What is the #1 topic of most NFL fans with four weeks left in the regular season? Simple. It’s either who is going to be our starting Quarterback this Sunday, or will our starting Quarterback survive until the playoffs?
The fact is seven NFL Quarterbacks, 22%, have already been lost for the season. They include Aaron Rodgers (Jets) , Anthony Richardson (Colts), Daniel Jones (Giants), Kirk Cousins (Vikings), Deshaun Watson (Browns), Joe Burrow (Bengals), Justin Herbert (Chargers) and you can probably add Kenny Pickens (Steelers).
In all, 53 different QBs have already started a game across the 32 teams. The Cleveland Browns have started four different Quarterbacks due to injury. Father Time, Joe Flacco (age 38) came out of retirement to play brilliantly this past Sunday while leading the Browns to a 31-27 victory over the Jaguars. Flacco went 26 of 45 for 311 yards, 3 TDs and only one pic.
Signed only three weeks ago to the practice squad, Joe Flacco improved the Browns to an 8-5 record and firmly in the playoff picture. A winning 8-5 record with four QBs? There’s got to be some good coaching going on in Cleveland! Oh, it was just announced the Browns have signed Flacco to a contract for the remainder of the year. Price: $4 million.
Trevor Lawrence, the losing QB in that game with Flacco, is an injury story as well. Last Monday Night Trevor sprained his right ankle in the fourth quarter vs the Bengals. It was reported by some media “pundits” that Trevor had a high ankle sprain (think Brock Bowers) and would be out for the season. But Lawrence is a Baller, has the Jags at 8-5 and 1st in the AFC South. He’s also riding a 46 consecutive start streak that he was not going to give away easily. Alas, Trevor was not all there last Sunday as he pitched 3 pics along with his 3 TDs in the loss to Cleveland. He is day-to-day treating the ankle inflammation.
If the playoffs were to start today with the current standings, 5 of the 14 playoff teams would be starting backup QBs. The Wild-Card round would have starting QBs Nick Mullens (Vikings), Joe Flacco (Browns), Gardner Minshew (Colts) and Baker Mayfield (Bucs). NFL QB injuries are up 30% from 2021-22.
Key Contributors to NFL QB Injuries:
1. The Schedule is a grind!
– In 1978 the NFL expanded the regular season from 14 games to 16 games.
– In 2006 the NFL launched Thursday Night football. It is a 15 game schedule in 2023 on Amazon. The NFL gets $11 billion over 11 years.
– In 2021 the NFL expanded the season to17 regular season games.
– In 2023 there will be five international games during the NFL season in England and Germany.
– In 2024 the NFL will play in São Paulo, Brazil.
2. The Game has evolved
In 1974 The Miami Dolphins defeated the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl Vlll 24-7. Charlie Pride sang the National Anthem. The game did a monster 73 share on CBS with Ray Scott and Pat Summerall calling the game at Rice Stadium, Houston, Texas. Rice? Because it was big enough to hold 71,000 fans.
But here’s the thing; The winning Quarterback, Bob Griese, was 6 for 7 for 63 yards. Huh? Larry Csonka was the MVP because he carried the ball 33 times for 145 yards and 2 TDs. Remember three yards and a cloud of dust? It was the same in college. When Woody Hayes, the legendary Ohio State coach, was asked why he didn’t pass the ball more he replied, “Because when you pass the ball three things can happen and two of them are bad!” So for decades the emphasis was on the run. Running backs and drive blocking offensive linemen dominated the early rounds of the NFL drafts.
In 1974, a mere fifty years ago, Joe Namath completed 52% of his passes with 20 TDs and 22 interceptions. Roger Staubach was at 52% with 11 TDs and 15 pics and Jim Plunkett posted 49.2% completions adding 19 TDs against 22 interceptions. Quarterbacks made big plays but the percentages still favored heavy run teams.
Additionally, the rules favored the passing defense. DBs were allowed to “bump and run” which meant they were allowed to maul receivers all the way down field. Rules protection for Quarterbacks was basically non-existent. There was no “in the grasp” or penalties for head slaps or hitting the QB below the waist. Sliding to avoid a hit? What’s that? Offensive linemen were NOT allowed to hold like they do today.
So What Happened? Professor Bill Walsh
In 1968 a coach named Bill Walsh went to work as the receivers coach for Paul Brown and the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals’ QB was Virgil Carter. Carter had great mobility and accuracy, but he had limited arm strength for the vertical pass game. To build on his strengths Bill Walsh suggested an offense featuring a “horizontal“ approach that relied on quick, short throws, and often spreading the ball across the entire width of the field.
Virgil Carter would lead the NFL in pass completion percentage in 1971 and what we know today as the “West Coast Offense” was born (in Cincinnati).
