• Inside Slant: Folly of veteran backup QBs

  • By Kevin Seifert | May 29, 2014 11:00:53 AM PDT

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Kellen Clemens (L to R), Ryan Mallett and Charlie Whitehurst give their teams a veteran option at the backup quarterback position.
The heavy lifting done, we've reached that point in the NFL offseason when it's acceptable to obsess about backup quarterbacks. And so here we are.

At the moment, two franchises -- the New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings -- are refusing to trade backups to teams where they might have a better chance to play. Their approach, while different in the details, has in a larger sense helped illuminate the smartest approach to the position, one that bucks conventional wisdom but aligns with supply and demand.

The career backup, a veteran who has played enough to prove he isn't a starter but is still valued as a fill-in, should be a quaint notion in 2014. Smart teams are using the spot as a developmental rather than caretaker position, understanding how rare it is to find a veteran backup who can maintain a team's performance when the starter is injured.

Recent history suggests success is far more connected to a starter's durability than the experience level of the backup. Over the past three years, 31 of the NFL's 36 playoff teams have had a 15- or 16-game starter at quarterback. Only three of the remaining five got winning performances from their backups, and all of them -- Tim Tebow (2011), Colin Kaepernick (2012) and Nick Foles (2013) -- were decidedly inexperienced at the time of their ascension.

Not everyone will accept conclusions based on a three-year sample size, but if nothing else, these figures help support an intuitive inference: There aren't enough good quarterbacks to go around and you're fortunate to have one. If he gets hurt, your path to the playoffs will be difficult no matter how experienced your backup is. That's the nature of the talent drop-off at this point in league history. Faced with a choice, why not choose the upside of a promising youngster over the low ceiling of a veteran?

Some teams seem to understand the consequence of those facts better than others. The Patriots often are hailed as a model franchise, much to the chagrin of those who wonder what would have become of them if Tom Brady had been drafted No. 198 overall instead of No. 199, but they have been ahead of the curve on this issue for a while. It has been eight years since the Patriots have employed a veteran backup (Vinny Testaverde, a mid-year acquisition in 2006) and they have since backed Brady up with inexperienced youngsters from Matt Cassel to Brian Hoyer to Ryan Mallett.

A traditionalist would argue that the Patriots, a perennial title contender, are better off with a veteran who could presumably navigate them to the playoffs. A realist would wonder if such a player exists. Is there really a net difference between Mallett's experience in the Patriots' system and, say, the experience of Ryan Fitzpatrick -- who has started 77 NFL games but lost 49 of them?

This is not to say a team should make a haphazard, hands-in-the-air decision at such an important position. A young backup must at least demonstrate proficiency in the offense during practice, and it's fair to assume Mallett has convinced the Patriots he could run their plays in a game setting if Brady were injured. Second-round draft pick Jimmy Garoppolo hasn't had time to do that yet, which to me explains coach Bill Belichick's reluctance to trade Mallett this spring.

That's a big reason the Vikings haven't parted ways with Christian Ponder, who seems unlikely to start ahead of Cassel or Teddy Bridgewater. Their stance might change as Bridgewater moves through the offseason, but for now Ponder -- like Mallett -- represents a more comfortable option to back up their starter than someone signed off the street. As with other positions, smart teams prefer to develop their own backup quarterbacks.

That's what the Green Bay Packers tried to do earlier this decade with Graham Harrell, and the folly of their shift to veteran Seneca Wallace in 2013 was exposed when starter Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone after a 5-2 start. Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn won only two of the eight games Rodgers missed a part of, and the Packers won the NFC North at 8-7-1 only after Rodgers returned for Week 17.

So what does this mean for the league overall? If you've committed to a starter, as roughly 26 of the 32 teams already have for 2014, it makes sense to prioritize development behind him rather than fool yourself into thinking you can prepare more reliably for his absence.

A Baltimore Ravens fan might be nervous with Tyrod Taylor behind starter Joe Flacco. I wouldn't be any more optimistic with, say, Charlie Whitehurst or Jason Campbell in that role. If Flacco is injured, chances are the Ravens are going to have a much more difficult time making the playoffs. Backups such as Taylor have an upside that might be revealed if and when he replaces Flacco. On the other hand, we have a pretty good idea of the lower bar a veteran would bring in that role.

The same could be said elsewhere. Do you really feel better about the San Diego Chargers' playoff chances with Kellen Clemens than you would if they had drafted, say, Zach Mettenberger? And if it doesn't work out for Jake Locker this season with the Tennessee Titans, why not play Mettenberger instead of hoping that Whitehurst can work magic he hasn't demonstrated in eight previous seasons?

Many coaches like the idea of having a "veteran in the room." If it's important enough to them, they should keep three or even four quarterbacks on their roster to accomplish that mission. But if you're committed to your starter, a veteran backup brings false confidence more than anything else. For the most part, Plan B in the NFL means missing the playoffs. You're better off hoping a young player will blossom in that role instead.


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