Playing quarterback well in the NFL is really, really hard. There are fewer qualified individuals at any time than there are jobs available and, as we’ll find out in later installments, more than half the league has good reason to be concerned that they are one hit from having no worthwhile option at quarterback. In this five-part series we will look at the quarterback situations of all 32 teams and at some of the things that separate the good from the bad.
Occupying the most important position on the field, the quarterback can have an immense impact on whether his team wins or loses on Sunday. Good or great quarterbacks turn their franchises into perennial playoff contenders; teams with far lesser talents are constantly chasing a solution for the position, often in the top ten picks of the draft. However, it is not enough to just have one great quarterback. The 2012 Indianapolis Colts lost future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning to a neck injury, and their lack of a competent backup (Dan Orlovsky, Curtis Painter, Kerry Collins) led to a 2-14 record and the #1 overall pick. Patriots fans will remember the 2008 season where future Hall of Famer Tom Brady was lost to a knee injury in the season opener and the backup, Matt Cassel, led the team to an 11-5 record while narrowly missing a playoff berth on a tiebreaker. A team with a good backup can stay afloat instead of being doomed to a miserable season. Even the #1 overall pick is no sure thing, especially when it comes to finding a franchise quarterback; Andrew Luck is the exception, not the rule, for a team in desperate need of a solid franchise signal caller.
GROUP ONE: Tire Fires, Potential, and Bad Contracts
1. St. Louis Rams: Austin Davis, Shaun Hill, Case Keenum, and Sam Bradford (IR)
Rarely is a team with four quarterbacks on their 53-man roster happy with their situation. The Rams are the one team in the NFL without an average veteran starting quarterback or a young prospect signal caller in their organization. Instead, they have assembled a terrific defense, interesting skill position prospects, and a solid offensive line. The Rams are the team most in need of quarterback solution, be it through the draft, free agency, Canada, Cracker Jack prize, trolling neighborhood taverns ‒ whatever. This is the worst QB situation in the league.
The Rams spent the #1 overall pick in 2010 on Sam Bradford. Ever since, they have suffered through his injuries and inconsistent performance, culminating in a torn ACL this summer that will keep him out of action until 2015. If Bradford’s career in St. Louis is over ‒ and it should be ‒ he will have given them 49 starts with a 58.6% completion percentage and 59 touchdown throws against 38 interceptions. By the end of 2014 the Rams will have paid him $50M over five years. Cutting ties with Bradford will cost the team another $3.5M in dead money during 2015, which is far more palatable than paying him another $13M next season. As the last “old-CBA” rookie contract, Bradford was paid like he was among the best QBs in the league which he most emphatically was not. He has instead been an albatross around the neck of a franchise that, with an average veteran taking snaps, would likely challenge for the playoffs.
Journeyman Shaun Hill has suited up for Minnesota, Detroit, San Francisco, and St. Louis over his nine years in the league. With 37 career appearances, 28 of them starts, the 34-year-old is among the most experienced backup quarterbacks to never hold down a starting role other than through injury. Of course, Hill himself is now injured, but will apparently reclaim the starting job upon his return before yielding it to either Bradford or someone new next season. Shaun Hill: better than nothing.
Speaking of nothing, here’s what nominal third-stringer Austin Davis brings behind center:
The above clip is an example of what defines bad quarterbacking: forcing a play instead of eating the ball and taking the sack. Backups know that they need to make plays to win the job, so there is desperation to make a good impression. However, it often works out in the manner above: a wounded duck floating into the arms of defender.
Davis has been holding down the fort for the Rams with Bradford and Hill injured. Head Coach Jeff Fisher is so impressed with Davis that he has stated Hill will get his job back. Undrafted out of Southern Mississippi in 2012, Davis served practice squad stints with the Rams and Dolphins in 2013 before returning to St. Louis late that season following Bradford’s injury. He has started three games for the Rams thus far in 2014 but is nothing more than a stopgap.
Case Keenum, who couldn’t hack it in Houston, is the backup’s backup’s backup. I mean, you’ve read about the other three guys…yet Keenum can’t crack even THAT rotation. He will likely be shown the exit when Hill returns.
The good news for the Rams is that they will have cap space, another high draft selection, and their pick of free agents (though it’s an uninspiring list) to try and solve their quarterback problem. Maybe they can trade a pick to Washington to acquire Robert Griffin III, whom the Rams passed on when they traded the #2 overall pick in 2012 to Washington who selected… Robert Griffin III. Bad quarterback situations tend to be circular and confusing, recreating themselves across time.
