Stepping Up in the NFL
Matt Leinart, Vince Young and Tyler Palko are thrust into the NFL spotlight as starting quarterbacks drop like flies. Here are the League's backup signal-callers rated by competence and future starting potential.
When I took on this article, I thought that I’d certainly be able to come up with seven or eight backup signal callers ready for the spotlight. But, then, examination of this subject always seems to bear out Parcells famous “1 (800) QUARTERBACK” comment.
Ryan Fitzpatrick was the backup when Chan Gailey took over the Bills, but became the starter in Week 3 of last season. Fitzpatrick acknowledges that the head coach began to immediately modify the Buffalo offense as soon as he became the starter and completely re-designed it this off-season to fit No. 14’s strengths. He credits this strategical flexibility with his success.
The result? They may not be ready to storm the AFC Championship game, but the 2011 Buffalo Bills are a legitimate pro franchise.
Aside from the Amish Rifle, who in today’s game is a winning QB who came from the backup ranks?
1. Well, there’s Matt Schaub. Poor Matt Schaub. Just when he's a Pro Bowler with a winning team, it's over for the year. Ugh. See the Backups with Potential slide for my take on Leinart.
Schaub in Atlanta was always a mystery to me. I would think it would be advisable for the backup quarterback to play in a style at least somewhat similar to the starter. Matt Schaub backed up—Michael Vick. Go figure
Now, Mr. Schaub has quite the arm and is calm, cool, and accurate. But a smooth running gazelle he is not. You’ve seen those rushing TDs from Weeks 8 and 9, right? Really ugly.
2. Matt Cassel? No. 7 is out for an extended period of time. But even before the hand surgery, I was not completely sold on him.
In three years in KC, Cassel's QB rating has been above 78 exactly once. This was last year, when they were the dark-horse AFC West Champs and Cassel came out with a 93 rating. This season, it’s 77.8.
I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say we should wait for his performance in the future. Get back to me in a couple of years.
As for Tyler Palko, I frankly had considered the Kansas City Chiefs to be a team without a backup QB.
This is what I wrote the last time that Matt Cassel was injured.
His name is Tyler Palko. Who? Yeah. From Pittsburgh, he is a former undrafted free agent now in his third year and acquired from the Steelers. He has bounced around, including a stint in the CFL. Actually, it could be worse. The kid has managed an average of a 60% completion rate in the pre-season. However, I had to go look him up because he wasn’t even included on my draft preview. But, it’s all good – the third string QB is a rookie. Did I say uh-oh?"
3. Kevin Kolb? Please. I wasn’t impressed when he was an Eagle.
4. Matt Moore. Aside from the fact that he and Cassel look like were separated at birth, I generally like him. And let’s give Mr. Moore credit: in Week 9, he was the AFC Offensive Player of the Week and completed 74 percent of his passes in the win. I’d be more impressed, but I watched him in Carolina, where he was a star-in-the-making in 2009 and fell apart in 2010.
When it comes to QBs named "Matt," I think the jury is still out. And now we'll have to wait until 2012 for Cassel's next review.
So, who is poised to take the next step?
No. 10. Come on down!
UPDATE ALERT! Well, I certainly didn't expect my predictions to come true two hours after I wrote the article. Here's the update going into the fourth quarter Monday night:
Matt Flynn is tough as nails and a true fighter. He’s battled for roster spots since high school, first against JaMarcus Russell at LSU, and then he wrested the backup spot in Green Bay away from the higher-drafted Brian Brohm.
As a college sophomore, he played behind Russell. As a seventh-round pick, Flynn may not have Russell’s millions, but I’d say his life and his career are in much better shape. After Russell left to con the Raiders out of a fortune, Flynn led the Tigers to a National Championship and was MVP of the title game.
The Packers lost at the last second (and yes, he fumbled), but Matt completed over 60 percent of his passes and had them in the game until the bitter end. But it was the old “eyeball test” that convinced me. He led that team without an ounce of visible fluster in such a high-profile contest. I really think he can handle the Big Show.
Green Bay must think so too, because they didn’t bother to extend his contract beyond this season. The Packers probably won’t be able to keep him as a backup in 2012. Flynn needs the Packers to end up blowing a few teams out in the second half of a few games so that he can get some audition playing time.
If there had been a real offseason and New England had seen Ryan Mallett in action a little sooner, Hoyer could have ended up as the starter in Indy this year. But, he wasn’t available at crunch time for the Colts.
As it is, Brian is expendable now that the Pats know they have the very talented (and thus far sane) Ryan Mallett as next year’s No. 2 QB. Hoyer is a restricted free agent in 2012, so expect a deal to get done with some team that doesn’t end up with Luck or Barkley.
