The joke between Tim Boyle and Tommy DeVito as they left the shared practice field one final time in July was how it would be fun to duel each other in the Jets-Giants preseason game.
Never could the two third-stringers who spent countless offseason hours throwing side-by-side under the eye of trainer Tony Racioppi have dreamt up the reality that Week 12 of the NFL season will bring: DeVito (Giants) and Boyle (Jets) are the two starting quarterbacks in New York.
“So much of this position is just believing in yourself and getting an opportunity,” Racioppi told Sports+. “Those two guys put the work in. Some guys aren’t prepared for the moment. It goes to show that you never know, so you work hard, you stay prepared, you stay positive. Because if you are not prepared for it, that might be the only opportunity you ever get in your career.”
Racioppi, who works out of Test Football Academy in Bridgewater, N.J., is one of the most in-demand quarterback trainers on the East Coast. He coaches 11 quarterbacks who were part of NFL training camps, including Steelers starter Kenny Pickett and a host of backups who need variables to break the way that they have for the undrafted rookie DeVito and six-year veteran Boyle.
“The neat thing about working with the second- and third-team guy is he’s fighting and clawing for a roster spot almost every day,” said Racioppi, a former NCAA Division III All-American and Arena League quarterback.
“They have to be right with their fundamentals. A little tweak in their throwing motion or in their footwork might be the difference between them making a team or getting cut. That’s the reality for them. The offseason is where they get most of their reps, so you’re giving them a plan of what to work on in-season knowing they’re not going to get a ton of throws in practice.”
It was common for Pickett, Boyle and other pros such as Bears fourth-stringer Trace McSorley to train together 2-3 times per week from February through July on the field at the Central Jersey high school where Racioppi doubles as a teacher. DeVito and Packers backup Sean Clifford trained for the draft with Racioppi and then joined the pro group. Bears undrafted rookie Tyson Bagent (four starts) joined after the draft.
So, Racioppi knows the path to success for New York’s two unlikely starters as well as anyone.
The Jets announced the overdue benching of former No. 2 overall draft pick Zach Wilson on Monday. Their hope is Boyle can make enough plays to keep the defense-first team in the playoff hunt until Aaron Rodgers is cleared to come back from his torn Achilles in a few weeks.
Other than Rodgers, there might not be an active quarterback with a better understanding of Jets offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s playbook than Boyle. The three were together — Hackett as offensive coordinator, Rodgers starting, Boyle as the third-stringer — with the Packers in 2019 and 2020.
“We would have 4-10 Jets receivers and tight ends come throw with us in the summer and Tim would run the whole thing,” Racioppi said. “He’d tell you, ‘Here’s the route concept I want to throw today, and here is the exact split, the exact formation, where you should catch the ball.’ All next-level stuff, speaking their language.”
How will that knowledge translate Friday against the Dolphins? The game will be Boyle’s fourth career start (he was 0-3 with the 2021 Lions).
“He’s a guy you want in there because you know the ball is going to go to the right place nine out of 10 times,” Racioppi said. “He can change protections and call out the hot [routes] — all the stuff you do as a pro. He has a top 25-30 arm [strength] in all of the NFL — can make every throw on the field pretty effortlessly.”
If Boyle’s season debut (7-of-14 with an interception) replacing Wilson in Sunday’s blowout loss to the Bills didn’t inspire confidence, look no further than DeVito for proof of how different it is to come off the bench versus starting.
“The nice thing moving forward,” Racioppi said, “is when you know you’re going to start, you’re able to prepare that week and throw to the same guys in practice who you’re going to throw to on Sundays. All the little things people don’t realize.”
DeVito looked nothing like the handcuffed quarterback that he was in his NFL debut (2-of-7 for negative-1 yards) on Oct. 29 when he threw for 246 yards in Sunday’s win against the Commanders.
While the rest of the NFL was making wisecracks about his Italian heritage and his choice to live with his parents to save money, DeVito’s confidence never wavered. He overcame nine sacks to become the first Giants quarterback to throw three touchdown passes in the past 62 games.
“His knowledge of the game, his mental and physical toughness, and his accuracy are his three biggest strengths,” Racioppi said. “It’s easy to get gun shy when you’re sacked nine times, but he has the mental and physical toughness to sit in the pocket on the next play, make a read and make an accurate throw.”
