Packers Highlight Backup QB Problem in the NFL's New Economic Landscape

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IDecember 4, 2013

Nov 28, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (left) sits on the bench next to quarterback Matt Flynn (10) during the fourth quarter of a NFL football game against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The Green Bay Packers have been universally lambasted for their handling of their backup quarterback position this season. 

Ever since Aaron Rodgers went out with a fractured collarbone on Nov. 4, the once 5-2 Packers have gone five straight games without a win. Three times, Green Bay lost by 10 or more points, and only in a 26-26 home tie with the then two-win Minnesota Vikings did the Packers get what can be considered average quarterback play without Rodgers.

The results of the last month-and-a-half now make it easy to blame Green Bay's season-defining slump on the mismanagement behind Rodgers well before the Packers' midseason crisis struck. 

Back in August, the Packers cut loose Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman—the two quarterbacks well-versed in their complex offense—before failing to resurrect Vince Young's career and then settling on veteran Seneca Wallace just days before the season opener. When Wallace lasted just one full game in relief of Rodgers, Green Bay was forced to uncharacteristically scramble with the signings of Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn

The Packers haven't won with Wallace (0-1), Tolzien (0-1-1) or Flynn (0-1) since, putting Green Bay in serious danger of missing the postseason for the first time since 2008.

Packers Backup QB Shuffle in 2013
Graham Harrell (UDFA)Cut
B.J. Coleman (7th Round)Cut
Vince Young (FA)Cut
Seneca Wallace (FA)*IR
Scott Tolzien (FA)*On 53
Matt Flynn (FA)*On 53
*GB is 0-4-1 in games started

The Packers' situation, much like the one in Indianapolis just two years before it, has highlighted the immense importance of backup quarterbacks. Green Bay was a certain playoff team, and likely one with Super Bowl aspirations before Rodgers' injury. Now, the Packers would struggle to beat any of the other 31 NFL teams. 

This isn't a new phenomenon. Just two years ago, the Peyton Manning-less Colts went from a 10-win playoff team to a 2-14 record and the first pick in the 2012 NFL draft. Had Rodgers been lost before the season like Manning, the Packers might be looking at a similar situation. 

But Green Bay's collapse also sheds light on the struggle that teams with elite, big-money quarterbacks have in acquiring and retaining a capable backup. 

With a shifting economic landscape at the quarterback position, teams have had to sacrifice on their insurance plans. 

As it has in every season since the league expanded, the NFL came into the 2013 season with 32 starting quarterbacks. However, quarterbacks are now controlling an enormous percentage of the market like no other time in league history

Nine of the 32 starting quarterbacks have contracts totaling $87 million or more, with five of those soaking in deals of at least $100 million. Rodgers ($110 million), Matt Ryan ($104 million), Joe Flacco ($120 million), Tony Romo ($108 million) and Drew Brees ($100 million) each cracked nine figures on their respective deals. 

More specifically, 10 quarterbacks will earn north of $15 million during the 2013 season. Rodgers, Ryan, Flacco and Brees will each take home at least $20 million per year.

Keep in mind that NFL teams only received $123 million this year to spend on contracts. The NFL employs a hard cap, which forces general managers to creatively allocate their money on a 53-man roster. It's not an easy task, especially if one player is taking up a significant percentage. 

The Packers are one team facing that dilemma. 

Rodgers takes up a sizable amount of Green Bay's cap room.
Rodgers takes up a sizable amount of Green Bay's cap room.Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

With Rodgers making $22 million over the life of his deal, general manager Ted Thompson has had to make sacrifices at certain areas. His backup quarterback has clearly been an obvious choice.

Wallace, Tolzien and Flynn were all brought to Green Bay for minimum-money contracts. 

So many other teams are operating in a similar way. 

The Falcons are backing up Ryan with Dominique Davis, who will make just $480,000 in 2013. In Baltimore, the Ravens employ Tyrod Taylor and his $555,000 salary to back up Flacco. Brees has Luke McCown, a $840,000 investment, and undrafted free agent Ryan Griffin behind him in New Orleans.

Even those franchises that draft serviceable backup quarterbacks, such as Denver, New England and New York, have minimal monetary investment. 

Brock Osweiler, who may be Denver's quarterback of the future, will make less than $700,000 in each of the next three seasons. Ryan Mallett is making less than $700,000 behind Tom Brady in 2013. Ryan Nassib is costing the Giants less than $600,000. 

