The NFL’s New MVP: Backup Quarterbacks

The NFL changes over time. Before Lawrence Taylor, left tackles did not hold the same value as they did after Taylor battered just about every quarterback he faced. General managers adjusted based on what they were seeing. It seems like it is changing again now regrading the league values backup quarterbacks.

It feels like backup quarterback has become an infinitely more valuable position in the last few years in the NFL. With the rate of injury to starting quarterbacks, it is becoming a necessity to have a good backup. They are quickly becoming a valuable commodity across the league.

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Entering the season, Foles was the second-highest paid backup in the league, behind only Teddy Bridgewater. (Wikimedia Commons)

Think about how many backup quarterbacks you can name during Peyton Manning’s career. Go back further to Dan Marino. Or Roger Staubach. Maybe some of the ones for Marino or Staubach have faded with time, but I grew up during the Peyton Manning-era. Off the top of my head, the only name that comes up is Curtis Painter, and that is mostly because the Colts started him for their final two games of the 2009 season. One of those games was against a Jets team starting Mark Sanchez and needing a win to keep postseason hopes alive. I will forever be thankful for Curtis Painter.

I digress. The point is, most of these backup quarterbacks are pretty much unknown. There wasn’t much value in them unless you were grooming a young quarterback and he needed some guidance. Now, teams are trading for backup quarterbacks, or even notably not giving them up.

The best example is Nick Foles. The backup quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles had to step in after Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending injury late in the 2017 season. No doubt, you know what happened by now as Foles led the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory and was named the game’s MVP.

Over the offseason, several teams tried to trade for Foles, seeing as Wentz would come back and take over the starting job as soon as he was healthy. Reportedly, Cleveland offered up its second round pick, the 35th overall selection in the 2018 NFL draft in exchange for Foles. That is exception value to receive for your backup quarterback, who you hope won’t have to play all season. The Eagles declined the offer though. While yes, Philly did need Foles to start the season as Wentz was not cleared for contact by week 1, there were plenty of other free agent quarterbacks that could have stepped to start for those two weeks and the Eagles would have some extra ammo in the draft. It also would have cleared a ton of cap space off the books for Philadelphia. Foles will count for $13.6 million against the cap in 2018. However, the Eagles felt they needed a strong enough backup to have in their back pocket, just in case.

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Teddy Bridgewater (right) has not started a game since 2015, but the Saints traded a third-round pick for him to back up Drew Brees. (Wikimedia Commons)

Philly is far from the only team. Several clubs moved to bolster their backup quarterback situation. The Colts refused to move Jacoby Brissett after he stepped in last season to start for Andrew Luck. Minnesota traded for Trevor Siemian in the offseason, despite breaking the bank to sign Kirk Cousins from Washington. The Seahawks traded a sixth round pick in 2019 for Brett Hundley, formerly a backup in Green Bay. The Packers felt comfortable letting go of Hundley because they already had their backup quarterback of the future in Deshone Kizer. The Packers traded for Kizer after he struggled during his rookie season with the Browns. The Saints joined the fun as well, sending a third round draft pick to New York in exchange for Teddy Bridgewater.  Now Kizer did see some action already due to an Aaron Rodgers injury, but without injury, none of these players would see the field in 2018. Their value exists due to the what if.

This whole trend might actually go back a bit further Nick Foles. It likely originates with Matt Cassel back in 2008. He stepped in after Tom Brady was lost for the season with a knee injury. Cassel, never anywhere as close to as good as Brady, led the Patriots to an 11-5 record. He signed a big 4-year deal with the Chiefs the following offseason and proceeded to look way out of his depth. Even though he flamed out of Kansas City, Cassel has made the roster of five different teams in the past six seasons.

Perhaps the best example of the value teams place in having an experienced backup quarterback is the bearded one himself, Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Harvard grad has toured the NFL as the consummate backup quarterback and spot-starter. Fitzpatrick is not a very good passer. In his career, he has completed just under 60 percent of his passes and thrown 43 more interceptions than he has touchdowns. Usually, that would mean you are out of the league, not playing in your 14th NFL season. Fitz has made a living as a journeyman backup. Spotrac puts his career earning at just over $58 million. The fact that teams still sign him is a testament to the value he still holds in the league.

In a similar boat is Josh McCown. Now a backup on the Jets as the franchise puts its faith in Sam Darnold, McCown has a made a career circling the league as a backup. He has made just shy of $50 million for his efforts despite never starting all 16 games in a single season.

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Bradford has made about $14.4 million on average over his nine NFL seasons. (Wikimedia Commons)

Another interesting study is Sam Bradford. He has never been a great quarterback. In his career he is a 62.5 percent passer who averages about 234 yards per game. His career record as a starter is 34-48-1. Sam Bradford is also the 17th highest paid player in NFL history. Yes, you read that right. Now, that stat is a bit skewed. 15 of the 20 highest paid players in league history are currently playing. Four of the five that have retired did so in the last three years. Brett Favre is the only one in the top 20 to retire more than three years ago.

