Week after week, the NFL proves again that having a good quarterback is the essential ingredient of any winning team, while having a superstar can mask many deficiencies and turn a merely adequate roster into a true contender. However, we also have weekly reminders that the league continues to struggle in finding the minimum 32 starters with a certain level of quality, thus differentiating the haves from the have nots in the league.
A step below them, there are 32 (or more) quarterbacks that are simply awaiting their chance to enter a game and potentially become a starter down the road. Whether it is because of injuries, ineffectiveness, or simply coaches trying to give their team a change of pace, backup quarterbacks are a necessity that almost no fan wants to see in action.
In a season where more than a handful of starting QB’s have lost their jobs for various reasons, leading to their replacements playing in many meaningful snaps throughout the year. Their varying levels of success have led us again to wonder if having a quality backup has become the new NFL market inefficiency or if it is simply an unnecessary luxury in a game where a salary cap exists.
After ranking the NFC’s 16 backup QB’s, today we turn to the AFC, where QB stability has suffered a bit in yet another roller-coaster season. These backups are ranked not only by their 2015 results, but also because of their overall body of work and how they would do if they were needed to be primary starters at any point of the rest of the year.
#16 - Tennessee Titans – Zach Mettenberger
The former LSU alum is still looking for his first win as a starter in the NFL, and we are left to wonder if he’ll get a chance to do it. Serving as a backup for Charlie Whitehurst in 2014 and now for Marcus Mariota, Mettenberger has been given the job due to injury issues for the incumbent starters, and things have not gone well. His 8 starts have produced a 0-8 record, with 9 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, producing a QBR below 20. The Titans certainly hope that Mariota becomes the franchise quarterback he is projected to be, because his understudies have been a disaster.
#15 - Kansas City Chiefs – Chase Daniel
With Alex Smith at the helm, the Chiefs may have one of the least exciting quarterbacks in the NFL. However, he is steady and trustworthy as a whole, leaving Daniel in an almost hopeless position in the team’s depth chart. He was already used to it after being Drew Brees’ backup for three years, and in Kansas City he has gone 1-1 in a couple of starts in a career that has spanned a total of 77 pass attempts. He may not be terrible, but he is inexperienced and probably the epitome of a backup quarterback.
#14 - Miami Dolphins – Matt Moore
Ryan Tannehill still hasn’t taken the leap to become a great starting QB, but it is quite likely that the Dolphins are much better with him than with his backup. Moore, a 9-year veteran, has attempted a total of 30 passes in the past 4 seasons in Miami, and hasn’t started a game since 2011. His 13-12 career record and 33/28 TD/Int. mark suggest he is nothing more than an emergency option that would be exposed in a bigger spot. His career highlight may end up being named the AFC’s Offensive Player of the Week in Week 9 of the 2011 season.
#13 - Oakland Raiders – Matt McGloin
McGloin was an undrafted free agent that signed with the Raiders in 2013, went 1-5 as a starter and was relegated to the bench as Derek Carr emerged as the team’s quarterback. There is nothing to suggest that McGloin is nothing more than a sturdy backup, as he showed in Week 1 when he had to relieve Carr in a blowout loss to the Bengals. The Penn State alum is only 25, so he could be around the league for a while, making a few million dollars while manning the sidelines.
#12 - San Diego Chargers – Kellen Clemens
Clemens was once a second-round bust for the Jets, as he was supplanted by Mark Sanchez and then sent into a career as a journeyman backup. Now on his third team, he hasn’t seen the field much with Philip Rivers ahead of him, attempting only 9 passes in 2+ seasons with San Diego. For his career, he has gone 8-13 as a starter, and at age 32 it looks as he will soon be forced to retire.
#11 - Buffalo Bills – EJ Manuel
Manuel was drafted 16th overall by the Bills in 2013, being deemed as the quarterback of the future for a team that was assembling a fearsome defense. However, Manuel was probably rushed to the starting job and was way overmatched in his first games in the NFL. Injuries and ineffectiveness led him to be in and out of the starting lineup in 2013 and 2014, with a 6-8 record with underachieving Buffalo. Even after losing the job to Tyrod Taylor to start 2015, Manuel has again shown that he has to be considered a bust. With Taylor suffering nagging injuries that have cost him a couple of games, Manuel has been summoned to start (and lose) two starts, with 3 scores and 3 picks, a 35.25 QBR and the same mistakes that sent him to the bench. The Bills are 5-2 in games not started by Manuel.
#10 - New York Jets – Geno Smith
Similar to EJ Manuel’s situation in Buffalo, Geno Smith was taken with a significant draft pick in 2013, only to become one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL and lose his job. The thing with Smith is that he lost the gig due to an unfortunate preseason incident – an incident that may have been a blessing in disguise for the franchise. Incumbent Ryan Fitzpatrick has been mostly adequate in leading the Jets to a 5-4 record and a chance to fight for a wild card. Smith’s career 11-18 record as a starter, with more interceptions than touchdowns, suggest that the Jets lucked into what they have now.