2. Tennessee: Jake Locker, Charlie Whitehurst, and Zach Mettenberger
Jake Locker has had parts of four seasons to showcase his ability as a starting quarterback in the NFL and the verdict is nearly unanimous: He’s going to make a fine backup someday. While he’s dealt with plenty of injuries, Locker has nonetheless failed to consistently apply his physical gifts on the field. He’ll exhibit flashes of competence, but will then reveal difficulties in reading coverages by throwing yet another interception or missing yet another open receiver. His career completion percentage of 57.1% is well below the Fitzpatrick Line (60.1%) that sets the floor for modern-era quarterbacks and his TD/INT ratio of 25/19 (with 9 career fumbles) demonstrates an inability to protect the football or make timely plays.
In this lowlight, Locker has a clean pocket, time to set his feet, survey the field, find the open receiver in a favorable matchup and…
…throw the ball three feet out of his intended target’s reach and into the hands of a waiting defender. There may still be some hope that Locker is a late-bloomer or that his injuries have prevented him from playing his best football, whereby patience by the Titans may be the best option. However, Locker’s college career was also plagued with injuries and inaccuracy issues.
Known as “Clipboard Jesus,” 32-year old Charlie Whitehurst has appeared in 15 games (5 starts) in his nine-year NFL career with San Diego, Seattle and Tennessee. To date, he has earned $13.3M by standing on the sidelines near NFL games. Whitehurst must be wonderful in the locker room because he cannot play quarterback: he has connected on just 52.2% of his 178 total career pass attempts and has more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (4).
Zach Mettenberger suffered an ACL injury his senior year at LSU, tumbling into the seventh round of the 2014 draft as a result. Mettenberger had a terrific final college season, completing almost 65% of his passes and posting a 22/8 TD-to-INT ratio. He has ideal physical tools for the position, standing 6’5” and having excellent arm strength. Tennessee may feel they already have their franchise quarterback. But the wonderful thing about potential is it’s irrational, even in the face of evidence that most great college quarterbacks are poor NFL quarterbacks.
3. Arizona: Carson Palmer, Drew Stanton, and Logan Thomas
Carson Palmer was the #1 overall pick in 2003, led his team to the playoffs a few times, pulled a franchise out of the abyss, and will be considered a disappointment when he retires. This game… it is cruel. Palmer was on his way to greatness when he suffered both a torn ACL and MCL in a 2005 playoff contest against rival Pittsburgh. He’s been on a long, slow decline ever since and has entered the journeyman/placeholder phase of his career. In this clip, Palmer sees the rush, knows he’s going to take a hit, and does the absolute worst thing he could have done:
Heaving the ball blindly downfield is bad quarterbacking. Palmer has taken so many hits over the years that, seeing the potential for another, he flinches, hops backwards, and serves up the easy interception. Currently injured again, Palmer is likely to be a cap casualty after the 2014 season. If he chooses to take a reserve role elsewhere, he instantly becomes the best backup QB in the NFL, which is truly damning with faint praise. This is your future Matthew Stafford.
Drew Stanton is a seven-year veteran with 14 career games (6 starts), a 54.9% career completion percentage with more picks (9) than scores (7). A career backup who has bounced around the NFL collecting paychecks and holding clipboards for seven seasons, he has offered high-fives to Stafford (Detroit) and Luck (Indianapolis) and had an aborted stint with the New York Jets in 2012 before relocating to Arizona. He has made nearly $9M thus far and, if he serves out his current deal, he will approach $15M in career earnings. Good work if you can get it.
Logan Thomas, taken in the 4th round of the 2014 draft, is a 6’6”, 250-pound rookie out of Virginia Tech with all the physical tools a quarterback could need: cannon arm, huge hands, height, athleticism, and toughness. Ron Jaworski of ESPN said Thomas was “the best I’ve seen” after his 2014 pre-season debut. Of course, Jaws loves all quarterbacks, as AZ Central writer Andrew Joseph points out in that link. The main knocks on Thomas are his poor field vision, locking onto primary reads, missing open targets because of a fast internal clock, undisciplined footwork, mechanical flaws, technical shortcomings, and a failure to cycle through his progressions. Other than that, he’s terrific.