There are some other qualifiers for Bradford’s status. He is the last player selected first overall to negotiate outside of the rookie wage scale, meaning he signed a six-year, $78 million deal before ever taking an NFL snap. For reference, Cam Newton, who was the first overall pick the following year, signed a four-year, $22 million deal for his rookie contract.

Just this year, Bradford signed a one-year deal with Arizona for $20 million. Bradford has not played a full season of football since 2012. He has never made the playoffs as a starter. Yet, he somehow still manages to command money. The Cardinals also drafted Josh Rosen 10th overall this year, so they have a quarterback of the future. They also have Mike Glennon on the roster. With Rosen taking over the starting job, Bradford is now the most expensive backup in the NFL.

They aren’t the first team to do this either. The Bears did it in 2017 with Mike Glennon and Mitch Trubisky. Trubisky took over right around the same time as Rosen did. I just mentioned that Glennon is also in Arizona. Experience is key for NFL teams looking to find the solution at quarterback.

Blaine Gabbert, Chad Henne, Matt Schaub, Colt McCoy, Drew Stanton, Robert Griffin III, Geno Smith, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler. The list goes on and on of players we know do not have what it takes to be starters in this league. Most of them aren’t even that young anymore and don’t represent future prospects looking for their chance. They all have jobs though due to the fact teams are valuing backup quarterbacks more than ever before.

This isn’t to say there weren’t career backups who made the occasional start for an injured quarterback. Before Nick Foles, there was Jeff Hostetler. Hostetler stepped in for an injured Phil Simms late in the 1990 season and did just enough to lead the Giants to a Super Bowl victory. Hostetler went on to start for a few seasons with the Raiders, even making the Pro Bowl in 1994. He was never a great quarterback.

Hostetler never really returned to his backup role, unlike what so many of these current quarterbacks are doing. There are some great backup quarterbacks in NFL history, but they are few and far between.

Earl Morrall backed up Y.A. Tittle, Johnny Unitas and Bob Griese during his career. He played 21 years in the NFL and started fewer than five games per year on average. Steve DeBerg was replaced by Joe Montana, John Elway and Steve Young during his long NFL career. He finished with more interceptions than touchdowns thrown, but lasted 17 seasons in the league.

Most notable backup quarterbacks are few and far between. Perhaps it’s easier to name all of the current backup quarterbacks now because they are still current players. Still, it is hard to dismiss the fact that general managers and fans alike are paying more attention to the depth chart at the quarterback position than ever before.

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The Jets need to Resign Fitzpatrick

It’s time to give up the act and end the stalemate. The New York Jets need to suck up their pride and find a way to give Ryan Fitzpatrick a better offer than the one that they have laid out before him right now.

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Fitzpatrick played for the Rams, Bengals, Bills, Titans and Texans before joining the Jets.

Now it doesn’t need to be much more than what they have already offered, which is reportedly around $8 million a year for the next three years. Bumping up the offer to more of a middle ground number is something New York has to do.

There are a number of reason why. First and foremost, this guy just had one of the greatest seasons in franchise history. Fitzmagic broke the single season record for passing touchdowns and came close to the yardage record as well ranking second all in team history.

Fitz has his drawbacks for sure, in the number of interceptions he’s thrown, his rep as a journey man and his inability to come up big when the team needed him to in Week 17 against Buffalo last year, but the Jets have to look past all of that.

For the first time in a long time, Gang Green has a positive locker room vibe going. There is a lot of chemistry among this group of guys. That includes Fitzpatrick even though he isn’t officially under contract. Just Tuesday night, a video surfaced on Instagram of the bearded signal caller hanging out with Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Nick Mangold and Bryce Petty at Madison Square Garden for the Rangers and Penguins playoff game. That kind of comradery is not something that gets formed overnight.

In Fitz, the Jets would get a guy who clearly likes the talent he has around him and has a great relationship with his potential replacement in Petty. He has shown signs of wanting to mentor the former Baylor quarterback.

Many seem to have forgotten the uncertainty of the NFL draft, as fans and analysts peg the Jets to take any one of a number of quarterbacks in the first two rounds. However, drafting a rookie is a huge unknown and New York doesn’t exactly have the best track record for drafting quarterbacks. There is no guarantee that Fitzpatrick will replicate his production from last season, but he is much more of a sure thing than any rookie the Jets could draft.

And then if they want to entertain the laughable notion of signing another quarterback via free agency, New York kind of has slim pickings. Brian Hoyer reportedly visited yesterday, but he is just as much of a journeyman and his playoff performance against Kansas City was less than reassuring. There is always Johnny Manziel, or of course Matt Flynn. How about Tim Tebow? Point is, there isn’t a great plan B.

