The backup quarterbacks were not a big story in the NFL this season until Week 10 when four starters were injured. With three of those teams in the hunt for the playoffs, we have seen how important it is to have a backup plan.
Some teams have prepared better than others, while some teams have a much harder time replacing their quarterback because of all the deficiencies he covers up for with his unique skill set. Some teams just have a better offensive system and level of talent to work with.
San Francisco would rank 32nd on this list if it had included every team, as we have seen the 49ers are arguably a more dangerous team with Colin Kaepernick than they are with Alex Smith.
But that is not the case for most teams, especially those in playoff contention.
Here is a ranking of the 10 teams who could least afford to lose their starting quarterback. The focus is on the expected drop in performance from the starter to the backup.
One thing all 10 have in common: These teams cannot advance far into the playoffs without their starter. You might squeeze past a wild-card game, but forget about any of these backups winning a divisional playoff game or beyond.
We probably are not even talking playoffs if these guys had to start in Week 1 this year.
Case in point, the Houston Texans were able to win their first playoff game in franchise history with T.J. Yates in his rookie season in 2011. But that was against the Cincinnati Bengals, a team Yates did well against in the regular season, and a team with zero track record of quality wins.
That game also turned on a J.J. Watt pick-six before halftime. We saw what happened when Yates had to go on the road against an elite defense like Baltimore: three interceptions, a 28.8 passer rating and no points in the second half.
Yates was 3-4 (including playoffs) as a starter last season after Matt Schaub was injured.
So while the Texans have a backup with more starts and wins in the postseason than Schaub, they still lose out on Schaub’s mastery of the offense and superior accuracy and consistency.
While most quarterbacks could throw passes to Andre Johnson, hand off to Arian Foster and let the defense—assuming they are still a legit defense—cause havoc, the Texans are likely 0-2 the last two weeks with Yates at quarterback.
Instead, Schaub led Houston to consecutive fourth-quarter comeback wins for the first time in team history.
Yates is an interesting prospect Houston can continue developing and perhaps trade away, a la how they acquired Schaub in 2007, or he could even be the successor to Schaub one day.
But right now, Yates is not far along enough to take down the big boys in the NFL. Some fans are still questioning if Schaub can as well. We will learn a lot about that soon.
Though only a rookie, Andrew Luck is already developing into one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. What separates him from the other rookies is the amount of responsibility he shoulders each week while leading the Colts to a 7-4 record and probable playoff spot following their 2-14 season last year.
Playing behind a poor offensive line, Luck has used all of his abilities to cut down on sacks and make productive plays for the offense despite being under pressure.
Arians does not offer Luck a lot of easy throws in this offense, which uses a lot of vertical routes. No team in the NFL has its quarterback attempt passes further down the field on average (Luck’s average depth of throw is a league-high 10.3 yards), nor is any offense as dependent on throws to the wide receivers.
The Colts have been great on 3rd-and-long this season, and part of that is Luck’s underrated ability to scramble for yards in addition to his downfield passing.
Going with backup Drew Stanton would not work well at all in Indianapolis. Stanton has been around since 2007, but has just four career starts (none since 2010). While not immobile, Stanton simply does not have the all-around skill set of Luck.
Not many do, which is why it was an easy choice for the Colts in the draft.
Matt Ryan has been the face of the Atlanta franchise ever since instantly becoming the starter in 2008. He is tied to the hip with coach Mike Smith, and in their fifth season together, they are tied for the league’s best record at 10-1.
Though he does not yet have a playoff win, Ryan does a lot of things at a high level, especially in regard to closing out games.
Taking great control of the offense, Ryan is very effective at running the no-huddle offense, the two-minute offense and the four-minute offense when the Falcons are leading late in the game.
No quarterback in NFL history (min. 25 games) has a better record in fourth-quarter comeback opportunities (15-12) or overall wins in the fourth quarter/overtime (22-12) than Ryan.
Ryan also has one of the lowest sack percentages in NFL history (4.1 percent), which is a testament to his ability to find the open man quickly.
Atlanta’s transformation into a pass-heavy offense, getting away from Michael Turner, has only increased Ryan’s value to the Falcons. While Chris Redman did an adequate job in the past, they now have Luke McCown as the backup.
McCown has been around since 2004, but is just 2-7 as a starter with a career passer rating of 68.5.
For a team that plays many close games and does not field an elite defense or running game, it is crucial for the Falcons to have Ryan healthy. He has only missed two starts in his career, and the Falcons lost both games (2009), leading to a missed postseason.
With already six game-winning drives in 2012, the Falcons are at best a third-place team in the NFC South without Ryan.
David Carr found himself a good job. Eli Manning is Mr. Durability, never missing a start in his career (141 consecutive including playoffs).
