NFL: The State of Backup Quarterbacks

CINCINNATI, OHIO – AUGUST 29: Jacoby Brissett #7 of the Indianapolis Colts warms up before the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on August 29, 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

There is an old adage in the NFL: you’re only as good as your backup Quarterback. There are various iterations of this, such as, ‘the second most important player is the backup QB.’ Four case studies will help us determine the state of the second most important position in the NFL.

Washington Redskins: The Starter in Waiting

Multiple teams have rookie QBs that are being, “evaluated.” The New York Giants, Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos (also Miami Dolphins with Josh Rosen) have rookie QBs waiting to make their starts. For the current veteran starter, that puts additional pressure on them, as they know any slip-ups and they could be pulled, possibly ending their careers. Joe Flacco has been through that already, and could see it happen again in Denver.

Yet Washington’s situation is a little stranger. Their anointed starter, Case Keenum, has had flashes of being a capable starter during his career with several teams, most notably in Minnesota. But during preseason, he hasn’t clearly proven himself as a better option than first round draft pick Dwayne Haskins.

Washington are far from being a Super Bowl contender. Although they were fighting for playoffs last season, injuries derailed their campaign down the stretch. So why not start Haskins? Their chances of making the playoffs are already slim, and Keenum isn’t giving them a better chance than Haskins.

Part of the reason is that the Head Coach, Jay Gruden, is possibly fighting for his job. At this point, Keenum’s track record suggests he can make enough plays to show that Gruden is the right man. Whereas Haskins, who would make errors and cost wins potentially, could then also cost Gruden his job.

What Can We Learn From This?

Naming Keenum the starter buys Gruden some time, because if he has success then Gruden is safe. If he struggles, he can throw in Haskins. If Haskins shows promise, Gruden can survive another year if it looks like he could take the team to the next level.

Walking this kind of tightrope is, ultimately, not the best approach. Keenum is eventually destined to give up his spot to Haskins, while Haskins doesn’t get the experience he needs. The only possible ‘winner’ is Gruden.

Teams in this situation, with a QB waiting to take over the reins, are usually better off handing them over. However, where an established starter is already in place, they deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt, as is the case with the New York Giants. Miami should be starting Josh Rosen since he seems ready, while Denver are correct in starting Joe Flacco, whose backup (Drew Lock) is by all accounts, not ready.

Carolina Panthers: Holding the Fort

Carolina’s starting QB Cam Newton has been battling injuries the past few years. At this point, he should be ready to start, but if he’s not, his backup needs to be ready to step in for a game or two. This happened in 2014, and Derek Anderson won two games for the team, although in 2016 he couldn’t repeat the feat.

If Newton isn’t ready to go, his backup needs to do what he can to keep the team winning. Last season, Newton played through injury because the backup QB wasn’t up to scratch, and because the Panthers were trying to fight for the playoffs. If Carolina finds themselves in a similar situation, they need to be able to rely on the backup not losing the game.

Although the Panthers also have a rookie QB (Will Grier) as the backup, he isn’t about to start over Newton. If he becomes capable, he may in a few years become a trade target for other teams looking for a starter. Or, with time, he could get to step in as Newton’s career winds up.

What Can We Learn From This?

This is the case for most teams in the league. They hope that a backup can win games if it comes to that, but would rather hope it doesn’t. In some cases the backup QB is on a rookie contract, and teams are looking to regain value on them as trade bait. In other cases, it’s a seasoned veteran who can make enough throws that could keep the team in the hunt. In both cases, it puts pressure on other key players, who need to carry the team through the odd game here and there.

Indianapolis Colts: Replacement Ready

While they’d rather have Andrew Luck as their starter, he too, like Newton, has been injured frequently over the past few years. The Colts were able to avoid starting from scratch, and did exactly what the Panthers hope happens: they traded for another team’s backup in Jacoby Brissett.

Brissett was able to have some success in his year as starter (2017), but the team had too many roster holes for him to go better than 4-12. Yet with Luck’s sudden retirement, Brissett gets a chance to improve on that with improved surrounding talent. Brissett being thrown in the fire in 2017 will hopefully make the loss of Luck a little easier.

What Can We Learn From This?

Several teams in the league fall into this category. For some, it’s a former starter who could takeover if required and perform capably, such as the Tennessee Titans. For others, it’s a young, talented QB who is ready to become the starter when the veteran retires. This latter version is what Aaron Rodgers was, and is what the New Orleans Saints hope Teddy Bridgewater can do.

Philadelphia Eagles: System-Proof

When the Philadelphia Eagles’ QB Carson Wentz went down a few years ago, his backup Nick Foles wound up taking the team to a Super Bowl win. Last season, Foles was again asked to start for a large portion of the season, and the team returned to the playoffs. Foles earned a spot with the Jacksonville Jaguars as their starter in 2019.

Despite Foles’ success, the Eagles claimed they were confident that the third QB, Nate Sudfeld, could have equalled his record. Wentz’s health is still unclear, and Sudfeld is also battling injuries. Now the QB3, Josh McCown, could also be asked to win a game or two for Philadelphia.

What Can We Learn From This?

The success of Foles, and the organisation’s trust in their backups, indicates a well-designed system that is QB-friendly. Only a handful of teams in the league would trust their system to take care of the loss of their starting QB. We saw it happen in New England when Tom Brady had a suspension. There is speculation that the Los Angeles Rams could also survive the loss of Jared Goff. Likewise, because of the nature of their system, the Baltimore Ravens have backups who play with a similar style as their starter, Lamar Jackson.

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