In the passing era that's upon us, many teams are still searching for a "franchise quarterback." However, if we learned anything from 2011, it's that finding a dependable, ready-to-play backup quarterback should be high on some teams' priority lists this offseason.
The Colts were the poster child for what can happen if you don't have a reliable signalcaller ready on the sideline. Peyton Manning's injury exposed the organization for being unprepared, sending Indy to a 2-14 season and leading owner Jim Irsay to clean house this offseason.
Indy wasn't alone. The Bears had a 7-3 record following a 31-20 win over the Chargers in Week 11 and looked like the NFC's best chance to beat the Packers. However, Jay Cutler got hurt in that win and the Bears finished the season with five consecutive losses. It didn't help that star RB Matt Forté also got hurt, but Caleb Hanie was far from ready to keep the Bears on their path into the playoffs.
The Texans can consider themselves lucky. When Matt Schaub, and then Matt Leinart, went down, it was up to fifth-rounder T.J. Yates. Houston still made the playoffs thanks to one of the league's best defenses and one of the league's best running backs in Arian Foster, and had the comfort of an easy division. Would a better option at quarterback have propelled Houston to the AFC championship game or beyond? Most likely.
The Chiefs had a 4-5 record when Matt Cassel suffered his season-ending injury, but in the AFC West, anything was possible — and if they didn't have to turn to Tyler Palko, K.C. likely would have been in the playoffs. Palko was 1-3 as a starter before the team was awarded Kyle Orton, who brought the Chiefs within a game of making the playoffs, on waivers.
Hanie and Palko were ranked 29th and 31st, respectively, in Pro Football Weekly's early-season rankings of the league's backups.
It's not just injuries. Teams that struggle early behind unproven, or aging quarterbacks need to change ships midstream. In 2011, 57 different quarterbacks started a game, which is right near the average over the past decade (58 per season dating back to 2002). But the collapses of multiple teams for not being prepared puts a magnifying glass on the position this offseason.
More strict concussion rules also play a role in making the backup a more important commodity in this era. In years past, quarterbacks might have been able to play through concussions that now keep them out at least a week (looking at you, Brett Favre).
The collapses by the Colts and Bears are in the rearview mirror for the rest of the league entering a quarterback-heavy draft. There are a handful of mid-round prospects who fit the bill as a potential quality backup in the league, if not a starter. We might see teams take a page from the Patriots and reinforce the position, though most teams are keeping only two quarterbacks on the roster now that there is no spot for a No. 3 QB on the inactive lists.
The Colts' fiasco had many observers pointing to the job New England has done over the years in developing quarterbacks. Tom Brady has been entrenched as the starter for more than a decade, but when he tore his ACL, Matt Cassel led the Pats to an 11-5 record. Current backup Brian Hoyer is unknown outside New England, but it wouldn't be a shock if he got the highest possible tender, a first-rounder, this offseason (he is a restricted free agent). Who knows? He could be another Cassel. And behind Hoyer is Ryan Mallett, whose cannon arm might get him a starting job down the line.
The Patriot Way gets respect from many and makes others scoff, but consider Bill Belichick ahead of the game when it comes to the importance of backup quarterbacks.
This is not to say that other teams didn't value the position. Head coaches and offensive coordinators had to have a semblance of confidence in No. 2s because of the risk of injury at the position, but I expect this offseason to see an added emphasis from teams to find a reliable backup. How many Ravens fans would have been comfortable with Tyrod Taylor in the game if Joe Flacco went down? Would the Jets have put Mark Sanchez on a shorter leash if they had a better backup than 41-year-old Mark Brunell?
With some teams likely searching for an upgrade at the No. 2 position in the coming months, this offseason also will see arguably the best backup quarterback in the league striking it rich.
Matt Flynn has two starts in his career, but when one of those starts involves record-breaking numbers for a franchise like the Packers, it's noteworthy, as was his start in 2010 that almost led to an upset of the Patriots. Flynn will be the most sought-after signalcaller in free agency, so much so that the Packers, who have the reigning MVP in Aaron Rodgers under center, could consider giving Flynn the franchise tag.
Last year's favorite backup was Kevin Kolb, who got a big contract after being traded to Arizona, only to have trouble staying healthy and being productive. Kolb might be the cautionary tale for teams looking to give big money to Flynn. Meanwhile, the Packers might be sent on the hunt to find another Flynn, unless they are comfortable handing the reins to Graham Harrell should something happen to Rodgers.
One of the problems in finding good backup quarterbacks is that few of the veterans available are looking to sit on the bench. There are several veteran free-agent QBs who could provide a better "Plan B" for teams around the league. Chad Henne, Rex Grossman, Jason Campbell, Kyle Orton and Vince Young are among the quarterbacks who could be looking for new homes, assuming they are willing to hold a clipboard.
It might be asking a lot for teams to increase focus on finding a backup, especially for those teams who don't even have a legitimate No. 1 quarterback, but an injury to the quarterback can derail a season — just ask Jim Irsay.
If 2011 was "The Year of the Quarterback," as ESPN dubbed it, then this might be "The Offseason of the Backup Quarterback," with Flynn stealing the free-agency thunder and teams hoping to avoid what doomed the Colts, all for a player who might not take a single snap.
- Matt Cassel
- Jim Irsay