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The NFLs Best Back Up. The Return?

The NFL hurls out some fantastic stories from the world of back up quarterbacks. Nick Foles leads the pack on that one in recent years, but there are others who’ve certainly earned their shot. I have a theory on the next man to emerge once again from the realms of the back up quarterback.

A harsh reality

Quarterbacks have to work extremely hard to cement their spot as the long term starter of a franchise. Look at Dak Prescott. Most would say he deserves himself a slice of the pie, yet still he continues to wait for ol’ Jerry Jones to type him out a new contract.

Of course, some quarterbacks end up putting pen to paper on deals worth money you and I could only ever dream of. With a bonus in the realms of a lottery win. But others, can find themselves out on the streets just as quickly as the NFL was thrust open them.

If you’re drafted as a starter, the next face of your franchise, you have to perform from the very first chance you get. Some are thrust into it sooner than others. Joe Burrow was always going to play from day one, he was a first round pick which means he gets four years before his team have to make a decision on him. Typically, if it takes the full four years for the franchise to decide, you’ve probably not done quite enough.

The flip side of that would be signs of early success. Jared Goff had less time to prove himself to the Rams, because he barely played in his first season. The clocks always ticking for NFL pro athletes to earn their franchise’s trust and commitment. So for those who aren’t thrown in straight away, there’s even less game time available for them to show out. But for Goff, and Wentz, some early success meant new contracts and a commitment from their respective franchises.

However, consider Mitchell Trubisky. His performances have been up and down, but more down than up. He did make one pro bowl, but outside of that, he’s not performed at a level that allows Chicago to put their faith in him for the long term. The Bears declined the club option on Trubisky, which would have been his fifth year. Instead, Trubisky finds himself out of contract at the end of the season, and unless something drastic happens, he’ll be looking for a new home. Or, like many before him, going from being the man, the face, the king of the city… to being another kings back up.

The back up role

The role of a back up quarterback is not as simple as it looks. Some are better at it than others. There’s a lot of work involved. It isn’t simply, sit and wait to play. They have to prepare in the same way as the starter, as if they’re going to play every single week, and quite often of course, they don’t.

The back up quite often has to take on the shape of the upcoming opponents offensive play style, so to give your defence a detailed look at what they should expect on game day. This of course means familiarising yourself with their plays, and helping to prepare your defence for those circumstances.

On game day, you suit up with the team, you prepare mentally as physically for a game, and then you act as a support cast for the starter. Helping him to see things from the sidelines, watching the game film, being on the line with the coordinators in the booth etc etc. There’s still a lot of work to do as a back up quarterback, and some it suits, they’re good at it. Case Keenum is a good back up. Robert Griffin has been a great back up for Lamar Jackson. Teddy Bridgewater was a great back up in New Orleans…

Getting a shot

Teddy Bridgewater is exactly what we’re looking for here. He’s the success story who re-emerged from behind the curtain for an encore as a starter. A rather unfortunate turn of events cost Teddy his job in Minnesota, and a very long road to recovery landed him eventually with the Saints. Another example of a starter who’d have to suck it up and accept the role as a back up. After all, there are only 32 jobs available as a starter, so for many, this fate awaits.

It just so happened that Drew Brees busted his throwing hand and ended up missing five games, thrusting Teddy into the starting role in what is heralded a notoriously difficult offence to grasp. He went 5-0 as the starter, kept the Saints seamlessly on track while Drew was out, and put the rest of the league on high alert to his capability in the process. He still had it. And sure enough, the Panthers came calling for him. Teddy now has a second chance to be the starter. These deals are typically stress free for a franchise. The quarterback has to prove himself while earning a fairly minimal salary in most cases, and if it doesn’t work out, the franchise simply cuts ties and rolls the dice again.

Who’s next?

There will always be a franchise who doesn’t have it figured out at quarterback. The never ending carousel of talent that is the NFL will always mean there’s a gap somewhere, and somebody needs a quarterback. For some, they have the luxury of being so remarkably awful that they can tackle the situation with elite draft talent. The Jags and the Jets both fall into that category as they tussle over Trevor Lawrence and the other QBs coming out this year. Trey Lance, Justin Fields etc.

However other teams that pick up anything north of four wins, quite often find themselves in a predicament of their own. Do they draft an able guy with a lower pick and see what he can do, or do they look to current pro’s riding the bench with other teams, or becoming available in free agency. The answer can of course be both! Draft a guy, and bring a guy in with some experience to help coach the young fella.

For me this off season, those teams are the Patriots, the Bears, and Washington.

For New England it just seems clunky with Cam. Belichick and the Patriots need a more able throwing quarterback, and don’t seem to be able to properly utilise Cam as a running QB. It just isn’t a comfortable fit, i don’t like it. Stidham we’re yet to see much of, but in my eyes I think the Cam experiment comes to an end in the off season, and the dice will roll again with another guy.

The Bears brought Nick Foles in to compete with Trubisky for the role in Chicago. They have been competing… but so far the competition is who can suck the least. Not quite the atmosphere you want for the most important spot on your roster.

