Over the last 10 years, in an effort to preserve the health and, let's face it, durability of their players, many NFL teams have gone from using one featured back to a running back-by-committee model.
Some teams have gone that way by choice, while others—like the Pittsburgh Steelers, who lost 13-10 to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night—have been forced to take the by-committee direction because of injuries, clearly illustrating why teams need more than one good running back to survive the rigors of the NFL season.
How long before teams realize they need more than one good quarterback too? From Pittsburgh to Green Bay to San Diego to New Orleans and everywhere in between, it may be time for teams to start utilizing the quarterback-by-committee method to better prepare for life without their superstars.
From a traditional mentality, the idea seems reactionary. Guys get hurt all the time, and teams have survived and even thrived when star quarterbacks go down. That said, the days of iron-man football are long gone, and teams are investing so much money and putting so much hope on the arm of one player, it seems shortsighted not to be more prepared for when he breaks down.
Even more so, it seems antiquated to not take every step to ensure he doesn't break down in the first place.
Suggesting teams alternate quarterbacks during each drive or each quarter, while somewhat successful in college, is not a way to win an NFL football game. What if, however, the quarterbacks alternated games? Could that be an effective way to survive the long, arduous NFL season with the best chance to win?
Heading into the Monday Night Football matchup between the Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers—two all-but-certain playoff teams with injured starting quarterbacks—NFL fans saw 31 different quarterbacks take snaps during Week 11, 29 of whom started or played significant minutes at the position. That means we are guaranteed to see at least 33 different quarterbacks under center for just 28 teams, several being backups as recently as last week.
In 10 of the 11 weeks this season, at least one team used more than one quarterback in a game, culminating in Week 10, when 38 different quarterbacks saw minutes for the 28 teams that played. During that week, 34 of those signal-callers attempted more than one pass from scrimmage.
So far this season, 55 quarterbacks have taken snaps in the NFL with 38 attempting more than 50 passes. Heck, 45 different quarterbacks have attempted more passes than Tim Tebow this year.
Last season, 57 different quarterbacks started NFL games with 70 seeing time during the season. In 2010, 62 different quarterbacks started at least one game.
Granted, some of these numbers are inflated because backups have seen time in mop-up duty, but if a quarterback is seeing time to save the starter from an unnecessary injury in a game that is no longer competitive, how long before teams begin to employ that model for an entire game, not just the last few minutes of the fourth quarter?
This is easier said than done, surely.
If there were 64 quarterbacks in the NFL talented enough to be everyday starters, the value of a franchise quarterback wouldn't be so darn high. There is only one Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees or Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. There just isn't enough quality at the position.
Still, there probably is more quality than we get to see each week. The fact is, good teams with durable quarterbacks rarely get a chance to play their backup quarterbacks.
While there would be an obvious drop-off in talent for a game or two, it may not be that crazy to suggest teams start playing their backups more during the regular season to protect their starters for bigger games on the schedule—including the playoffs.
What if teams decided to play their starter for all six division games and the additional six conference games, giving the backups the start in the remaining four inter-conference games? What if the starters played the six division games and the remaining five or six best defenses on the schedule, giving the backup the nod against weaker defenses?
Some teams would undoubtedly lean on their ace more than others, but the stigma that a player must play every single game would begin to disappear from the league. Scheduling in time for players to rest would not only protect their bodies from breaking down, it would prepare the team if they were lost for a long period of time.
How would Steelers fans like it if Ben Roethlisberger started 12 games a year and a real, actual, viable backup played the other four? If at any point in those 12 games Ben got hurt—which, let's face it, is bound to happen—the viable backup would be able to step in and finish that game or play additional games on the schedule.
We lauded Manning for years for never missing a game, until his neck injuries kept him out for an entire season. Brady never misses a start, but he missed nearly an entire season in 2008 after an injury in Week 1 put him out for the year. The Patriots missed the playoffs that season, but still won 11 games behind Matt Cassel, a viable, capable backup.
For NFL traditionalists, this idea may seem utterly farcical, but if Commissioner Roger Goodell ever gets his way with the 18-game schedule, more and more teams will have to seriously think about platooning their quarterbacks to survive the season.