The problem Thompson would have in using a draft pick on a backup quarterback would take away from building his roster at another, potentially more useful, position. The constraints levied by a $100 million quarterback mean that draft picks have to be used to replenish talent that will occasionally, but inevitably, leave when the money runs out.   

It's easy to send the backup quarterback to the back burner, especially for a Packers franchise that has enjoyed such pristine health at the position over the last two decades. 

Thompson once did use a second-round pick on a failed backup in former Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm. He hasn't used a draft pick higher than the seventh round on the position since. 

The Packers' real failure at backup quarterback wasn't necessarily related to money. Thompson's greatest defeat came when his staff determined far too late that neither Harrell nor Coleman were capable of being the No. 2 behind Rodgers. 

Harrell (6) was Green Bay's backup in 2012.
Harrell (6) was Green Bay's backup in 2012.Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Harrell, a former record-setting quarterback at Texas Tech, spent 2012 as the team's primary backup. But he nearly fumbled away his only opportunity to play last season (i.e. his botched snap at the goal line against New Orleans) and his development was always dependent on an intimate knowledge of the offense, not any impressive physical capability. 

The Packers likely felt that Coleman, a seventh-round pick in 2012, would take the second-year jump and beat out Harrell. He had the physical attributes to be an ideal No. 2 and a full year of learning the offense on the Packers practice squad. That alone would have seemed to present him a chance to be a more complete quarterback in his sophomore season. 

Yet when the lights came on this summer and Green Bay needed to see development, Coleman faded. When it was finally determined he couldn't cut it, the Packers brought in Young—who hadn't played in over a year—and began their merry-go-round at backup quarterback.

It eventually landed on Wallace, a journeyman with history in the West Coast offense. But even the better part of three months in the Packers system wasn't enough to prepare Wallace as the backup. He struggled mightily against Chicago and then left his only start with a groin injury. 

Tolzien, a castoff from the 49ers practice squad, attempted the impossible task of learning the offense in a few weeks time. He predictably made too many inexperienced mistakes and eventually gave way to Flynn, who failed to last in either Oakland or Buffalo this season. 

It's hard to fault any of the three quarterbacks. When a player at that position misses nearly the entire offseason (which is used for much of the offensive installation), it becomes increasingly more difficult to play well when the call eventually comes. That's exactly what Mike McCarthy and the Packers have dealt with on offense. 

Just look at the backup quarterbacks around the league who are playing well.

Josh McCown, making less than a million from the Chicago Bears, has been with Marc Trestman every step of the way—playbook installs, preseason and into the regular season. He now has a passer rating over 100.0, plus two wins as a fill-in for Jay Cutler

Dec 1, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Chicago Bears quarterback Josh McCown (12) throws prior to the game against the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field at H.H.H. Metrodome. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

Nick Foles, a former high pick who battled Michael Vick for the starting role during the Eagles' offseason and training camp, hasn't thrown an interception this season and is in position to potentially break Rodgers' single-season passer rating record. He'll make less than $2 million over the next three seasons combined. Oh, and the Eagles are right in the playoff hunt without Vick under Chip Kelly. 

Even Case Keenum and Matt McGloin, two young, untested and mostly disregarded quarterbacks who both spent an offseason with their respective offenses, have played better than Green Bay's trio of backup misfits. 

Meanwhile, veterans such as Matt Hasselbeck and Kyle Orton, who each took higher-than-market deals to be backups in Indianapolis and Dallas, respectively, haven't been needed. 

The backup quarterback situation in today's NFL isn't a difficult one to figure out. 

Teams with elite-money quarterback can't afford to spend big bucks on a veteran backup. These teams, like the Packers, must cheaply acquire No. 2 quarterbacks to ensure roster prosperity elsewhere. 

But these teams also can't be as reckless as the Packers were this season when Green Bay mowed through both of its in-house options in August, banked on a Hail Mary with Young and then played musical chairs with the next three second-string signal-callers. This failure by Thompson is the primary reason for the Packers' backup struggles. 

In today's evolving economic landscape of the NFL, backup quarterbacks get the short end of the stick. But it doesn't take loads of money to have a workable insurance plan, which the sinking Packers never gave themselves a chance at in 2013. 


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