The scoreboard told the story of a gutsy 33-25 Raiders win over the Colts, but to anyone watching the game, the scoreboard lied. On Christmas Day, the Raiders’ season–a season marked by a stark and in many ways shocking return to relevance that had energized a fan base and put a beleaguered franchise back in the NFL spotlight–was over, confirmed by the news that their star quarterback Derek Carr had broken his leg and would miss the remainder of the season. Over the next three weeks of football, the formerly 11-3 Raiders went 1-2, the second loss an embarrassing 27-14 defeat at the hands of the similarly quarterback-less Houston Texans in the Wild Card Round of the AFC Playoffs. After 14 weeks of MVP-caliber quarterback performance from Carr, the Raiders started untested, start-less Connor Cook, who went an all too predictable 18 for 45 with three interceptions in his first career start, effectively putting the nail in the coffin of a once-promising Raiders season. This story should serve not only as a cautionary tale, but as a catalyst for action for NFL franchises; the age of the backup quarterback is upon us.
It is said that NFL starting quarterbacks are possibly the only players in professional sports expected to play every minute of every game that they are active in. While this might have been the standard two or three decades ago, however, in today’s NFL, this assumption could not be further from the truth. The regular season is over, and just four NFL teams managed to play the same quarterback every offensive down this season. For the other 28, a myriad of reasons precluded this reality: injuries, poor performance, notorious quarterback carousels, the list goes on. Nowhere was this more obvious than at the bottom of the standings, most prominently with the hapless, 1-15 Cleveland Browns. Per Elias Sports Bureau, the Browns trotted out six different quarterbacks under center over the first seven games alone, the most since the 0-14 Tampa Bay Buccaneers did so in 1976. And this is not a new trend: the Browns have had 26 starting quarterbacks since 1999 alone.
Even looking at other parts of the NFL standings, the consistency of quarterbacking is not much better. Just take a look at the NFL Playoffs, supposedly the fulcrum for good quarterback play. The league-leading New England Patriots started three different quarterbacks this season, including late-round project Jacoby Brissett. On the other side of the fence, the NFC-leading Dallas Cowboys did start one quarterback all 16 games, but that quarterback was Dak Prescott, a rookie fourth round pick who originally signaled to the Cowboys ownership a lost season following a preseason injury to star Tony Romo. On Wild Card Weekend, all four AFC teams had started multiple quarterbacks during the season, and two (the Raiders and the Miami Dolphins) started backups in the game itself, not to forget the Houston Texans, who were engaged in a QB controversy all the way up until Wild Card Sunday and even through to the next weekend for good measure. All told, the statistics tell a compelling story: 18 different teams started more than one quarterback this year. That means 18 different backup quarterbacks who had to step up and take the reigns of a team. The degree to which NFL teams realize this momentous trend, however, and the will with which they act on it has defined–and will continue to define–their success in years to come.
What separates a good backup from a bad one? What separates teams that adequately address this quarterbacking crisis and teams that do not? In many cases, it is merely circumstance. The New England Patriots went into the season knowing they had to cover the first four games with backup Jimmy Garoppolo, and for the first two games, he looked like a well-oiled machine, even sparking whispers about a forced Brady retirement after 2017. Then he, too, went down with injury and Jacoby Brissett stepped up, going 1 and 1 while playing within the confines of an unsimplified and extremely complex Patriots offense. Sometimes, it is just being on a good team that turns bad backups into serviceable ones, and good ones into bona-fide starters.
But sometimes it is more than that. Compare for a moment the situations of the 2017 New York Jets and the 2007 Green Bay Packers. Going into the season, both had veteran quarterbacks coming off of good seasons (for the Jets Ryan Fitzpatrick, for the Packers Brett Favre), but also nearing the twilight of their respective careers (although Favre’s lasted a lot longer than just one sunset). Replacing these quarterbacks midseason, however, was where the two franchises diverged. In for the maligned Ryan Fitzpatrick came Geno Smith, a previously failed Jets project, and on the heels of him, Bryce Petty, who had hardly played a snap outside of the pinball Air Raid offense he played in at Baylor just two years ago. Contrast that to the Packers, widely regarded as one of the best-run teams in the NFL, who brought in Aaron Rodgers, a product of three years of training in their system, and rode him not only to the playoffs that year but nine of the ten years since. While Rodgers is Rodgers and many will deem it an unfair comparison, the message is clear: the difference between having a prepared and reliable backup quarterback and throwing in the first guy off the street or the practice squad marks the difference between teams that are perennially great and teams that can’t seem to get over the hump.
