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Three of These QBs Are Not Like the Others

The first weekend of the NFL playoffs will double as a showcase for the league’s finest clipboard holders. The Texans, Dolphins, and Raiders are all screwed to varying degrees, but at least none of them has to rely on Ryan Lindley.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Quarterback might be the only position in any sport where the starter is expected to participate in every single play for an entire season. While backups regularly cycle in at every other nonkicking position, a QB is in for every snap, barring injury, extreme blowouts, or poor performance. The regular season is over, and four NFL teams (the Giants, Lions, Saints, and Washington) managed to play their starting quarterback every offensive down this season. A fifth, the Jaguars, played backup Chad Henne for one play: a kneel-down at the end of a half. The Chargers and Eagles let their backup quarterbacks throw a single pass each; Philadelphia’s Chase Daniel completed his, and San Diego’s Kellen Clemens did not.

Sadly, some teams are not so lucky. Sometimes, a quarterback gets hurt early in the year, but at least it gives a team plenty of time to recalibrate. Sometimes, a quarterback gets hurt during the middle of the season, and it destroys a team’s playoff hopes. But we’re witnessing two teams experiencing a much stranger scenario.

The Raiders and Dolphins were both good enough to qualify for the postseason, meaning they have strong teams and high hopes. Except Miami’s Ryan Tannehill hurt his knee in Week 14, and Oakland’s Derek Carr broke his leg in Week 16. Now, these teams have to shift their tactics — and expectations — to cope with the skills of players who spent most of the year as second-stringers. They’re technically joined by the Texans, who benched Brock Osweiler in Week 15, only to see backup-turned-starter Tom Savage suffer a concussion Sunday.

Typically, this goes poorly. Chase Stuart of Football Perspective compiled a list of every quarterback to play a postseason game after starting fewer than six regular-season games, and it’s rather bleak. Since 2000, teams playing their backup in the postseason are 2–9. The last team to pull off a win was the 2011 Texans, who won a game with T.J. Yates. He got to throw the ball to an in-his-prime Andre Johnson and hand the ball off to an in-his-prime Arian Foster, but perhaps most importantly, he had five full regular-season games to jell as the team’s starter. Before then, you’d have to go back to the 2000 Saints to find the last backup to win a playoff game. Like Yates, Aaron Brooks had five games to mesh with his team as a full-time starter; besides, he was probably better than starter Jeff Blake in the first place.

There are backup success stories, like the Giants winning Super Bowl XXV with Jeff Hostetler after an injury to Phil Simms. But for each of those, there are multiple massive failures. The Vikings had to play Joe Webb in their January 2013 wild-card matchup against the Packers after he hadn’t thrown a pass all season; he went just 11-for-30 in an awful loss. The 2007 Redskins dredged up Todd Collins — he hadn’t started since 1997 — and the team lost as soon as the postseason started. Unsurprisingly, some of the worst postseason performances of all time were by backups thrust into starting roles: Sean Salisbury posted a passer rating of 11 for the 1992 Vikings, going 6-for-20 with two picks; Todd Marinovich threw four interceptions for the 1991 Raiders.

The one I’ll always remember, though, came in the playoffs following the 2014 season. The Cardinals should have been a Super Bowl contender with Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald. They won every game with Palmer, but he tore his ACL in November. It should have spelled disaster, but they had a good backup, Drew Stanton, who won over half his games. But then he sprained his knee, and then it got infected. And although the team had a third-string QB, rookie Logan Thomas (who is now a tight end with the Bills), the Cardinals brought in Ryan Lindley, whom they had cut in August, to take over down the stretch. In other words, they went into the postseason starting their fourth-string QB.

Led by Lindley, Arizona was doomed. The 11-win Cardinals got demolished by the 7–8–1 Panthers, 27–16. The Cardinals did score two touchdowns thanks to a muffed punt and an interception return, but they gained only 78 yards in the game. Not 78 rushing yards or 78 passing yards, but 78 total yards. It was the fewest yards an NFL team had ever managed in a playoff game; the last time a team managed fewer than 100 was in 1958, back when the goalposts were still smack dab on the goal line.

Lindley averaged 2.9 yards per throw and also threw two interceptions. The team’s rushing attack, already worst in the league with just 3.3 yards per carry, gained just 27 yards on 15 attempts.

I don’t recall any spectacularly bad throws: just miss after miss after miss. If I’d never held a football before and my only frame of reference was Lindley’s performance, I’d have guessed the ball weighed 15 to 25 pounds. This was one of his completions.

Watching a really good team be reduced to shambles by poor quarterback play serves as a lesson about the value of NFL quarterbacks. A good one, like Palmer was in the 2014 regular season, can carry a team by himself. But even an average-to-below-average one, like Stanton, can be quite important. The team’s offense was worse with Stanton, but still functioned. Then, when the Cardinals turned to a replacement-level quarterback like Lindley, every part of their game plan was wrecked. They had no passing threat, which made running harder, which made sustaining drives harder, which made their defense worse, which meant they had to throw more, which meant Lindley had to whiz the ball aimlessly until Arizona was dead.

