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Not Gone, but Forgotten: Who Has the Journeyman Backup QB Belt?

Now that Josh McCown has retired, it’s time to determine who the most “Hey, he’s still in the league?” guy is

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On the indispensable stats website Pro-Football-Reference, each individual player page lists every jersey number that player has worn throughout their career. It’s a charming detail: Their jersey numbers float in the top right corner above their statistics like jerseys hanging from the rafters above the scoreboard of their own personal arena. They color the page and our thoughts in a way statistics cannot. For almost all of these pages, the jerseys are a brilliant detail, but for a small group of players the jerseys tell their story better than the numbers ever could. One of those players is quarterback Josh McCown, who has filled out not one, but two rows of jerseys on Pro-Football-Reference.

On Monday, two weeks shy of his 40th birthday, McCown announced his retirement in an aptly titled Players’ Tribune essay, “One Heck of a Journey.”

“I don’t shy away from the journeyman label,” McCown wrote about his 16-year career. “I embrace it, full force.”

So do we. For the past few seasons McCown has been the most journeyed journeyman. He joins the likes of Charlie Batch, Seneca Wallace, Sage Rosenfels, A.J. Feeley, Bruce Gradkowski, Shaun Hill, Matt Moore, and Billy Volek in the Hall of I Remember Him! Like those not-so-legendary players before him, McCown was old but not grizzled, wise but not experienced, well-traveled but not well-played. He was there. But now he is not, and his retirement leaves us with a massive question that we must answer: Who holds the Backup Quarterback Championship Belt?

A crucial disclaimer: This is not about finding the best backup quarterback (in case you were wondering, that is Indianapolis’s Jacoby Brissett). This is about who is replacing Josh McCown as the NFL’s archetypal journeyman. We’ll run through the pound-for-pound contenders before naming the new title holder, but first we must establish some ground rules for what constitutes a journeyman. There are two essential principles we will score on a range of 0-10.

  1. Object Permanence: “That guy is still in the league?!?!” should be a fan’s first reaction when they learn this person is still an NFL quarterback. Like a toddler who throws a toy out of the bathtub just to peer over the edge and giggle, merely contemplating that this person still exists and did not stop existing the moment you forgot about him is funny.
  2. Shared Memory: If this quarterback entered a game in relief of a starting quarterback, how likely are you to have a brief conversation about them with the other people in the room? Robert Griffin III is a 9.5 out of 10 on this scale because there is a 95 percent chance his rookie season will come up if he enters in relief of Lamar Jackson. Brian Hoyer is a 2 out of 10 because if he enters the game fans will not be discussing their shared memories about Brian Hoyer.

Eligibility rules do apply. Rookies are disqualified from this exercise, though they obviously all have the potential to one day be championship-level journeymen (the Giants’ Daniel Jones looms over this entire exercise like high school senior LeBron James loomed over Michael Jordan’s final season with the Washington Wizards). Players with 0.0 name recognition also do not qualify (if $10 billion were on the line, could you name the Dallas Cowboys’ backup quarterback?). There are many players who will qualify for this if they stick around long enough but are too young right now (looking at you, DeShone Kizer, Brett Hundley, and Trevor Siemian). Other players would qualify but have played their way into starting jobs (congratulations, Ryan Fitzpatrick). Certain prime candidates like Brock Osweiler and Matt Cassel are currently unemployed. (Though Matt Cassel is not ruling out a comeback! We miss you, Matt!)

With the rules established, we can dive into the top contenders for the quarterbacks we all vaguely remember.

Punch Lines Who Could Become Journeymen

Blake Bortles

He’s Still in the League?!?!: 2
Shared Memory: 9.5

Not many people will be shocked to learn that Bortles is still in the league, though many may be hard-pressed to recall where. (He signed with the Rams.) But if he were to enter a game in place of Jared Goff, it would be the biggest story of any NFL Sunday. Sean McVay has been billed as a genius, but there would be no greater lab experiment than forcing him to find a way to win with Bortles. Not only would a rejuvenated Bortles cement McVay as a guru, but it would ensure Bortles has a backup career for years to come.

Nathan Peterman

He’s Still in the League?!?!: 4.5
Shared Memory: 8.5

Nathan Peterman is not a journeyman. He has taken us on a journey. Peterman introduced himself when he threw five interceptions in his first career start in 2017. Last year he did a little better, spreading out five picks across two starts instead of cramming them into one. He still got cut midseason, but don’t fret—Peterman and Mike Glennon are the backup quarterbacks on the roster in Oakland, so we have a strong chance to see Peterman getting coached up by Jon Gruden on Hard Knocks.

Paxton Lynch

He’s Still in the League?!?!: 6.5
Shared Memory: 5.5

Geno Smith

He’s Still in the League?!?!: 6
Shared Memory: 7

This offseason, the Seahawks signed Russell Wilson to the richest contract in NFL history. More importantly, they also signed Paxton Lynch and Geno Smith to compete for his backup job, which is not unlike buying a Bugatti but installing Ziplocs instead of airbags. Lynch is the illegitimate child of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and was drafted in the first round by Broncos boss John Elway but famously lost the quarterback competition to Siemian and Osweiler. Meanwhile, calling Smith a punch line might be too on the nose (or, uh, jaw).

