A Backup's Progress and Why Seattle's Quarterback Problem Can No Longer Be Solved

Pete Carroll's reluctance to pull Matt Hasselbeck and allow Charlie Whitehurst to prove himself has created a quagmire the Seahawks can no longer escape.

Bad teams start backup quarterbacks. Good teams stick with their starter. It's more than a rule of thumb; It's common sense. But let's not mistake the flow of cause and effect. Sticking with the starter doesn't make the team good. But if the quarterback is good, the team tends to be good, and the backup quarterback sits.

Charlie Whitehurst has hardly set the world afire in his 45 pass attempts, but should we really expect him to? How good is an average backup in his first start? How good can we expect a quarterback to be subbing from the bench? Does the "week's worth of first-team reps" actually make any impact? How about the following week, since we're talking about Whitehurst -- does starting consecutive games help a quarterback "play into a rhythm?"

It's a difficult set of questions to answer in any meaningful way. Sample sizes are sure to be small. Level of competition will vary. As a substitute, a backup can be entering almost any game situation, and it's almost impossible to adjust expectations for that. Is the opposing team still blitzing, attacking and ensuring the win, or is it resting starters and killing clock? As a first-time starter, a backup might face a great defense, and then in his second start, play a rotten defense, and how do we account for that? We could use a kind of opponent adjustment, but opponent adjustment applied to a single start can be wildly misleading. How do we account for injuries to the opposing defense? How do we account for matchups?

If we can't attempt anything approaching science, we can at least attempt something approaching a survey. Of all the backups that took the field this year, against different levels of opposition and surrounded by different levels of talent, how has each fared as a substitute? In their first start? In their second consecutive start? Their third?

Well, I ended up with this list*.

It includes only players that started the season as a backup. It includes players that oscillated back and forth from starter and backup like Jimmy Clausen. It's not a handsome list. It begins to include the best work of Jon Kitna, as Kitna rounded into shape in his third consecutive start. Some players never took the field as a substitute. Some players never started a second game.

There is virtually no trend, as this set of graphs indicates.

(Click for larger)

Grapho_medium

This shows all backup quarterbacks with five or more pass attempts by adjusted net yards per attempt as recorded over weeks starting. The Y axis is ANY/A. The X axis is weeks starting with 1 = fill in, and 2-4 equaling first start, second consecutive start and third consecutive start.

Quarterbacks seem to be at their worst as a substitute. Ten of 16 quarterbacks that substituted one week, improved as the starter the next week. Subs on the whole averaged only 3.56 ANY/A. Players with a week to prepare averaged a comparatively better 4.92 ANY/A. From there, it's all a wild guess. Some players improve. Some decline, especially players entering a third consecutive start. It isn't clear if this is a process of the quarterback being "figured out" from game tape, or just variation without explanation. Actually, to be truly skeptical, all of this could be variation without clear explanation, but I thought I would add a little research to some wildly held assumptions.

For the 2010 season, 5.8 ANY/A is the league average, and so almost no backup performed well.

There are a lot of complications, of course. Complications even beyond quality of opponent. Do players that show something as a substitute have a better chance to start the next week? Presumably, but then depth charts are pretty fixed.

What to make of truly terrible performances by Todd Collins and Max Hall? Collins is nearing 40 and at the end of his career. Hall is 25 and at the end of his NFL career.

Some of the backups are bad players on bad teams without better options. I'm looking at you, Jimmy Clausen.

Kitna's performance is the most hope inspiring for the pro-Charlie Whitehurst camp. He struggled for weeks until he hit his groove but is now one of the more valuable per-play quarterbacks in the NFL.

What about players like Kerry Collins that presumably have nothing to learn and who subbed and began streaks of starting more than once. Should I have only counted Collins once? Is a kind of momentum created from starting in consecutive weeks? Intuitively, I would think so, but it's pretty hard to know.

Everything accounted for, I would guess that if Seattle wanted to see the best Whitehurst had to offer, he would need a week's worth of practice with the first team. That gives him an honest shot to show what he's capable of instead of fighting through someone else's mess; executing someone else's game plan. If the Seahawks then wanted some idea of who Whitehurst truly is, he would need to start at least three consecutive games. Troy Smith ruled for consecutive starts and then fell to Earth in a major way against Tampa Bay. Three consecutive starts still isn't enough, but it would be a fruitful beginning.

It says something about how the Seahawks quarterback situation has been handled that Whitehurst could fail in the opportunities he has been given, mostly as a substitute, and that failure would tell us very little about him as a quarterback. Whitehurst could succeed for the rest of the season, and that success would tell us very little about him as a quarterback. The Seahawks brought in Whitehurst to compete, but he hasn't been given the chance, and now the Seahawks are barreling towards week 16 without any future at quarterback and any way to fix that.

*Fill in

T. Collins: 4/11 36 yards INT (-0.07 ANY/A)

K. Kolb: 22/35, 201 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 1 Sack -7 (4.69 ANY/A)

K. Collins: 17/25, 149, 1 TD, 1 INT, 2 Sack -5 (4.41)

K. Collins (2): 11/16, 110 yards, 1 TD (8.12)

K. Collins (3): 8/15, 52 yards (3.47)

D. Stanton: 19/34, 222 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 2 Sacks -11 (5.17)

Sh. Hill: 9/19, 88 yards, 1 INT, 1 Sack -9 (1.7)