Walsh would leave the Bengals (having been passed-over for a promotion) and take the head coaching job at Stanford in 1977. In two seasons he was extremely successful with the Cardinal offense that developed QBs Guy Benjamin, Steve Dils, and John Elway. Hence, the rightful source of the name “West Coast Offense.”
Bill Walsh would bring his offense to the 49ers as head coach in 1979. Yup, West Coast, baby. In 1980 Walsh drafted Notre Dame’s Joe Montana and the rest, as they say, is history. Walsh and Montana would craft three Super Bowl Championships based around the West Coast Offense. These Championships changed the way NFL franchises built their teams. They began to build around the Quarterback and the passing game.
Quarterbacks Made their Money in the Pocket and not Downfield
In the decades to follow, Quarterbacks would concentrate on the pass and distributing the football. For the most part they would leave the running to the experts.There were many QBs who were gifted in “escapability” and thus extending plays, but Fran Tarkenton, Roger Staubach, Steve Young, and Randall Cunningham and a few other “scramblers” were the exceptions not the rule.
In 1994 the leading NFL passers were Dan Marino with a 62.6% completion rate with 30 TD passes, Steve Young added a 70% completion rate along with 35 TD passes and Brett Favre contributed a 62.4% completion rate with 33 TD passes. QBs were taking the “horizontal” completions, but also refining the “vertical” routes as well. Above all they were spreading the ball “touches” to the talent around them.
Results? Just look at all-time NFL MVP winners. Payton Manning (5), Aaron Rodgers (4), Tom Brady (3), Brett Favre (3), Johnny Unitas (3) and Jim Brown (3). We can argue Rodgers was a hybrid (dual-threat) early in his career and same for Favre, but most of these MVP awards are rooted in pocket passers reading defenses and getting the most out of the teammates around them.
3. The Dual-Threat Arrives
One constant in the NFL is that offenses and defenses evolve. Coaches will mimic success on both sides of the ball. As passers became more prolific the defenses responded with more speed and pressure on the Quarterback. The defensive end became an “edge rusher” emphasizing speed and agility. The Nickel and Dime packages of 5 and 6 defensive backs made their appearance on the field. Outside linebackers today are now frequently 4.5 and 4.4 forty yard dash types in order to cover those wheel routes out of the backfield. The game adjusts.
Hence, the evolution of the Quarterback continued. Quicker QB feet in the pocket were required to off-set increased pressure on the QB. And finally when the Atlanta Falcons made Michael Vick (Virginia Tech) the #1 overall pick in the 2001 draft it marked the first NFL franchise commitment to a dual-threat offense. Vick would be the first to rush for 1,000 yards as an NFL Quarterback and he is the all-time NFL QB rush leader. Unfortunately for Michael (and the Falcons) his off-field values were not consistent with his game day contributions. There would be no Super Bowl for the Falcons with #7.
But by 2010 the NFL would be graced with such dual-threats as Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, RG3, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck. By the end of the decade 2010-2020 we saw the likes of Deshaun Watson, Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Dak Prescott and in my opinion the gold standard of dual-threats, Lamar Jackson.
The Slippery Slope
Building your franchise around a dual-threat is a slippery slope. Is the dual-threat QB the end-all answer to NFL offenses? There is reason to believe not. Since 2010 which QBs have won Super Bowls? Well, not many dual-threats. Aaron Rodgers in 2010 was arguably a dual-threat and was the Super Bowl MVP for the Packers. But, since Rodgers in 2010 we’re looking at Eli Manning (2), Joe Flacco, Peyton Manning (2), Tom Brady (7 times), Nick Foles (oh my!), Mathew Stafford and yes, Patrick Mahomes (2). Almost all pocket passers and distributors of the football. I would argue that Patrick Mahomes has mastered the “threat” part to a greater degree than the actual running down field part. And that’s a good thing !
Today, the bottom line is Quarterbacks have more “touches” than ever before. In 2010 quarterbacks combined for 1,377 rushing attempts including both scrambles and designed runs. In 2022 there were more than 2400 QB rushes. In 2010 NFL QBs combined to throw 17,269 passes. In 2022 that number increased to 18,069 passes. So be it on the ground or in the air, the Quarterback touches are significantly increasing. Whether the QB is more vulnerable running or passing continues to be debated, but one cannot debate QB injuries are increasing. It’s been said the most important quality of an NFL Quarterback is being “available.”
If you watched the brilliant Netflix series Quarterback earlier this year you were introduced to how much time starting Quarterbacks spend outside of their team’s practice facility with personal trainers, physical therapists, mental therapist, Chiropractors, and just about any type of specialist who can increase their healing cycle during the NFL season. These guys go to bed in pain and wake up with pain. If they can sleep at all.
The longer regular and post season schedules, the increased travel, the evolution of the game generating more touches, and the speed and size of the players targeting Quarterbacks with bad intentions are all contributing to more QB injuries. It is why NFL clubs started 69 different QBs last year, why seven QB starters are already out for the season this year, and why the NFL needs to change its approach to stocking the Quarterback Room.
