Many hands have been wrung through these first three weeks of training camp over the state of the Packers’ back-up quarterback spot. Will it be the weak-armed but familiar Graham Harrell backing up Aaron Rodgers? Will the talented but well-traveled Vince Young make up enough ground for a serious run at the job? Will B.J. Coleman rise from the depths of the scout team and claim victory over both? (Let me answer that last one right now: nope.)
But what does the team really need out of its back-up quarterback? In all honesty, you never want to see this guy play, unless you’re on the upper hand of a 76-3 rout. But say that your starter goes down. What can an NFL fan reasonably expect from their back-up in relief?
The Green Bay Packers no doubt consider themselves a playoff team, so to reduce the amount of team’s we’ll have to sort through, we’ll restrict our conversation to the performances of back-up quarterbacks that also played for playoff teams, of which there are a surprisingly large amount. Also, since style points go out the window when you’re talking about back-up quarterback play, there’s no reason to consider the stats of these hypothetical players, so numbers go out the window too.
With those disclaimers out of the way, here’s the win/loss record for every back-up quarterback who has made a start for a team that made the playoffs since the 2003 season:
For sake of making the numbers fall into order a little bit better, I’ve provided two sets of stats. The first includes win totals for the 2003 version of Marc Bulger and 2004 Ben Roethlisberger, while the second excludes them. My reasoning is this: Bulger played a ton of games that year (and won a whole bunch) because Kurt Warner was injured. At that point he’s not really playing in “relief” of Warner. He’s the new starter. But he wasn’t the opening day starter, so he’s the de facto back-up.
’04 Roethlisberger is a similar situation. Hey may have started on his own merit at some point during the season, but he was thrown into the lineup earlier than expected because of injuries and poor play in front of him.
A couple thoughts right off the bat. First, like I said earlier, there are a surprising amount of back-ups that have been called into action for teams that have still ended up in the playoffs, so the good news is, you’re not totally crippled if Johnny Noodlearm has to come off the bench.
Secondly, the Steelers are on this list a lot. That’s scary and impressive. Scary, because their starters are getting knocked around a lot, and impressive because they’re still ending up in the playoffs as often as not.
Ultimately, though, I think this data tells us two things. First, if your number one quarterback goes down, he better not be out more than about three games. Most teams that show up on this list end up having their quarterbacks back within three games or so. Teams that don’t aren’t on this list, because they didn’t end up in the postseason.
Second, if your quarterback is out for three games, your back up needs to win about two of them if you’re hoping to end up playing in January. The averages (both including Bulger and Roethlisberger and excluding them) show teams that played their back-ups got a win two thirds of the time.
Now, the question that comes out of these hypotheticals and data sets is this: if Aaron Rodgers gets concussed or twists an ankle, which quarterback on the roster do you feel gives the Packers the best chance at winning two out of three? My gut says Vince Young, if only because his ceiling is higher and although he may make just as many mistakes as Mr. Harrell, they may be offset by the plays we know his capable of making.
But let’s just hope we never actually know which of them is better in regular season play.