DeVito inherited the Giants’ No. 3 quarterback role from Davis Webb — another Racioppi protégé who retired in the offseason and immediately was hired as the Broncos quarterbacks coach.
“I was surprised DeVito was not drafted because of how good he is and the tape he put out his senior year,” Racioppi said. “But I just thought the Giants was a good place for him — outside of being from New Jersey — because of the coaching staff and how he fits their system well.”
If it seems more quarterbacks than ever are getting a chance to play in the NFL, that’s because they are.
Boyle will be the 49th different quarterback to start this season, including an NFL-record 10 rookies (DeVito and Bagent among them). By season’s end, the NFL record of 66 in a non-strike year — set just last season — could be challenged.
Thirteen of the 32 teams have started at least two quarterbacks, and that number is on the rise because the Bengals will start Jake Browning with Joe Burrow out for the season. The Saints (injuries to Derek Carr) and Patriots (continued struggles of Mac Jones) also could make changes in Week 12.
“Usually, when you only have one play, there’s something going right,” Giants head coach Brian Daboll said. “When you have two, three or four, then there’s different challenges that come up with that. It’s a hard position to play. That’s why it’s so important to develop these young players that you have on your roster. I think that’s a very important aspect of coaching offensive football and particularly quarterbacks.”
DeVito and Boyle did get their wish to square off in that preseason game with Boyle throwing two touchdowns to DeVito’s one and leading the Jets to victory over the Giants.
A lot has changed since then. The value of a prepared backup quarterback will never change.
“It’s the most difficult position to play,” Daboll said. “Whether it’s mentally, physically, there’s just so many things that go on. It’s so much preparation that each player has to do to be able to play that role. You need a guy to be able to go in there 4-to-5 games and be able to keep it going if something happens.”
Awards picks revisited
It’s time to revisit my preseason predictions and take another shot at correcting the errant ones:
Super Bowl LVIII
Preseason: Bengals over Eagles
Now: Ravens over Eagles
The Ravens (8-3) are in the driver’s seat in the NFL’s best division after the Bengals and Browns both lost their starting quarterbacks for the season. They have trailed for just 32 minutes, 15 seconds all season.
Preseason: Aaron Rodgers, Jets
Now: Jalen Hurts, Eagles
It’s a two-horse race between Hurts and Patrick Mahomes. Hurts is responsible for the most dominant play in football (Tush Push) and the Eagles are more likely than the Chiefs to be the No. 1 seed in their conference.
Offensive Player of the Year
Preseason: Ja’Marr Chase, Bengals
Now: Christian McCaffrey, 49ers
Only one of the past five winners is a running back. McCaffrey is more than a running back. He leads the NFL in rushing yards (825) and touchdowns from scrimmage (14), failing to score just once in 10 games.
Defensive Player of the Year
Preseason: Haason Reddick, Eagles
Now: Myles Garrett, Browns
The Browns quietly are riding a historic defense into playoff contention. Garrett leads the NFL with 13 sacks.
Coach of the Year
Preseason: Dan Campbell, Lions
Now: Kevin O’Connell, Vikings
You can’t go wrong with Campbell. But his team was expected to be good. O’Connell’s was left for dead after a 1-4 start and again after Kirk Cousins was hurt, but O’Connell is maximizing journeyman Josh Dobbs’ ability.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Preseason: C.J. Stroud, Texans
Now: C.J. Stroud, Texans
Offensive Rookie of the Year? Lock it up. Stroud is in the MVP conversation for two reasons: He’s on pace to shatter most rookie passing records and he’s eliminating the stench associated with the Texans’ many recent missteps.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Preseason: Christian Gonzalez, Patriots
Now: Devon Witherspoon, Seahawks
Gonzalez started fast before his season-ending injury. Witherspoon was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Month in October. He is tied for the fifth-highest grade among all cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus.
Comeback Player of the Year
Preseason: Odell Beckham Jr., Ravens
Now: Damar Hamlin, Bills
Who cares that Hamlin has played just 44 total snaps over two games? He returned to the field after going into cardiac arrest making a tackle last season. Remarkably inspiring courage and determination.
College football game to scout
No. 2 Ohio State at No. 3 Michigan, Saturday, noon ET, Fox
Come for the offensive skill talent, stay for the linemen and defense.