It would be irresponsible for any team to assume a quarterback will be able to survive 18 regular-season games and four additional playoff games (note: it's irresponsible for the commissioner to think any player, let alone quarterback, will be able to survive that, but that's another story for another day).
If the NFL eventually expands the schedule, teams will need to take even greater measures to protect their quarterbacks.
The game must evolve to protect the careers of its most important players even more than it does now, leaving one to wonder if the NFL quarterback position could become like a top-flight pitcher in baseball, where an ace leads a rotation of starters throughout the long season.
Justin Verlander led Major League Baseball in innings pitched in 2012 with 238.1. Since the turn of the century, no pitcher has thrown more than Roy Halladay's 266 innings in 2003. The last pitcher to throw more than 300 innings in a season was Steve Carlton in 1980, when the Cy Young Award winner hurled 304 for the Phillies.
For generations, fewer than a handful of pitchers would throw more than 300 innings in a season, a number that would be unheard of to reach in this era of protecting players from overusing their arms. It wasn't always like that, though. In 1920, Grover Cleveland Alexander led the league with 363.1 innings, the last season 10 or more players threw over 300 innings in a season. In 1908, Hall of Famer Ed Walsh was the last player to throw more than 400 innings, hurling 464 for the Chicago White Sox. In 1892, Bill Hutchinson threw 622 innings for the Chicago Colts, starting 70 of the team's 146 games and recording 36 of their 70 wins.
In 1884, Hall of Famer Old Hoss Radbourn pitched in 75 games, logging 678.2 innings for the Providence Grays, finishing the season 59-12 with a 1.38 ERA, accumulating more than 70 percent of his team's victories that year. The Grays played 112 times that season and had just two pitchers who threw in more than eight games.
It's ridiculous to think of today's MLB teams managing the season with the expectation their ace starter would pitch in 75 games. Teams have to prepare for each season with far more options than generations ago, a philosophy the NFL has adopted at every position but quarterback until now.
Admittedly, if an MLB pitcher only had to play 16 games (or 18 games) in a season, throwing the ball once every seven or eight days, surely most MLB teams could structure their roster with one viable ace and a potential backup in case that starter got hurt. Baseball needs more pitchers because the season is too long and grueling for just one or two starters.
The NFL season, while far shorter in terms of the number of games played, is long and grueling in a different way.
MLB pitchers put stress on their arms, but they aren't putting as much stress on the rest of their bodies like, say, an NFL quarterback does with the constant pounding he takes during a football game. It's amazing that when an NFL quarterback, after absorbing brutal hits, can even walk after a game is over, let alone play a week later.
While the stress on the body may be different, the model could still work the same. Giving stars more rest will keep them healthy, safe and more productive.
Admittedly, many NFL starters lose time because of freak injuries, not necessarily wear and tear on the body, and it's impossible to know when someone like Roethlisberger will take that one hit that will knock him out of a game. You can't plan injuries, so scheduling time for a starter to sit won't necessarily preclude him from getting hurt in the games he does play.
Having said that, planning to have your starter play just 12 or 13 of the regular season games would force teams to invest more in their backup quarterbacks. The fact of the matter is Byron Leftwich is not a viable NFL quarterback at this point in his career. The Steelers went into the season hoping Roethlisberger would not get hurt, instead of planning for the inevitability that he would.
There's an old saying in football that if you have two quarterbacks, you don't have one of quality, but teams need to be smarter in today's NFL. Every team needs at least two quarterbacks in the event their starter gets hurt. Teams are going to need more than one good quarterback to get through a season, especially if the seasons get longer.
With the quarterback just one hit away from being knocked out of the game, or longer depending on the severity of his injuries, teams should be taking greater measures to prepare for life without their star players. Some teams don't even give their backup quarterbacks reps in practice during the week. How are they supposed to be prepared when they're faced with starting a game in Week 11?
Trust me, I understand how asinine it sounds to suggest the Saints or Packers should sit Brees or Rodgers for a few games each season. A decade ago, it was just as asinine to suggest that about a featured running back sharing carries. A generation ago, it was just as asinine to suggest that about a starting pitcher in baseball starting fewer than 40 (or 70) games.
The NFL will have to evolve for its star players to survive. The sooner teams realize that, the more prepared they will be to win, and the longer the careers of their superstars may last.