Sometimes it can seem like NFL backup quarterback is the world’s best job. Take the career of Bears backup Chase Daniel, who has earned $34 million over 10 years in the league—and started only five games, throwing a grand total of 214 passes. He’s earned $160,301 per pass attempt, and, well, those passes haven’t even been particularly good. Daniel is joined by heroes such as Drew Stanton ($32 million, 17 career starts) and Mike Glennon ($29 million, 22 career starts) in the NFL’s Work Smart Not Hard club for career backup quarterbacks who’ve made more than $1 million per start.
And to be fair, backup quarterback is a job completely unlike other jobs—even in the NFL. Backup running backs get frequent playing time, often being deployed as third-down or goal-line specialists. Backup wide receivers enter a game after a starter runs a few consecutive deep routes. Backup tight ends, linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs all rotate in with regularity, either because a starter needs a break or because a given formation calls for it. But there are no third-down quarterbacks, goal-line quarterbacks, or slot quarterbacks. There are a starter and a backup, and ideally the starting quarterback takes 100 percent of the offensive snaps. (Sadly, with the exception of the Saints’ Taysom Hill packages, NFL teams don’t seem interested in two-quarterback formations.) Quarterback is the most important position in football, and teams won’t dilute their quality of play by giving snaps to their second-string option.
Unfortunately, life is not a dream world where backups sit on the sideline, daydreaming and doodling on their clipboards. While teams rarely play their backup QBs voluntarily, more teams than not deal with injuries at the quarterback position. Through the first seven weeks of this season, six starting quarterbacks have already missed games with injuries. Two teams have seen the backup quarterback who’d been replacing their injured starter get hurt. There have been 107 games thus far, and therefore 214 possible quarterback starts. By my count, teams have been without their preferred starter due to injury for 23 of them, or 10.7 percent. And these figures don’t account for the situation involving reigning league MVP Patrick Mahomes, who suffered a knee injury last week while trying to play through an ankle injury in his other leg. The Washington Post called this “The Year of the Backup QB,” CBS Sports called it Backup QB Takeover 2019, and SB Nation wrote that “we’re running out of starting quarterbacks.”
Looking back at the past few seasons, though, it’s clear that this year’s QB injury situation isn’t unusual. In 2018, 16 NFL quarterbacks played in all 16 games, meaning that another 16 missed at least one game for some reason or another. And that was the season with the fewest adjusted games lost at QB in the league since 2012. In 2017, only 12 starting quarterbacks played in 16 games. A Football Outsiders look at QB injuries after the 2016 season estimated that NFL quarterbacks were missing about 84 starts per season—about 16 percent of the league’s total. In this season filled with injuries, we’re actually behind pace.
And in recent years, it has become increasingly clear that a team’s season can depend on whether it has a competent backup quarterback. The most obvious example is the 2017 Eagles, who won the Super Bowl despite an injury to Carson Wentz because backup Nick Foles put forth one of the best playoff runs in football history. This year, future Hall of Famer/GOAT candidate Drew Brees has been out since Week 2 with a thumb injury—and Teddy Bridgewater, the highest-paid backup in the league, has stepped in and executed, going 5-0 in five starts while throwing nine touchdowns and just two interceptions. Thanks to Bridgewater’s efforts, New Orleans remains in position to get a first-round postseason bye and perhaps even home-field advantage in the NFC. And the Colts had to turn to their backup after Andrew Luck abruptly retired in late August; they were bailed out by Jacoby Brissett, who has Indianapolis sitting at 4-2 and in first place in its division.
Of course, there are also examples of teams capsizing because of their backup QBs. Washington was 6-3 when Alex Smith broke his leg last November; behind Josh Johnson, Colt McCoy, and Mark Sanchez, it dropped six of its final seven games despite three of its final five coming against sub-.500 opponents. In 2017, the Texans got off to a promising start with rookie Deshaun Watson; after Watson tore his ACL in a November practice, Houston went 1-8 with backups Tom Savage and T.J. Yates leading the way. The 2017 Packers were above .500 with Aaron Rodgers in the lineup, but 3-6 once Brett Hundley was forced into starting duty. And Derek Carr led the 2016 Raiders to a 12-3 record while throwing 28 touchdowns and six interceptions; after he got hurt Week 16, the team headed into the playoffs starting rookie QB Connor Cook, who went 18-of-45 passing with three interceptions in a loss to Houston. Cook hasn’t played in the NFL since.
For all the jokes about backup QBs being bench-riding multimillionaires, I’d argue that they’re actually undervalued. Any team with playoff hopes has to ensure that those dreams won’t be shattered by an individual player’s problems. If quarterback is the most important position in the sport, then finding a quality backup is more crucial than most teams seem to realize.
