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.
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.
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.
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.