As injuries rewrite the quarterback landscape, one question emerges: are we ready to embrace a future where backups aren't just insurance, but strategic assets for NFL teams?
The Seattle Seahawks needed a win, desperately. After a 5-2 start, they lost 5 of their next 6 games and saw their playoff hopes dwindling. It was in this environment that they entered into a matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles, one of the top teams in the NFC, and were relying on their backup quarterback Drew Lock to get the team back on track. The task presented to Lock (where he succeeded) was a symbol of something that we have seen a lot of this year: the importance of backup quarterback play in the NFL.
Long viewed as a positional afterthought, the injuries to quarterbacks Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, DeShaun Watson, and many others have prompted many to call this year the year of the backup quarterback. But when we look at games started over the last 5 years it has become the norm for 60 different quarterbacks to start games in an NFL season. Knowing that this is the norm and that injuries happen, it might be time to re-evaluate how much importance we place on the backup quarterback position in a way that defies typical football convention.
One Man Show
It is often joked that backup quarterbacks have the best job in the sport. They get paid millions of dollars, generally don’t see game action unless it is the end of a blowout, and are generally one of a team's most popular players even if the team is struggling. The quarterback position is very much one of absolute power, there is no such thing as a quarterback by committee (especially in the pros). It is the only position in football, outside of kicker, that doesn’t have a rotation of players being cycled in over the course of the game. The starting quarterback is usually the unquestioned leader of the team and the face of a franchise.
With that burden of responsibility, comes the side effect of ego. Quarterbacks that make it to the NFL have typically been the best players on their team since pee wee football. They are used to having the ball in their hands on every play. Starting quarterbacks are the highest paid players in the NFL, the only players that win MVP awards, and they expect to have the ball in their hands when the game is on the line.
And for years that’s the way that it has been. But the risk of injury is always there for any football, and despite how protected quarterbacks are in the modern game, the fact that they are the target of a defense for at least 30 snaps a game cannot be ignored. After a while, the numbers dictate that injuries will happen to your starting quarterback at some point. Yet despite this, starting quarterbacks run unopposed, which leaves backup quarterbacks unprepared when called into action. The result of this makes you wonder why more development of a team’s backup isn’t more of a focal point when constructing a roster.
A Change to the Norm
In the mid-1990s, the Pittsburgh Steelers had a quarterback that was ahead of his time named Kordell Stewart. Stewart was a star at Colorado, known as a unique dual threat who could make plays with his legs and feet. In today’s game, he would have been the prototype. But in an era of statuesque pocket passers, he was an anomaly. During that time, many collegiate dual-threat quarterbacks were implored to switch positions to wide receiver, running back, or cornerback to get playing time in the NFL. This happened to Stewart’s eventual teammate Antwaan Randle El, who was a Heisman finalist at Indiana as a quarterback but switched to wide receiver in the NFL.
During his time in Pittsburgh, Stewart insisted on playing quarterback but found himself behind other quarterbacks on the roster. The result was the creation of the “slash position”, where Stewart plated snaps at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. The team had the talent and nurtured it to fit their game plan. This is one of the few examples where we see a backup quarterback being integrated into an offense on a regular basis with some degree of success in the NFL. Another example of this is how the New Orleans Saints have utilized Taysom Hill in the capacity as a runner, passer, and pass-catching tight end.
With the threat of injury constantly present for quarterbacks over the last half decade, it is a wonder to me why a backup wouldn’t be integrated into a package of plays that could be run for 5-10 plays a game. The average NFL game has about 153 plays run, which would mean that a backup quarterback (when combined for both teams) would run 20 total plays, accounting for only 13% of total plays run. This would have the double-sided benefit of protecting the starting quarterback's ego by ensuring they were still getting the lion's share of the snaps, while also giving a backup quarterback the necessary reps to be able to handle the load if the starter was injured. They would be able to simply step into a bigger role much as a backup running back would if the starter was to go down with an injury, ensuring continuity at the position.
Improving the Overall Product
When we look back at this season, the team that we may consider as the poster child for quarterback shuffling is the Cleveland Browns. The team has cycled through 4 different quarterbacks during this season and has been held afloat by an incredible defense. When DeShaun Watson went down, the team shuffled through former XFL quarterback PJ Walker and rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson before landing on journeyman Joe Flacco. Walker and Thompson-Robinson were inserted into the lineup in the wake of Watson’s injury and predictably underperformed.
Had they been incorporated into the regular offense the Browns would have realized if either of these quarterbacks were a good fit for the offense, and also they would have discovered if certain players worked better in different situations. Consider the running back position and a team like the Philadelphia Eagles. DeAndre Swift is largely considered the team's lead back. But in third down and red zone situations, the team typically opts for formations and looks that feature backup Kenneth Gainwell. Why? Gainwell has shown to be a reliable pass catcher and pass blocker, which is what the Eagles look for in those situations. Why can the quarterback position not be looked at the same way when the situation arises?
Let’s imagine that a team’s starting quarterback excels at the short passing game and throws a decent deep ball but struggles at throwing a ten-yard out route. If they had a backup that was proficient at that throw situationally, why not incorporate that player in those situations? For so long we have wanted quarterbacks to be all-in-one machines, but the reality is that there is a variance in skill sets, much as there are at every other position in the sport. Instead of accepting that the player is weak in a certain area and living with the consequences, why not bring in players who can excel in those situations?
Beyond just situationally, getting backup quarterbacks regular playing time allows them to build rapport slowly with the other offensive players and prepares them for a time when they may need to step in and take meaningful snaps for the offense if the main player goes down. As it stands currently, quarterbacks are paid exorbitantly more than other positions because the fate of the success at that position is heavily weighted to one player. Perhaps the stranglehold of tradition and the expectations of the position are too deeply rooted for this kind of change. But we have to remember that once upon a time the position looked a lot different and eventually evolved to include more dynamic athletes. An eventual change to situational quarterback play and true development of backups could be the next step forward, and we would be treated to more cohesive offensive football as a result.