We have almost no idea how the Giants would look without Manning since he has been that reliable. But we saw a lot of David Carr on a bad expansion team in Houston (75 starts), and he took a beating with sacks.
Carr never played on a team as well-coached or talented as the Giants. He may have had Andre Johnson in Houston, but there was little else to speak of.
This is Carr’s fourth season with the Giants, and he has completed 31 of 47 passes for 344 yards, three TD, zero INT and a 108.8 passer rating.
These attempts are mostly in mop-up duty, but at least it provides some confidence should he enter the game. He is more mobile than Manning, which is one wrinkle he can offer.
Like Atlanta, the Giants have placed an increasing responsibility on Manning to carry the team, which he did wonderfully a season ago on their way to a second Super Bowl championship in five seasons.
If this had been a few years ago, the Giants probably do not make the list, but with a shakier offensive line and a running game that comes and goes, this team relies on Eli more than ever.
You still have to deal with the off-days and head-scratching passes from Manning, but he does have that elite passing ability down the field that few quarterbacks possess.
With Manning you also get one of the best, if not arguably the best quarterback at leading a team back in the fourth quarter. Carr has seven fourth-quarter comeback wins in his career, which ties the amount Manning had in 2011 alone.
Without Sean Payton, it was expected that Drew Brees would have to carry the Saints more than ever in 2012.
Things did not get off to a good start, as Brees was not as sharp as last season and the defense struggled mightily on their way to a 0-4 hole.
But the offense improved and the defense has been better in situational football since Joe Vitt returned from his suspension to be interim coach. Still, the Saints have been totally outclassed by the Broncos and 49ers and are 5-6 with a huge game in Atlanta on Thursday night.
Barely hanging onto a playoff dream, the Saints would have been dead long ago if not for Brees still producing these offensive numbers: 31 touchdowns and 3,333 yards through 11 games.
It may not be at the efficient level of recent seasons, but Brees is still an elite quarterback, and someone who takes on a heavy burden of attempts to try to overcome the defense’s shortcomings.
If forced to go with Chase Daniel, the Saints would dial things back and run the ball more; they still have great weapons that can be real security blankets like Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham.
With Brees, the Saints’ receivers do not get enough credit for the oftentimes subtle way they adjust to the ball to make big catches. Marques Colston does it the best, but so can Lance Moore. These are the kind of plays you only get good at by being a pass-heavy team.
It was hard to put Brees higher this year, just because the Saints have not looked like a great team with him all season. If Sean Payton returns, that would actually lessen his value to the team and would make things easier in case Daniel had to play.
Bill Belichick makes sure no one is bigger than the team in New England, and that applies to the quarterback position as well.
Which team does a better job of replacing players than the Patriots?
They are the ultimate plug-and-play team in the NFL. Wes Welker can be replaced by Julian Edelman. They stock up on tight ends like no one else, so losing the best in the league (Rob Gronkowski) can be overcome when you still have Aaron Hernandez. They get production out of any running back because of their top-notch blocking.
The offensive line was expected to be a problem this season, yet they have looked nearly flawless as of late—and that is with a completely revamped starting lineup.
Defensively they still play bend-but-don’t-break, but their consistency at getting takeaways is unbelievable. They have 32 takeaways in 2012.
Even when Tom Brady was lost for the 2008 season, New England still managed an 11-5 record with a lot of great offensive stats, and that was with a quarterback in Matt Cassel who did not play meaningful football since high school.
They also did not have to scale things back, as the Patriots still operated more than half of their offense out of the shotgun with Cassel, who notched a consecutive pair of 400-yard passing games that year. Brady had one 400-yard passing game prior to 2011.
One cannot point out New England’s regression of five wins and 130 points from 2007 to 2008 while ignoring how the previous scoring record holders, 1998 Minnesota Vikings and 1983 Washington Redskins, suffered similar declines.
There were stats this week about the prolific scoring pace of the 2012 Patriots. Only five teams since the 1970 merger have had at least three games in a season with at least 47 points scored.
The 2007 Patriots did it four times, and the 2012 Patriots have three such games. Guess who else made the list? The 2008 Patriots, with Cassel, also did it three times, scoring 47, 48 and 49 points that year.
Belichick has stayed ahead of the curve and built an offensive juggernaut. While Cassel is gone, Brian Hoyer is gone, he has a more physically gifted backup in the young Ryan Mallett, but he is still very raw at the NFL level.
But if there was any team you could expect to put Mallett in and still rack up points and wins, it would have to be the Patriots. With the ineptitude of the AFC East, would they still not be favorites to win the division even if Mallett was the Opening Day starter?
Just do not expect Mallett to beat any elite teams, much like he failed to do at Arkansas.
While Jay Cutler is not a legit MVP candidate because his performance is not overwhelmingly great enough to overshadow Chicago’s defense, he is actually one of the most valuable quarterbacks in the league.
