5 NFL Teams Best Positioned to Win If Backup QBs Are Forced into Lineup
As the ol' NFL joke goes, "The backup quarterback is the most popular guy on the team."
While the remark is rooted in fanbases' general fickleness, the truth found within the gag may be more accurate this fall than any point in the league's history.
Quality backup quarterbacks are now invaluable assets with the uncertainty surrounding each team, and some coaching staffs are treating them as such during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Cincinnati Bengals, in particular, are taking extra lengths by essentially isolating all of their quarterbacks from one another.
"We keep them apart as best we can right now," head coach Zac Taylor told reporters on Tuesday. "Obviously with the social distancing, we're going to keep them in different offices so we can limit that interaction over the course of the day."
The Green Bay Packers have considered taking a similar approach.
"We've floated around that idea a little bit," Packers coach Matt LaFleur said Sunday. "[We] have not made a decision on that at this point, but that's certainly something that's not out of the realm."
The NFL is quarterback-driven. No position affects games as much.
Certain organizations valued the backup position more than others and placed themselves at a distinct advantage this season if an injury or outbreak occurs.
The Bengals aren't one of those franchises with Ryan Finley, Brandon Allen and Jake Dolegala backing up this year's No. 1 overall pick, Joe Burrow, and even they are doing everything in their power to make sure their quarterback room isn't wiped out from an outbreak.
"We have four right now and we feel like we're doing a good job keeping them all safe," Taylor said.
The following five squads have great backup options. Two of the teams have elite quarterback options, and though there's little doubt that each backup would be less effective, the squads would continue to win more games than they lose without their starter. The other three teams missed the playoffs last year, but two of three have backups have the potential to be just as prolific as the starters, and all three backups could help lead their teams to the playoffs this year if called upon.
Teams like the Los Angeles Chargers and Miami Dolphins who have veterans that will likely give way to first-round rookies weren't considered. The Indianapolis Colts were excluded because they proved they can't field a playoff-caliber team with Jacoby Brissett in the lineup.
Lamar Jackson is the reigning MVP after a record-setting season with the Baltimore Ravens. Jackson led the league with 36 touchdown passes, tied for the eighth-best completion percentage at 66.1 percent and set a single-season record for a quarterback with 1,206 rushing yards.
No other quarterback is quite like Jackson, but his immediate backup, Robert Griffin III, is one of the closest possible substitutes.
Griffin burst onto the scene in 2012 thanks to his electric speed and flick-of-the-wrist release. He helped lead Washington to the playoffs, became the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and earned his only Pro Bowl nod.
A right knee injury derailed his next few seasons with Washington, who eventually released the '12 second overall pick in 2016.
Griffin spent an uneventful season with the Cleveland Browns before signing with the Ravens prior to the '18 campaign. He originally served as Joe Flacco's backup but became the perfect backup to Jackson.
Jackson's success is derived from a coaching staff doing what it should: building a system to feature his strengths while downplaying any weaknesses. Coincidentally, the system can do the same for Griffin.
Though the 30-year-old veteran may not be the same dynamic runner he once was, he's still more than capable of threatening a defense and operating within Baltimore's offensive structure.
Griffin can certainly contribute to a team.
"I want to be a starter again," he said during an interview on 1660 ESPN's Matt Mosley Show. "I'm 30 years old, and quarterbacks are playing into their 40s now. There's a lot of time left to still go achieve all the dreams and goals I set for myself."
The jury may still be out regarding 2018 No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, but the Browns signed one of the best backups this offseason.
Case Keenum agreed to a three-year, $18 million free-agent deal in March. Keenum's inclusion on the Browns roster helps on multiple levels.
"Case has been a backup in this league, he's been a starter in this league. He understands as a backup how it's your job to support the starter and be ready to play in a moment's notice," head coach Kevin Stefanski told reporters in March. "Bottom line is we're adding a really smart, tough football player in that room."
Keenum has started 62 games in his career, including eight last season for Washington. Three years ago, he had a career year with the Minnesota Vikings. The journeyman entered the league's MVP conversation for a minute.
His experience in Minnesota is vital to his current stay. During the '17 campaign, Stefanski served as the Vikings quarterbacks coach. Keenum's previous working relationship with Cleveland's new head coach and understanding of his offensive philosophies will help in Mayfield's maturation or if he's forced onto the field this fall.
"That is a huge part of why I was looking forward to being around Case," Mayfield told reporters. "He was in this system, so I can hear his thoughts on how it is taught and how he reads it."
Keenum could push for the starting job, but he understands his current role.
"I have come into situations where there is a competition, and I know this is not one," the 32-year-old veteran said. "We knew finding a situation where there was an attractive backup job was going to be our priority, and we did that with the Browns. I know what my role is, and that's nice."
The Dallas Cowboys seemingly reached the point of no return regarding Dak Prescott's contract. While the organization's inability to reach a long-term extension with its franchise quarterback is one of the offseason's worst moves, Dallas' decision to sign former starting signal-caller Andy Dalton to a one-year, $3 million was a stroke of genius.