Kolb’s non-production in Arizona is going to give everyone pause about signing a former backup QB to lead their team, but I think Hoyer can get it done. He was impressive as you-know-what in this year’s preseason action. He went 15-of-21 for 171 yards and a TD in the opener and finished the month with a rating of 98.1.
Another of those undrafted free agent pleasant surprises, Hoyer is, in reality, an excellent athlete. He was the winning pitcher in his high school’s state championship and a varsity swimmer. He was at Michigan State behind Drew Stanton and ended up in the running for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award (Seriously? That is the best they can do for a trophy name? Doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.).
The Pats signed him immediately after the draft, so he has had three years of development in that system and, like Cassel, can probably find success elsewhere in a similar scheme.
Yes, this is the path to success.
No huge surprise that New England has ended up with two QBs on this list.
Ryan Mallet’s inclusion comes with the caveat “eventually” attached. He is so immature that he must remain holding a clipboard for a few years. The best thing that ever happened to Ryan was falling to the Patriots in April’s draft.
Let’s face it, if any franchise can control a troubled young man until he grows up, it’s the Patriots. Even Randy Moss was a model citizen in Boston. For a few years anyway.
Mallet’s arrogance might be successfully translated to confidence on this team. He blew me away with his performance in the 2011 preseason. His first four drives went for touchdowns. Wow. And nothing seemed to faze him in his first pro action.
Yes, I know, it was preseason, and the defenses hadn’t even had training camp. But still, I think the kid has what Phil Simms hates to call “it.” Give him a couple of years, and if he doesn’t self-destruct, he can be a winner at this level.
Happy in a cap.
This is one of those awkward aging star QB/young stud situations. Yes, I think Matt Hasselbeck is a star QB. When given any weapons and protection at all, he is an extremely accurate and smart passer. And he is a great leader.
On NFL Network’s Sound F/X, he was talking to an injured D-lineman on the sidelines. He asked the young man what words of encouragement he was giving to his line when they were off the field. The kid said he hadn’t said anything to his replacement. Hasselbeck said, “Well, think of something.”
But Locker was drafted before No. 8 was signed, so you know they will want to put him in soon. However, Hasselbeck is on pace for a 4,000 yard season, and the Titans offense is excellent in the red zone. Without the benefit of a running game, I might add (Johnson was successful in Week 10, but I'm not convinced). I don’t expect to see Locker until next year unless the Titans tank four games in a row.
Frankly, the longer Locker gets to work on his passing accuracy outside of real play, the better. Hasselbeck is in the Brees accuracy strata when he has time to throw, so he is the perfect mentor. Plus, he’s a generous guy who actually does mentor.
Locker may hate being on the sideline, but he’s saying all the right things.
What the heck; it worked splendidly for Aaron Rodgers.
I'd be smiling too.
After Weeks 9 and 10, we have to include John Skelton in this list. Not only did he lead his team to a win against Philly this Sunday, he is calm, confident and mobile when necessary.
Skelton is another product of a football family. His father was a coach, and his brother, Stephen, played TE for the Cards. Hmmmm.
At Fordham, Skelton became the starter halfway through his freshman year. In his four years, he completed 802 passes for 9,923 yards and 69 touchdowns (school records, of course).
In fact, Skelton has played so well, and Kolb so poorly, that we should have a QB controversy in the desert this week. And that, my friends, is how you make the most of your opportunity as a backup QB.
The tipping point? When he beat the Eagles by completing 21-of-40 for 315 yards and three touchdowns. Three. Against Asomugha, Samuel and Rogers-Cromartie. Welcome to the NFL, young man.
Sure it's corny. But I'm a believer.
There are a plethora of young guys out there starting in 2011 and I think most of them are keepers:
1. Cam Newton: Check. For all of the reasons we’ve heard about all year. Yes, still. Let’s not overreact.
2. Some people still aren’t sold on Mark Sanchez as a franchise QB and have fantasies about him being replaced. Those folks will be foaming at the mouth again after Sunday’s loss.
Let’s take a breath and realize that one New England touchdown was scored off of a special teams fumble and one was a late interception when the game was already lost. The offensive line has completely fallen apart and their nominally first string RB is fair at best.
As Mike Ditka would say, “Just stop it.”
3. Christian Ponder: Unless he completely melts down in the second half of the season, Ponder will be the Vikings starter for the next few years.
Of course, it's hard to say that too definitively after Monday night. But, to be fair, his defense and the offensive line might as well not even have shown up. But I still think he can do it, based on a few excellent plays.
