The backup quarterbacks in the NFL usually draw little attention — outside of “him” — until they are thrust into the spotlight because of an injury or called upon by fans to replace an ineffective starter.
The 2012 season was going quite well for the health of starting quarterbacks through 10 weeks, with 29 teams starting only one player. Only Arizona, Tennessee and Kansas City had to start a backup due to injury.
But things changed on Sunday as Philadelphia’s Michael Vick, San Francisco’s Alex Smith and Chicago’s Jay Cutler all failed to make it past halftime after each suffered a concussion.
Worse, all three of their teams failed to win their game, and the Bears and 49ers are scheduled to meet on Monday night in Week 11.
To cap off the week, the most significant injury may have been suffered by Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger. He left the game against the Chiefs Monday night in the third quarter with an injury to his throwing shoulder. The availability of these four signal callers is currently unknown.
This is why you need a backup plan.
Some teams put a lot of value into how they fill the position, while others put the entire season on their starter staying healthy. There is no one superior method to choosing a backup, but some teams are in better shape than others should they have to go that direction.
For example, one-quarter of the league has a backup with 32 or fewer pass attempts in his career, and Matt Hasselbeck has more starts than 22 backups combined. Let’s take a look around the league at the viability of each team’s backup quarterback situation.
The best situation — for now at least — is New York's, but David Carr has had a career full of taking sacks and underachieving. He has made only four starts since 2007. Fortunately, Eli Manning has never missed a start, now at 140 consecutive including playoffs.
Kyle Orton is one of the best backup quarterbacks in the league with 69 starts for Chicago and Denver. Only Matt Hasselbeck has more prolific numbers for a backup. Orton learned how to play in a pass-heavy offense in Denver and would be able to take advantage of the skill position players in Dallas. He is usually very careful with the ball.
In Philadelphia, Michael Vick was already on a short leash, and some fans got what they wanted in seeing rookie Nick Foles play against Dallas. While there were positives, Foles had two critical turnovers in the fourth quarter returned for touchdowns. Guess the next coach of the Eagles will decide if he’s a backup or the next starter.
Washington did something unique when drafting rookie Kirk Cousins out of Michigan State in the fourth round to back up rookie Robert Griffin III. Using so many draft resources to get Griffin, why go for another rookie? When the Redskins needed him against Atlanta this season, Cousins made rookie mistakes in a close loss.
Rex Grossman gets a lot of criticism, but at least he has had success in the NFL before. The selection of Cousins is a very curious one and one that could prove to hurt the team more than it will ever help them.
The 2011 Bears watched their 7-3 start turn into smoke after Jay Cutler’s injury. The team wallowed in Caleb Hanie’s presence, as he threw nine interceptions on just 102 passes for a staggering 8.82 interception percentage that would have made George Halas blush during World War II.
Enter Jason Campbell, who was solid in Oakland, but his problems are still evident in his addiction to checking the ball down, which makes scoring very difficult. Campbell has one of the 10 lowest interception rates in NFL history, but that means very little when you are not producing any offense.
Detroit actually has the best backup in the NFC North, as Shaun Hill has produced when given an opportunity in his career. He is 13-13 as a starter and has thrown 41 touchdowns with an 85.9 passer rating. There are starters who cannot surpass those numbers. He has also led his team to four wins via a fourth-quarter comeback, which is the same number Aaron Rodgers has in his career in Green Bay.
Graham Harrell played in the Texas Tech offense, which means big numbers, but the NFL is wise to not go after run-and-shoot quarterbacks anymore. His only real meaningful playing time this season involved a fumble in the red zone. The Packers need Rodgers to stay healthy, even if this offense made Matt Flynn look All-Pro last year.
Joe Webb is a very athletic quarterback who saw some playing time last season. He has four career rushing touchdowns, compared with three passing scores. Even with Christian Ponder having some recent struggles, Webb was not seen as a realistic solution in Minnesota.
Luke McCown is the lesser-known McCown brother (Josh), but he has made nine starts, including the first two games of the 2011 season for Jacksonville. A fourth-round pick by Cleveland in 2004, he would be a considerable drop from Matt Ryan should any long-term injury occur.
Dan Orlovsky is known best for unintentionally running along the back of the end zone for a safety as part of the 2008 Detroit Lions (0-16). Orlovsky actually lost the first 17 games he appeared in, which set a record for futility before winning two starts for the 2011 Colts (2-14). He is a solid veteran backup with a dozen starts, and just needs a decent team around him. Orlovsky can keep the ship afloat in Tampa Bay.
Chase Daniel played in a pass-happy offense at Missouri, but even in his fourth year he would have a difficult time trying to step in for Drew Brees and command this offense. Daniel has attempted only eight passes in the regular season.
The worst team in the division, Carolina, has the worst backup, as Derek Anderson was a half-season wonder in Cleveland in 2007 before showing his true colors. Remember when he completed 2-of-17 passes for 23 yards and an interception and still won the game against Buffalo in 2009? You want someone more reliable coming off your bench, and his Cleveland connection to offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski looks to hold little value.
We were able to get a good look at the interesting, galloping Colin Kaepernick as he nearly led the 49ers to a big comeback win. Right now he looks as good as any young backup in the league and should challenge for a starting job in the future.
This division is loaded with expensive backups, as that’s how Kevin Kolb started the season in Arizona despite a big contract a year ago. He and John Skelton have both been injured, so it’s hard to say who is truly the backup here. Skelton has struggled a lot but has had an interesting run of late-game success, leading Arizona to eight wins in the fourth quarter or overtime in 18 career appearances.