Ohio State’s TreVeyon Henderson (1,004 yards from scrimmage, 6.7 yards per carry, 10 touchdowns) and Michigan’s Blake Corum (960 yards from scrimmage, 4.9 yards per carry, 20 touchdowns) might be the first two running backs selected in the draft, even if neither is a surefire first-rounder.
Henderson falls forward, which makes him a good short-yardage option, but also shows burst around the edge on stretch runs. Corum has the footwork to hit one-cut home runs, but only a sharp eye will realize that he plays bigger than his 5-foot-8 frame in pass protection.
The sure-handed contortionist Marvin Harrison Jr. (62 catches for 1,093 yards and 13 touchdowns) — considered by ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. to be the best receiver prospect since Calvin Johnson in 2007 — is likely to be the first non-quarterback picked. His Buckeyes receiving mate and fellow projected first-rounder Emeka Egbuka (32 catches for 427 yards and three touchdowns) is fearless across the middle.
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy (73.8 percent completion rate, 2,335 passing yards, 18 touchdowns, four interceptions) has a lot to gain after coasting through an easy schedule and then barely contributing (7-of-8 passing) when the level of competition increased and the Wolverines ran the ball 32 consecutive times against Penn State.
The feeling among scouts is McCarthy’s football IQ is through the roof and he can do much more than is asked of him, but wouldn’t it be nice to see once before penciling him as the third-best quarterback in the draft class?
Edge rusher JT Tuimoloau, defensive tackle Tyleik Williams, linebacker Tommy Eichenberg and cornerback Denzel Burke could be first- or second-round picks for Ohio State. Tuimoloau’s high effort (four sacks) and closing speed will flash.
Michigan’s offensive line is fortified by athletic, pulling guard Zak Zinter and center Drake Nugent. Kris Jenkins plays with the strength on the defensive line that made his father (same name) a four-time Pro Bowler.
There are four franchises that have never played in a Super Bowl: the Browns, Lions, Jaguars and Texans.
The Lions, Browns and Jaguars ranked No. 30, No. 31 and No. 32, respectively, of 32 teams in winning percentage since 2008. The Texans rank No. 22 during that time.
In other words, those four teams don’t just not win championships. They lose. A lot.
And yet their combined record this season is 28-12.
According to NFL Research …
The Lions (8-2) have not had a better start since 1952.
The Browns (7-3) have not had a better start since 1994.
The Jaguars (7-3) have not had a better start since 1999.
The Texans (6-4) have not had a better start since 2018.
If the season ended today, all four teams would make the playoffs. That quartet has never all been in the playoffs together.
Just for kicks
It’s become a weekly expectation to see Browns kicker Dustin Hopkins lining up with a chance to win the game.
The Browns are 5-1 in their past six games and have scored the winning points in the final two minutes of four of those victories. Hopkins’ field goals are responsible for three of those four game-winning scores, including a walk-off 40-yarder to beat the Ravens and a 34-yarder with two seconds remaining to beat the Steelers in back-to-back weeks.
Credit the Browns for being aggressive in addressing a weakness — trading for Hopkins and cutting 2022 fourth-round pick Cade York (now on the Giants practice squad) after just one season.
After an NFL single-week record five games were decided by walk-off field goals in Week 10, eight of 14 games in Week 11 were decided by one score. More than 70 percent of games this season have included a one-score differential during the fourth quarter, and there is no reason to think the pattern of close games will stop as the stakes become bigger and plays become more pressurized.
That means kickers are going to decide games. So, which are the most trusted?
Here is a look at the NFL’s most accurate active kickers on game-tying and go-ahead kicks in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime throughout their careers, sorted by conversion percentage, according to Elias Sports Bureau:
Matt Prater, Cardinals, 23-for-23
Jake Elliott, Eagles, 8-for-8
Tyler Bass, Bills, 6-for-6
Jason Sanders, Dolphins, 6-for-6
Justin Tucker, Ravens, 25-for-28
Dustin Hopkins, Browns, 15-for-17
Nick Folk, Titans, 17-for-20
Ka’imi Farbairn, Texans, 5-for-6*
Daniel Carlson, Raiders, 13-for-16
Cairo Santos, Bears, 8-for-10
(Minimum five career attempts)