Quarterback Situations, Part 2

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.

It is important to understand that this exercise is not a ranking of starting quarterbacks; if it were, in Part 1, I would not have put Tony Romo at #4. Romo is, even at 34 and coming off back surgery, a very good starting quarterback, albeit one with some known and frustrating issues in “big” games. However, if you had to win one game tomorrow, Romo would be a better choice than all of the quarterbacks we will discuss in Part 2, Part 3, and even some in Part 4 of the Quarterback Situation Rankings.

This is, however, a ranking of the entire quarterback depth chart for all 32 teams. There are plenty of articles ranking quarterbacks. The purpose of this exercise to try to think more about roster construction and team planning than about starting quarterback evaluation per se. While the ability of the starting quarterback is a factor, we are more interested in what happens if that starter is, for instance, lost to injury. There are better, more accurate, ways to look at quarterbacks who play games. However, what few are doing is evaluating the entire quarterback depth chart to tell whether having Dustin Vaughan’s contract puts you in better position to compete than going with Kellen Moore, for example. The QB Situation articles incorporate three main assumptions:

  1. A backup quarterback who is established to be bad is less desirable than an unproven quarterback. Why? Potential is seductive and there is a chance the next Tom Brady is toiling away at the bottom of a depth chart. But someone like Charlie Whitehurst – who is going to be 33 next year – we know what and who he is, and if he’s starting for your team, something has gone very wrong.
  2. Contracts really matter. The primary reason Dallas ranks so high is that they would be incapacitated if Romo is… incapacitated. All long contracts have a year or two where the player is uncuttable; very few commence at age 34 and after back surgery. Joe Flacco will count for nearly the same amount of dead money if he has to be cut by Baltimore; he’s also arguably an inferior regular season performer when compared to Romo. However, he does have playoff success, a Super Bowl ring, is four years younger, and didn’t have back surgery in the recent past. And his backup is a man of mystery, whereas Brandon Weeden is among the very worst players at the position still employed by an NFL team.
  3. Team situation is another important factor. While it would be ideal to incorporate offensive line, skill position players (i.e. weapons), and offensive coordinator/systems, that quickly spirals into an entire team review. So, while not explicitly addressed or rigorously analyzed, the overall team health is being considered. St. Louis has everything… except a signal caller. Great defensive talent, intriguing weapons, promising, young offensive line. Somehow landing a franchise quarterback would propel St. Louis into the title picture. Meanwhile, Dallas is competing for a playoff spot and maybe more – losing Romo and starting Weeden would quickly end those hopes.

5. NY Jets: Geno Smith and Michael Vick

[quote align=’right’]For a detailed look at Michael Vick, please read this article by Inside The Pylon’s Mark Brown and Jae Barclay.[/quote]

Few bad quarterback situations are as consistently entertaining as the ongoing carnival with the Jets. Since dependable game manager Chad Pennington moved on, the Jets have sought to fill the positional void with a series of escalating dares that seem to have more to do with winning the back page than winning football games. Future Hall of Famer and intimate camera-phone (link NSFW) artiste Brett Favre served a nondescript year under center before the Jets brought on legendary butt-fumbler (video link) Mark Sanchez with the 5th overall pick of the 2009 draft. “The Sanchize” bumbled through four seasons (plus another on injured reserve) before the Jets realized what almost everyone else knew ‒ Sanchez es no bueno. The sideshow seemed to hit its peak in 2012 when the embattled Sanchez was signed to a contract extension despite his disappointing performance and, just to keep things interesting, the team also traded for one of the most divisive players in recent NFL history, Tim Tebow. The team finished 6-10 and neither Tebow nor Sanchez played another snap for the Jets.

Geno Smith won the job by default in 2013 after an injury to Sanchez in the 4th quarter of a meaningless preseason game (audio link). Smith was putrid, notching 21 interceptions against only 12 touchdowns passes last season. Through six games this year, he has seven interceptions and five fumbles, yielding two giveaways per game. His completion percentage is marginally better this year (57.1%) than last (55.8%) but still falls short of the Fitzpatrick Line.

The Jets decided this year to backstop Smith with veteran scrambler/turnover machine Michael Vick. If the plan was to motivate Smith, it didn’t work. Vick came to camp and proclaimed himself happy to be picking up a paycheck, barely trying to win the starting job during camp. He’s since doubled-down, admitting he didn’t prepare properly for a relief stint against San Diego in Week 5, a 31-0 drubbing at the hands of the Chargers. Smith had been benched after playing terribly and missing a team meeting because he was at the movies. You can’t make this stuff up.