The Chicago Bears have an awful offensive line, the running game comes and goes, they have no worthy tight end and Brandon Marshall is the only real threat at receiver.
That touchdown Cutler threw to Matt Spaeth against the Vikings in Week 12 is an elite throw few can make.
Cutler may not have progressed as much as we like to see from even his rookie year, but we know who he is: A guy who can make incredible throws at an elite level, but also makes some poor decisions.
But Cutler’s ability to put up with the punishment, to make those tough plays and throws, to use his mobility; it is a huge advantage for Chicago that they have failed to get with any backup.
In fact, they just cannot get any offensive production without Cutler.
Turning to Caleb Hanie sunk Chicago’s 2011 season, as they went from 7-3 with Cutler to 1-5 down the stretch with Hanie and Josh McCown starting. Chicago averaged just 11.8 points per game offensively in the last six games of 2011.
Since 2010, Cutler is 25-10 (.714) as Chicago’s starting quarterback. Without him, the Bears are 2-6 (.250).
It goes beyond the record.
In 2010 when Todd Collins started in his place against Carolina, the Bears participated in one of the worst passing performances (for both teams) in modern NFL history.
Sure, the Bears won the game 23-6, but Collins was 6-of-16 for 32 yards, zero TD, four INT and a 6.2 passer rating. The previous week against the Giants when Cutler was injured, Collins was just 4-of-11 for 36 yards and an interception.
Last season, Caleb Hanie threw nine interceptions on just 102 passes for an unbelievably bad 8.8 interception percentage. Even George Halas and Sid Luckman would blush at that number during World War II.
Everyone knows about Chicago’s defense, but they can only do so much without any offensive production.
Jason Campbell was expected to be the answer this season, but we have seen enough of Campbell over the years to know that he is afraid to throw the ball down the field, which again makes scoring very difficult.
The Bears scored just 10 points in the game and a half Campbell appeared in this season.
Cutler has an 84.7 passer rating since 2010 (including playoffs). The rest of Chicago’s quarterbacks?
Try this: 140/257 (54.5 percent) for 1,504 yards, 5.85 YPA, seven TD, 22 INT and a 45.3 passer rating. The backups average just 12.6 points per game offensively in the eight starts.
An interception on 8.56 percent of your passes? That’s unfathomable in this era of football.
With Cutler the Bears have been to the NFC Championship, should have made the playoffs last year and likely will be there this season.
Without Cutler, Chicago looks like the worst passing offense in football.
Think of Jay Cutler as the poor man’s Aaron Rodgers.
When you get the real Rodgers, you get someone that will clean up the mistakes with smart throws that avoid turnovers, or productive scrambles for his offense.
You also still get the amazing throws that very few in this league are capable of making. But those deep shots come with the risk of holding onto the ball, and Rodgers leads the league with 37 sacks taken in 2012.
Rodgers would have ranked lower had the Packers retained backup Matt Flynn, but he is now in Seattle and it is Graham Harrell backing up Rodgers.
When the Packers turned to Flynn, he responded with an incredible nine touchdown passes in just two starts. He threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns against Detroit last season in a comeback win.
That raised a few eyebrows, and they were raised even more when former Green Bay coordinator Joe Philbin passed on bringing Flynn to Miami, and Pete Carroll did not give him the starting job in Seattle over Russell Wilson.
The Packers have a great offensive system with a loaded receiving corps, even without a healthy Greg Jennings as has often been the case this year. Jordy Nelson seems to always get open, and Randall Cobb has had a breakout year as many expected.
Green Bay has ignored the running game for years, so that’s no different this season.
Mike McCarthy has coached quarterbacks for decades, seeing Elvis Grbac go to the playoffs in Kansas City, being the offensive coordinator for Aaron Brooks in New Orleans and of course maximizing the talent of Brett Favre and Rodgers in Green Bay.
I have a lot of faith that McCarthy could get Harrell to play well, because Harrell was a better college quarterback than Flynn, who was one of your typical SEC bus drivers. Harrell was the offense in Texas Tech, and while he played against weaker defenses, he was throwing almost every down.
Many thought Harrell was more skilled than some of the recent run-and-shoot duds in the NFL, but he went undrafted as teams have stayed away from such system players.
Harrell would probably have done a more respectable job if he had the 2011 Packers around him, but when you are missing Jennings, the state of the offensive line and injured impact players on defense like Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews still out, this team needs Rodgers to win right now.
But the dynamic of the Packers has changed from last year, as the offense and defense are much closer than the gap that existed last season. Green Bay does not have to win 35-28 every week this season.
Green Bay would still be competitive with Harrell, but likely in third place in its division instead of still fighting for the NFC North crown with Rodgers.
As the years go by, the Steelers depend more and more on Ben Roethlisberger to cover up the glaring weaknesses Mike Tomlin’s team has accumulated through aging and some shaky returns in the draft.