Not every team starting a backup in the postseason will be as hopeless as Arizona was. Not everybody will have a rushing game so weak, not everybody will be facing a defense so strong, and perhaps most importantly, not everybody will be forced to play somebody as bad as Lindley.

How well will each team reduced to backup QBs fare in the postseason? Of course, a big factor is the quality of the backup, but we also have to consider how dependent the team was on its passing game in the first place, and how much lead time the team got to adjust to their new QB1. We’ll be ranking each on a scale of one to five Lindleys to gauge how big of a factor their backup quarterback can be in the postseason.

The Oakland Raiders

How dependent were they on their starter?

Very! I’d credit a lot of Oakland’s turnaround from a perennial AFC West cellar dweller to a playoff team to Carr’s development as a passer. As a rookie, Carr completed 58.1 percent of his passes for 5.5 yards per attempt with 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions as the team finished 32nd in total yardage. This year, he completed 63.8 percent of his passes for 7.0 yards per attempt with 28 touchdowns and six interceptions as the team finished sixth in total yardage. They do have a decent running game led by a fantastic offensive line and Latavius Murray, but it’s hard to oversell Carr’s importance.

To illustrate the point: Even when Carr had a pinkie injury that greatly affected his throwing ability and prevented him from taking snaps under center, the Raiders were only willing to put backup Matt McGloin in for a single pass play.

The team’s first game without Carr was their worst of the year. In a 24–6 loss to the Broncos, they had fewer points, fewer yards, and more turnovers than in any of their previous 15 games.

Is there a big drop-off to the backup?

There’s a pretty large one.

After Carr’s injury, the Raiders turned to McGloin. Then he hurt his shoulder against Denver, forcing rookie Connor Cook into the game.

We don’t have a lot to go on with Cook. He looked awful in the preseason, throwing three interceptions and no touchdowns against backups, but there’s reason to believe he’s gotten better since then. Sunday, his passing stats were encouraging. The third-stringer was 14-for-21 with 150 yards, a touchdown, and a pick after being forced into action. Honestly, he played better than McGloin, who was just 6-for-11 for 21 yards.

I loved Cook in college. He led Michigan State to a Rose Bowl win and two Big Ten championships. The Spartans completely fell off after his departure: After going 34–5 in three years with Cook under center, they lost nine games this year alone. But he went in the fourth round of the draft, largely because of a bunch of things that have nothing to do with football. A slew of anonymous scouts criticized his character without explicitly saying what it was about his character that was so awful. His leadership was questioned. Some pointed out that he wasn’t voted a captain by his teammates. At one point, he was panned for not realizing Archie Griffin was trying to shake his hand on television. This stuff usually doesn’t matter, and I think Oakland got a steal by landing such a talented QB so late in the draft.

But the question is whether there’s a drop-off from Carr — and of course there is. Carr was the 36th overall pick, and his first three years of playing time have gone as well as anybody could have expected; he’s consistently progressed and has become a bona fide star. Cook is a fourth-round rookie who might be good someday. There is a world of difference.

How ready is the backup?

No matter what you think of Cook’s upside, he’s not anywhere close to ready.

Even if Cook is a better quarterback than McGloin, the Raiders were smart to keep the rookie as a third-stringer. When your starter goes down, you want the next guy up to be a veteran with several years of experience in the team’s system, not a rookie still learning how to live life as an NFL player.

As a third-stringer, Cook probably rarely even got practice reps with the starters. He wasn’t even active for the team’s first 15 games. If Carr and McGloin both got hurt in the same game, Cook wouldn’t have even legally been allowed to play.

These were features, not bugs. With a quality starter and a dependable backup, the Raiders didn’t want Cook to worry about being game-ready. They wanted him to focus on the things that could make him better in the long term. All of a sudden, Oakland’s patience has backfired. Cook admitted Wednesday that even being named to the team’s active roster last week made him nervous. Now the Raiders’ season depends on him.

How bad is the Carr injury for Oakland’s postseason hopes?

I think it’s about as bad as you can get. Carr was the team’s star. The best thing I can say about Cook is that there’s a chance he’s merely unproven and not actually bad. That’s a pretty unencouraging best thing I can say.

And he’s starting against the Texans, who have a strong defense. It’s a disaster scenario. Luckily, there are some mitigating factors with the Texans, but we’ll get to that.

I’m giving the Raiders five out of five Lindleys.

The Miami Dolphins

How dependent were they on their starter?