In this clip, Smith demonstrates the form that makes him a bad quarterback. From the shotgun, the play calls for Smith to fake the WR screen left and throw a screen pass to the halfback on the right:

The key to this failure is the footwork and ball-handling; he turns the wrong way after executing the fake, allowing the Bears’ defense another second to recognize the play and react. The fake is so obvious that not a single Chicago linebacker bites; they all see the poorly-executed chicanery and flow to the emerging halfback screen. However, a better throw probably allows the intended target to bounce to the sideline and at least get back to the line of scrimmage. Instead, Smith’s pass is terribly inaccurate, missing the running back by a wide margin and landing in the arms of a defender who races all the way to the end zone.

The highlight of Smith’s career thus far was a 2013 Week 1 victory in which he drew a personal foul flag and, as the Jets kicked a game-winning field goal, stood on his team’s bench and did this. Jet fans, desperate for a competent quarterback, immediately anointed him the newest franchise savior. Less than 14 months later, most are now ready to bring back Tebow or Sanchez rather than suffer through any more Geno-time. When the focus is not solely on the field, it is nearly impossible to solve the problem.

Surprisingly, all is not lost for the Jets. They are likely headed for a dismal season and a top-five draft pick. Both Smith and Vick can be cut after the season and the team will still have more than $45M in cap space with which to chase yet another solution via free agency. And despite the current dearth of roster talent, General Manager John Idzik has a plan. Heck, they could trade for Tony Romo. That would make the back page of the New York Post.

6. Tampa Bay: Josh McCown, Mike Glennon and Mike Kafka

Josh McCown is what happens when a team mistakes a hot streak for true ability. McCown was very good in relief of injured Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler in 2013, posting excellent numbers that included a 66.5% completion percentage and an outstanding-but-lucky 13 touchdowns against only 1 interception. These numbers are so far out of McCown’s norm that it should have been obvious that he was simply on a hot streak; he sports a career 59.6% completion percentage (which includes those great 2013 numbers from above) in 64 career games (41 starts), a 52:49 TD:INT ratio, and 46 fumbles. Arizona, Detroit, Oakland, Carolina, and Chicago all knew this about McCown, which is why he has played for six teams in ten seasons. But new Tampa Bay Head Coach Lovie Smith wanted to turn around last year’s 4-12 debacle and apparently only saw McCown’s 2013 tape before pushing the Buccaneers into acquiring McCown to “solve” the quarterback issue.

Here, McCown tries to connect with a receiver running the inside seam post route and he makes a nice slide step to his left to avoid the rush:

However, his arm has never been exceptional and he fails to recognize that the safety is in perfect position to jump the route and make the interception. There are quarterbacks who can thread that needle; McCown is not, and never has been, one of them.

Second-year signal caller Mike Glennon and his neck performed ably as a rookie for the Buccaneers after being selected in the third round in 2013, compiling a 59.9% completion percentage and 19 touchdowns versus only 9 interceptions. Glennon is a gangly 6’7” and was described by some as a Drew Bledsoe-like prospect: very good arm, average-or-better field awareness, but a pure pocket-passer due to mobility concerns and slow feet. But instead of building around Glennon, Tampa Bay and Lovie Smith went out and secured McCown, spending the offseason talking about him as the starter. While Tampa suffered a vicious Thursday night beatdown in Week 3 at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons that dropped the Bucs to 0-3, McCown injured his throwing hand and Glennon was forced into action. Ten days later, Glennon led Tampa Bay to a 27-24 victory at Pittsburgh with a last-minute comeback.

The Buccaneers clearly do not know what they are doing at quarterback. After last season, they eschewed the seemingly-promising Glennon and instead chased the journeyman McCown, indicating the coach and/or personnel department do not have faith in Glennon. And despite some encouraging signs, Glennon is a limited prospect; the game has changed and immobile pocket passers are not valued as highly as a guy who can “keep plays alive.” However, Glennon also clearly has NFL ability, either as a starter or as a high-end backup. He exhibits lots of traits teams desire in a QB: poise under pressure, learning ability, and enough arm to make all the throws.

Third-string quarterback Mike Kafka is an exercise in symbolism and dread, in that if he is in your favorite team’s uniform, something bizarre and/or terrible has or is about to happen. The former Eagle and Patriot roster-filler is an emergency option only and figures to be released when McCown returns to full health.

