NFL teams lacking backup plan

The lack of quality backup quarterbacks in the NFL gives players like Jeff George and Tommy Maddox hope.

Updated: September 9, 2006, 6:47 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Got a call the other day from Jeff George, a call I had been awaiting for more than a week.

For several years, I have been in the corner of the troubled quarterback. After getting to know him in Oakland, Minnesota, Washington and briefly in Seattle, I've grown to like him. How can you not respect the arm and talent? Even at 38, George can still help a team as a backup, and the Raiders took that chance in signing him for a week.

While the Raiders released him last weekend, George owes them one. Their signing of him for the NFL minimum was like a one-week tryout. Backup Andrew Walter had concerns about his right shoulder, and the Raiders stared at a selection of available backups that didn't fit their strong-arm criteria. George moved to the top of their list with a couple good days of practice. They released him because they didn't want to guarantee his contract, but if they need a quarterback, they will certainly call him.

Nevertheless, George is back on the map. What's kept his dream alive of returning to the NFL is the sad state of backup quarterbacks. For years, George wondered why he couldn't get another chance. The Jeff George story should alert NFL teams that they have let the backup quarterback position deteriorate to the point of embarrassment.

Coaches better brainstorm and find a way to fix this. Teams are failing to develop backup quarterbacks and it doesn't make sense.

College programs have largely reverted to pass-oriented offenses and are supplying more quarterbacks able to play in the NFL. College coaches spread the field with receivers and let quarterbacks throw. Quarterbacks from mid-majors such as the MAC are often more ready for the NFL than quarterbacks from major conferences, because they carry the offense on their strong shoulders. That should be a plus for the NFL. Since 2000, 98 quarterbacks have been drafted and 17 enter this season as starters. Those aren't bad numbers. If the NFL can get two or three new starters out of every draft, that's not a bad system.

Where the NFL is failing, and it became clear as the rosters took shape this week, is in developing backup quarterbacks. The numbers are staggering, and it should keep the the likes of George, Tommy Maddox, Todd Bauman and Shane Matthews in the picture into their forties.

Figuring Kerry Collins is going to beat out Billy Volek for the Titans' starting job, only 10 No. 2 quarterbacks have 20 or more starts. Here's the most staggering statistic: The only backup quarterback with more than 30 starts for his current team is Kyle Boller of the Ravens. That's right. Boller is the most experienced backup in a league.

An astounding 15 teams have No. 2 quarterbacks who have thrown less than 300 passes. At least seven playoff caliber teams have backup quarterbacks who have thrown 90 or less passes.

Tommy Maddox
Sadly, Tommy Maddox is possibly the best quarterback available on the open market.
To save a roster space in the final 53, 10 teams elected to keep only two quarterbacks on the roster. That says something about the use of a third quarterback, but it also says something worse about the state of backup quarterbacks.

"It's atrocious," Titans general manager Floyd Reese said of the backup quarterback market. "It's getting more and more difficult and it's getting to the point of being scary. It seems as though the only way to get a quarterback is to get him in the first round."

Unfortunately, starters are found in the first round. That's what Reese did. Steve McNair was getting older and like most general managers, Reese knows the importance of the quarterback position. He invested a first-round choice in Vince Young and watched Billy Volek try to handle the starting role in camp. After three preseason games, the Titans felt concerned about the position and signed Collins, leaving the rest of the league to look at a list that probably does scare them.

In the case of an injury, teams can call George, Maddox, Bauman, Matthews, Tony Banks, Rob Johnson, Koy Detmer, Mike McMahon and Jesse Palmer. That's all that's left, and in some ways, teams may be short-sided in not bringing in some of these guys to have them learn their offenses in case they are needed. Folks, that's the list. If you listen to sports talk shows in top NFL cities, callers frequnetly ask why their favorite team doesn't go out and sign an experienced backup.

Credit the Raiders for being smart in signing George, even for a week. At least they now know if needed, he could fill in.

For years, the NFL promoted the concept of NFL Europe as the developmental league for quarterbacks. Did anyone notice that none of the 18 quarterbacks in NFL Europe last season made NFL rosters, and only two of them are on practice squads?

Something needs to be done. Young quarterbacks not taken in the first round are washing out of this league too quickly. Drew Henson had first-round potential before he went into the Yankees farm system, and now he's looking for another chance after failing with the Cowboys.

Henson tried NFL Europe and had the league's second-best quarterback rating. It obviously hasn't done anything for his development because he's without a team at the moment, although he will visit the Colts and other teams next week.

NFL Europe is becoming a lost cause, and that shouldn't be the case. Teams are willing to send their third-string quarterback, but more often than not, the NFL Europe coaches aren't going to develop them in the system of the team that sends them. NFL Europe coaches are trying to win, so they use their own system.

Something has to be done to make NFL Europe more of a developmental league, rather than a marketing tool. Otherwise, the NFL needs to consider the idea of a developmental league, where the NFL teams have imput in the system. It would make sense to be able to send a quarterback coach to a developmental team to work with the quarterback, but a 10-game season would be too long for that to work.

The NFL needs to find some answers because the backup quarterback situation is getting worse. This offseason should have given the league a scare with the serious injuries to top quarterbacks Daunte Culpepper, Carson Palmer, Drew Brees and Chad Pennington. Fortunately, all of those quarterbacks came back and are doing well.

The argument can be made that backup quarterbacks don't get a lot of starts because they only play if the starter is hurt or struggling. But many of these backups are so young and inexperienced, it would be hard to replace even a struggling veteran. The NFL needs to come up with better ways to develop the backup quarterbacks.

George is back on the map and, along with Maddox, is one of the best backups available. Why retire when there is still a chance and the NFL's inability to develop steady backups keeps giving them hope.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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