B. Gradkowski (1): 11/21, 162 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT (6.52)

B. Gradkowski (2):  13/24, 98 yards, 1 INT, 2 sacks -15 (1.46)

J. Clausen (1): 7/13, 51, 1 INT  (0.46)

J. Clausen (2): 8/18, 47, 1 INT, 2 sacks -21 (-0.95)

D. Carr: 5/13, 67 yards, 1 INT, 1 sack -5 (1.31)

J. Kitna: 16/33, 187, 2 TDs, 3 sacks -13 (5.94)

R. Grossman: 4/7, 44 yards, 1 sack -13 (3.88)

C. Batch: 5/11, 25 yards, 2 sacks -6 (1.46)

M. Hall: 8/14, 82, 6 sacks -39 (2.15)

J. Skelton: 3/6, 45 yards, 1 Sack -10 (5.00)

 

1st Start

Collins: 6/16, 32 yards, 4 INT, 2 sacks -15 (-9.01)

Troy Smith: 12/19, 196, 1 TD (11.37)

K. Kolb: 21/31, 253 yards, 1 TD, 4 sacks -26 (7.01)

K. Collins: 17/31, 276 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs, 3 Sacks -23 (6.56)

K. Collins (2): 9/20, 51 yards (2.38)

K. Collins (3): 14/32, 169, 2 INTS, 1 sack -6 (2.21)

D. Stanton: 16/24, 178, 1 TD, 2 sacks -10 (7.23)

Sh. Hill (1): 25/45, 335, 2 TD, 2 INT, 2 Sacks -6 (5.94)

Sh. Hill (2): 29/50, 323, 1 TD, 1 Int, 1 Sack -9 (5.67)

R. Fitzpatrick: 20/28, 247, 2 TD, 2 INT, 1 sack -7 (6.55)

B. Gradkowski (1): 17/34, 255, 1 TD, 1 INT, 3 sacks -24 (5.57)

B. Gradkowski (2): 17/32, 252, 1 TD, 2 INT, 1 sack -5 (5.36)

J. Clausen (1): 16/33, 188, 1 INT, 1 Sack -8 (3.97)

J. Clausen (2): 16/29, 191, 2 sacks -9 (5.87)

J. Clausen (3): 16/28, 195, 1 sack -3 (6.62)

B. Croyle: 7/17, 40 yards, 4 sacks -29 (0.52)

B. St. Pierre: 13/28, 173, 1 TD, 2 INTS, 3 sacks -23 (2.42)

J. Kitna: 34/49, 379, 1 TD, 4 INTs, 2 sacks -14 (4.02)

C. McCoy: 23/33, 281, 1 TD, 2 INT, 5 sacks -23 (4.82)

S. Wallace: 16/31, 229, 1 TD, 1 INT, 1 sack -3 (6.28)

R. Grossman: 25/43, 322, 4 TDs, 2 INTs, 5 sacks -36 (5.75)

C. Batch: 12/17, 186, 3 TDs, 2 INTs (9.18)

M. Hall: 17/27, 168, 1 INT, 4 sacks -21 (3.29)

J. Skelton: 15/37, 146 (3.95)

 

2nd Start

T. Smith: 17/28, 356, 1 TD, 5 sacks -33 (10.39)

K. Kolb: 23/29, 326 yards, 3 TDs, 1 Int, 1 sack -6  (11.17)

K. Collins: 28/39, 244, 3 TDs (7.85)

D. Stanton: 10/22, 117 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 2 sacks -21 (0.67)

Sh. Hill (1): 29/43, 237, 1 TD, 2 INT, 1 Sack -5 (3.68)

Sh. Hill (2): 32/47, 289 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 3 Sacks -26 (5.16)

R. Fitzpatrick: 12/27, 128, 2 TDs, 3 Sacks -19 (4.97)

B. Gradkowski: 24/39, 278 yards, 2 TD, 2 INTS, 4 sacks -33 (4.07)

J. Clausen (1): 11/21, 146, 1 TD, 3 sacks -13 (6.38)

J. Clausen (2): 18/34, 169, 1 INT, 3 sacks -17 (2.89)

J. Kitna: 19/30, 183, 1 TD, 2 INTs, 4 sacks -17 (2.82)

C. McCoy: 9/16, 74 yards, 1 sack -2 (4.23)

S. Wallace: 18/24, 141 yards, 1 TD, 2 sacks -10 (5.81)

C. Batch: 12/21, 141 yards, 1 INT, 2 sacks -15 (3.52)

M. Hall: 4/16, 36 yards, 1 INT, 2 sacks -18 (-1.5)

J. Skelton: 17/33, 196, 1 INT, 3 sacks -21 (3.61)

 

3rd Start

S. Wallace: 18/30, 184, 1 TD, 1 INT, 1 sack -5 (4.97)

C. McCoy: 14/19, 174 (9.16)

K. Kolb: 26/48, 231, 1 TD, 2 INTs, 1 sack -4 (3.20)

M. Hall: 8/16, 71, 1 TD, 2 INTs (0.06)

T. Smith: 16/31, 148, 1 INT, 6 sacks -30 (1.97)

R. Fitzpatrick: 20/30, 220 yards, 3 TDs, 3 sacks -24 (7.76)

K. Collins: 14/24, 237, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 3 sacks -25 (7.67)

D. Stanton: 23/37, 252, 1 TD (7.35)

Sh. Hill (1): 34/54, 331, 2 TD, 2 INTs, 3 Sacks -23 (4.53)

Sh. Hill (2): 27/46, 285, 1 TD, 2 INT, 2 Sacks -8 (4.31)

J. Clausen (1): 9/22, 61, 1 INT, 5 sacks -34 (-0.67)

J. Clausen (2): 14/24, 107, 1 INT, 5 sacks -31 (1.15)

J. Kitna: 13/22, 327, 3 TDs, 1 INT (15.55)

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