On August 4, 2016, the Kansas City Chiefs signed free agent Nick Foles, a player who has proved that his incredible, Pro Bowl worthy 2013 season was a fluke more than talent. Foles signing came in an off season where the New York Jets tried to play chicken (and lost) with Ryan Fitzpatrick, and saw the much maligned Cleveland Browns sign first-round flame out Robert Griffin the Third to be their starter. In an era where it’s easier than ever to complete a pass in the NFL, we seemingly cannot find 32 competent men who are up to the task.
While there has always been bad quarterback play in the NFL, now more than ever seems to highlight the notion that if you don’t like the quarterback you have now, you’re screwed. We used to live in a time where if you didn’t like your quarterback, then you could trade for a team’s back up. The Seattle Seahawks had great success with Matt Hasselbeck who was the back up for the legendary Brett Farve- a man who himself was traded from the Atlanta Falcons. Speaking of the ATL, they not too long ago traded away their back up Matt Schaub to the Houston Texans. Growing up in Chicago, myself and fellow Bears fans used to hold the back-up quarterback in high regard- sometimes higher than the starter. Bears fans used to be so devoid of QB hope that we loved it when 31-year-old Brian Griese came to play in 2006 to be our back-up.
However, these problems are 1% problems. At least those teams HAVE a competent starting quarterback who can, at the bare minimum, get their team to the playoffs. But what to do you if you don’t have one of those? Then you’re stuck with RG3 and signing the definition of replacement level QB: Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The Chicago Bears recently had this dilemma. Even though I’ll ride hard for Jay Cutler, I’ll concede that he isn’t the greatest QB there is. However, both being a rational human being and again, remembering a time not too long ago thinking that Brian Griese was our Great White Hope, I know that Cutler is a fine, above-average quarterback- and a legitimate starter in this league. So when his contract ran up a few years ago, former Bears GM Phil Emory had three options. He could have let Cutler go and re-signed the carcass of the other McCown brother (who was coming off of a career season). However, seeing McCown revert from Cinderella to the poor chambermaid that he is after Chicago let him go, re-signing him to be the starter surely would have seen the GM get canned. Phil Emory could have let both Cutler and McCown walk thinking they were both too expensive, and played a quarterback off of the scrap heap for cheap until a better solution presented itself. However, as we have just determined, the free agency quarterback pool is barren, and that would have gotten Phil Emory fired. The option Emory did chose to do, realizing that a fine, good-but-obviously-not-great QB was better than nothing at all, was to re-sign Jay Cutler. The huge downside is that the market value for a good-but-obviously-not-great QB is ridiculously high. So Phil Emory signing Cutler to seemingly bloated deal got himself fired anyways.
As recent history has now shown us, the correct answer was probably #2- let both quarterbacks walk as both are too expensive. You suck it up in the interim until a more favorable solution falls into your lap. Be Bill Belichick, ruthless and know every player has a cap on his price tag. It’s like football’s equivalent of the Houston Rockets. They collected assets and lied in wait- until James Harden presented himself. That’s what the Houston Texans did.
After Matt Schaub fell apart, the Texans picked up aforementioned Replacement Level Guy Ryan Fitzpatrick. They also attempted to trade for a back-up; they acquired Ryan Mallet from the New England Patriots. Even though Fitzpatrick was competent, the Texans realized what his value was (to them at least) and traded him to the New York Jets. This was their cheap and conditional starter and the Texans traded him away. After trotting out Brian Hoyer and Brandon Weedon after seeing how Mallet was a bust, the Texans eventually landed their White Whale- signing the rare proven, yet young quarterback in free agency: Brock Osweiler. Now Osweiler might by Matt Flynn or he might be Matt Hasselbeck, but it’s worth the gamble, and now the Texans can say they have their starting QB. Haters knock Osweiler because they say he was only good for just a few games that’s it, but remember when people for some reason thought James Harden wasn’t good because he only played in limited minutes?
Like the Texans prior to this offseason, if you’re in need of a quarterback, you either better draft one, or have a great defense and running game. After losing Peyton Manning to retirement (and shittiness) and Brock Osweiler to free agency, the Denver Broncos are doing just that. They still have a strong defense despite losing key players, are hoping that their running tandem will be just enough. However, their quarterback situation is a black hole. They picked up Mark Sanchez in free agency (literally the bottom of the barrel) to compete with 2015th 7th round draft pick Trevor Siemian, and the Broncos 1st round pick in 2016 Paxton Lynch- a player commonly criticized for not being good enough to play right away. It’s hard out there for a pimp.
The New York Jets were even worse off than the Broncos (although that’s debatable). Although not as good on paper as Denver, the Jets are still a team built to win now. So while Ryan Fitzpatrick may not be great, he’s necessary and worth it if you want to make a playoff run.
What surprises me even more is how much NFL teams are blind to the lack of quality in their league. While Fitzpatrick was in negotiations with the Jets all summer, he still was a free agent and could have signed anywhere else. Sure his price tag may be a bit steep (compared with other positions), but he’s still only the 23rd highest paid quarterback behind the likes of Sam Bradford, Ryan Tannehill, and the aforementioned Jay Cutler. If you’re Denver and you’re looking to repeat, Fitzpatrick certainly seems like a much better alternative than Mark freaking Sanchez. All Fitzpatrick was doing was asking for starter money- like he deserves. If he’s going to start for your team, which he will in New York and would have for Denver, then pay him like one. Don’t be a cheap asshole about it.
There was one quarterback this offseason that is a legitimate back up and was signed to be a legitimate back up. That was former Texans and Browns starter QB Brian Hoyer. We have enough of a sample size to see that Brian Hoyer is not a starter, but he’s certainly a back-up. A successful back-up needs to competently start 2-4 games in a given season- similar to what was asked of A.J. McCarron and Luke McCown last year. But as we also saw from McCarron and McCown, being asked to even start one game from your back up can lead to disastrous results. The Chicago Bears picked up Hoyer decently late in the NFL offseason and only paid him two million dollars. It baffles me why any legitimate contender, like the Bengals or Cardinals- especially considering how both teams watched their Super Bowl hopes vanish when their starting quarterback went down- didn’t go after Hoyer. Brian Hoyer is the only back-up quarterback in the league that can be trusted to start 2-4 if and/or when the starter goes down. Yes, I’d even trust Hoyer over Patriots back up Jimmy Garoppolo- a man who at minimum will have to start four games this season.
The position of back-up quarterback is not a sexy one. It’s nothing compared to being a starter, and the vast majority of the time the back-up will sit on the bench and look and pictures. Yet the position is so important. The quarterback position itself is so important and necessary to win football games, and more likely than not, the back-up quarterback will be called upon to play at least one game. Despite it all, teams don’t give a shit about their back-up quarterbacks. Partially because that player is bad. If he were any good, he’s be a starter. It’s a tough Catch-22 to reconcile and one most teams haven’t been able to figure out. But once teams do, their path to Super Bowl victory will be that much easier.