In the history of professional football, the most important and impactful "Next Man Up" situation from a quarterback perspective happened in the second game of the 2001 season, when New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe was hit so hard by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis that Bledsoe suffered a sheared blood vessel in his chest. Bill Belichick was "forced" to go with Bledsoe's backup, a kid From Michigan named Tom Brady. Five Super Bowls and three NFL titles later, not to mention over 51,000 passing yards and one of the greatest touchdown-to-interception ratios in league annals, it's safe to say things worked out.
Teams have to deal with quarterback injuries all the time, and while the Brady/Bledsoe situation is always brought up when a marquee signal-caller goes down, the odds of that happening again are somewhere between slim and none. Most often, teams with quarterback injuries have to set things up in the right ways for their backups, creating advantageous situations for players who are limited -- because, after all, if they weren't obviously limited, they'd be starters.
The Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles, perhaps the NFC's two best teams this season, are now dealing with this very issue. Arizona head coach Bruce Arians had to deal with it for three games early in the season when he had to turn to backup Drew Stanton while Carson Palmer was dealing with a nerve issue in his throwing shoulder, and now he'll have Stanton as his main man for the remainder of the season after Palmer's torn ACL last Sunday. The Cardinals have a league-leading 8-1 record, and are trying to become the first NFL team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium.
The Eagles learned that they would have to rely on backup Mark Sanchez for a while when starter Nick Foles went down in Week 9 against the Houston Texans with a cracked collarbone. Foles may be ready to return in time for the postseason, but it's going to be up to Sanchez to help get them there. At 7-2, Kelly's team has more than enough on the ball to win the NFC East as long as the quarterback situation doesn't go off the rails. It already had to a point, as Foles was not playing at his 2013 level.
So, two second-year head coaches with highly refined abilities when it comes to offensive schemes must now put those abilities to the test. How will their quarterbacks -- and teams -- fare?
Sanchez, of course, is no stranger to the bright lights, having started 63 games for the Jets after the team selected him fifth overall in the 2009 draft. That did not end well, as we all know, and when the Eagles signed Sanchez to a one-year, $2.25 million deal in March -- one week after losing Michael Vick to the Jets -- it was thought to be little more than a spackle job for the team's quarterback rotation. Sanchez as a serious concern in the NFL? He hadn't started a game since 2012, and though the Jets didn't put him in position to succeed, it could just as easily be said that Sanchez hamstrung the Jets unless everything was going right for him.
Still, the Eagles believed in him, and that's why he started Monday night against the Carolina Panthers. He completed 20-of-37 passes for 332 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 45-21 win. Philly's defense and special teams insured that the Eagles were up 17-0 on Carolina before Sanchez had to do anything, but it was still a historic performance for a player who had established a fairly low bar in his NFL career.
It was the first time Sanchez threw for over 300 yards, with multiple touchdowns and no interceptions. Yes, Carolina's secondary does resemble a dumpster fire -- but you play who you play, and for a guy who could have just as easily gone out rusty and imploded, it was pretty impressive no matter the opponent.
There are still things that bedevil Sanchez, make no mistake. He's never been a good anticipation thrower, and as such, things like crossing routes are always an issue. He's not always going to place the ball on the correct shoulder of his receiver, and though he's got a fairly live arm, I can think of 20 different quarterbacks I'd rather trust with a stick throw into tight coverage. Sanchez threw a few early incompletions in the Panthers game (which made his later stats even more impressive), and this misfire to tight end Zach Ertz to end Philly's first drive was an example of what he can't consistently do.
There's also this play from the third quarter of the Texans game, when Sanchez missed Riley Cooper on what looked to be a quick in-route with some placement and communication issues. Sanchez didn't adjust, the ball wasn't thrown to a place where Cooper could catch it, but defensive back Jumal Rolle had no such issues.
With Philly's dominant rushing attack, the idea of run-action -- where the quarterback fakes to the running back to throw and the offensive line better sells the fake by firing out as it run-blocking -- is a huge help. Sanchez's first of two touchdowns to rookie receiver Jordan Matthews against the Panthers is a perfect example of this. Watch how the Eagles offensive line influences Carolina's defense with zone slide blocking to the right, while Sanchez rolls to the left after a playfake. Safety Thomas DeCoud is stuck in single coverage on Matthews' drag route from right to left. With the zone blocking and running back LeSean McCoy moving to the right stretched part of the defense, the double crossers concept from right to left forced Carolina's defensive backs into single coverage, and all Matthews had to do was to beat his man. DeCoud was late to the party, so no worries there.
This is the kind of play in which Sanchez can excel -- he's light on his feet, he moves well in and out of the pocket, and he throws with nice timing on the run. Given that Kelly has always enjoyed using the mobile aspects of quarterback play to his advantage, you could see many more plays like this down the stretch.