The Contenders

A.J. McCarron

He’s Still in the League?!?!: 6.5
Shared Memory: 4.5

There are four essential facts about A.J. McCarron.

  • He has a questionable chest tattoo that has expanded so much over the years it will soon cover as much territory as the Mongolian Empire.
  • While the Browns were winless halfway through 2017, Hue Jackson was so desperate to save his job that he tried to trade a second- and a third-round pick to Cincinnati for McCarron at the October deadline, but Cleveland’s front office possibly failed to send the paperwork.
  • He was the quarterback for the peak of the Nick Saban era at Alabama, accruing 36 wins and just four losses across three seasons as a starter while winning two national championships.
  • Nobody will remember him for any of the above, but rather as the guy whose then-girlfriend (now-wife) was ogled by Brent Musburger on national television.

Chase Daniel

He’s Still in the League?!?!: 7.5
Shared Memory: 4.5

The NFL is a humbling workplace. Chase Daniel was the EA Sports National Player of the Year in high school, not to mention a state champion in Texas high school football. In college he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In the NFL he does videos where a hat and sunglasses are enough for his teammates to not recognize him.

The thing is he’s not really wearing a disguise. Imagine if you walked through your office wearing a hat and sunglasses and none of your coworkers recognized you. You’d probably think it was funny. Then, after you thought about it, you’d probably be sad.

Drew Stanton

He’s Still in the League?!?!: 7.0
Shared Memory: 2.0

Last year’s training camp with the Cleveland Browns began with a mystery: Why did first overall pick Baker Mayfield bring an RV to training camp, and why were the quarterbacks spending time in it? Luckily, the first episode of last year’s Hard Knocks gave us an answer: Stanton, the third-string quarterback, there to mentor Mayfield, forced him to buy it (starter Tyrod Taylor was agreeable to this arrangement). Stanton also forced fourth-string quarterback Brogan Roback to stock the RV with the proper snacks and fluff Stanton’s pillows every morning. He’s made almost $30 million in his decadelong career, which is roughly $45,000 for each of the 659 passes he has thrown. It’s not a bad life, though I don’t know what to tell this kid.

Robert Griffin III

He’s Still in the League?!?!: 5.5
Shared Memory: 9.5

RGIII gets a nearly perfect score in the “Would you start a conversation about this person if they entered a game?” category. He’s also been irrelevant for long enough (since mid-2016) that plenty of people may not realize he serves behind Lamar Jackson as a cautionary tale for his fellow former Heisman-winning mobile quarterback picked in the first round by a team who plays in Maryland. He would cause quite a stir if he returned to action, but he’s still ingrained in people’s minds as a former starter, not a current backup, never mind a journeyman.

Blaine Gabbert

He’s Still in the League?!?!: 7.0
Shared Memory: 6.0

Like a slasher in a horror movie or Taylor Swift’s attempts to appeal to teenagers, Gabbert’s NFL career will. not. die. Drafted by Jacksonville 10th overall in 2011, Blaine Gabbert was Blake Bortles before Blake Bortles, but with better PR (or worse, depending on how you feel about PR). Gabbert is so bad that the Tampa Bay Times ran a piece in March titled, “The Buccaneers Have Signed Blaine Gabbert, the Worst Quarterback Available.” The same piece explained that Gabbert would be competing with Ryan Griffin for the backup quarterback job, and then dropped this gem:

“Though Griffin has never thrown a pass in a regular-season game, one could argue he has had the better career.”

The Prodigy

Ryan Tannehill

He’s Still in the League?!?!: 2.0
Shared Memory: 7.0

Tannehill definitely does not qualify as a journeyman. Yet. He was the starter in Miami for six seasons before he was traded in March to the Titans, where he will back up Marcus Mariota. It’s his first year as no. 2 on an NFL depth chart, but it is certainly not his last. Tannehill is the ideal backup quarterback—experienced enough to mentor a younger quarterback, talented enough to sit behind a veteran, and bad enough that nobody will want him to be their starting quarterback. At 30 years old, he could have a decade of backup-quarterbacking in his future. His scores in both categories are low, but give people time to forget he exists, and his journeyman potential will age like a meh wine.

The Heir to the Throne

Chad Henne

He’s still in the league?!?!: 8.0
Shared Memory: 6.0

Imagine for a moment that, in an affront to everything good and holy, Patrick Mahomes II is forced to leave the field in Week 1 and Chad effin’ Henne runs out to pilot Kansas City’s juggernaut offense. Roughly 25 million Americans would tell-ask (when you tell someone something in the form of a question to not sound like a know-it-all) the person next to them, “Chad Henne! He played at Michigan, right?” (Yes, he did.) Less memorable but perhaps more relevant is he lost his last starting job to Blake Bortles.

The Undisputed Champion

Matt Schaub

He’s still in the league?!?!: 9.5
Shared Memory: 8.5

Yes, Matt Schaub is still in the NFL. The undisputed pound-for-pound Backup Quarterback Champion is entering his fourth season as Matt Ryan’s backup quarterback, the perfect bookend to a career that started as Michael Vick’s backup. While his tenure behind Vick has been forgotten and his time behind Ryan is unknown, Schaub has one unforgettable stretch from his final year in Houston: throwing pick-sixes in an NFL-record four consecutive games. The next year he went to Oakland and appeared in this advertisement.

That’s the stare of a championship-level journeyman.