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Quarterback Injuries Are Defining the NFL Playoff Race

Football’s usual war of attrition has reached new heights, as nearly half of the league’s current playoff teams are rolling out backups at their most important position

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

About once a week, I think about this graphic.

Mostly because I’m an Eagles fan, and that Nick Foles run is the defining experience of my life. But also because the NFL social account was forced to tweet a championship Sunday hype graphic that positioned Case Keenum, Nick Foles, and Blake Bortles alongside Tom Brady. And that is objectively funny.

It also might happen again. As the playoff picture stands, four of the seven qualifying AFC teams are on backup quarterbacks. The no. 7 seed Colts will be playing Gardner Minshew for the remainder of the season, with rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson shelved following shoulder surgery; the no. 6 seed Browns will play Joe Flacco (he’s currently on the Browns practice squad, but that’s just so the team can keep a roster spot open for the next three weeks before it commits to adding him to the official roster) following Deshaun Watson’s shoulder surgery, Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s concussion, and P.J. Walker’s poor play. The no. 5 seed Steelers will be absent starting quarterback Kenny Pickett for a few weeks following an ankle injury, and they are starting Mitchell Trubisky. And finally, the AFC South–leading, no. 4 seed Jaguars may be moving forward with C.J. Beathard—though the injury Trevor Lawrence suffered on Monday night when left tackle Walker Little stepped on his foot was diagnosed as an ankle sprain, less serious than initially feared and potentially allowing Lawrence to return down the road.

Toss in the current 6-seed of the NFC—the Josh Dobbs–led Minnesota Vikings—and you have five of the 14 playoff teams this season, were it to end today, on backup passers.

This year’s playoff race has been defined by injuries to quarterbacks. Consider the preseason Super Bowl odds: The Bengals were tied for fourth likeliest to make the playoffs, at +1000, but Joe Burrow is out for the year. The Jets were tied for seventh and got four plays from Aaron Rodgers before he tore his Achilles. Both are on the outside looking in, as are the Rams, who lost Matthew Stafford for a week earlier this year.

Obviously, injuries always suck. Everyone wanted to watch Burrow and Lawrence—not Jake Browning and Beathard—duke it out in an overtime prime-time classic with playoff positioning on the line. The Rodgers-led Jets could have been the defining team of the season; Kirk Cousins was having the best season of his career. All of that has been taken from us. The replacements aren’t disappointing at all—both playoff races look to be absolutely sick—but it’s impossible to look at this season and not wonder what could have been.

Of course, quarterback injuries are not affecting different playoff contenders equally. If Browning plays for the rest of the season as he played on Monday night during a 34-point overtime win on the road against a good Jaguars defense, the Bengals could be quite good on offense. But given how long it took Burrow to get healthy this season, their record is already so poor that they face a steep climb into the playoff picture. The opposite sensation faces the Steelers: They don’t even need Trubisky to play that well, because, hey, Pickett wasn’t playing that well himself, and they’re still 7-5 with a miraculous penchant for winning football games.

The Browns could do something achieved by few teams if they make the playoffs with Flacco—their fourth starting quarterback of the season—at the helm. I write this next bit with the hope that absolutely nobody reads it, retains it, or screenshots it: Flacco was actually pretty decent on Sunday against the Rams.

The Colts are perhaps the toughest nut to crack of the potential postseason surprises. Nobody really thought they’d be a playoff team with Richardson, let alone Minshew, simply because the Colts roster didn’t seem all that good. But excellent work from new head coach Shane Steichen and excellent performances across their roster from surprising sources—Zack Moss, Josh Downs, Bernhard Raimann, Zaire Franklin, Samson Ebukam—have got them in the picture.

Of course, the Colts’ past four opponents—all of which Indy beat—were the Panthers, Patriots, Buccaneers, and Titans, which don’t feel like legitimate competition. Then again: The upcoming opponents are the Bengals, Steelers, Falcons, and Raiders. Just go ahead and think about the quarterbacks who play for those teams. While Minshew isn’t a better quarterback than Richardson, he does have tons of starting experience and is one of the best QB2s; he won’t disqualify the Colts from a potential playoff upset the way other backups likely would.

