The Year of the Backup Quarterback is an awfully kind and deceptive slogan. This NFL season isn’t theirs as much as it is a bad time to be QB1. The Year of the Broken Starter doesn’t exactly capture the imagination, however.
So here we are, watching too many teams compete in a playoff race with a spare tire. Because the sport can sell anything, we’ve favored the people over the predicament, leaning into the soul-stirring stories of an underdog such as Jake Browning, or a relic such as Joe Flacco, or a former NASA intern such as Joshua Dobbs. It’s more uplifting to be charmed by Tommy DeVito than forced to dissect how the New York Giants have allowed 76 sacks and lost two quarterbacks to injury this season.
As Week 16 began Thursday, just 14 of the league’s 32 original starting quarterbacks had played every game. How important is basic availability right now? Just two of those QBs — first-time starters Sam Howell in Washington and Jordan Love in Green Bay — entered the week with losing records.
In reality, the Year of the Backup Quarterback is more of an extended plight. Last season, 22 starters missed at least one game because of injury or poor performance. The attrition led to a postseason in which Skylar Thompson had to start for the Miami Dolphins and Tyler Huntley for the Baltimore Ravens. Brock Purdy, who has climbed from Mr. Irrelevant to capable starter to MVP candidate in a year’s time, was the fairy-tale outlier in the group of quarterbacks thrust into duty last season.
This time around, quarterback absences could have a greater influence on the playoff picture.
In a tight AFC with 13 teams still vying for seven spots, the Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts entered the week in position to make the postseason despite losing their signal-callers to season-ending injuries long ago. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who have struggled since Kenny Pickett’s ankle injury, still linger in the conversation. In the NFC, the Minnesota Vikings occupied the final spot, but Dobbs — who began the season as Kyler Murray’s injury replacement in Arizona, only to be traded to Minnesota after Kirk Cousins tore his Achilles’ tendon — must help them hold off the Seattle Seahawks and a handful of others.
As nice as it would be to focus only on praising the understudy persistence, coaching improvisation and overall grit of these teams, the trend of wounded quarterbacks is alarming. Aaron Rodgers lasted four plays with the New York Jets. Anthony Richardson, the athletic prodigy and fascinating experiment, played four games of his rookie season in Indianapolis. Joe Burrow went down after Cincinnati signed him to a $275 million contract. Justin Herbert, Deshaun Watson, Daniel Jones and Cousins are high-profile players. Most of these quarterbacks were gone long before Thanksgiving.
Many of their teams have shown what they can do without them. It has been admirable and could bode well for their futures. But that doesn’t help the first round of the playoffs in three weeks. Within the typical parity, there is a caste system right now, one predetermined by health at the sport’s most important position.
The eight current division leaders all have quarterbacks in relative good health, though Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence, who was already playing through an ankle injury, is now in the concussion protocol. Good injury fortune always matters in this collision sport, but consider how the lines are currently drawn. The 49ers and Ravens have conference-best 11-3 records. Four teams — Miami, Dallas, Philadelphia and Detroit — are 10-4. Kansas City and Cleveland are 9-5. The remaining 22 teams are either flirting near .500 or looking for a draft savior.
Buffalo is the only team that started Week 16 below the nine-win threshold that realistically has a chance to make serious playoff noise. Then again, we’ve said that for years about the Bills, but they’ve been to just one conference title game despite seeming like high-level Super Bowl contenders since 2020. And they’re still in a helluva fight just to earn a wild-card spot.
It has been a wild year because of the quarterback trauma, but it could make for a simple postseason. too. The AFC is especially bare. The Browns, for all their defensive might, can’t win it all with a 38-year-old Flacco. It appears the Ravens, Dolphins, Bills and defending champion Chiefs are the credible options. But Miami hasn’t beaten a top-end team. Buffalo is erratic. And Kansas City plays as though it has a bunch of wide receivers with carpal tunnel trying to catch passes from Patrick Mahomes. That puts Baltimore in a favored position — assuming Lamar Jackson, who has missed time this year, can avoid the late-season absences that plagued him the previous two seasons.
In the NFC, there is San Francisco, Dallas, Detroit, Philadelphia (on a three-game losing streak) — and no one else capable of being more than a one-round spoiler.
The January outlook would be so much better if more quarterbacks had been able to stay upright. These uneven playoffs desperately need C.J. Stroud, a refreshing and dynamic rookie recovering from a concussion, to come back and lead the Houston Texans to the big show, just for the sake of quarterback star power.
With offensive lines laboring to block an abundance of wondrously athletic pass rushers, the NFL seems to have completed a shift from an era of offensive fireworks to a grim reality that defenses are prepared to make quarterbacks pay for being so reliant on the pass. In 2022, six quarterbacks were sacked at least 40 times. This season, four have been dropped at least 40 times already. The league is on pace to have 10 quarterbacks surpass 40 sacks.
The Giants’ 76 sacks are the third-most in league history. They’re just two behind the 1997 Arizona Cardinals for second place. In 1986, Philadelphia set the standard for O-line and strategic ineptitude, surrendering 104 sacks. With three games remaining, the Giants couldn’t possibly let DeVito get hit enough to approach that record. Right?
That would be horrible way for the Year of the Backup Quarterback to end. But it might fit the season’s painful theme better.