So how many current NFL teams are recognizing the trend? To answer that question, we must examine the different types of backup quarterbacks, and the strengths and weaknesses each provide. First, there is the veteran backup quarterback: somebody that teams add and keep around for awhile, with no intention to ever start them. These quarterbacks usually join a team already having experience, either as a mediocre starter, or a backup who proved himself somewhat competent in the past. An example of such a backup is Brian Hoyer of the Chicago Bears. An 8 year veteran, he has been on 6 different teams over the course of his career. He has started 31 games in those eight years, accumulating an overall passer rating of an 84.8. Teams like these kinds of numbers when looking for a backup, for the player clearly has experience in games. Furthermore, this type of backup has proven to be a reasonably safe option with a high floor, despite having almost no upside. Going with the veteran is the safe option, and teams usually like to play it safe when considering the possibility of losing their starting guy. But there is another way, and that is to go with the Rookie.
The Rookie is a backup quarterback that a team drafts right out of college, with high hopes for the future. The Rookie usually sits for a few years, learning from the starter, and adjusting to football in the NFL. The intention of the team is for the Rookie to eventually replace the starter when they retire. Drafting a great Rookie backup is a way to attempt to stay on top for a long time, by having a suitable replacement when the centerpiece of the team leaves. However, along with this tremendous upside, there is a catch. Good quarterbacks that come out of college don’t want to come to the NFL to be a backup, and not play and not get paid. They want to come in and start, begin creating their legacy right away, while also getting paid like a number one quarterback. Most quarterbacks taken in the first round of the draft are going to be starters, but there are many quarterbacks taken in the later rounds, that are entering the league hoping to fill that Rookie backup role. However, these guys are usually not skilled enough to ever be a great player, which is why they were not selected early on in the first place. When going for a Rookie backup, teams have to find the small sweet spot in between instant starters and complete duds. Despite the hardship of finding the perfect guy, when that guy is found, it could mean a continuation of greatness decades to come for an already great team.
The very feasible outcome of going with the Rookie is the all too real possibility that he turns out to be a total bust. This has happened to all too many teams, and can be best exemplified with the Wild Card game between the Raiders and the Texans. After going through two previous choices, the Raiders started Connor Cook, a pretty good college player, and was taken in the fourth round of the draft. However, this hopeful investment blew up in the Raiders’ faces, as Cook looked absolutely atrocious against Houston, throwing three picks with a dreadful completion percentage of 40%. Although significantly less abominable, another setback to drafting a good rookie who is capable of starting at some point in the future is the possibility of him proving himself too early. In other words, if he is forced to step up before the original starter is retired due to injury, and plays well, he will be sought after by teams without a capable quarterback. This was best exemplified in 2008 with Matt Cassel of the Patriots. When Tom Brady went down for the season, Cassel stepped in beautifully, leading the Pats to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth. But instead of staying in the Patriots system, he was traded the next season to become the Chiefs starting quarterback. The same thing is happening again to Jimmy Garoppolo, who is buzzing with trade rumours after his successful two game campaign at the start of the season.
In the end, finding and keeping the right Rookie backup is almost impossible. Because of this, most teams stick to the safe, reliable, veteran. So yes, most teams realize the importance of getting a backup quarterback right out of college, mentoring him, and sculpting a future starter, but the reality of this situation is that it is just too unreliable. There will always be the Joe Montana to Steve Young, or the Drew Bledsoe to Tom Brady passing of the baton, but these perfect situations are just too rare. Teams want to play it safe and hold on to the Kellen Clemens’ of the world, hoping that if something were to happen to their starter, at least they have someone in there who knows what theyre doing. But it is in the rare case of a perfect Rookie backup situation, that true dynasties are created.