The Cowboys are Prescott's team. But no franchise is in a better position to move forward with its backup starting multiple games than Dallas thanks to Dalton's previous experience leading playoff-caliber squads [insert jokes about losing in the first round every time here].
Yes, Dalton has his limitations and previous career failures. Otherwise, he'd still be a starter. Even so, the experience he gained from 133 career starts can't be replicated.
"I'm going to try to be the biggest asset to this team, try to help out this offense, help out Dak, help out everybody as much as I can," Dalton told reporters. "It's a different perspective for me, since I've been a starter the last nine years, but I understand the position I'm coming into and the role I'm going to play."
The NFL is full of surprises. No one expected Ryan Tannehill to take off as the Tennessee Titans starter and become one of the league's best triggermen, for one season at least. Teddy Bridgewater started five games for an injured Drew Brees last season, which led to him becoming the Carolina Panthers' new QB1.
"To have a guy like Andy Dalton come in here—not unlike what Philly had with Nick Foles when Carson Wentz went down—to be able to take control and win games, win huge games for you if that's what you need is really important," Cowboys executive vice president and director of player personnel Stephen Jones said during an interview on 1310 The Ticket in Dallas (h/t ESPN's Todd Archer). "Certainly you can lay your head on the pillow better at night knowing you have someone like Andy Dalton."
If Prescott misses time, Dalton should keep the Cowboys afloat.
Las Vegas Raiders
Derek Carr has no one to blame but his own team for the situation in which he's been placed.
"I have a lot to prove to myself," Carr told reporters Tuesday. "I'm going to be completely honest with you. I'm tired of being disrespected. There was no question I was going to play this year."
"I just don't care anymore," Carr added. "You can say what you want. I'm trying to go to the Super Bowl so we can hang one of those banners in this beautiful indoor (facility) that we've got and then I want to try and do it again. Then do it again until I'm too old and they kick me out of this place."
To Carr's credit, the three-time Pro Bowl selection posted career highs during the 2019 campaign in completion percentage (70.4), passing yards (4,054), yards per attempt (7.9) and quarterback rating (100.8).
But his effectiveness and security as the Las Vegas Raiders' starting quarterback is continually called into question mainly because the organization, specifically head coach Jon Gruden, showed plenty of interest in other signal-callers.
The Raiders hosted future No. 1 overall pick, Kyler Murray, on a visit and dinner during last year's draft cycle. The team was reportedly prepared to offer Tom Brady a lucrative free-agent contract this year if the six-time Super Bowl champion was interested. In the end, the team signed Marcus Mariota to the most expensive backup deal—two years at $17.6 million—on the open market.
"I had him as the top quarterback in that draft," general manager Mike Mayock told reporters of the '15 second overall pick. "He knows that both of us [including Gruden] believed in him coming out and still believe in him."
Mariota is only 26 years old. He needs a stable environment and consistency within a system to realize his full potential. The '14 Heisman Trophy winner knows exactly what it's like for a backup to take over the starting job and excel—that's what Ryan Tannehill did with the Titans last year after Mariota led the team to a 2-4 start. Mariota will be looking for a Tannehill-like emergence this season.
New Orleans Saints
Been there, done that.
The New Orleans Saints are arguably the NFL's deepest squad, including at the quarterback position. As mentioned earlier, the team overcame Drew Brees' thumb injury last season and won all five games without the most prolific passer in NFL history.
Bridgewater is no longer the backup; Jameis Winston is. Or Taysom Hill will be. Either way, the Saints are loaded at the game's most important position.
Winston's effort a year ago will be forever remembered as the first 30/30 campaign in NFL history. Yes, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft threw a league-leading 30 interceptions. He also led or tied for the league-lead with 626 pass attempts and 5,109 passing yards.
Winston underwent Lasik surgery this offseason.
"No blurriness, and I think that's huge," the 26-year-old gunslinger told reporters. "Depth perception has increased tremendously, and those are the big things. I didn't have bad eyes; I just had astigmatism. I had certain things that they had to fix to increase the precision and the sharpness of my vision."
Winston, who signed a one-year, $1.1 million free-agent deal, is healthy and now lives a vegan lifestyle.
"My body just transformed," he told Bleacher Report's Tyler Dunne.
Committing to his craft and taking the opportunity to learn from one of the all-time great quarterbacks should place both Winston and the Saints in a perfect position if he's called upon to start this season.
Taysom Hill can't be overlooked in this matter, especially after the Saints added a one-year, $16.3 million contract extension in April to the offensive weapon's previous restricted free-agent tender.
Hill isn't just a multipurpose offensive threat; he'll compete with Winston to become Brees' long-term successor.
"When that time comes—and that'll be probably at some point sooner than later—and Drew decides to retire, I see Taysom being a guy that has a great chance to come in there and become that quarterback," head coach Sean Payton said during an interview with Aditi Kinkhabwala on CBS Sports' We Need to Talk.
New Orleans features an all-time great ready to start another season, a former No. 1 overall pick who's physically better off than he's been in years and a team favorite who can contribute in many different ways. A franchise couldn't ask for more.