Aug 22, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Ryan Mallett (15) on the sidelines in the second quarter of a preseason game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Value of a backup quarterback


Who would you rather have as your quarterback if you absolutely needed a win:

Luke McCown or Tarvaris Jackson?

Matt Hasselbeck or Ryan Mallett?

Colt McCoy or Derek Anderson?

Charlie Whitehurst or Brock Osweiler?

You’d definitely take Jackson over McCown due to Jackson’s experience and mobility.  Luke McCown is already 32-years-old and has just nine career touchdown passes.  Meanwhile, Tarvaris Jackson gives you the ability to get your quarterback outside of the pocket and put some pressure on the opposing defense.  He also has 39 career touchdown passes and is significantly more battle tested than McCown.

There is no question that Hasselbeck would be the obvious choice over Mallett.  There is no denying Ryan Mallett’s heralded arm strength and impressive collegiate career at both the University of Michigan and Arkansas, but he has exactly 0 career touchdown passes, admittedly due to playing behind Tom Brady his entire NFL career.  In Matt Hasselback, however, you’d be getting a 3-time Pro Bowler and a former Super Bowl starting quarterback who has appeared in the playoffs on six separate occasions.

In the case of McCoy versus Anderson, you probably wouldn’t feel comfortable picking either of the two.  Colt McCoy wasn’t good enough to secure the starting quarterback spot for the lowly Cleveland Browns, and his best year was a 14 TD and 11 INT campaign in 2011.  Derek Anderson isn’t any more awe inspiring.  While Anderson once passed for 29 TD and just 19 INT in 2007, that year proved to be an outlier—he has combined to throw more interceptions than touchdowns for his career.  Between McCoy and Anderson, it’s essentially a wash.

Whitehurst versus Osweiler is perhaps the most interesting debate.  Whereas Brock Osweiller has exactly zero touchdown passes on his career, he does come to the table with two years of tutelage from Peyton Manning—unquestionably one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL today.  Whitehurst has just three more career touchdown passes than Osweiller, but he has proven to have what it takes to come up huge in the clutch.  We all remember that January 2, 2011 he started at quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks where he led his team to victory and to a Wildcard playoff matchup against the New Orleans Saints.  And that game against the Saints gave us Marshawn Lynch’s classic “beast mode” run.  We have Charlie Whitehurst to partially thank for that ever happening.  For that reason, and that reason alone, Whitehurst gets the nod over Osweiler.

Backup quarterbacks matter.  We all intrinsically understand this.  We know that during the NFL Divisional Playoffs this weekend, if one of the starting quarterbacks gets hurt, who checks in to stop the bleeding could be the difference between a playoff exit and a shot at the Super Bowl.  If New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees goes down with an injury against the Seahawks on Saturday, Saints fans won’t be too happy to find Luke McCown under center for the rest of the game.  If Russell Wilson goes down for the Seahawks, however, at least Seattle fans will be getting a guy in Tarvaris Jackson that can somewhat replicate Wilson’s mobility and downfield passing.  If Andrew Luck goes down for the Colts, Indianapolis fans will be relieved as Matt Hasselbeck steps onto the field.  But if the second coming of Bernard Pollard injures Tom Brady, Patriots fans will be visibly worried with Ryan Mallett under center.  If Colin Kaepernick or Cam Newton get knocked out of the game on Sunday, neither team’s fan base will be thrilled as Colt McCoy or Derek Anderson enter the game.  And the same can be said for a Denver Broncos team forced to play Brock Osweiler or a San Diego Chargers team forced to play Charlie Whitehurst.

It is apparent that having a quality backup quarterback is important for depth purposes—as a proverbial insurance policy against catastrophe, so to speak.  But keeping a quality backup quarterback is equally important for another reason: the NFL backup quarterback market inefficiency.

There are over seven billion people on planet Earth, yet the NFL can’t find 32 guys at one time competent enough to succeed at quarterback in professional football.

There are only 16 teams with quality, entrenched starting quarterback play: the Patriots (Tom Brady); the Steelers (Ben Roethlisberger);  the Colts (Andrew Luck); the Broncos (Peyton Manning); the Chiefs (Alex Smith); the Chargers (Philip Rivers); the Cowboys (Tony Romo); the Eagles (Nick Foles); the Bears (Jay Cutler); the Lions (Matthew Stafford); the Packers (Aaron Rodgers); the Falcons (Matt Ryan); the Panthers (Cam Newton); the Saints (Drew Brees); the 49ers (Colin Kaepernick); and the Seahawks (Russell Wilson).