The Cardinals have built a very good defense anchored by an outstanding secondary with All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson. They’ve also spent significant resources to rebuild a leaky offensive line and they possess a dynamic young running back in Andre Ellington. Arizona, like St. Louis, has built an otherwise very good roster of players but cannot overcome their deficiencies at quarterback. If the 34-year-old Palmer had any ability to lead a team to a Super Bowl win, it eroded long ago as injuries mounted. If Thomas has that ability, it will only be realized after much hard work and refinement. And if Stanton has to keep starting games, Arizona’s talented roster will be adding another top-ten talent in the 2015 draft. Potential, either from an old field general or a hotshot prospect, is seductive, but shouldn’t be trusted lest the primes of the other talent slip away waiting for fulfillment.
4. Dallas: Tony Romo, Brandon Weeden and Dustin Vaughan
Tony Romo is 34 years old and had back surgery after the 2013 season. The 11-year veteran has one of the most ridiculous contracts in the NFL, having signed a six-year extension effective this year that carries him through the 2019 season at an average annual salary of $18M. That $108M deal was crafted by noted football genius, Cowboys General Manager Jerry Jones, and makes Romo basically uncuttable until after the 2016 season. Now return to the first sentence and read it again. He’s 34! And just had back surgery!
Romo is a very good, if snake-bitten, quarterback. His career 64.8% completion percentage puts him in the top ten all-time. He has presided over numerous 4th quarter comebacks and nearly as many 4th quarter collapses. He has had no playoff success; in fact, he’s regarded by many Dallas fans as an inveterate choker and, based on the last three season finales, they may have a point. Bad Romo does things like this all too frequently when the game is on the line:
Early returns in 2014 are promising; Romo looks mostly recovered and the Cowboys are off to a good start. However, as esteemed NFL writer Rick Gosselin notes, Romo is no longer the same athletic presence and needs “the John Elway treatment,” a reference to the legendary Bronco orchestrating a run-heavy offense in his twilight years. The good news is that the Cowboys have built an excellent run-blocking offensive line and they have a solid stable of running backs. The bad news: This is not 1998 and an immobile, aging QB known for playing poorly under pressure is unlikely to change his spots at age 34.
Meanwhile, 30-year old Brandon Weeden brings his three years of NFL experience as the primary backup. Weeden was 28 years old when he was taken in the first round by the Cleveland Browns in the 2012 draft and he quickly played himself out of town with a 55.9% completion percentage and 23 touchdowns against 26 interceptions. The former minor league baseball player is not a long-term prospect, nor is he a savvy veteran. He’s a below-average quarterback who will bounce around the league for the next five years without distinction.
Dustin Vaughan is an undrafted rookie out of West Texas A&M where he threw for lots of yards and lots of touchdowns. And he’s from Texas. Other than that, I got nothin’.
The Cowboys are this high on the list because Romo is old, overpaid, and injured. His reputation as a shrinking violet makes any future disappointments the potential “last straw” with the fan base, but because of the ludicrous contract he would count for $37,408,000 against next year’s cap if released. The best part (for non-Cowboy fans) is noted football football genius Jerry Jones will decide who the Cowboys’ next franchise quarterback will be. When the person in charge has a track record that makes sarcasm blindingly obvious, the quarterback situation can end up at “cesspool” in the blink of an eye.
What We’ve Learned So Far…
Bad quarterback situations are nurtured. It could be bad luck, injury, coaching changes, work effort, or any other variable that goes into building depth at the game’s hardest position. It does not take a noted football genius to understand that the careers full of injuries suffered by 34-year-olds Tony Romo and Carson Palmer make them bad long term investments. Backstopping them with Brandon Weeden and Drew Stanton is foolish; Dallas and Arizona have playoff aspirations and neither can provide replacement-level relief. Both of these situations, as well as Tennessee’s, are saved from last place because at least they have a lottery ticket; St. Louis, meanwhile, has nothing. Potential, in the form of Dustin Vaughan, Logan Thomas, and Zach Mettenberger, gives all three teams some hope in the future even if the odds are longer than Powerball. To earn the dubious distinction of the top spot, you have to make these mistakes over and over again, as we will see in the next installment of this series featuring Tampa Bay, Houston, New York and Buffalo.
Mark Schofield contributed to this piece.
Follow David on Twitter @SoSH_davemc.