While Roethlisberger was having one of his best seasons, his injury struck at the worst time, all but guaranteeing the team would not win the AFC North for the second straight season.
Now the Steelers are just hoping they can get to 9-7 and a wild card, which will be tough as long as Roethlisberger is out. If they cannot beat Cleveland, then how can they beat San Diego, Dallas or Cincinnati?
Through nine starts with Roethlisberger, the Steelers were 6-3 and had just nine giveaways (six by Roethlisberger). Without him, the Steelers are 0-2, have scored a total of 17 points on offense and have already turned the ball over 11 times, including a staggering eight times in Cleveland.
Under veterans Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch, the Pittsburgh offense has scored just 20 points on 33 drives since Roethlisberger injured his shoulder and ribs against Kansas City. That is an abysmal 0.61 points per drive.
Even the worst offense in football, Kansas City, averages 1.21 points per drive.
With Roethlisberger, the Steelers were averaging 2.28 points per drive, which would rank No. 6 in the league.
Here is the updated passing game by the backup when Roethlisberger does not start (17 games): 9-8 record, 55.1 percent completions, 6.64 yards per attempt, 12 TD, 19 INT, 66.0 passer rating and 10 fumbles (six lost).
It is hard to decline much more than that, as the Steelers just do not have the reliable running game to replace the huge drop in the passing game. The offensive line is always an issue of course, and hardly any quarterback in the league can make something out of nothing the way Roethlisberger is used to doing.
The big plays have not been there with Antonio Brown out and Mike Wallace playing so poorly this season. Batch had open receivers in Cleveland, but struggled to show any velocity or ability to stretch the field.
The defense has played well as of late, but it struggles to make big plays. Pittsburgh has just 25 takeaways since 2011. Only the Colts (24) have fewer. For comparison, the Patriots (66) and Bears (64) have the most.
A lack of takeaways means longer fields, and without a running game to lean on, the quarterback has to produce more, which Pittsburgh is just not capable of doing without Roethlisberger.
There is a great reason Peyton Manning is always in discussion for league MVP each season. No player has a bigger impact at elevating his whole team than Manning.
For years, detractors always tried to credit the success to the other parts.
It was because Manning had Edgerrin James, until he did not have him, and immediately won a Super Bowl. Afterwards, Manning had the worst running game in football and still kept winning and passing at a high level.
It was because Manning had Marvin Harrison, until he was hurt in 2007 and Reggie Wayne stepped up to have a season with 104 catches for 1,510 yards. Now Manning is turning Demaryius Thomas into a star No. 1 receiver in Denver.
It was because GM Bill Polian spent first-round picks on skill players like Dallas Clark and Anthony Gonzalez, until they kept getting injured and Manning won a MVP by instantly turning Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie into household names, followed by Jacob Tamme a year later. Now we see Eric Decker elevating himself in Denver with Manning.
It was because Manning had linemen like Tarik Glenn and Jeff Saturday, even though Manning has continued to take historically few sacks every year because of his playing style, and still gets it done with a bust of a left tackle like Tony Ugoh, or the unheralded cast in Denver this year.
It was because Manning had Tom Moore as his offensive coordinator all those years in Indianapolis. Think of their relationship as Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Luke was a better Jedi who always had it in him, but just needed the guidance at a young age.
The truth is that no offensive coordinator has had an easier job than Moore, who consulted the New York Jets last season.
At least not many people use the head coaches (Jim Mora, Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell). Manning will try to win at least 13 games in one season with a fourth different head coach (John Fox). Only three other quarterbacks in NFL history (Joe Montana, Brett Favre and Philip Rivers) have even done that with two coaches, let alone three or four.
Was it the perfect conditions in the dome all those years? Guess that one has been dying out too seeing as how Manning has played more (and played better) outdoor games than indoor games since 2008.
Get the point? Fourteen seasons should be enough proof by now. No matter which pieces you want to move around, as long as Manning is a constant it becomes a successful season.
The only thing that has stopped Manning are the four neck surgeries that cost him his 2011 season, and the Colts collapsed to a 2-14 record despite having a healthier roster that was very similar to the 2010 team that went 10-6 and made the playoffs.
But now with the Broncos, Manning is putting in one of his most impressive seasons yet, and has quickly turned his new team into the Denver Colts.
Mind sharp as ever, the loss of arm strength may have actually improved his game as he is forced to be more accurate and smarter with his throws this season.
Could Fox put in the raw rookie Brock Osweiler and play some more “Fox Ball” to get another fortunate 8-8 season? That is not very likely.
But with Manning, the Broncos, just like the Colts, feel they are never out of any game no matter the score, the opponent, where it is played or who is healthy and playing.
Try spelling “MVP” without Peyton Manning’s initials.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.