There are nine teams with legitimate question marks at starting quarterback: the Buffalo Bills (E.J. Manuel); the Miami Dolphins (Ryan Tannehill); the New York Jets (Geno Smith); the Baltimore Ravens (Joe Flacco); the Cincinnati Bengals (Andy Dalton); the New York Giants (Eli Manning); the Washington Redskins (Robert Griffin III); the Arizona Cardinals (Carson Palmer); and the St. Louis Rams (Sam Bradford).

That leaves seven teams with figuratively nothing at the quarterback position: the Cleveland Browns; Houston Texans; Jacksonville Jaguars; Tennessee Titans; Oakland Raiders; Minnesota Vikings; and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

To put this into perspective; 16 of the 32 NFL teams are in a position of legitimate but varying degrees of uncertainty at the starting quarterback position!  Yet despite this quarterback talent scarcity, six teams actually have competent backup quarterbacks that could very easily be starting quarterback candidates on many of the aforementioned 16 teams: the Indianapolis Colts (Matt Hasselbeck); the Dallas Cowboys (Kyle Orton); the Philadelphia Eagles (Michael Vick); the Chicago Bears (Josh McCown); the Detroit Lions (Shaun Hill); and the Green Bay Packers (Matt Flynn).

Consider a talented team like the Cleveland Browns that could have very easily made the playoffs in a weak division if they only had something resembling consistency at the quarterback position.  A healthy Mike Vick could have assuredly led the Browns to the playoffs.  Kyle Orton might have transformed the Browns into an 11 win team!  Even an aging Matt Hasselbeck could have guided that team into the post season discussion.  Give Josh McCown 16 games at starting quarterback for the Browns this season, and his statistics would have eclipsed those of division rival Andy Dalton.  Even a guy like Shaun Hill, the personification of concepts like “steady” and  “reliable,” would have drastically improved the Browns chances at playoff contention.

Keeping the Kyle Ortons and Matt Hasselbecks of the NFL signed to backup quarterback roles not only creates a sound contingency plan for a franchise in case of an injury to a starter, but it also prevents teams in dire need of a solution at starting quarterback from succeeding.  A savvy general manager like Phil Emery of the Chicago Bears will be highly incentivized to re-sign Josh McCown this offseason, because if McCown walks and chooses not to retire, he would look really good in a Vikings jersey handing the ball off to Adrian Peterson and effectively managing games for division rival Minnesota.

The backup quarterback position is an important market inefficiency in the NFL, in so much as it suppresses the ability of other franchises to compete.  Consequently, it is also one of the most difficult market inefficiencies to exploit in all of professional sports—as most quality backups strive for one of the 32 starting quarterback positions around the league.

If your favorite NFL team has managed to finagle a starting-caliber quarterback into a backup role, think long and hard before tweeting something negative about your team’s general manager.

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  • chas territo

    The only back up I’d like for my Buffalo Bills is Hasselbeck, the rest can sit where they deserve. GO BILLS!!

    • Julian Paz

      EJ Manuel is as bad as Geno Smith, Bills need a consistent QB maybe press there luck in the draft or sign Shaun Hill.

      • chas territo

        You insult not only Buffalo, but yourself as well with the comparison.
        EJ, had 9.5 games played, won 4 lost 5. He played pretty well in his
        wins, bad in his losses, what rookie QB ever won every game? NONE! Geno
        had flashes of good and lit up as a bad QB! 1sr Bills game, the Bills
        almost pulled out the win! The Jets were terrible that day, 18-19
        penalties against, Geno’s play was not at all good, just an average QB
        played game. The 2nd game we left Geno dazed and confused for his next 3
        games. We butchered the Jets and EJ was the winner hands down!! We
        sacked that punk Geno so much for 3 games he heard the footsteps of the
        Bills D-Line coming at him also was jumping at shadows. EJ is a man at
        QB, Geno is, well, he’s Geno?? EJ had the bad luck of 3 knee injuries so
        he didn’t get a big enough body of work for any dumb jerks to judge him
        fairly. I see much promise in EJ as our QB today and till he retires.
        Geno on the other hand… 1st off he needs out of NY where it’s
        euphemistically called the place where QB’s go to die!! Then he needs to
        man up, be a responsible man who is not a coward at life. Geno is not
        to be compared to EJ other than the fact they play the same position and
        both are men of color! GO BILLS!!

  • Julian Paz

    Why can’t these great college QB’s transition themselves as a legitimate NFL srarter? Honestly there is so much hype on 2 to 3 particular QB’s in college every year but once every 4 to 6 years you get a Russel Wilson or Andrew Luck. Is it because there is a big gap in the level between collegiate football and Pro football?

    • Phil Daniels

      That’s definitely part of it. In the Pros, every single defensive player is good enough to be the the best defensive player on a D1 college team.

  • Bandit Ref

    As a Jags fan I would like to tell you about the value of a starting quarterback…

    • chas territo

      No need, all we NEED do is look at your record. lol. GO BILLS!!