#9 - Baltimore Ravens – Matt Schaub
It may be hard to recall, but Schaub was twice a playoff quarterback with the Houston Texans. In fact, he owns a career winning record of 46-44, and once led the league with 4,770 passing yards. That was all before his career collapsed seemingly overnight, as he lost the starting job in Houston and eventually turned into a journeyman backup. After being an understudy in Houston, Schaub landed in Baltimore, where he plays behind the steady Joe Flacco. He is 34 and hasn’t played at all in 2015, but he should serve as a capable backup if the need arises, especially now that Baltimore’s season seems to be a lost one.
#8 - Jacksonville Jaguars – Chad Henne
Henne was once a promising second-round pick for the Miami Dolphins, but he could never develop beyond a mediocre starter. He was only once able to lead a winning season, and his career record is a fitting 18-35, as he has served mostly as an emergency starter since being dumped by Miami. He has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in his career, and should be nothing more than a contingency plan if the Jaguars hope that Blake Bortles can evolve into a quality QB.
#7 - Cleveland Browns – Johnny Manziel
For what seems like the umpteenth year, the Browns don’t have an answer at quarterback – neither with their starter nor with their backup. The season started with Josh McCown, who promptly got hurt and got and made way for Johnny Football. The promise for Manziel has continued to fade away, as he hasn’t improved much from his poor rookie season, even as he still has a penchant for flashy plays. He will turn 23 in December, so it may be soon to call him a bust, but it is becoming more and more apparent that Manziel could become Tim Tebow 2.0
#6 - Denver Broncos – Brock Osweiler
This ranking may be dramatically altered now that Osweiler is bound to start a game for the Broncos. With Peyton Manning breaking down and probably playing his final season, the Arizona State product will finally receive an opportunity to play in anything more than garbage time. He was once a second-round pick with a decent college reputation, so the Broncos could be in capable hands, which is what they may need considering the kind of defense they own.
#5 - Houston Texans – Ryan Mallett/TJ Yates
It could be argued that the Texans have gone through 3 backups so far in 2015, as the nominal starter Brian Hoyer was initially benched only to come back when Ryan Mallett suffered a concussion. Mallett was not particularly good as the starter, as Houston went 1-3 in his 4 trips, with more picks than touchdowns. Hoyer has been a bit better, though he also became injured and had to be relieved by Yates. The third-stringer led an improbable comeback win versus the previously undefeated Bengals, but his profile suggests that the Texans will need a healthy Hoyer if they are to compete with the Colts in the weak AFC South.
#4 - Cincinnati Bengals – AJ McCarron
Since coming into the league in 2011, Bengals starter Andy Dalton has been a model of endurance, with 73 straight starts to begin his career. This makes former Alabama QB AJ McCarron nothing more than a glorified benchwarmer. With the Bengals becoming one of the league’s best teams, McCarron has been summoned to take a few snaps in garbage time, but he will likely have to move elsewhere if he is to have a chance. At age 25 and with a solid college pedigree, McCarron may still have a chance to prove himself in the league.
#3 - New England Patriots – Jimmy Garoppolo
Back when Tom Brady was due to be suspended for the first four games of the season, Garoppolo seemed primed to be the team’s deciding factor in what looked to be a competitive AFC East. Instead, Brady’s suspension as lifted and Garoppolo has only been needed in blowout games for the 9-0 Patriots, with Brady playing as good as ever. The good news for the Eastern Illinois alum is that he is learning from the best and with the league’s top coaching staff, and that Brady’s backups (like Matt Cassell, Brian Hoyer, and Ryan Mallett) have found ways to land starting jobs elsewhere.
#2 - Pittsburgh Steelers – Michael Vick/Landry Jones
The Steelers have proven the importance of having at least a competent arm behind the starting quarterback. As Ben Roethlisberger has been limited to 5 starts due to a number of ailments, Pittsburgh looked first to Michael Vick and then to Landry Jones to start games, with them holding the fort to go 3-2 and keep the Steelers in the playoff hunt. While none of them was able to mimic what Big Ben does on a weekly basis, their play was enough to be respectable. Even as Vick seems to be done, Jones proved that he could be something more in the NFL, and his successful cameo may be parlayed to a bigger role.
#1 - Indianapolis Colts – Matt Hasselbeck
The bad news for the Colts: they are 2-5 in games started by Andrew Luck, who is now suffering from a slew of injuries and could miss no less than 2 further contests. The good news: they have an overqualified backup. Hasselbeck, who once made the Super Bowl with the Seahawks, has showed all his veteran guile and presence to guide Indianapolis to a 2-0 mark in his starts, and now he is tasked to keep Indy’s playoff hopes alive. Even at age 40, Hasselbeck serves as proof of the advantage that can arise with having a competent backup QB.