And Washington with new coaching staff and head coach Ron Rivera have tried multiple angles already. It seems first round pick Dwayne Haskins is an unpopular option for them, Kyle Allen isn’t very good, and that leaves Alex Smith. I absolutely love Alex Smith and admire his comeback as much as anybody else, but I don’t believe he will be the long term solution.

All three teams have won too many games to grab a golden egg in the draft. So who do they look to?

Available talent?

Where’s the next Teddy Bridgewater going to come from? Here’s my top three.

3. Case Keenum

Keenum’s been on quite the journey in the NFL. He was passed on in the draft and picked up by the Texans practice squad in 2012. He never saw real action as a starter until Jeff Fisher gave him the role for the newly branded LA Rams in 2016. The Rams had drafted Jared Goff number one overall, and traded their way there to get him, but it was Keenum who’d run with the starters in the 2016 season. Eventually, in November, he was benched and Goff got the nod.

He’d move on to Minnesota in 2017 where an early in the season injury to Sam Bradford meant he’d get his shot once again, and this time he shone. The Vikings finished the season 13-3 with Keenum starting 14 of those games. And it was this performance that finally earned him a shot at being the main guy, on purpose, for the very first time.

Keenum signed a two year, $36 million dollar deal with the Denver Broncos. He was there just shy of a year before being traded to Washington where again he would start in front of a rookie. It was only when Keenum got knocked out and left the game with a concussion that rookie Dwayne Haskins took over.

And finally, in 2020, Keenum signed as the back up with the Cleveland Browns. This was a move that made sense for newly positioned Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, as he knew Keenum well from their time together in Minnesota. Stefanski was the quarterbacks coach of the Vikings during the 2017 season that produced Case Keenum’s best career year. Think of it as insurance should Baker Mayfield not live up to expectations. That insurance however, has not needed to be called upon, and so Keenum could find himself shipped off yet again. Still a very able quarterback, a move back to Washington should they draft the likes of Trey Lance out of NDSU, would make sense!

2. Carson Wentz

Now this one is of course presuming Jalen Hurts puts on a show for the rest of the season, and the tired state of Philly is ready to wave goodbye to Carson Wentz. His early success and incredible performances that led the Eagles to the super bowl seem very far removed from the player he is now. Hurts coming in has created a spark for the Eagles that makes them interesting to watch. The Eagles sided with Wentz and moved on from Nick Foles after winning a super bowl with him, and I can’t see the Eagles putting their faith in Carson Wentz once again. Maybe it’s time to move on, cut ties, give the keys to Jalen Hurts and reignite a career in another city.

The Eagles will have to take what they can get to get out of the hideous Carson contract, which is due to come into affect next season. So how about the Chicago Bears? Sometimes a change of scenery is all it takes to bring the life back out of a player, and for Wentz, it could be the break he needs. He’s not looked the same for a long time, and injuries have dragged him down, but if he gets right, he’s one of the better gambles there is.

And at number one: Marcus Mariota

It’s controversial to many i’m sure. But for me, Marcus Mariota simply fell out of favour in Tennessee when the coaching change took place. Mike Vrabel and Ryan Tannehill formed a bond, and began to succeed together, while Mariota turned into Woody when Buzz Lightyear showed up on the bed. Dusty and forgotten, the once incredibly promising Oregon star was casted out of Tennessee, and landed with the Las Vegas Raiders.

I said when he signed there that he was one of few QB’s in a back up role that wasn’t going to settle, and if he got his chance then Derek Carr would need to look out. It took a long time, but in week 15 the man the league had forgotten about rose from the shadows and stepped in.

His performance was impressive. He was accurate, poised and prepared. Yes i know, the Raiders lost the game, but boy was it a fight, and Mariota kept them right there in it until the very end. He did throw a pick at the end of the game, yes. BUT, if you look at his plays, his throws, and the way he so calmly starter slinging the ball around in a jersey he’s NEVER played in before, had me very impressed.

Mariota was once the most efficient red zone quarterback in the NFL. Recorded in 2017, he had thrown 33 touchdowns and not a single pick since he was drafted in 2015. It got ugly with the Titans so quickly, and in what seemed like overnight he was just no longer the guy he used to be. But again, I believe he has one of the best shots to step back up and get his franchise leading cleats back on. You best believe the rest of the league was watching last week, and you best believe eyes will be on him this week too. Carr will remain to be out, Mariota will play, and he’ll know what’s at stake.

I believe he’d be a much better fit for the Patriots than Cam Newton is. He’s now healthy, Gruden has been singing his praises since the off season, and he’s a more able and accurate thrower than Cam is. Should the Patriots find themselves in a spot where all the top QB talent is gone, Mariota, now 27, paired with a very successful coaching staff, would certainly make for interesting tv. I would love nothing more than to see him get another go. When he’s great, he’s really great and very exciting to watch. Bring the consistency back into it, and it could be a steal for a struggling franchise.

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