In a league where guys as average as Joe Flacco get paid $22 million a year, I don’t see why the Jets are so concerned with paying a guy who put up comparable stats about half of that. Upping the offer to around $11 million shouldn’t break the bank.

If Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles about making the playoffs and competing at a high level this season, they need to have the quarterback position solved. Geno Smith is not the answer and Petty is nowhere near ready right now. Especially with a difficult schedule, bringing back Fitzpatrick is the only way the Jets can hope to stay afloat this season.

Blessing in disguise

As a fan, you never hope to see a player injured. Well at least you shouldn’t. However, Jets fans probably feel a slight sigh of relief knowing that they do not have to watch Geno Smith under center again for the next 6-10 weeks. On the surface, this seems like a real issue for the Jets. But when you dig a little deeper, things start to look pretty good actually.

Geno Smith
Smith’s injury require surgery and he will miss the rest of the preseason, along with anywhere from 2-6 weeks of the regular season.

Smith is out those 6-10 weeks due to a broken jaw he sustained when he was “sucker-punched” in the locker room by a teammate. That sounds like a discipline problem that would be rampant under Rex Ryan. However, Todd Bowles already took care of the issue by swiftly cutting IK Enemkpali, a 2014 sixth round draft pick, who wasn’t expected to make the team anyway. So the guy who caused the problem is already gone. It wasn’t a starter on either side of the ball or someone who the Jets had high hopes for. That certainly makes the problem a lot more manageable.

As for replacing Geno, the Jets already have a contingency plan in place. Ryan Fitzpatrick was brought in the offseason to offer some competition for Smith and will now step into the starting role. Many feel that Fitzpatrick is more suited for the starting job anyway. He showed flashes of brilliance last year, including a six-touchdown performance against Tennessee, while playing for the Texans. He also knows the offense that Smith was attempting to learn for the first time. Fitzpatrick played under now Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey when he was the head coach in Buffalo. He ran the system for a few years and is very familiar with both the terminology and mindset. Fitzpatrick made his only Pro Bowl playing in that offense. Now, it is a bit much to start expecting a Pro Bowl year out of Fitzpatrick but he should be an immediate upgrade over the incumbent Smith given his prior experience.

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Fitzpatrick playing last season in Houston. The Texans were 6-6 in games he started.

For management, this opens a previously unforeseen door. This situation should pan out a lot like the Mark Sanchez situation when Smith joined the team as a rookie. Sanchez injured his shoulder late in the preseason and subsequently missed the entire year. That allowed Geno to take over the starting job and the Jets to cut Sanchez when they thought they had a better option in Smith. Additionally, the Jets are able to see what Fitzpatrick can do in this offense. If he excels, the Jets can release Smith and roll with Fitzpatrick under center until rookie Bryce Petty is ready to take over the gig. If Fitzpatrick struggles, then the Jets can turn the offense back over to Geno when he is healthy. This allow New York to see what they have in Fitzpatrick without having to pull the rug out from underneath Smith. It won’t be awkward either to put Smith in either now if Fitzpatrick struggles because he never started previously. Overall, this situation definitely works out in the Jets’ favor.

I’m sure the coaching staff will maintain that they really saw a lot in Smith and were eager to see him start this season but he has two years of mediocre play in his past already that doesn’t promise much. Smith ranked 25th in Total QBR a season ago, tied with Kyle Orton. In 30 career games played, he has thrown for only 5,571 yards with a 6.88 yard per attempt rate. His completion percentage is a lowly 57.5 and he has thrown nine more interceptions than touchdowns. Smith had his few bright spots in his play, namely against Atlanta in 2013 and Miami at the end of last season, but on the whole he has been one of the five worst starting quarterbacks in the league. He would have to make massive strides to get himself on par with even an average NFL quarterback.

Now with Smith out, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Jets target another quarterback, like Matt Flynn, in case Fitzpatrick gets hurt. The latter did miss the final four games of the season with a torn pectoral muscle last year. The Jets want to avoid putting Petty into game action at all costs so finding another suitable backup will be a priority.

Smith’s career is all but over in New York. This injury is a blessing in disguise. It allows the new regime to find a quarterback they selected to start. It may also be a blessing for Geno. All of the reports this offseason have indicated that this was a great camp for him. With no evidence so far to prove otherwise, that means Smith might draw some interest from other clubs if he is released from New York. He would be a project player but because Smith never had a chance to play, he will be an unknown commodity. That usually isn’t a good thing but it certainly beats out being a proven failure, which Smith would have been had he blown yet another chance in New York. When all is said in done, I think this will settle well for everyone. Now, to go send IK Enempalki a thank you card….