This 33-yard completion to Matthews in the second quarter of the Panthers game is an outstanding example of how Kelly uses route combinations to beat man coverage, which the Eagles see as much as any team in the league. Matthews runs motion left to right against Carolina's man-across coverage, setting up a 3 x 1 offense in which the deep safety on the high side was negated in coverage by the shorter routes. This was a one-on-one battle, aided by Kelly's brilliant wrinkle -- note how Matthews sets up outside Ertz, forcing Carolina's stacked coverage to guess wrong either way. Then, Ertz acts as a downfield blocker for Matthews -- at least, until he falls down. Kelly has been devising different man-beaters since he moved from Oregon to the NFL, and this is just one of many subtle iterations.
Sanchez is in a very interesting position. Thought to be a lost cause in a far more restrictive environment, he now has the opportunity to redefine his career in an ideal offense for just about any quarterback.
Stanton was selected by the Detroit Lions in the second round of the 2007 draft out of Michigan State, which seemed at the time to be little more than one of Matt Millen's colossal misses as a general manager. In three seasons with Detroit, Stanton completed 104-of-187 passes for 1,158 yards, five touchdowns and nine interceptions. He was obviously an afterthought when the Lions selected Matthew Stafford first overall two years later, and Stanton wound up bouncing around the league until the Cardinals signed him to a three-year, $8.2 million deal in March 2013.
Like Sanchez, Stanton is not an anticipation thrower -- he's not going to hit the correct shoulder on long passes (or even short ones), and he needs his coaches to create openings with formations and wider sets. Arians, who throws as many different concepts at defenses as anyone in the league, most likes to set things up so that one side of the formation has a possession aspect, with the other side of the field attuned to the big play. And he will have Stanton taking deep shots -- that's clear. In his three weeks as a starter, Stanton was actually one of the NFL's more productive deep passers, completing 8-of-22 passes over 20 yards in the air for 235 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Stanton threw a full 25 percent of his total attempts deep, the highest percentage through that time period.
His best stretch as a deep passer came in the third quarter against the 49ers in Week 3, when he hit Michael Floyd once for a 45-yard completion, and John Brown twice for a total of 45 yards and two touchdowns, in a seven-minute span. Arians later said that the San Francisco game was when Stanton's teammates started to believe in him wholeheartedly, and in a deep-passing offense like Arizona's, it's easy to see why. Both Floyd and Brown have explosive potential, and Stanton has the arm to make any throw required.
The long completion to Floyd came with 11:27 left in the third quarter, and Floyd running a straight speed sideline route with 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver establishing inside position. The ball was slightly underthrown, and Floyd made an outstanding adjustment to grab the pass. Note Stanton stepping up in the pocket, using excellent mechanics to reset himself to make the deep throw.
The first touchdown to Brown, with 9:25 left in the quarter, had a nice set of wrinkles. Brown motioned inside of a stack formation to create a bunch set (an Arians staple), and ran a deep over route from left to right. On the other side of the formation, tight end John Carlson and running back Andre Ellington ran quicker routes to give Stanton easier options.
The second touchdown to Brown saw the rookie in the slot with 4:44 left in the quarter. This was a broken play on the right offensive side -- Reid was in deep coverage, and he bit on Larry Fitzgerald's quick inside route, leaving slot corner Jimmie Ward one-on-one with Brown, and the mismatch was on.
Then, there was Stanton's pass to Brown in the fourth quarter of the Rams game, after Palmer was hurt. With 7:49 left in the game, Stanton stepped up in the pocket (similarly to the long completion to Floyd) and drove the ball downfield. It was a bit of an overthrow, but Brown adjusted to make an outstanding catch -- and under the circumstances, not a bad performance by Stanton, either.
So, that's the good news. The bad news with Stanton, at least to date, is that he fails to show a deep understanding of the subtleties of the passing game that makes great quarterbacks great. He's not functionally accurate, he telegraphs his throws, and even in the short passing game, he really struggles with timing things up with receivers. He also takes sacks because he doesn't see open receivers -- something that also plagues Andy Dalton -- and that was evident in these two plays against the Giants in Week 2.
You also get plays like this, where Brown goes deep and gets a result very different than expected.
What Stanton will need to do in order to actually help the Cardinals become the first NFL team to play in a Super Bowl in their home stadium is to cut down on the short and intermediate mistakes, develop a better sense of the pocket (when to stick and throw, and when to bail) and try to line up with his receivers on timing passes. That's a tall order, but with the talent around him -- and with Arians' guidance -- Stanton has a better shot than most once-forgotten backup quarterbacks.