cult fandom. What Stroud has become, when no one was looking, was dictate the league’s breakthrough tale barely midway through his first regular season. He has thrown for more passing yards after nine games than almost any rookie quarterback ever. He has taken the Houston Texans, 3-13-1 last season, to the early edge of the AFC postseason race. Sunday, he fashioned another last-minute, game-winning drive in Cincinnati, where he and Joe Burrow — in their opener of classic divisional battles — produced memories and left Stroud to belt out the “O-H” celebration in the state where he played at Ohio State.
And there he was afterward, jumping with his teammates in the locker room, showing off another new flourish of quarterbacking play in a sport that continues to miss miserably at the position. Before leading a surge over the final 93 seconds, which let Matt Ammendola kick the clincher field goal, he walked over to first-year coach DeMeco Ryans. “They knew it would come down to the wire. We knew that, too,” Stroud said. “I just went to DeMeco and let him know, ‘Man, I got you, we’re going to win this game.’ He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I’ll trust you.’ ’’
“The thing about C.J,” said Ryans, “is just the calmness in the chaos.”
What Stroud has done is what great quarterbacks always do. He has rejected a team’s woe and turned the Texans into pyrotechnics. Again, no reality in sports is more obvious: Franchises with powerful quarterbacks rule. He joins a slew of MVP winners and candidates in his conference, such as Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Tua Tagovailoa, Josh Allen, Trevor Lawrence and Burrow. The same is said in the NFC, where Jalen Hurts and Dak Prescott are at high levels as a reborn Jared Goff excels in Detroit and Brock Purdy recovers in San Francisco. Then consider teams that ignored Stroud and keep ailing at the spot, such as the ghastly Chicago Bears, whose general manager said he’d have to be “blown away” by a QB to take one with his No. 1 overall pick last April. Ryan Poles traded it to Carolina and watched the Texans, after the Panthers took Bryce Young, embrace Stroud.
The same executive will be looking for a new man next spring, seeking to shed Justin Fields and utilize undrafted free agent Tyson Bagent as a cheap backup. Unless Poles finds fault with Caleb Williams, Drake Maye and Shedeur Sanders — always possible in that town — he’ll be the latest Bears fix-it man to fail. He should learn lessons from the Texans, who ignored terminal nonsense about Stroud. Didn’t he reportedly fail the S2 Cognition exam with merely 18 percent out of 100, days before the draft? Didn’t the NFL already dump the hokey Wonderlic tests?
“It’s football,” said Stroud, “I’m not a test taker. At the end of the day, I don’t got nothing to prove to nobody. I’m not about to sit here and explain to somebody how I process football. The people who are making the picks know what I can do. That’s all that matters to me. There’s a lot of people who know how to coach better, know how to quarterback better and know how to do everything on social media. But the man in the arena, that’s what’s tough. ... I’m going to stand on that. I know I am one of the smartest quarterbacks in the NFL when I step in there tomorrow. If you don’t trust and believe in me, all I can tell you is watch this.”
Watch this: 15 touchdowns, two interceptions, 101 rating. He beat the Bengals, who have Super Bowl hopes, a week after outperforming all other rookie QBs ever with 470 passing yards, five touchdowns and a 147.8 rating in a 39-37 victory over Tampa Bay. And what about personnel folks concerned about him and social-media hangups in college? Were they part of his upbringing, after his father pleaded guilty to charges of kidnapping, robbery, carjacking and misdemeanor sexual assault — and is serving 38 years at Folsom State Prison? Only Stroud would use a post-game news conference to address the justice system.
“Our criminal justice system isn’t right, and it’s something that I need to probably be a little more vocal about, because what he’s going through is not right,” he said. “He called me this week, and we got to talk, and I’m praying for the situation and a reform, and the people with reform are helping me a little bit. But I think just letting it be known that it’s not just my dad’s situation, but the whole criminal justice system is corrupt.”
About half the league’s 32 teams have QB problems. Bill Belichick’s inability to develop Mac Jones likely will lead to the legend’s firing. The Jets are waiting on the 39-year-old Achilles tendon of Aaron Rodgers to avoid a slip-slide. Can Cleveland trust Deshaun Watson? Is Russell Wilson in his final days? Indianapolis is dawdling on Anthony Richardson. Tennessee hopes for Will Levis. Las Vegas is hanging with rookie Aidan O’Connell. Can Derek Carr stay healthy? Is Geno Smith for real? What about Jordan Love, the dagger in Rodgers’ departure, and whether he is long term in Green Bay? Washington? Atlanta? The Rams? Is Kyler Murray a goner in Arizona? Was Young a bust in Carolina, also looking shaky with Stroud?
In New York, where Daniel Jones was given a sick $160 million by the Giants, Tommy DeVito became the 10th rookie QB to start this season. That’s the most since 1950, joined by the likes of Clayton Tune and Jaren Hall. DeVito still lives at his parents’ home near MetLife Stadium, which he should have kept quiet. “It was a no-brainer for me,” he told ESPN. “Everything I need is there at the house. The decision was made since this level of football is stressful for a rookie, especially from the quarterback position. There is a lot going on, a lot of meetings. So everything outside of football is handled by my family. I don't have to worry about laundry, what I'm eating for dinner, chicken cutlets and all that is waiting for me when I get there. My mom still makes my bed. Everything is handled for me. Honestly, I don't even know if I could find a place closer to here than where I live. It takes me 12 minutes to get here.”
And 12 minutes to leave at season’s end. The other remarkable story is Joshua Dobbs, the former aerospace engineer major at Tennessee, who has won back-to-back games for the Minnesota Vikings in place of Achilles-torn Kirk Cousins. If you think Stroud is a madman, consider Dobbs is the first NFL player to compile 400 passing yards, 100 rushing yards and no interceptions in his first two weeks with a team. Call him The Passtronaut.
“If you wait until game day to actually train your mind to being in those stressful situations and thinking strategically, then it’s tough,” Dobbs said. “But if you’re able to constantly build that muscle throughout the offseason, throughout the year, and prepare your mind for the game, it just helps you be able to play the position more efficiently.”
He didn’t care about the previous week, when he beat Atlanta. “You have to put that one aside and go on to the next one,” Dobbs said. “You show up on Sunday, you don’t play well? No one cares what you did last week. They care about what you did this week in Minnesota.”
When awaiting the 2024 draft, some experts might be focusing on Williams and how he cried on his mother’s shoulder after a recent loss. He will do the same in the NFL. “Being an advocate for mental health and trying to show your emotions and express yourself — it’s something that I’ve been doing since I was young,” he wrote in an Instagram post. “Now being on the national level, being able to try and share that awareness with the public and me doing just what I did on Saturday, even though it was far from what I was trying to do, it showed and spread that awareness.”
Some executives will respond like Rob Gronkowski, the forgotten tight end in Kelcemania, who said, “I was like, ‘That’s a little bit too much, why is he crying?’ ” Or, others will realize it’s 2024. Let the kids fail the S2 Cognition test.
Who’s in charge of the league now?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.