December 11, 2016

The True Value of the Backup QB

By Bill Barnwell, Football Outsiders – special to BSMW Patriots Game Day

On Football Outsiders, we have a pet thread for irrational arguments about the relative merits of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning; in our traditionally uninflammatory manner, we refer to this thread as the “Official Thread for Irrational Brady-Manning Arguments”. The thread has become so big as to bog down our server and force the appearance of a newly-minted second thread, just in time for this week’s upcoming Patriots-Colts game. Six posts into this now 405-strong thread, I joked that there should be a thread comparing Matt Cassel to Jim Corgi. While measuring their grip strength on clipboards and their ability to avoid local impersonators (ala Brian St. Pierre), I realized that it’s a little strange that two teams with such strong playoff hopes have so little in experience behind their two franchise quarterbacks. Now, I’m not saying that Sorgi and Cassel aren’t any good — obviously, their franchises have enough confidence in them to have them as the primary backups. That being said, while the cap-crunched Colts might not have the money to stick a veteran quarterback underneath the limit, the Patriots clearly do. So then, clearly, the Patriots think that having a veteran quarterback behind Brady is either unimportant, unnecessary, or both. Well, let’s use history to see if there’s any basis for such a decision.

I took a look at every quarterback since the advent of the bye week to try and find those quarterbacks who had been similar to Brady or Manning — quarterbacks who’d spent at least two years as a steady starter before being rushed off the field for a majority of a season, all while playing for the same franchise. Usually, this was due to injury, but in other cases (Jeff George in Atlanta, for example), quarterbacks were suspended or benched. From there, I tried to find quarterbacks who had backups that were similar to Cassel or Sorgi: guys who had the bare minimum of playing time, if even that much at all.

What I found was that such a thing occurring is pretty dramatically rare — there’s only six times a remotely similar switch has occurred in NFL history. The six:

Drew Bledsoe (2001 Patriots)

You may have heard of this one already.

Gus Frerotte (1998 Redskins)

Frerotte was replaced by second year QB Trent Green halfway through the first game of the 1998 season; he’d make token appearances in Weeks 5 and 6, but Green was the starter for virtually the entire season. The Redskins went from winning 8.5 games in 1997 (the tie being the infamous “Headbutt” game) to 6 in 1998 under Green, but only scoring eight fewer points.

Tommy Maddox (2004 Steelers)

Another success story. Maddox, hurt against the Ravens, came out for Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers didn’t lose again until they ran into Tom Brady.

Dan Marino (1993 Dolphins)

If Brady or Manning were to get hurt, their team’s situation would be most similar to this one; a player with Hall of Fame numbers being replaced by a middle-round draft pick not expected to be a star — in this case, Scott Mitchell. While Mitchell’s Dolphins only scored nine fewer points than Marino’s, they also lost two more games than they had the year before. In addition, Scott Mitchell does not own a steakhouse inside the Hooters Casino.

Phil Simms (1982 Giants)

I’m not sure if you remember this, but before the punditry and Chris Simms even having a spleen to lose, Phil Simms used to be a pretty good quarterback. Ok, so maybe you remember that. Before that, though, you probably don’t remember that he used to be a pretty bad one. During the 1982 preseason, he tore up his knee against the Jets in much the same fashion that Jason Sehorn would sixteen years later; Simms would miss all of 1982 and most of 1983 recovering from his injury. In his stead, the Giants turned the ball over to Simms’ backup Scott Brunner, who already had 300 NFL attempts in his first two seasons; given the starting gig in the strike-shortened season and in 1983, he took a team that had been 9-7 in 1981 and saw them go 7-17-1 over the next two seasons, going from 22nd in points under Simms to 15th in 1982, but then back down to 25th in Bill Parcells’ rookie season. Simms’ return in 1984 led to three straight winning season and the Super Bowl in 1986.

Vinny Testaverde (1999 Jets)

I’ll always remember Vinny’s catastrophic knee injury. I was in the ESPN Zone in New York for its preview day, the day before it opened. “Preview day” means that the restaurant was in pre-launch mode, and while it was only serving three items, those items were all free. In addition, the games and assorted junk inside the ESPN Zone was also all free to use. This, I should warn you, is the only way you should ever experience the ESPN Zone. Comped.

If you are going to pay, though, make sure the quarterback of the local NFL team suffers a catastrophic knee injury while you’re watching on a movie theatre-sized screen. In the annals of “great sports injuries I’ve seen for the first time on a giant screen”, this is #2 behind the Mike Cameron-Carlos Beltran collision I saw on a giant sports book screen during my first trip to Vegas last year. I saw that one at 3 AM, screamed, and got a look of death from an eighty year old woman playing slots. What a wonderful place.

Oh – the Testaverde injury. Sorry. Testaverde was replaced, initially, by Rick Mirer. Mirer was acquired by the Jets from the Packers before the season started, and replaced Testaverde in the first game when he went down. By Week 6, though, the Jets were already casting glances in inexperienced Ray Lucas’ direction. Lucas was the full-time starter by Week 10, and ended up logging a majority of the snaps after Testaverde’s injury. The Jets were 6-2 in his starts, 2-5 under Mirer. It was a four-game difference from the 12 games they’d won the year before.

Are there any patterns to really draw from here? It’s hard to tell because of the small sample size. On one hand, Brady and Roethlisberger were brilliant; on the other, Mitchell, Mirer/Lucas, Green, and Brunner were all steps down from their more experienced counterparts. Again, it’s understandable that the Colts might not have a choice but to stick with Sorgi for salary reasons; the Patriots, though, have a pretty flimsy excuse. Is Pierre Woods really so valuable that he has to be on the active roster? Can Neil O’Donnell be taught to be a kick gunner? While the Patriots don’t want to worry about the answers to those questions, a Brady injury, whether at the beginning of a season or the latter part of this one, could blight their playoff hopes too dramatically for even Bill Belichick to overcome.

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