The news flashed on ESPN. Houston Texans star rookie quarterback, Deshaun Watson had torn his ACL and would be out for the rest of the season. A devastating blow to Watson, and to Texans fans everywhere. After years of searching, they finally had a quarterback in place with the skills and poise to lead them to what looked like a potential playoff run and beyond. In an instant, those dreams were dashed, and Texans fans were faced with harsh reality that Watson was gone. Taking his place would be Tom Savage, the opening day starter who was pulled at halftime due to his ineffectiveness. Savage’s return was just as bad as his start. The QB only completed 19 of his 44 passes and fumbled the ball twice (albeit only losing one). To top it all off, Savage had four opportunities to win the game in the final seconds, but came up empty. And just like that, Texans fans are looking forward to next year, when Watson will be back behind center.
Texans fans are not alone in experiencing the heartbreak of a season lost to an injured starting quarterback. Packer fans have similarly been planning for the 2018 season ever since Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone in week 6. While Coach McCarthy was steadfast in his intent to ride with back-up Brett Hundley for the rest of the season, expressing confidence in the 2015 draft pick, fans are ready to write this season off.
The loss of a starting quarterback to a major injury can turn even the most well rounded team’s season upside down. That sentence is not at all a surprising one. However, should this necessarily be the case? With quarterbacks serving as the most important position in football, why is it that choosing a back-up always seems like an afterthought?
Worst Case Scenarios
When a starting quarterback goes down with a major injury, we have seen great teams crumble into nothing. When Carson Palmer tore his ACL in 2014, the Cardinals were in first place and looking like a serious playoff contender. Without Palmer, the offense completely disappeared. The Cards were able to sneak into the playoffs but exited quickly in the Wild Card round as their offense could barely complete a pass without Palmer. Arizona finds itself in a similar situation this season. Back-up Drew Stanton is back, and while he looks better than he did in 2014, his only win came against the then-winless 49ers. His track record against winning teams leaves much to be desired.
A similar scenario occurred with the Raiders last season as Derek Carr broke his leg towards the end of the season. The Raiders snuck into the playoffs, but due to another injury, were forced to start Connor Cook, a QB who had never started in the NFL before. Cook was no match for the Texans. The injury to Derek Carr led to a situation where the much maligned Brock Osweiler was actually the best quarterback in a playoff matchup! The same Brock Osweiler who is currently being paid $895,588.00/week by the Browns to NOT play for them.
Why Teams Ignore the Back-up Position
So, if teams know there is a chance that their starting quarterback might get injured and miss some time, why do they not prepare for this? Why is there not a capable individual waiting to take their place?
The Money: Well, for one thing, it is expensive to have multiple competent quarterbacks on your roster. Once a back-up quarterback gets enough film on tape, other franchises may want to pry him away and make him their starter. Take Mike Glennon, for example. Until this season, he served as back-up quarterback to Jameis Winston. Having previously started for the Buccaneers and having a strong familiarity with their playbook, he would have represented a strong option at back-up in comparison to the typical journeyman who, while a competent athlete, never had a chance to really learn a team’s system. However, despite having done little to establish himself as an NFL starter, the Bears were willing to throw millions at him for the chance to kick the tires on what they hoped would be their future.
The Packers are no strangers to the phenomenon of losing a capable back-up quarterback to free-agency. While the Packers enjoyed Brett Favre from 1992-2007, they saw many of his back-ups go on to succeed with other teams, most notably, Matt Hasslebeck with the Seahawks, and Mark Brunell, with Jacksonville (among several successful destinations for the lefty). Of course, not all former back-ups who chase dollars in free-agency get a happy ending. During the 2011-2012 season, Matt Flynn got a chance to play in the Packers’ regular season finale against the Lions. He had an incredible game, throwing for 480 yards and six touchdowns, which earned him a whopping three-year $26-million-dollar contract from the Seahawks in the offseason. Flynn could not out-compete Russell Wilson, and was eventually released. The Packers would have undoubtedly loved to keep Flynn, who had experience in their system, as their back-up in the hopes that doing so would shelter them from the fallout of a Rodgers injury, even if only temporarily. Unfortunately, they just couldn’t afford to do so.
The Ego: In addition to the monetary restrictions, one of the biggest impediments to having a truly serviceable back-up quarterback is ego. The position of quarterback in football comes with tremendous pressure. It naturally follows, then, that anyone playing this position would need to have tremendous confidence in themselves and their abilities. While this confidence is what allows NFL QBs to be successful, it is also what keeps strong back-ups from being comfortable on the sideline. Historically, the back-up quarterback’s desire to start has created some awkward situations for otherwise strong teams. Bills fans, remember the Rob Johnson versus Doug Flutie debate? Chargers fans, remember when you were ready to toss Drew Brees aside for the shiny, new quarterback, Philip Rivers? Chiefs fans, I hope that’s not you laughing. With Patrick Mahomes waiting in the wings for an opportunity to replace Alex Smith, you’re next on the quarterback controversy carousel.
Branding: The Unrecognized Cause & Solution
While ego and money are big factors which prevent NFL teams from hanging on to strong back-up quarterbacks, I would argue that the biggest issue with the modern NFL back-up quarterback is simple: Branding.
Looking around the NFL, it feels as though this season has been among the toughest for starting QBs. Be it Aaron Rodgers or Deshaun Watson who were lost for the season, or Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota who only missed a couple of games, this season has a glaring spotlight on back-up quarterbacks and they role they play on teams. Traditionally, the ideal back-up QB is a fantastic teammate with a solid knowledge of the playbook, who is able to analyze tape and teach those around him. Unfortunately, as you might have noticed, nowhere on this list of ideal back-up QB traits is the skills to actually play quarterback! And therein lies the NFL’s big issue with back-up QBs.
For too long, the NFL has branded the back-up role as one that is underserving of respect or serious thought. However, this line of thinking simply cannot last in the modern NFL. In an NFL game plagued with parity, short seasons and what feels to fans like a never-ending offseason, the notion that an injured quarterback means the “end” of the season is just not feasible. If this season is an indication of anything, it is that starting quarterbacks will go down. That considered, any team that views itself as a legitimate Super Bowl contender would be remiss if they didn’t consider throwing $10 Million at a player who might not play at all, but might also just save your season. After all, if back-ups are supposed to be viewed an insurance policy, why the heck is anyone ok with having a bad one? Strong teams with crappy back-ups have no one to blame for a lost season but themselves. (Un)luckily for teams like Green Bay & the Cardinals, they have a LONG time to think about how they intend to approach the position next year.
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