There are Two Ways to Build Depth in an NFL Quarterback Room
1. Step up and pay the freight for an established QB2. This may cost you. The Atlanta Falcons committed to a young Desmond Ridder to start 2023 as QB1, but as insurance they signed free agent Taylor Heinicke as a solid QB2. Prior to 2023 Taylor had started 25 NFL games and gone 12-12-1 in those games. That is a great record for a QB in relief. He posted a 63.7% completion rate with 35 TDs for 5,920 yards. That is an excellent QB2 resume.
The good ones are not cheap. The Falcons signed Heinicke to a two year contract for $14 million with incentives up to $20 million. Also, there are not a lot of Taylor Heinicke’s out there. In addition to being talented he’s a team-first guy and will not be disruptive in the QB Room when things are going poorly for QB1. Other good investments at QB2 include Mitch Trubisky in Pittsburgh, Gardner Minshew in Indianapolis, Marcus Mariota for the Eagles, Andy Dalton In Charlotte and Tyrod Taylor with the Giants although he’s been hurt. It is a short list.
2. Develop young (and presumably less expensive) talent from within. With the soaring investments in QB1s many clubs are taking the high risk approach at the QB2 position. These clubs are either hoping they make it through a season with their “franchise” QB, or they are rolling the dice and hoping their lower round draft choice is the new Brock Purdy. The problem with this approach is that NFL coaching staffs are generally not great at developing young and untested talent at the QB position.
What Happens to QB2s?
The approach in training camp and the regular season is to give QB1 the vast majority of the snaps. Success through repetition. In any given regular season practice the QB1 will get almost 100% of the snaps running the first team offense and refining the game plan. QB2 will get either a few snaps at the end or no snaps with the first team starters. QB2 will, however, run the scout team offense. This means that he is running the opponents plays against the first team defense.
Running the scout team ruins a Quarterback’s technique and confidence. I should know, I spent 8 years in professional football running scout teams. First, you have no timing with receivers running opponents routes. You are pretty much guessing at where and when to pull the trigger. These are not plays you have practiced. It is not a situation conducive to success.
Next, the Defensive Coordinator will insist you throw the ball into coverage. Whether the scout team receiver is open or not they want you throwing with the tendencies of the opponent. So, a QB2 chalks up a lot of interceptions at practice. It’s a bad habit to get into. I’ve had my offensive coordinator come up behind me and whisper “no matter what they tell you, don’t throw the ball into coverage.” You find out the hard way that pisses off a lot of DCs.
My Solutions to Building Depth in the QB Room
1. Don’t build your offense around a true dual-threat QB. You will lose QB1 playing time. What you want is a QB1 who is perceived as the dual-threat, but is a pass-first guy at heart. Patrick Mahomes has become an expert at running only when necessary and sliding down fast when required. Defenses are worried about his legs, they still need to prepare for his legs in their defensive game plans, but he is very selective about when to use his legs. Consequently, he has remained “available” for most of his young career. Lamar Jackson is spectacular. But in two of the past three seasons he’s missed 5 games. It’s devastating when QB1 injuries extend to the post-season like it did for the Ravens in 2022.
2. Pay the freight for your QB2. Really good backup QBs are not easy to find. If you are good enough to stick in the NFL you probably have the confidence and ego to want to occupy the QB1 chair. It takes a special kind of team-first player to be a positive contributor while you’re not enjoying a piece of the action. Having someone with a few years of experience and some quality starts under their belt is extremely valuable.
3. Develop a rookie or a young, lower level draft pick, but be smart about it. My biggest frustration with NFL coaching staffs is the resistance to preparing two QBs for every game. QB1 gets all the work at practice and so it’s all or nothing for you under the center at game time.
Let’s give QB2 20% of the practice reps with the starting offense. And let’s take it a step further. If I were a head coach I would play my QB2 for one series in every game. Crazy, right? Ok, you might make exceptions for a showdown with a division rival or later in the season fighting for a playoff spot, but there are 17 games!
Why not play QB2 for one series (or more) in the first 8-10 games? There are so many benefits including game-day timing with the receivers. Yes, the game does speed up on Sundays. How about building confidence and rapport with the OL while you’re actually in the shit? And most importantly, keeping QB2’s head in the game. When 17 weeks go by with no opportunity to play, bad habits can develop.
This concept of playing QB2 in one series fits even better when your QB1 is established. Is it really going to hurt Dak Prescott, or Josh Allen, or Patrick Mahomes to give up a few snaps at practice? Or even one series in a limited number of the games? Hell no. But imagine what the experience would do for the QB2, knowing there is a high probability he will be in the game on Sunday. A little more swagger in the locker-room and a whole lot more confidence when the team really needs him. This is a no-brainer!