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A QBs Don’t Matter Series: 2019 backups have not missed a beat and in some cases are better

Jacksonville Jaguars v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

As of now this has very little to do with the Seattle Seahawks or the NFC West. As of Week 9, there have only been four quarterbacks to start a game for an NFC West team — Russell Wilson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jared Goff, and Kyler Murray. So far no injuries or controversy and it’s a fairly solid foursome, even if Goff is bad, Murray is a struggling rookie most of the time as he should be expected to be, and Garoppolo is maybe the least-successful thing about the 49ers.

Around the league, few teams have been this lucky to avoid going to the backup QB. Or at least, “common sense” would say that it’s lucky — but reality is telling us so far that losing the starter is no big deal.

Since the “running backs don’t matter” mantra has dominated the brains of a few select people on Twitter who find it to be their reason for tweeting, the subject of how backups perform compared to starters has often been at the forefront of the debate. Namely, and almost solely, this argument has centered around a few games by C.J. Anderson for the LA Rams at the end of last season and somewhat into the playoffs. I’ve already written about how “matter or not,” running backs obviously are not interchangeable.

I never heard any sort of counter-argument to that point. I don’t expect to.

If the argument can center around how the backups are as successful or productive as the starters though, then where are the “RBs don’t matter” groupies going to stand on the issue of backup quarterbacks? Will they say that quarterbacks also don’t matter? Will they call it a fluke? Or will it be easier to just say that the two issues, while they sound similar, are not comparable?

One thing they can’t do is deny that losing your starting quarterback in 2019 has not had a net negative effect on those teams outside of the NFC West who have had this fate befall them.

The Quarterbacks In Question

Before the season began, the Indianapolis Colts got word that Andrew Luck was retiring. They turned to backup Jacoby Brissett, whose last start came in 2017 since Luck started all of 2018. Brissett has improved from where he was two years ago and is posting a rating of 99.3 with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. Luck posted a career-high rating of 98.7 last season with 39 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. The Colts are 5-2 and stand a good chance to match or beat their 10-6 record from a year ago.

In Week 1, the Jacksonville Jaguars lost Nick Foles just months after giving him $88 million to start. They’ve turned to Gardner Minshew, the breakout star of 2019. Last season there was a lot of hype not only on the fact that C.J. Anderson was a backup but that he was a free agent at midseason. He had no value to teams really and here he was putting up 100-yard games with ease. Minshew is a sixth round rookie that any team could have had. If Anderson’s talent wasn’t evaluated to be that great, where is Minshew’s apparent talent level? Minshew has 13 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and a rating of 98.8. At 4-4, Jacksonville has nearly as many wins as they had last season (5).

The New York Giants turned to rookie Daniel Jones in Week 3, and though they are now 2-4 with him as starter, he’s been a clear upgrade over Eli Manning. Jones and many of his colleagues around the NFL are also living proof of the fact that passing in this league is easier than ever. A passer rating of 90 is not good anymore. Marcus Mariota just got benched with a rating of 91.7.

The reason I bring this up: running backs are disparaged for their stats not “meaning much” because they are so dependent on an offensive line to make it easier on them. It’s important then to note that the stats I’m outlining here are often good, but we must also account for the fact that they may not mean much. And that should theoretically mean that your backup can maybe be very productive without having to have as much talent as once thought.

And that also goes to my theory that overpaying for a quarterback — such as Foles or Luck — may be unnecessary and could be sinking the hopes for several franchises down the line. Back up to the backups.

In Week 2, the New Orleans Saints got “devastating” news that Drew Brees had injured his thumb and that they’d have to turn to Teddy Bridgewater, a quarterback who hadn’t started a meaningful game since 2015. The Saints went 5-0 with Bridgewater and with 9 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, he likely earned himself a new future in either New Orleans or somewhere else in 2020. That looked almost easy, didn’t it?

In Week 3, the Carolina Panthers turned to Kyle Allen, an undrafted free agent in 2018 who threw 105 passes over his final two years in college, as a solution to Cam Newton’s injury woes. Over his first four games, Allen had seven touchdowns and no picks, leading Carolina to four straight wins. He’s coming off of a 51-13 loss to the 49ers with three interceptions, but it’s hard to imagine Cam doing much better against that defense. By most accounts, Allen seems just as capable to run that offense as Cam does, but at a much lower cost.

Two weeks ago, the 2-4 Tennessee Titans switched from Mariota to Ryan Tannehill, a quarterback ousted after four disappointing seasons with the Miami Dolphins. Tannehill is 2-0 as starter with five touchdowns and two interceptions.

The Pittsburgh Steelers went 0-2 with Ben Roethlisberger as the starter and are 3-2 with either Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges (1-0) as the starter in his place while he prepares to return in 2020. Rudolph, one of the crop of new “air raid” college QBs to take on the league’s latest challenges for quarterbacks, has nine touchdowns and three picks; in fact, Rudolph leads the NFL in TD%.

In his first start since 2015 and six years removed from being a regular starter in the NFL, Matt Schaub threw for 460 yards against the Seattle Seahawks.

In his first start since 2017 and and eight years removed from his one chance of being a regular starter in the NFL, Matt Moore had a rating of 107.1 in a 31-24 loss to the Green Bay Packers. The Kansas City Chiefs backup to arguably the most talented QB in the NFL has three touchdowns and no picks on 56 throws. He’s not near the level of Patrick Mahomes from what we’ve seen, but it’s tough to argue that the Chiefs are as poor off as most would have guessed they’d be if they were going from the MVP to Matt Moore.

There aren’t many other cases to examine, honestly.

The Chicago Bears have flipped around Mitch Trubisky and Chase Daniel, and Matt Nagy has no choice but to admit that neither quarterback is very good.

The New York Jets have moved around Sam Darnold, Luke Falk, and Trevor Siemian this season. Darnold has been the only one to show any ability at this level in 2019. But the Jets are just an awful team all around. The same goes for Washington’s three options at quarterback — though starter Case Keenum brings up another point I want to make.

That players like Keenum are still hanging around the league thanks to the fact that they too were once backups who performed at or above the level of the starter following an injury.

This list would also include Tom Brady, Dak Prescott, Kirk Cousins, Lamar Jackson, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. There’s also Garoppolo, a backup whose brief opportunities with the Patriots gave him a lucrative one with San Francisco, and Russell Wilson, who had to prove a lot as a third round rookie competing against a moderately-expensive free agent.

At this point, 14 starting QBs were drafted in the top 12, and most of the rest came outside of the first round. To have almost half of the NFL come from the top of the draft is significant, but it also includes names like Trubisky, Baker Mayfield, Murray, Jones, Darnold, Josh Allen, Tannehill, and Jameis Winston. That’s 8 of 14 who have a lot left to prove.

If draft position and when you can get a starter is also an integral piece of the RBs don’t matter debate, then this can’t be ignored either. A team could draft Alvin Kamara in round three or Christian McCaffrey in the top-10. A team could also draft Russell Wilson in round three and Patrick Mahomes in the top-10, if we’re only using anecdotal evidence.

But that’s only if we’re living in a world of anecdotal evidence, which “C.J. Anderson compared to Todd Gurley” and “Austin Ekeler compared to Melvin Gordon” really are nothing more than, then we can talk about the anecdotal evidence surrounding all the observations listed above. Nearly every team that’s switched to the backup is as good or better off and these aren’t all chump QBs they’re replacing. It’s future Hall of Famers and perennial Pro Bowlers in some cases. I’m not saying we need to start establishing that QBs don’t matter or that RBs do. That’s not the point.

The point is to give context to the conversation. This is not the conversation, it’s only a part of the context. But I believe it’s an important part.