— Even the best teams are just one hit away from a quarterback emergency.
The Packers learned that lesson on Sunday, when Aaron Rodgers suffered a concussion and Matt Flynn couldn’t muster more than a field goal against the Lions. During a stretch run or in the playoffs, losing a quarterback for half of a game can ruin a season — unless the backup delivers.
Some of the league's strongest teams, like the Packers, have clay feet when it comes to quarterback depth. Meanwhile, some second-tier contenders have proven ex-starters or talented prospects waiting on the bench. Some teams are built to withstand a quarterback crisis because they rely on the running game or defense. Other teams live and die on the fortunes of their quarterback.
With the playoffs approach, I ranked all of the contenders on how well prepared they are to lose their starting quarterback for a game or two. There is a lot of speculation mixed with the stats — some of these quarterbacks haven’t played a meaningful snap in years, if at all — but overall, it is clear that some postseason-bound teams have much better contingency plans than others.
Mark Brunell looked like a creaky old man in his Week 17 relief appearance for the Saints last year, throwing for just 102 yards and an interception in a meaningless loss. But the Jets offense is a geezer pleaser: they have a great offensive line, an effective running game, and lots of play-action passes, plus a defense that keeps most games close. With all of that heavy steel around him, Brunell can steer the Jets to a win or two, his directional blinking the whole time.
Two journeyman backups are better than one. Byron Leftwich is a poor man’s Ben Roethlisberger. He’s a slow worker in the pocket who takes too many sacks, but he has a strong arm and a willingness to gamble for big plays. Leftwich also comes pre-injured for your convenience — he has been practicing with a knee brace, so the Steelers have to be ready for Plan C. Charlie Batch held down the fort during the Ben Roethlisberger suspension with wins over the Titans and Buccaneers. He’s rickety, but he has been in Pittsburgh longer than Iron City beer, so he knows his role.
A veteran with 95 career starts, Marc Bulger lacks Joe Flacco’s bombing ability, but his quick release could add a short passing dimension to the Ravens offense if he is called upon. Bulger completed 65.6 percent of his passes in the preseason, so he knows the system. At 33, he isn’t as far over the hill as some of the other backups on this list.
Chris Redman was written off as a joke when Bobby Petrino signed him to the Falcons in 2007; Redman had drifted into the Arena Football League, and it appeared that Petrino was just doing his old Louisville University quarterback a favor. But Redman stuck, and last year he was solid in losses to two good teams: the Eagles (23-of-44, 235 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT) and the Saints (23-of-34, 303 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT). Redman is a system quarterback, and the Falcons are so solid overall that Redman can win games while sticking with the system.
Kevin Kolb is one of two opening day starters on this list, and the only one still with his original team. Kolb has put up respectable numbers this season (1,035 yards, 63.4 percent completions, 6 TDs, 4 interceptions) and led the Eagles to wins over the 49ers and Falcons. He doesn’t provide Vick's "wow" factor, but Kolb has been in the system for years and has proven he can get the job done in spot starts.
With just 44 attempts in four years, Billy Volek has become an unknown commodity. Volek’s 2010 preseason stats were awful: no touchdowns, 4 interceptions, a 50.7 percent completion rate. Preseason stats are worthless, but you have to wonder about a 34-year old system veteran who can’t march straight down the field in August against a bunch of rookies. Volek played well in rest-the-starters action last season, throwing for 216 yards in Week 17 against the Redskins, so we have to assume he still has something left.
Tom Brady’s backups are usually mystery men with uninspiring college records, just like Brady. Brian Hoyer has knelt to end blowouts and seen some empty-the-bench action, and he doesn’t look like anything special. But keep in mind that he had to battle through a gauntlet of contenders (Matt Gutierrez, Andrew Walter, Kevin O’Connell) to win a backup job in 2009, and that he’s seen a great deal of preseason action, some of it with the first-team offense. The problem with Hoyer is that he is not Brady: with their timing-and-reads based offense, the Patriots are much more reliant on Brady than the Jets are on Sanchez or the Steelers on Roethlisberger.
Sage Rosenfels is a streak shooter with a knack for big games off the bench. In 2005, he threw for 272 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Dolphins to a 24-23 win over the Bills. In 2007, he threw for four touchdowns (and three interceptions) in a 38-36 Texans loss to the Titans. The Giants didn’t sign Rosenfels until September 3, and you have to worry about a quarterback who couldn’t beat Tarvaris Jackson for the backup job in Minnesota. Still, history shows that when he takes the reins of an offense, he makes something interesting happen.
Trent Edwards was terrible in his lone start for the Jaguars, throwing for two interceptions and no touchdowns. In fairness, he was barely off the plane from Buffalo when the Jaguars handed him the football. Luke McCown has two seasons of experience with the Jaguars but can’t get through a relief appearance without getting injured. The Jaguars rank this high because their offense is so run-oriented. They can survive a game without David Garrard, but if Maurice Jones-Drew gets hurt, they are toast.
The Dolphins were shut out in Tyler Thigpen’s lone start this season, but Thigpen is a good decision maker with some mobility, the kind who can spark a win or two in limited action. If Thigpen gets another start, the Dolphins may call more Wildcat plays and designed scrambles to make better use of his speed: their game plan against the Bears was oddly uncreative.
11. Any NFC West team
There isn’t much separation between the best starter in the NFC West and the worst backup. Whichever 7-9 team staggers out of this division as the champion will at least be able to absorb a quarterback injury without sacrificing (chortle) quality.
Josh Johnson has Michael Vick-caliber speed, giving him an edge over some of the more experienced quarterbacks below him on this list. When Johnson started a few games in 2009, he ran around the pocket long enough to give the Redskins and Eagles some headaches. If his 11-of-13 performances in spot duty this year is any indication, he has developed into a little more than a Wildcat player.
The football equivalent of a young junk-ball pitcher, Matt Flynn lacks the velocity to throw into tight spots over the middle. In a run-based offense, he might survive, but the Packers want to spread the field and blast the ball to receivers in traffic. Flynn’s lack of mobility is also a liability; Rodgers has rushed for 309 yards and four touchdowns this season, compensating for the Packers’ poor running game.
Caleb Hanie dropped back to pass nine times this year and was sacked twice. Todd Collins, who is so old that he backed up Jim Kelly for two years, has five interceptions in 27 attempts this season. Some defense-first teams, like the Jets and Steelers, can play run-and-punt if they have to survive a stretch without their quarterback. The Bears don’t run much, so their survival plan would look more like “get sacked and fumble.”
Curtis Painter looked famously shaky in meaningless action last year, going 8-of-28 for two interceptions during Peyton Manning’s annual December Gatorade taste test. Even if the Colts were at full strength, they would be crippled by the loss of Peyton Manning. The Jacob Tamme-Blair White-Javarris James Colts might just as well switch to badminton if Painter sees meaningful snaps.
Brodie Croyle is now 0-10 as a starter. He is a hustling, hard-working guy who will make a great coach or announcer for SEC games when his career ends, which will be soon.
Drew Brees speaks very highly of Chase Daniel, and Sean Payton is a Grand Exalted Guru of Quarterback Development. But Daniel looked like a smaller, less-experienced Matt Flynn in college. Like the Colts, the Saints are highly quarterback dependant, and won’t win any games with running and defense if Daniel needs time to get up to speed.