And then there are the Vikings with Josh Dobbs. Dobbs, whose success as the sudden quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings remains one of the best story lines of the season, is perhaps the backup I would trust most in a playoff environment. He’s got legit arm talent and an impressive processing ability, he’s the most dangerous scrambler of any QB2 that may appear in the postseason, and, on top of it all, he’s getting one of the league’s best receivers in Justin Jefferson back. Of course, because I believe that, the Vikings haven’t even confirmed they’re moving forward with Dobbs as the starter! So goes the 2023 season.

Is that … everyone? It sure is hard to remember. If it feels like every quarterback has been hurt at some point this season, well, that’s almost true.

As the NFL has dramatically emphasized player—and particularly quarterback—safety with recent rule changes to practice procedures, the concussion protocol, and roughing-the-passer penalties, this is the exact playoff scenario it was hoping to avoid. Many of the stars—Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Jalen Hurts—have remained safe, but a backup-riddled postseason puts television ratings in jeopardy.

These injuries don’t really reflect anything measurable about quarterback safety. Most of these injuries have been on regular football plays: popped Achilles tendons while moving in pockets (Rodgers’s tear was on turf; Cousins’s was on grass), hits into the throwing hand, an irregular step from a blocking offensive lineman. There’s nothing eminently preventable about a lot of these injuries. It’s a tough, physical game.

Because it’s a tough, physical game—and because quarterbacks hold the ball on pretty much every play, and because every single player on defense wants to hit the player holding the ball, and most of those players are simultaneously very fast and very big—a lot of quarterbacks get hurt. We’ve seen six season-ending injuries this year (Burrow, Richardson, Watson, Rodgers, Cousins, and Daniel Jones), and a slew of other quarterbacks have missed at least one start due to an injury: Kyler Murray, Bryce Young, Jimmy Garoppolo, Justin Fields, Tyrod Taylor, Matthew Stafford, Ryan Tannehill. Derek Carr might join that list this week; his Saints are also in the playoff hunt.

Below the season enders and the game missers are the quarterbacks whose injuries have clearly affected their play. Anyone watching Hurts this season can tell that his knee injury has affected his mobility; Justin Herbert’s finger injury limited the Chargers’ ability to go under center; Geno Smith has been playing with an injury to the tricep/elbow of his throwing arm. According to ProFootballTalk, the only starting quarterbacks to have stayed fully healthy this year are Tua Tagovailoa (huge news for the jujitsu community), Russell Wilson, Sam Howell, Jared Goff, and Jordan Love. That’s mostly young players and Wilson, whose durability is the stuff of legends.

Can quarterback durability be better scouted, predicted, and trained? I’m sure NFL teams are looking at it, but beyond prioritizing player toughness—guys like Stafford and Allen regularly play while nicked up—I’m not sure what is to be done. As scramble rates leap leaguewide, quarterbacks are sliding earlier and more often, in the hope of protecting themselves. Richardson was injured on a designed run and Pickett on a scramble, but neither really had the opportunity to slide. Responsible sliding has probably prevented an injury or two across the league, but on the injuries we’ve seen this season, it’s hard to identify one that could have been avoided as such.

Maybe, instead, teams can invest more in their backup quarterbacks. QB2 is the bike helmet of an NFL roster—you don’t think you really need it until, suddenly, you really need it. The idea of heavily investing in a good QB2 is, sadly, much better in theory than in practice. There are not 32 good quarterbacks in the NFL, let alone 64, and, with quarterbacks costing historic amounts of money, more and more teams are opting for rookie contract players at QB2. Certainly, teams with very injury-prone quarterbacks, like the Bengals with Joe Burrow and the Ravens with Lamar Jackson, should invest heavily in the position. But overall, finding a great QB2 is much easier said than done.

This injury-riddled season has brought us to the place where most postseasons arrive. We spend all of the regular season talking about schemes and players and matchups. Which quarterbacks are best, which coaches are optimal, which designs are cool. And all of a sudden, when we get to January, one thing matters more than anything else: health. The team with the advantage is the team that has most of its starters close to 100 percent.

It feels like the postseason has started earlier this year. For two crowded wild-card races peppered with backup quarterbacks, there are elimination games all across December—games that Trubisky and Browning and Flacco absolutely must win. That’s a scary sentence for those fan bases and a harrowing reminder for the lucky teams currently off the list: Whether you’re up 20 or down 20 in the fourth quarter, it’s best to pull that starting quarterback out. You’d hate to ruin a great season by spurring another meme-worthy appearance on an @NFL championship weekend tweet.