The Buccaneers should let Glennon sink or swim for the rest of 2014, placing them either in the bottom three of this list (if Glennon was to prove himself unworthy as a starter) or in the top-half (if Glennon continues to develop and win road games). Going back to McCown is short-sighted; he isn’t leading this team back to contention. He is a capable backup whom the Buccaneers foolishly paid like a starter after a nice hot streak. Doubling down on that by benching Glennon would be inexcusably dumb. Choosing a middling veteran over a prospect is a sure way to never find a diamond-in-the-rough and keeps a team on the QB carousel.

7. Buffalo: EJ Manuel and Kyle Orton

The Bills have been searching for a solution at quarterback since the end of the Jim Kelly era. Since 1996, these are the QBs Buffalo fans have been forced to cheer for: Todd Collins, Alex Van Pelt, Doug Flutie, Rob Johnson, Drew Bledsoe, J.P. Losman, Shane Matthews, Kelly Holcomb, Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Brohm, Tyler Thigpen, Thaddeus Lewis, Jeff Tuel, Manuel, and Kyle Orton. Sixteen quarterbacks in nineteen seasons. And while there are some decent or even good names on that list, by the time they each joined the Bills the magic was either already gone or quickly drained from them, as if some supernatural force had decided Buffalo was never getting another league-average quarterback. Further, the Bills spent first-round picks on Bledsoe, Losman and Manuel, plus scores of other picks and money to acquire the others. Buffalo: systematically proving the old adage about blind squirrels and nuts wrong for two decades.

2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel, selected 16th overall, had a solid, if injury-plagued, rookie season, posting a 58.8% completion percentage and 11 touchdown throws against 9 interceptions. Pedestrian numbers, but suggestive of potential for the former Florida State Seminole. In Week 1 this year, Manuel blistered the Chicago defense with a 16-for-22 performance (72.7% completion percentage) and it seemed an off-season of development and healing had finally solved the Bills quarterback conundrum. However, Manuel has since turned in progressively worse performances in each successive week, capped by a horrific 21-for-44 (47.7%) display on the road at Houston that prompted Head Coach Doug Marrone to bench him in favor of neck-beard aficionado Kyle Orton.

The play call here is a simple flare route from the running back into the flat. The play is designed to let J.J. Watt, the most dangerous defensive player in the league, get upfield unblocked, theoretically enabling the Bills to take advantage of the space vacated by the defensive end chasing the quarterback:

Well, that was ugly. Manuel basically hands the ball to Watt who rumbles the length of the field for a touchdown. The throw is flat, allowing Watt to make the play. Manuel makes no effort to either loft the ball over or change the angle of the throw. Nope, he just throws it right to Watt. Plays like that will get you benched.

Kyle Orton is a perfectly cromulent quarterback; he gives a team the appearance of competence but his ceiling is seat-warming game manager, at best. Orton’s career completion percentage is 58.5%, a number bolstered by his numerous spot starts and relief stints, which has generally been pretty good. It is when he’s asked to play for extended stretches that the flaws in Orton’s game are exposed: below-average throwing arm, spotty decision-making, and poor athleticism.

Buffalo is hoping Orton makes rookie receiver Sammy Watkins (#3 overall) look like a franchise savior. The Bills traded up in the draft to acquire Watkins, paying the steep price of their 2015 first round pick, as well as a 2015 4th rounder, to secure the young playmaker. After Manuel was benched, Watkins publicly disclosed he favored Orton because “the ball [comes] out faster.” Indeed, that is the 2014 rookie wideout throwing the team’s 2013 first round quarterback under the bus. Dissension… it’s FAN-tastic! (Poor, poor Bills fans)

Marrone and General Manager Doug Whaley are on the hot seat given the sale of the team to new ownership. Benching Manuel for Orton is a sign that the carousel of QB change is spinning again and the regime in Buffalo seems to be choosing “don’t embarrass ourselves” instead of “trying to win.” In an attempt to impress the new bosses, they are tossing aside Manuel and banking on Orton. When you pin your future employment to a rookie wide receiver and a 31-year old quarterback with limited upside, expect to be unemployed come January.

8. Houston: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallet and Tom Savage

Former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien is now the head coach in Houston, where he has purged last year’s depth chart (Matt Schaub, T.J. Yates, and Case Keenum) and imported three new quarterbacks (Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallet, and Tom Savage). Yet it is probable that Houston will be looking at another new quarterback after 2014.