No matter which quarterback Arizona starts, he ends up getting sacked a lot, and the two are becoming injury-prone.
Matt Flynn was thought to be the next quarterback to make it big after a small flash of brilliance elsewhere, but he could not beat out rookie Russell Wilson for the starting job in Seattle. He may end up being just an expensive clipboard holder should Wilson continue to improve.
Kellen Clemens was a second-round pick by the Jets in 2006 but has just 12 career starts. The Rams should do better, as Sam Bradford is not going to be given the iron-man tag any time soon.
Does the best team, New England, have the best backup? Not quite. Ryan Mallett was considered a talented player coming out of Arkansas, but he fell to the third round with a surprising pick by New England. He’s huge, but consistency and decision-making are big questions, and as long as Tom Brady is healthy, Mallett’s an afterthought.
The backup quarterback with the most coverage is Tim Tebow, of course. But somehow the Jets have found the only quarterback with worse accuracy issues than Mark Sanchez. The Tebow experiment has been a joke so far, but at 3-6, it may indeed be “Tebow Time,” which means a change at starter. Can he repeat the success from Denver? It is doubtful.
The Dolphins have the best backup situation with the usually solid Matt Moore, who first made a name for himself in Carolina. Miami almost had to go with rookie Ryan Tannehill as starter, but the team should feel in good hands if Moore enters the game. He has an 87.6 passer rating in Miami.
Tyler Thigpen was with Chan Gailey in Kansas City in 2008 when he made 11 starts and threw 18 touchdown passes. A mobile but not accurate passer, Thigpen does fit Gailey’s offense well but would not be a good starter in Buffalo or anywhere in the NFL.
Joe Flacco has never missed a start (82 consecutive including playoffs), but the Ravens only have second-year player Tyrod Taylor out of Virginia Tech to back him up. Taylor’s a good athlete who has shown flashes in the regular season, but the Ravens are likely in trouble if he’s asked to go and beat Pittsburgh.
The Steelers know what that’s like when they had to start Dennis Dixon in Baltimore in 2009. They retain their old veterans in Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch to back up Ben Roethlisberger, who never makes it through a full 16-game season.
Leftwich has 49 starts and can be productive if given the time to throw, but his injury concerns and slow delivery make him a risky solution for the Steelers offense. Could he beat Baltimore in Weeks 11 and 13? Not likely, but the favorable AFC standings will keep the Steelers in playoff contention as they hope for Roethlisberger’s return.
Bruce Gradkowski has shown flashes throughout his career, such as becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to throw three go-ahead touchdown passes in the fourth quarter in 2009 at Pittsburgh. With a talented No. 1 WR like A.J. Green to throw to, the Bengals can arguably get by with Gradkowski better than any other team in the AFC North can with its backup.
Colt McCoy is a quarterback some will say should have still been the starter in Cleveland over rookie Brandon Weeden, who is almost four years older than McCoy. Dealing with dropped passes and poor offensive coaching, McCoy was never given a chance to shine in Cleveland and is someone you may see have a productive career when put in a better opportunity elsewhere.
The AFC South has two quarterbacks with at least one playoff win under his belt. T.J. Yates filled in admirably as a fifth-round rookie for Houston last season, leading a game-winning drive in each of his two starts. His only other win was in the wild card game against Cincinnati. Yates could be groomed into a future starter, and last year’s experience was invaluable.
Matt Hasselbeck is one of the very best backups in the league at age 37. He was passed over for the younger Jake Locker this season but provided a spark to the offense in Locker’s absence. Hasselbeck is 80-72 as a starter in the regular season (5-6 in playoffs).
Drew Stanton was drafted in the second round by Detroit back in 2007, but has only made four starts and thrown 187 passes in his career. Indianapolis will hope Andrew Luck has some of that Peyton Manning-type durability.
Chad Henne was 13-18 as a starter in Miami, and some thought he was a better option than starter Blaine Gabbert. That thought may have died when Henne played a horrific game off the bench in Oakland this season, but he looked better against the Colts in a second opportunity.
Safe to say, Tennessee and Houston feel much more comfortable if forced to start their backups. The biggest drop-off would likely occur for the Colts, which sounds like the Peyton Manning era all over again.
What is it with Peyton Manning and the terrible backup quarterbacks his franchises try to put behind him in hoping he will not miss a meaningful snap? Lest we not forget Curtis Painter.
Denver actually tried to use the aforementioned Caleb Hanie to back up Manning, but it did not take long for rookie Brock Osweiler (No. 57 overall pick out of Arizona State) to take the No. 2 job. Whether we see him play in Denver depends on how long Manning continues to excel in his final seasons. Osweiler is not ready to take over, but he cannot be any worse than Painter (or Jim Sorgi) was in place of Manning.
Kansas City has not had a quarterback it drafted start and win a game for the team since 1987, and somehow they choose to not even give Iowa’s Ricky Stanzi a chance, keeping him behind the unaccomplished Brady Quinn. Romeo Crennel already failed with Quinn in Cleveland.
San Diego regained Charlie “Clipboard Jesus” Whitehurst from Seattle, where he made four starts and threw 155 passes. Oakland brought in Matt Leinart so he could soon star in a reality TV series with starter Carson Palmer focusing on how they went from USC Heisman winners to NFL afterthoughts. The potential future in Oakland will be with Terrelle Pryor should the Raiders give him the opportunity.
It almost seems unfair for Denver to have not only the best starter in the division, but the apparent best future starter locked up as well.
Such is life in the NFL. Some teams make all the right quarterback moves, while others quickly regret giving someone a $100 million contract or trading for a personal punt protector.
Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report and Colts Authority and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network.
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