Commentary

Backup QBs making presence felt -- and struggling as a whole

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Originally Published: October 15, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Gus Frerotte/Kerry CollinsGetty ImagesMinnesota's Gus Frerotte, left, and Tennessee's Kerry Collins have produced solid results, but many of their backup quarterback peers haven't lived up to fans' expectations.
Once again, the NFL is on a pace to use more quarterbacks than ever before, threatening last year's record of 63 different quarterbacks getting starts.

In six weeks, the number stands at 43, with 11 backups getting starts. As long as his pulled calf muscle heals, Seneca Wallace will become the third Seahawks quarterback to get a start when Seattle faces the Bucs on Sunday night. Brad Johnson will be the 13th when he replaces Tony Romo in Dallas while Romo recovers from a broken right pinkie.

Overall, a backup quarterback has started 29.5 percent of the league's first 88 games. Think about that for a second. We're entering the Week 7 and almost a third of the starts have been by backup quarterbacks.

In most NFL cities, one of the most popular players is the backup quarterback -- until he gets a chance to become the starter. Fans are fickle when it comes to quarterbacks. If a quarterback has a bad game, fans will call radio talk shows and scream for the backup -- but it's usually an ill-advised demand.

So far this season, backup quarterbacks are 13-13, with Tennessee's Kerry Collins being the star. He's 4-0 in place of Vince Young. The Vikings' Gus Frerotte is doing the next-best job at 3-1 in place of Tarvaris Jackson.

Believe it or not, the drop-off in scoring is almost 10 points a game when a team goes to a backup. In what has been a good season so far for passing offenses, starting quarterbacks are averaging 27.7 points a game. The numbers drop with backups, whose average stands at 18.42 (479 points in 26 games).

Overall, backup quarterbacks are completing 57.3 percent of their passes, which isn't bad. What is bad is their average per throw -- 5.7 yards. The league average is 7.

Anything less than 6.4 yards an attempt usually puts a team in a range to score 14 to 18 points a game. The 11 backups so far have thrown 18 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions in 26 starts. They've been sacked 60 times.

Only eight times in 26 games has a backup thrown for more than 200 yards in a game. The average has been 176.3.

It was easy to predict the drop-off from Tom Brady to Matt Cassel in New England. Brady was coming off a 50-touchdown season in which the Patriots averaged 36.8 points a game. Going to Cassel was going to cut the offense in half. Through five games (Brady was hurt in the first half of the season opener), the Patriots are averaging 17.8 points per game.

Despite the Cowboys' acquisition of wide receiver Roy Williams, expect Dallas' 29.2-point average to take a hit. Johnson is one of the league's best backups, but the numbers drop when the starter is out.

Let's dive into the mailbag:

From the inbox

Q: John, since Brad Childress is on the hot seat this year, would Bill Cowher consider a return to the NFL to coach my underachieving Vikings if we missed the playoffs this year?

Nathan

A: Cowher is intent on returning next season, but I don't know if Minnesota is the right fit. Cowher wants big money and a quarterback. Money won't be the problem. Vikings ownership would pay or do anything to make this team a winner. The problem is at quarterback. If Childress loses his job, it will because he put his faith in Jackson as a playoff quarterback when he wasn't ready for that assignment. Frerotte is doing a good job filling in, but he's only a one-year fix. Cowher could be sold on the Vikings' great defensive line, however. The offensive line is one of the most talented in the league as well. What would scare Cowher away is the quarterback situation. He would have to rebuild the entire position and it's hard to find good quarterbacks these days.