There appear to be two contrasting theories on how valuable NFL backup quarterbacks are. The first is what we’ll call the WDPF Theory. This theory posits that when a starting quarterback gets injured, an NFL team becomes hopeless. The theory takes its name from an anecdote in Ron Jaworski’s 2010 book The Games That Changed the Game, in which Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore explained that Peyton Manning’s backups didn’t take practice reps because “if 18 goes down, we’re fucked … and we don’t practice fucked.” It’s such a good quote that it’s been used in stories on this website at least seven times by at least five authors (including me twice), prompting a moratorium on it. I have received a onetime waiver to use the quote in this article about backup quarterbacks. (We’re up to eight times!)
Clearly, Moore firmly believed in his stance. In a 2011 ESPN story, he explained that “when I was with the Steelers, [Terry] Bradshaw took every rep too.” And while Moore might have been extreme in his famous quote’s phrasing, his viewpoint seems common around the league. When it was reported that Washington rookie Dwayne Haskins wasn’t getting first-team reps earlier this fall, running back Chris Thompson said that the media was making a big deal out of nothing. “I’ve never heard of a backup QB taking team reps during the regular season unless he’s playing,” Thompson tweeted. Longtime NFL backup Sage Rosenfels estimated in 2008 that backups get between zero and 20 percent of reps, and the number generally feels closer to zero. Matt Moore didn’t get any first-team reps with the Chiefs before entering last week’s game in Denver when Mahomes went down; Sam Darnold continued to take all the first-team practice reps earlier this season even after he was diagnosed with mono and ruled out with an enlarged spleen. This theory could also be called the God Forbid Theory, in honor of Cowboys backup Brandon Weeden once invoking the heavens to avoid having to step in for Tony Romo. (He did indeed have to play—the 2015 Cowboys went 3-1 with Romo and 1-11 with Weeden and others.)
Every team knows that there is a drop-off when going from a starter to a backup. With the limited amount of practice time permitted under the current CBA, most choose to spend that time working on how to excel in their best-case health scenario. Backups get limited reps with the starters during training camp, and hopefully never have to play again. This ESPN article featuring interviews with a variety of former backups explains that they typically stand about 15 yards behind the first-team unit in practice, mentally simulating reps like a batter in an on-deck circle swinging at air in an attempt to perfect his timing.
But this brings us to the other theory, which we’ll call the BDN Theory. This theory gets its name from, well … you know. It posits that teams that are willing to pay for backup quarterbacks who can succeed under these circumstances will get positive results. And generally, this theory tracks. The Saints didn’t just get Bridgewater by chance—they traded for him in 2018 and signed him to a one-year, $7 million contract in the subsequent offseason, making him one of the highest-paid players ever intended to be a backup. The Eagles also turned heads when they paid Foles more than $5 million annually to be a backup in 2017. That obviously worked out well.
However, paying up for backup QBs doesn’t seem to be a trend. Only three of the league’s 32 teams committed more than $5 million annually to the player who started the 2019 season as their backup quarterback. Six teams are paying their backup QB between $2 million and $5 million, while 23 teams are paying $2 million or less.
Considering the success of big-ticket backup QBs, this seems odd—but of course, the calculus with backup quarterbacks isn’t as simple as just paying more money. For one thing, there barely seem to be 32 competent starting QBs, let alone a handy supply of quality backups. And paying the 50th-best quarterback in the league $5 million a year wouldn’t guarantee that he’ll play like the 33rd-best quarterback. (See: Daniel, Chase.)
Top Salaries for NFL QBs Who Entered 2019 as Backups
|Robert Griffin III||Ravens||$2,000,000|
I want to say that having a quality backup quarterback is some niche market inefficiency that teams should be seizing upon considering the likelihood that their starter can and will get injured. However, it’s simply impossible for every team to have a Bridgewater, Foles, or Brissett waiting in the wings. What should the others do? That quarterbacks like Gardner Minshew II and Kyle Allen have excelled on short notice despite having low or nonexistent draft hype seems to indicate there’s value in signing Air Raid quarterbacks as backups, as they have demonstrated the capability to step in without much practice or experience and perform well. It’s also worth noting that Colin Kaepernick, who has the 23rd-best career passer rating of all time, has gone unsigned for three seasons, even though he would likely be the best backup in the league, if not a quality starter. So there are options available for teams in need of backup quarterbacks.
Even if a team finds a great backup quarterback, though, it won’t likely have that great backup quarterback for long. It will need to pay him more money (as the Colts recently did with Brissett), watch him walk in free agency (as the Eagles did with Foles), or trade him (as the Patriots did with Jimmy Garoppolo … and Brissett). Bridgewater anticipated this when he signed a one-year deal with the Saints, and he’ll surely get paid this offseason. Each great backup represents a fleeting moment in time when the leaguewide perception of a player’s value happens to be wrong.
In part, the BDN Theory is true. A great backup QB can be invaluable, since the presence of one can save a season and the lack of one can wreck it. On the other hand, the WDPF Theory is also partly true. Paying big money for a backup only to watch him fail is akin to throwing $5 million in the trash. If the era of the backup quarterback has taught teams anything, it’s that they should put a greater emphasis on finding a great backup QB—and the only teams luckier than those that happen to have one are the teams that don’t have to use them.