4. Blaine Gabbert: I think so. We’re all used to trashing the Jaguars offense, but I think Blaine will be just fine.
Going into Week 10, he had completed 62 percent of his passes. He had thrown five TDs and five INTs, and had a 62 QB rating.
Firstly, these are typical rookie QB numbers, and secondly, those WRs have certainly not been an asset. He has thrown a lot (and I mean a lot) of good balls that were summarily dropped. Not helping.
5. Colt McCoy. Leading another anemic offense, Colt has come under a great deal of fire in 2011. Pat Shurmur said that he considered McCoy to be essentially a rookie QB and he was right, though not particularlly tactful.
In addition to only having started a few games in 2010, McCoy had a receiving corps that consisted of one WR capable of separating from a defender, and that guy was the return specialist Cribbs. Now his other starting receiver is hurt.
Like Brady, Colt is reduced to using TEs almost exclusively as recipients of the football. Unlike Brady, his offensive line has allowed him to be sacked entirely too many times. Particularly for a guy who is only 215 pounds. Yikes.
Add in the fact that the Browns are reduced to starting running backs off the waiver wires (and I’m not being sarcastic; they truly are doing that), and Colt has actually maintained pretty well. Going into Week 10, he had completed 59 percent of his passes for 3,340 yards. The worse stat is the 15 interceptions, and not all of those were his fault.
Regardless of the stats and records, I like him. He runs a mean two-minute offense, and Pat Shurmur is calling some bizarre, but effective, gadget plays that are allowing kicker extraordinaire Phil Dawson to at least give the Browns a chance. On the other hand, Shurmur has mismanaged red zone offensive calls and seems to forget that clock management is part of his job.
All said, though, if the Browns were ever to regain anything resembling a rushing attack, life would be a lot rosier in Cleveland.
6. Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers. Still. How about this guy’s grit? I would have given up years ago if I’d had the career Alex has had. But he didn’t, and he seems to have finally found the perfect coach in never-give-up Jim Harbaugh.
There’s a reason that they called Jim Captain Comeback when he was finishing his career in Indy. Alex is not exactly a young gun anymore, but I think he may have found a way to remain a starting QB.
7. Andy Dalton. Talk about a value pick! The Bengals stole this kid in the second round, and he is going to be passing the ball to Green and Gresham and anyone else they come up with for years to come. He may not have won against the Steelers, but he sure kept them in the game and was not at all intimidated.
8. And of course, we have to talk about Tim Tebow. As far as I am concerned, the jury is so far out on No. 15, they might as well be in another state.
I love that the Broncos went all in on the read-option offense in order to give Tebow and the team a shot at success. I don’t know who made that controversial decision, and it certainly doesn’t resemble Fox’s maddeningly conservative style, but they all get credit for thinking outside of the NFL box.
The Broncos offensive line is doing a supernaturally good job of run-blocking. How third- and fourth-string running backs were able to move the ball when everyone in the universe knew that it would be a running play is beyond me.
Tebow is capable of throwing the perfect pass, as he has proven in the past two weeks. That Week 10 in-the-basket toss to Decker was flawless. Now, if he could just do it more often.
Tebow will certainly keep his job throughout 2011 (unless the offensive scheme gets him killed first), and ultimately, his fate will rest squarely on the W column in January. Who knows? Maybe he’ll go down in history as the most unique QB of all time, or the most mismanaged one.
Firmly in the “maybe someday” category, these young men intrigue me:
1. The Ravens backup QB is rookie Tyrod Taylor. Everyone seems to think that John Harbaugh is crazy for going into the year with a rookie backup who had about 10 minutes of training camp. And he was a sixth round pick (sound familiar?).
However, Taylor earned huge accolades at Virginia Tech. He was MVP of the ACC Championship Game with 18-of-28 passes for 263 yards with three TDs passing and one rushing. He led the game-winning drive with a TD pass at 37 seconds on the clock.
In the 2011 preseason, Taylor led three fourth-quarter scoring drives versus the Redskins. Remember, this was back when the ‘Skins looked like a decent team.
2. Thaddeus Lewis. I can hear you now: Who? He is the third string QB in Cleveland. Holmgren staple Seneca Wallace will always be the backup for any team Mike is on. So, if Mr. Lewis is going to move up the food chain, it will need to be elsewhere.
Shurmur thought enough of Thaddeus to jump on him when the Rams waived him in September.
His preseason stats were 20-of-27 for 238 yards. Not too shabby. Stay tuned.
3. Matt Leinart. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. And part of me agrees: I am so far away from being a fan of his that I’m in another time zone. But I think there is an outside chance that he may succeed this time around. Perhaps playing for Kubiak and under steady and non-dramatic Schaub has helped to mature the playboy. I guess we'll find out soon.
