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The impact of NFL backup QBs

‘(written by Joe Pritchard)

 

After writing a piece about http://thegruelingtruth.net/football/crucial-cfls-teams-backup-qbs/ backup quarterbacks on the CFL’s Grey Cup champions, I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at the NFL. I’m doing this in a slightly different way, grabbing the playoff teams over the past five years. I’m doing this because it’s much easier to get a large sample size from the NFL in fewer seasons.

 

I’m also going beyond pass attempts – heck, I’m not even using pass attempts this time around. Since Games Started is available to me, I’m using that, as well as comparing the yards accumulated by a team’s primary QB (the one who started the most games, not necessarily the quarterback a team had named the starter). I’m also comparing a team’s quarterback rating to the Primary QBs rating, to see what kind of effect other passers (mostly backup QBs, but sometimes punters, running backs, or wide receivers) had on the overall team QB rating.

 

First, let’s go year by year, and then we’ll talk about my overall impressions.

 

In 2011, five teams started a non-primary QB in at least one game. One of the teams was Green Bay, who started Matt Flynn in a meaningless Week 17 game against Detroit in which Flynn proceeded to go off and earn himself millions upon millions. 17 quarterbacks started at least one game, with Pittsburgh starting Charlie Batch once, Denver starting Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow, and Houston starting three different QBs over the course of the season. Of the 12 playoff teams, four starting multiple QBs is as high of a percentage as we’re going to see. Given that two of the teams started non-Primary QBs one game apiece, and one only to rest their starter, you can already see that non-Primary quarterbacks aren’t likely to see the field much on playoff teams. The other two teams, Houston and Denver, benefited from weak divisions, good defenses, and at least in one case, potential divine intervention.

 

Non-primary QBs started 13 games, threw for 3419 yards, and overall pulled team passer ratings down by 4.2 points.

 

In 2012, only two playoff teams started non-Primary QBs, with one being Kirk Cousins replacing Robert Griffin III due to injury for one game in Washington, as well as Colin Kaepernick (listed as the non-Primary QB in this study, as he started 7 games to Alex Smith’s 9) taking over the starting job in San Francisco. Kaepernick, in this case, took his team to the Super Bowl, the only non-Primary starter to go that far with a team in the playoffs. Ten of the 12 teams started the same QB all 16 games.

 

Non-Primary QBs started 8 games (7 of them being Kaepernick), threw for 2827 yards, and pulled down the overall team passer ratings down by 6 points.

 

2013 had just a bit more non-Primary QB starts, with three teams starting them. Kansas City saw one start from Chase Daniel, in a week 17 game that appears to be meaningless, as well as Nick Foles taking Michael Vick’s job in Philadelphia and an assortment of QBs trying to cover for Aaron Rodgers’s injury in Green Bay (four different QBs started in Green Bay that season, tied for the most in this study). Green Bay lucked into the playoffs due to a bad division, while Philadelphia also benefited from a weak division and a sensational statistical season from Foles.

 

Non-Primary QBs started 14 games (7 in Green Bay, 6 for Vick in Philadelphia before he was replaced, and Daniel in KC), threw for 4179 yards, and pulled down the overall team passer ratings down by 30.1 points across the spectrum of the playoff teams.

 

2014 again saw very little action for Non-Primary QBs as far as starting goes. Arizona had by far the most non-Primary QBs starting with 8, with two quarterbacks sharing those for a total of three starters in Arizona that year. Carolina had a non-Primary QB for two starts, and Dallas had one non-Primary QB for one start. Arizona went 11-5 despite starting three QBs, and while the offense hummed along with Carson Palmer (six starts), it didn’t go as smoothly for Drew Stanton (eight8 starts), and it went even worse for Ryan Lindley (two starts). This is one of the cases where naming Stanton the Primary starter feels wrong, but that’s how the study was set up.

 

Non-Primary QBs started 11 games, threw for 4126 yards, and increased the overall team passer ratings up by 4 points.

 

2015 saw a lot more carnage at the QB position. The 22 starts by non-Primary QBs is the most in this study. Four AFC teams shared the 22 starts, with Cincinnati losing Andy Dalton late and playing AJ McCarron (three starts), Pittsburgh losing Ben Roethlisberger midseason for 5 games, split between Michael Vick and Landry Jones, Houston having three different Non-Primary QBs starting in seven games, and Brock Osweiler starting in place of Peyton Manning for seven games in Denver. I want to point out that Denver is the only team in the past five years to start more than one QB during the season and win the Super Bowl.

 

Non-Primary QBs started 22 games, threw for 5551 yards, and pulled down the overall team passer ratings down by 8 points.

 

Overall, Non-Primary QBs in the past five years have started 68 out of a total of 960 games available, have thrown for 20,102 yards, and have pulled down team passer ratings by 44.3 points over that time.

 

A few other numbers to chew on. 44 of 60 playoff teams, nearly 75%, have had their Primary QB start all 16 games, and given that at least two more Non-Primary starts come from meaningless games, the percentage is actually over 75% had those games been meaningful. A total of 83 QBs have started for the 60 playoff teams, which averages out to 1.38 starters per team. Clearly, playoff teams are generally successful keeping their Primary starters healthy and playing.

 

Over the past five years, NFL playoff teams have had much better luck keeping their QBs healthy than CFL teams have as of late, and it appears that keeping your Primary QB healthy and available is a big key to success in the NFL, which isn’t really all that shocking.