Short takes

Peggy is a frustrated Chiefs fan who believes the Chiefs aren't aggressive enough on offense. They don't have much of a choice. Damon Huard is a very good backup quarterback, but he's a backup. Brodie Croyle can't stay healthy enough to show he can be a starter. When you can't show consistent quarterback play, it's hard to be aggressive unless you want to watch a game of interceptions. … To e-mailer Josh, Derek Anderson looked like the Derek Anderson of last year during the Monday night win over the Giants. He would have been benched at halftime had he played poorly. Now he bought himself another month. … Mike is a Bengals fan who wonders about whether the Bengals can turn it around in the next year. Mike, I agree with you that they have the athleticism to be decent against the pass, but they have to get better up front. They have no pass rush and need more bulk at defensive tackle. The strength of the defense is the secondary, but that doesn't mean much if the Bengals can't pressure the quarterback. … Rick in Maine wonders if the Patriots' offensive line is dropping off since the Super Bowl. Clearly, the line isn't as cohesive, but it will help if they get Steve Neal back. Matt Cassel is a decent backup, but he's not Tom Brady. Neither quarterback has great mobility, but Brady has a quick release and knows how to slide-step and make a throw. It's just hard to go from a Hall of Fame quarterback to a backup. … Jake in Atlanta thinks Roddy White is the real deal. I agree. For the past year, he's been on my list of receivers who are destined to be a Pro Bowler. That list isn't long, but White is one of the best young receivers in the league. This could be his Pro Bowl year.

Q: What will the fate of the Raiders be for the rest of the year under Tom Cable? I say five wins, two 900-yard rushers, our top WR having 680 yards and lots of heartache. Sound about right?

T-Wong in San Francisco

A: I think you have it pretty well figured out. The Raiders clearly have two potential 1,000-yard runners in Justin Fargas and Darren McFadden. Both are averaging about 60 yards a game, but both have been fighting injuries. Figuring both will play the equivalent of 14 games, you can probably expect 740 or more from each. There isn't a 1,000-yard receiver in the mix, and the Raiders proved against the Saints in Week 6 that they can't keep pace in a shootout. The heartache is the blown chance. The Raiders had an easy schedule. They still have a chance to be at .500, but they clearly have a lot of issues.

Q: When are the Buffalo Bills going to realize J.P. Losman is more of a hindrance than anything else? His stats were decent after Trent Edwards was knocked out recently, but he threw a costly interception, held on to the ball way too long and took too many sacks. When will they cut him?

Adam in Wappingers Falls, N.Y.

A: There is no need to cut him. Losman will serve out the season and leave as a free agent at the end of the year. At least when Losman comes into the game, he has a strong arm and brings energy. True, he made enough mistakes to open the door for Edwards to take control, and there is no looking back. Edwards has the Bills in playoff contention, and Turk Schonert looks great calling the plays as the offensive coordinator. As I wrote above, expect a nine- or 10-point drop-off from an offense when the backup comes in. Still, a team needs a good backup. Once Losman leaves, the Bills will be in the market for the right backup. No need to rush Losman out of town. He's leaving on his own after the season.

Q: I have a schedule question (or more accurately a schedule complaint). I'm a lifelong Chargers fan, and it seems every year we play multiple teams coming off their byes. Does the NFL take this into consideration when making the schedules?

John in Seattle

A: They probably do need to take that into consideration, but it's not a deal-breaker when the NFL comes up with the final schedule. Each year, the NFL does a better job of addressing scheduling concerns. The NFL put formulas in its computer scheduling program to weed out those unfair problems. Remember how there were a couple divisions that had to wait until November to get into divisional play? The NFL fixed that. Your concern is valid. Bye weeks, and whether they impact a team unfairly, need to be part of the equation. Watch the injury list of a team before the bye and after the bye. A team may drop from a 10-player injury report to three. That forces teams such as the Chargers to face healthier, more rested teams. Good observation, John.

Q: As an Eagles fan in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, I really need the Birds to win. I know Brian Westbrook is hurt, but I've had a problem with Andy Reid's game-calling for years now. It seems like he tries these basic runs up the middle more often than not, and that's great if you're in a division with weak defenses (unlike the NFC East). What is your feeling on Reid's in-game work?

