— Plan A is simple. Choose a starting quarterback. Groom him during training camp and through the preseason. Bear with a few early-season growing pains. Reap long-term rewards.
Unfortunately, many NFL teams have already moved on to Plan B. Anointed starters — some of them youngsters developed within the system, others free agents acquired to take the reins — have flopped or gotten injured. The contingency quarterbacks are a collection of rookies, cast-offs, unknowns, and in one case, the original starter, just back from a freefall adventure to the bottom of the depth chart.
Here’s an inside-the-numbers look at some of the mystery quarterbacks who have surfaced in the last few weeks. Some are better than their statistics. Most aren’t. None of them should get too comfortable in their newfound starting roles.
Jimmy Clausen, Panthers
The Skinny: The Notre Dame star and second-round pick couldn’t wrest the starting job from journeyman Matt Moore in camp, but after Moore’s dreadful start (six turnovers, eight sacks, a 40.8 completion percentage) Clausen inherited the job by default.
The Good: Clausen has spread the ball around, completing passes to nine different receivers. He has connected with David Gettis, Brandon LaFell, and Jonathan Stewart on deep passes, which will serve him well if Steve Smith (ankle) is lost for an extended period.
The Bad: Clausen’s completion percentage is just 49.3. He’s just 8-of-24 for 76 yards and an interception on first down passes. Those numbers are inexcusable in an offense that is built around running and play-action passing on first down. He had a hard time handling snaps against the Bengals, though he appears to have solved that problem.
Bottom Line: Smith’s injury will slow Clausen’s development, but the Panthers have no better options. They may as well give the rookie a chance to learn on the job.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills
The Skinny: Fitzpatrick replaced Trent Edwards (now in Jacksonville), with Bills coach Chan Gailey saying he was looking for a “spark.” What the Bills really need are some receivers and an offensive line.
The Good: Fitzpatrick’s raw numbers (32-for-55, 375 yards, four touchdowns, two picks) are solid, especially since he faced the Jets in one of his starts. He has completed 20-of-24 passes on first down, including deep balls to David Nelson to Steve Johnson. That makes Fitzpatrick the anti-Clausen: he knows how to set up play action on early downs. Fitzgerald’s running ability (92 yards this season) serves him well in an offense that uses a lot of rollouts and bootlegs. It also gives him a chance to run for his life behind an awful line.
The Bad: More than half of Fitzpatrick’s passing yards (203 of 375) and three of his touchdowns occurred when the Bills were trailing by more than 15 points. In other words, he does his best work when mopping up against a prevent defense. Fitzpatrick is a professional stat inflator: he threw for three touchdowns against the Colts last year, but it was Week 17, when the Colts didn’t care.
Bottom line: Fitzpatrick is smart, fast, and good at providing the illusion of competitiveness. He’ll start for the rest of the season and win a game or two. Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett should start shopping for warm weather clothing now.
Bruce Gradkowski, Raiders
The Skinny: The Raiders grew tired of Jason Campbell’s nervous, check-down-at-all-costs style of play after less than two games; it’s amazing that it took the Redskins four years. Gradkowski is a well-traveled pepperpot who performed mop-up stints in Tampa Bay and Cleveland before replacing JaMarcus Russell last year.
The Good: Campbell threw just three deep passes (more than 15 yards downfield in the air) in his first start and six more in Week Two: that’s a no-no in the Raiders offense. Gradkowski has thrown deep a more Raider-like 24 times.
The Bad: There’s a difference between throwing deep and throwing deep effectively. Gradkowski has completed just seven of those deep passes while throwing four interceptions. Gradkowski is a tough guy who runs well and inspires the confidence of his coaches, but he doesn’t have an NFL arm or accuracy.
Bottom line: Campbell will regain his starting job unless the Raiders get stubborn. And there’s no chance of that happening, right?
Max Hall, Cardinals
The Skinny: Hall, an undrafted rookie from Brigham Young, is really Plan C. Derek Anderson was Plan B. Matt Leinart was Plan A. There really is a plan, right? Please tell me there’s really a plan!
The Good: Hall threw for 3,560 yards and 33 touchdowns for BYU in 2009 despite playing with a dislocated finger on his throwing hand. He was 16-of-27 for 285 yards in the preseason, outplaying Leinart, which admittedly isn’t something to brag about.
The Bad: Hall dropped to pass 22 times against the Chargers, and when you subtract sack yards from passing yards, he moved the ball just 44 yards down the field. Hall is a 25-year old rookie, and old quarterback prospects (John Beck, Chris Weinke) rarely develop into starters.
Bottom Line: Look for the Anderson-Hall saga to play out through the season, with predictable results.
Kevin Kolb, Eagles
The Skinny: Kolb spent three full seasons as Donovan McNabb’s heir apparent, then lost his starting job to Michael Vick after an awful preseason, 10 wayward passes against the Packers, and a concussion. Vick suffered a rib injury, so Kolb is back under center, with a little less luster and a lot less confidence.
The Good: Kolb completed 8-of-14 deep passes last year for 259 yards and two touchdowns (plus an interception). After three full seasons in Philly, he knows the scheme.
The Bad: Kolb is 0-for-5 on deep passes this year, with one interception. On passes to top receivers Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson, he’s just 5-for-14 for 55 yards. He’s so shaky in the pocket that he starts getting happy feet during the coin toss.
Bottom Line: Andy Reid should emphasize the run to settle Kolb down, but that’s not going to happen. Get well soon, Vick.
Seneca Wallace, Browns
The Skinny: Wallace went 1-2 in relief of Jake Delhomme, but Delhomme has recovered from an ankle injury and is expected back in the huddle on Sunday. Wallace will still see some work as a Wildcat quarterback, and he must be ready at any time to replace the brittle, turnover-prone Delhomme.
The Good: Wallace completed 61.2 percent of his passes and spread the ball among 10 different targets. He established a rapport with Josh Cribbs, completing 10 passes to the jack-of-all-trades who sometimes disappears in the passing game.
The Bad: Wallace fell apart on third downs, completing 11-of-26 passes while converting just eight first downs. He has rushed for just nine yards this year. Wallace is listed as 5-foot-11, a sign that the Browns got their figures from the Bureau of Wishful Thinking instead of the Bureau of Weights and Measures.
Bottom Line: Wallace is a poor man’s Jeff Garcia, but he’s a better option than the rickety Delhomme. Neither is a quarterback of the future, but Wallace is more likely to stay healthy and effective long enough to mentor second-round pick Colt McCoy or any other prospect the Browns acquire.
(Note: The Steelers quarterbacks don’t qualify as Plan B options because the team knew for months that Ben Roethlisberger would be suspended. At any rate, Charlie Batch is more like Plan H.)