Not particularly. While Ryan Tannehill was fine, the Dolphins were 31st out of 32 teams in passing attempts, throwing the ball just 477 times. This was by far the Dolphins’ best season under Tannehill, but it was also the season in which he attempted the fewest passes per game. While Tannehill’s an adequate quarterback, probably even an above-average starter, the Dolphins have become a better team by not counting on him as much.

Miami’s real offensive strength is its run game. The Dolphins started out the year under the misguided belief that Arian Foster was still an NFL-caliber starting running back. He won the no. 1 job out of training camp, and Jay Ajayi’s reaction to it was apparently so dramatic that coach Adam Gase left him off the team’s active roster for the first game of the year. The Dolphins started the year 1–4, and eventually realized that maybe they should play Ajayi more. Ajayi went on to finish fourth in the NFL in rushing, the Dolphins went on to finish 10–6, and Foster retired in October. Tannehill had no 300-yard passing games after the switch to Ajayi; Ajayi had three 200-yard rushing games.

Is there a big drop-off to the backup?

A slight one.

The Dolphins turned to Matt Moore, a career backup. In the grand scheme of the NFL, Moore’s greatest accomplishment was helping the Panthers be bad enough in 2010 to draft Cam Newton. That year, he started five games, losing four, while throwing twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. But that was by far his worst season, and if we eliminate it from his career stats they’re not so bad: He’s completed 60.1 percent of his passes while throwing for 7.3 yards per attempt, 36 touchdowns, and just 21 interceptions. Actually, they’re kinda good.

And in his three games as a starter, he’s been better than that: 63.4 completion percentage, 8.2 yards per attempt, with eight touchdowns and three picks. Is he as good as Tannehill? Probably not. But he’s definitely serviceable.

How ready is the backup?

It sounds weird to say, but Moore might have more experience at being a backup forced into play than anybody in the league. This is his 10th year in the NFL. He’s been a Week 1 starter only once, in that dismal Panthers season. But on four other occasions in his career, he’s become a team’s starter after an injury. He’s started 28 career games, a pretty solid amount for a guy almost nobody has ever wanted to consider a starter.

This year, he has three starts under his belt, and he’s thrown for 200 yards with multiple touchdowns in each of the three. Tannehill didn’t manage to string back-to-back-to-back 200-yard games together at any point this season. So, Moore’s got a chance to find a little bit of a rhythm at the end of the season.

How bad is the Tannehill injury for Miami’s postseason hopes?

It doesn’t seem that bad. Moore probably isn’t better than Tannehill, but he isn’t a ton worse, and the Dolphins don’t ask a lot of him. So long as Moore can plausibly provide the threat of a passing game, it should open up running lanes for Ajayi. That should be particularly helpful against the Steelers, whom Ajayi torched for 204 yards back in October.

I’m giving them two out of five Lindleys.

The Houston Texans

How dependent were they on their starter?

It probably isn’t spiritually accurate to include the Texans here. Osweiler started 14 games … but he was the backup coming into Sunday and was ready to hold the clipboard in the playoffs. Now he’s starting due to an injury, so I’m counting it.

The Texans have been pretty effective running the ball all year, because Lamar Miller is good, but the team’s offense still ranked 29th in the NFL due to the struggles in the passing game. You think it would be easy with DeAndre Hopkins, but it hasn’t been. Osweiler had the fewest yards per attempt among qualified passers, and had the fifth-worst interception rate in the NFL. The team’s ineffective quarterback play held back an offense that could have been good.

Is there a big drop-off to the backup?

Judging from his brief appearances, Tom Savage is more primed to lead the Texans than Osweiler. It was a small sample size, but he was better in virtually every passing category, and he didn’t throw interceptions. With 260 yards on 36 passes, Savage’s first appearance would have been one of Osweiler’s better games, and he didn’t even play a full four quarters.

How ready is the backup?

Osweiler spent most of the year as the team’s starting quarterback, so maybe this won’t feel weird for the players. Except, it probably does. Less than a month ago, Osweiler was benched in the middle of a game, and the Houston fans cheered his exit so loudly that Miller had to shush the crowd so Savage could communicate in the huddle. That has to shake a dude’s confidence.

How bad is the Texans’ quarterback situation?

The Texans would be in trouble with either Osweiler or Savage at quarterback. Neither is great. But this played out as poorly as possible for them. The Texans let Osweiler know he wasn’t their best quarterback and let the fans know there was a slightly better option, and now they’re back to Brock’s bricks.

Raiders-Texans is one of the strangest NFL playoff games in recent memory. It’s as if both teams are at a quarterback disadvantage. If I had to pick, I’d take the Texans: Their bad quarterback situation is the same one they’ve had all year, whereas the Raiders will be significantly worse than the team that actually won enough games to make the postseason. But I wouldn’t bet on either. All I know is that I’ll watch: I’ve been thinking about Ryan Lindley’s postseason romp for two years now, and I think I’ll be thinking about this one for a while, too.

I’m giving the Texans 3.5 out of five Lindleys.