4. Jason Campbell. For someone who seems like an okay human with real athletic talent, Jason has had the worst luck with is NFL career. Like Alex Smith, the poor guy gets a new offensive coordinator every week. Then, when he was finally ensconced in a system that suited him in Oakland and was the unquestioned starting QB, he breaks his collarbone.
I don’t know where Jason will end up, because it certainly looks as though Carson Palmer is the new King of the Bay.
5. Stephen McGee. The Dallas third stringer will probably move up a rung when Kitna retires (which should be this year). Mr. McGee was a fourth rounder in 2009 and has impressed me when I have seen him play. He has a strong arm, can move in pocket and toss it on the run.
Most importantly, he held his own against the Philly D in a meaningless January game last season. And he’s smart: he earned a college degree in marketing in less than four years and has a master’s in Business Administration—all while playing the starting QB role at A&M. No wonder Ivy-League Garrett likes him.
6. Caleb Hanie. No, he couldn’t win the NFC Championship game last year when Cutler was injured. But, remember that the Colorado State grad and undrafted rookie from 2008 was the emergency QB in that game. He wasn’t even the backup, and he went 13-of-20 for 153 yards, one TD and two INTs. Not bad, all things considered.
7. Joe Webb. I don’t know if Webb will ever be a successful QB since he truly is built more to be a combo player a la Brad Smith. But I like his style and his strength and his toughness. Webb wasn’t drafted to be a QB, but ended up in the QB depth chart by virtue of his performance.
On Dec. 28, 2010, Webb made his first career start, against the Philadelphia Eagles. Scoring one rushing touchdown and throwing for 195 yards, he was 17-for-26 with no interceptions. Initially projected to lose by two touchdowns, the Vikings pulled off an upset win, 24-14.
So, no, I wouldn’t be shocked if he ended up starting someday, although one reader spotted him on Monday night lined up at WR.
8. New Orleans backup Chase Daniel. The entire franchise keeps singing his praises, and yet, they don’t put him in games even when the score warrants it. Personally, I think Sean Payton is determined that Drew Brees break some records this year, and that’s why No. 9 is always in the game.
This preseason, he finished 28 of 53 attempts (52.8 percent). He clearly has ability, but will need a lot more real game reps for us to know for sure whether or not he’s a starter.
9. Colin Kaepernick is a unique prospect, but not nearly ready. It’s a good thing that Alex Smith is having a great year, because Colin has not fared well in games thus far. But he’s fast (4.53 40 time) and a good overall athlete who works hard. So, we won’t rule him out just yet.
It's Al Pacino!
1. Charlie Whitehurst: Sorry, Charlie. You’re 29 years old and have never made it over the hump. In three games this year, it’s been more of the same: 28-of-56, 298 yards with one TD and one interception.
2. A.J. Feeley had his chance in Miami and proved that he’s an excellent backup QB. Ditto Atlanta’s Chris Redman.
3. Tampa Bay’s Josh Johnson couldn’t manage to be a serviceable placeholder for Josh Freeman, forcing Morris to start the rookie.
4. David Carr is a member of the Patrick Ramsey club of QBs who were ruined by bad coaching. He’ll never start again. The only QB I’ve ever seen overcome that kind of collapse is Kerry Collins, and he had to get sober and chance his entire life to mount a comeback.
5. Kyle Boller, Drew Stanton, Luke McCown, Tyler Thigpen, Bruce Gradkowski: Your collective ship has sailed, gentlemen.
6. The best backups in the business right now are Billy Volek and Shaun Hill. They’ll never be starters unless someone gets hurt, but I would feel secure with them on the bench.
7. Dennis Dixon: I like him, but he doesn’t seem to be able to push through to the next level. And he has trouble staying healthy.
Too bad college doesn't last forever.
1. Curtis Painter: I’m sorry. I hate to see someone publicly humiliated, but we see more and more why the team was desperate enough to call in Kerry Collins. When I looked him up, I found that he even struggled at Purdue when he didn’t have a running game. I wonder why Indy hired him to begin with.
2. Derek Anderson and Jimmy Clausen: Derek had his one great year, and Clausen has consistently proven himself not up to the professional level.
3. Vince Young: Something went terribly wrong with Vince in the past couple of years, and unless he can both stay healthy physically and get healthy mentally, it’s not going to happen. I certainly wouldn’t call Andy Reid and Michael Vick top-tier role models in the mental health department.
Chances are that, depending on the state of Vince's hamstring and the amount of Novocain it is possible to inject into Michael Vick's ribs, Young will be playing the next time that the 'Iggles take the field. I wish him well.
4. You may notice that not a single Redskins’ quarterback has appeared on any of these lists. Next.