Ryan Fitzpatrick is the best “bad quarterback” in NFL history; now in his tenth NFL season, the Harvard man has compiled a 60.1% completion percentage, with 111 touchdowns, 78 interceptions and 52 fumbles. If a quarterback performs worse than Ryan Fitzpatrick, he loses his starting job. If a player is even marginally better than Ryan Fitzpatrick, a team can delude themselves into thinking they have “the answer” (see the aforementioned Schaub, Matt). Fitzpatrick even tricked the Buffalo Bills into paying him like a starting-caliber QB after a 2010 in which he led the team to a 4-9 record and was significantly worse statistically than his career numbers. He promptly delivered won-loss records of 6-10 and 6-10 while earning $24M and leaving the Bills $3M in dead money in 2013 and another $7M in 2014. Yes, Buffalo did indeed get a new general manager after that contract was signed… Why do you ask?

There’s just so much to love in this clip. First, the audible. It’s always awesome to see a quarterback audible into an interception. Second, the way Fitzpatrick gestures to the intended receiver before the snap, never looks anywhere but at the intended receiver as the route develops, and does everything but send the New York safety a written invitation to break on the route. He does make an excellent effort to tackle the ball carrier after throwing the pick, and he annually gets credit for a couple of tackles on plays just like it. Yes, good quarterbacks do go several seasons without making a tackle but they also have to preserve their health for the future. At least Fitzpatrick knows that if he doesn’t hustle he’s likely to end up back on the bench.

Houston has done everything but hire a skywriter to make clear that Fitzpatrick is a stop-gap; they drafted Savage in the fourth round and traded a conditional draft pick for Mallet at the end of the preseason. While Savage is signed for four-seasons, Mallet is a free agent at the end of 2014. It is highly likely that Houston gives Mallet his first sustained opportunity to do something other than handoff in a competitive NFL game and perhaps the former Arkansas product will dazzle fans with his rocket arm. Ask any Patriots fan who watched him in the preseason, though, and they’ll tell you he’s no Matt Cassel. Mallet has thus far shown nothing to indicate he can be a successful NFL quarterback; he seemingly lacks the ability to throw at anything less than top-velocity, endangering the lives and hands of anyone within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. His lack of “touch” is only one of his problems; he also seems to struggle identifying coverages, finding soft spots in zones, and moving at any pace greater than “glacial,” plus his lack of athleticism and mobility in the pocket is obvious. Ben Volin of the Boston Globe recently said “This notion that Mallet was going to fetch a nice return on the trade market was absurd. He’s Just A Guy. At least the [Patriots] got a seventh-round pick for him instead of dumping him for nothing.”

Savage, the big-armed University of Pittsburgh signal caller, resembles Tom Brady ‒ physically. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: physically gifted, strong-armed college quarterback with iffy decision-making and trouble reading coverages. Savage might be O’Brien’s new Brady, he might be another in the long line of impressive physical specimens who bust because the position is less about physical skills than it is about intelligence, awareness and the ability to process information quickly.

Houston may have its future signal caller in-house, or they may need to continue the search. Regardless, they won’t be going anywhere other than home after the regular season so long as Ryan Fitzpatrick is under center. The Ryan Fitzpatrick Experience has thus far plagued five NFL cities: St. Louis, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tennessee, and Houston. All of these teams are in the bottom half of these QB situation rankings. Once quarterback problems start, they tend to last a long time and guys like Fitzpatrick are like reverse Johnny Appleseeds, planting poison wherever they go.

Conclusion

A team can end up in a bad quarterback situation: if they stubbornly chase potential in the face of terrible results (Rams, Titans, Bills); if they invest in has-beens and never-weres, mistaking hot streaks for sustainable results (Buccaneers, Texans) or in aging veterans on the downside (Cardinals); if they encourage a sideshow and court controversy (J-E-T-S); and if they give out plaid contracts (Cowboys). Some of these teams have young players who may well develop into starters; Tennessee, Arizona, Tampa Bay, New York, Houston and even Dallas might have their young signal caller of the future on their roster. All of those prospects figure to get playing time, as the guys ahead of them on the depth chart are old, bad, or both. But it is more likely that these teams are still on the bad quarterback carousel, forever spinning around and around with no solution in sight. Try not to puke.

Follow David on Twitter @SoSH_davemc.

David R. McCullough is the Editor-in-Chief of Inside the Pylon. He also writes about the topicsshaping the sport, examines the coaches and players, ruminates on football’s past, and explores the controversial issues facing the game.

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