Harley in Plano, Texas

A: If anything, I've always thought Reid doesn't run the ball enough. He's a pure West Coast offense playcaller. He considers screens and passes in the flat as part of his running-game strategy. In the past couple of years, Reid has given the playcalling to Marty Mornhinweg, who has added better balance. Maybe I'm guessing wrong, but you're probably frustrated by the goal-line runs against the Bears and Redskins. Westbrook was missing in the Bears game (Week 4), and the Eagles probably needed to try more roll-outs in the Redskins game (Week 5). We may disagree on this one, but I think Reid does a nice job. He does need to get better near the goal line.

Q: Is the Steelers' O-line as bad is it seems, or is it a combination of Big Ben's penchant for holding the ball too long?

Luis in San Diego

A: One of the beauties of Ben Roethlisberger is how he will complete passes with defenders hanging on him. He's the best in the league at that. Because he's always looking to make a play, he'll get sacked. He had 46 sacks in 2006 and 47 last year. He's on pace for 57 this year. That number is too high. He needs to find a way to get rid of the ball more quickly and keep the sack number below 40, or he's not going to be around until he's 35. The offensive line is average at best. It's a line in total transition -- it lost Alan Faneca to free agency this year and a few others are about to become free agents. It's going to take a couple of years for the Steelers to assemble an elite offensive line.

Q: What is up with Larry Johnson? Are the Chiefs better off in this so-called youth movement if they just get rid of a lazy, complaining player like him and instead build around Jamaal Charles? I don't think I have ever seen a running back as predictable as Johnson. Does he know what a cutback is? Will he ever stop complaining?

Zach in Dallas

A: I would never call Johnson lazy. A complainer, absolutely. He's a talented back on a rebuilding team playing behind a bad offensive line that's in transition. He is out of place. He wants out. With so many good running backs from this year's draft and a good crop coming out of college, it's going to be hard for the Chiefs to get proper value for Johnson in a trade. Look what happened before the trading deadline with Tony Gonzalez. The Chiefs weren't going to give him up for anything less than a second- and fifth-round pick. The Chiefs aren't going to give up Johnson for anything less than a second-rounder during the offseason. My guess is Johnson will try to make life miserable for the Chiefs during the offseason. He's still a great back. He's averaging 4.5 yards a carry on an offense that doesn't have much of a passing attack. You're right in the sense that Johnson is an uncomfortable fit in Kansas City at the moment.

Q: Is it safe to say that Jason Campbell is the answer at QB for the Redskins? And if so, when does the team start thinking about a contract extension for him? Isn't he a free agent after 2009? It could cost them big money if they don't do it soon.

Sichon from Charlotte, N.C.

A: Dan Snyder is not going to lose a quarterback because of money. Yes, Campbell is the answer. He showed leadership in 2007 in setting up a playoff run. He's matured into an efficient quarterback this season who is only getting better. Campbell's rookie contract runs out in 2009. They will probably start extension talks during the offseason, and he should end up in the $8 million to $10 million-a-year range. Heck, if Campbell can take the Redskins deep into the playoffs, Snyder might not only give him a contract extension, he might put him in a movie with Tom Cruise or name a theme park after him.

Q: Does the constant lack of success put the Houston Texans on the list of teams that might be possibly moved? Considering they are the newest team, they don't have as much history rooted in their current home. Also, has the renewed success of the Bills put out the talks of them being moved?

Joe in Philadelphia

A: The Texans might be the most stable franchise in the NFL. They have a great stadium and a great owner, Bob McNair. They are in a big city and have great fans. They just need their first winning season. I still worry about the Bills long-term if anything happens to Ralph Wilson. The decision to have games in Toronto can be a savior for the future of the franchise because it brings in more revenue. The economy in western New York isn't strong enough to support the construction of a new stadium for the Bills. At some point over the next 10 years, that issue has to be addressed. Houston, we have no problem. Let's just hope the renewed success of the Bills helps make this Buffalo-Toronto marriage work.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer