We have all heard about this incredible phenomenon, but I am not sure it has ever been properly put into perspective. There is this unwritten rule around NFL circles that states if you back up Tom Brady then you could definitely start elsewhere. Now why is this, is it due to exceptional play, well no one actually gets an extended chance to play when backing up the great one. Okay so it must be some super-secret practice footage that shows then making all the throws then. Well, it would be ironic if someone had been spying on the Patriots…
Well then, what gives? Why do all Brady’s backups get the shots that other 2nd string Quarterbacks just do not get? Some of it has to do with the fact they are backing up maybe the best to ever play the position. Even with this caveat though how do they do it without ever showing they have the ability. The answer is they do not. Let’s dive into these players from his first backup and see if any could live up to the hype.
The Heirs the Throne
Okay so let’s talk about Brady’s backups, but first we need to first list all the possible backups. Crucially though we need to set out what rules would qualify a player for the list. What makes a player eligible is signing with another team to either start or with the intention to compete for the starting job. This can be either a Quarterback who is coming in to hold down the job while a Rookie develops, or it can someone brought in with a real pre-season shot at the job.
Starting with Drew Bledsoe, here is the list of Brady’s backups (in bold are the backups eligible for our list):
Drew Bledsoe – Eligible – Traded to the Buffalo Bills in 2002 to become their starting Quarterback
Damon Huard – Ineligible – Signed as a third string Quarterback in 2004 for the Kansas City Chiefs
Rohan Davey – Ineligible – Cut prior to the 2005 season
Kliff Kingsbury – Ineligible – Waived at the start of the 2004 season
Jim Miller – Ineligible – Signed as a backup in 2004 for the New York Giants
Doug Flutie – Ineligible – Retired following 2006 season
Matt Cassel – Eligible – Traded to the Kansas City chiefs in 2009 to become their starter
Vinny Testaverde – Ineligible – Signed as an emergency backup in 2006 with the Carolina Panthers
Matt Gutierrez – Ineligible – Cut in 2009 preseason
Kevin O’Connell – Ineligible – Cut before 2009 season
Brian Hoyer – Eligible – Consistently signed to compete for starting jobs after 2012 season
Zac Robinson – Ineligible – Cut in 2010 the same year he was drafted
Ryan Mallett – Eligible – Traded to the Houston Texans in 2013 season to become their starter
Jimmy Garoppolo – Eligible – Traded to San Francisco 49ers to start for them in 2017
Jacoby Brissett – Eligible – Traded to the Indianapolis Colts in 2017 as their new starter
Immediately looking at the above list, we can see a bit of a trend, with a couple of outliers of course. Drew Bledsoe was the man replaced by his own back up, Matt Cassel got a full season to prove himself, however rest were true backups who got their chance having been linked to the biggest name under centre.
The Backup to the Backup
How does a team’s star Quarterback go from unquestioned starter to the backup and come back from this? Answer, he does not. Drew Bledsoe was the unquestioned starter of the resurgent New England Patriots, a team on the rise behind some safe if not spectacular Quarterback play. Bledsoe ended up taking a potentially career ending and life-threatening injury. Bledsoe had dropped back for a pass before being levels during a game with the New York Jets. This caused internal bleeding and gave an opportunity to the unheralded backup, Tom Brady.
The rest is history but following this Bledsoe was traded while his stock was still high to the Buffalo Bills, so while he is still a backup who cashed in on the success of Brady, he had previously proved himself so sits as on outlier on this list. Following his arrival with the Bills however, Bledsoe’s play suffered because while he was still playing well, the team around him was not and he failed to make the playoffs following the switch.
One season wonder?
Next up, and the second of our outliers, is Matt Cassel. Now I would argue this still counts as a man being traded because of the name of Brady, however he did have a full season audition before this ever came to be. Cassel found himself thrust into the spotlight following an ACL injury to Brady in week 1 of the 2008 season. Now Cassel proceeded to go 11-5 as the Patriots starter in that 1 season audition, inexplicably missing the playoffs due to the AFC being an incredibly competitive league that year.
Arriving in Kansas City, Cassel had an okay first season, but nothing special, however you can forgive him for needing time to settle in. His second season dusted off the 2008 bandwagon as he led the Chiefs to the playoffs. The bandwagon however would crash and burn in the only playoff start of his career when Cassel threw for a total of 70 yards and was intercepted 7 times.
In his final 8 seasons, Cassel threw for 10 or more touchdowns only 2 more times, and played for 6 different teams. The league found him to be a pretender to the throne and his success was quickly forgotten in place of erratic Quarterback play. Cassel is still an outlier because he proved he could hang in 2 of his seasons as a professional. He could be a capable backup, and he definitely benefitted for the Brady effect, but since he proved himself before his move it is difficult to properly consider him someone getting the chance based solely on the title of Tom Brady’s tablet holder.
The First of the Four
Right, let’s get to what you actually all came here for, my inspiring argument as to the existence of the Brady Backup Effect. First up and probably the most concrete proof of this existence of this sensation is Brian Hoyer. This man can thank Tom Brady for his entire career in the NFL based on the opportunities he has had from sitting on the bench next to number 12.
Hoyer has played for 7 teams outside of his time with the Patriots and he has started at least one game with each of these teams. Playing for Pittsburgh, Arizona, Cleveland, Houston, Chicago, San Francisco and Indianapolis, respectively. He has had opportunities to win the starting job with the Cardinals, the Browns, the Texans and the 49ers and at one time or another he won all 4 jobs. He even took the Texans to the playoffs, and while they lost behind his 4 interceptions, it can still be seen as a personal achievement.
A much more unflattering statistic however is that he lost the starting job for all four teams, and he has been cut twice by the Patriots after losing the back up job. What then makes him such an attractive signing for teams? The Brady Backup effect. Teams know they are signing a Quarterback who has been in the film rooms, and on the practice fields with Brady and therefore they expect this to translate. Hoyer has spent a career showing them, this does not always work out.
Houston, we have a problem
Next man up, we have Ryan Mallett, a Quarterback drafted in the third round without much fanfare to back up Brady as he came into the later stages of his career. At least that is what the analysts said in 2011, for context Brady is still going strong and likely to make the playoffs again in 2020. Mallett was however brought in as a capable backup with the chance to learn from the Patriots signal caller.
Mallett had basically no resume, not incredible preseason performance, no big game performance at the end of a game that was already won, not even a big drive to show so hefty potential. With no performance of note, I question why the Texans came knocking at the door late one August night in 2014. I have your answer, and I think by now you know what is coming, it’s the Brady Backup effect.
Mallett came to a team who had suffered through a 2-14 season in 2013, including ending the season for 14 straight losses. He came in as the backup but with a shot at the starting job, more on that later. He would back up Ryan Fitzpatrick in Houston until week 11 when he took over as the starting Quarterback, finishing the season 5-2, with the Texans missing the playoffs. Not a bad record for a perennial backup. He would suffer the worst possible fate the next season however, he lost his starting job to Brian Hoyer, based on the very effect he was succeeding because of.
The injury prone success story
The first player that was actually looked at as a serious successor to Mr Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo actually got a chance to be named starter in New England. This was not a true victory however as it was due to the Deflategate scandal and therefore was due to suspension. He continued to backup Brady once he was back, however that short stint in charge of the Patriots offense was enough to get the sharks sniffing.
The 49ers were the highest bidder and on trade deadline day, for a second-round draft pick, fittingly the round he was picked in by the Patriots, Garoppolo saw his first action under centre in week 12 following an injury to the 49er’s starting Quarterback. He was named starter for the following week and never looked back. His audition included 7 games, with a team that was 0-9, he managed to win 6 of these games, including the final 5 games in a row, the 49ers had their starter.
With such obvious talent, how does he fall into this trap of being known for the Brady Backup effect. Well, he was traded for by the 49ers based off 4 games in the place of the suspended Brady, and while he went 3-1 in his absence this was a playoff team coming off a 12-4 season. The story here is more based on his durability.
Jimmy Garoppolo is a liability in the fact that he is very injury prone, he has played for the 49ers for 3 and a half seasons, going injury free in only 1 and half of these. In 2017 he finished the season on a win streak and took the team to 6-10. In 2018 he went down to an ACL tear in week 3 while at 1-1, the 49ers ended the season 4-12. In 2019, his only complete season, San Francisco went 13-3 making their way to the Super Bowl and losing to the Kansas City Chiefs and finally the 2020 season he has suffered recurrent injuries and has finally been placed on injured reserve with his team currently 5-9 without him, and suffering another losing season. The Brady Backup effect got him to San Francisco, but even they have to have buyer remorse at this point, likely losing 10 games minimum in 3 of his 4 seasons as their starting Quarterback.
Second string starter
The final and most recent member of the Brady Backup starters is Jacoby Brissett, actually managed to show off his worth during Garoppolo’s audition when after a shoulder injury to the former, Brissett was able to go 1-1 as the starter. With the potential of 3 starting Quarterbacks on the 2017 New England Patriots, the bidding war began.
The Indianapolis Colts won this one, trading the Quarterback for Wide Receiver Phillip Dorsett after the Colts Quarterback Andrew Luck went down injured. Following week 1, Brissett took over as starter, however he could not stop the Colts falling to 4-12. The following year he was back on the bench as the Franchise Quarterback Andrew Luck was back under centre, with Brissett seeing no real action. Taking over for the recent shock retirement of Andrew Luck, Brissett took the 2019 Colts to a 7-9 record and back out of the playoffs. The Colts had seen enough, signing 16-year veteran Philip Rivers who immediately took over as the Colts starter Quarterback and currently has them sat at 10-4 coming the end of the 2020 season.
Another organisation fooled by the Brady backup effect, they took a chance on a promising Quarterback and as a starter Brissett has managed 11 wins while under centre in two years. This would not seem like such a bad record if he had not lost 9 games in each of those seasons. This gives him an NFL starting record of 12-19 through 5 seasons. Do you know the only type of players who are still in conversations to start of NFL teams with a record like that? Players who have backed up Tom Brady.
Answering the inevitable question
There is of course one gigantic, glaring, unavoidable question that comes up when discussing this subject. Are these players and their subsequent moves based on the Quarterback they back up or are they based on the coach they play for?
Playing for a locked on, Hall of Fame coach in Bill Belichick is absolutely a factor, however I can explain why these players get the moves due to the Brady influence and not the Belichick connection.
Firstly, the players will have learned from Brady as opposed to being coached by Belichick. Now this is not me saying they have not learnt from Belichick, this more a statement of the visual we are presented with. On gameday which is when the 31 other teams and the world get to see these players, they are in constant conversation with Tom Brady. Naturally that graphic really gives the idea that Brady is the main influence on the players.
Secondly the players are moving to a new coach, but still playing the same position. This of course means the coaching changes completely, therefore the coaches themselves are hoping to receive a player with the ability of Tom Brady, not the coaching of Bill Belichick. When the players enter the new building, they play with new players, meet new coaches and learn a new playbook. The coaches are hoping that if the players keep anything it is the knowledge learnt watching the GOAT play.
Finally, and this one is actually a post Brady/Belichick sight, the records of the respective teams since the split following the 2019 season. Tom Brady decided to take his talents to the upstart Buccaneers, with Belichick staying with the mighty Patriots. The Buccaneers with Tom Brady under centre currently sit at 9-5, holding the 6th seed in the NFC, two games ahead of the 8th placed team. The Patriots are 6-8 and following defeat to Miami in week 15 have officially been eliminated from the postseason. Therefore, the teams looking for the next diamond sat on the bench, have turned their attention to Sundays at Raymond James Stadium. Their scouts hunting for the next backup will be watching who holds the clipboard for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.