As much as 2012 was celebrated as the Year of the Rookie Quarterback in the NFL, with Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson dazzling us in historic ways and leading their upstart teams to the playoffs, there was a still under-appreciated moment when the depth of last year's rookie class of passers emerged in spectacular fashion.
Without Kirk Cousins proving the value of a quality backup quarterback, the Washington Redskins don't have a season-ending seven-game winning streak, NFC East division title (their first since 1999), and their first playoff berth in five years to show for 2012. Because it was Cousins in Week 15 who rode to the rescue -- starting in place of the injured Griffin at Cleveland -- and kept the Redskins rolling. The fourth-rounder out of Michigan State thoroughly out-played the Browns' first-round rookie quarterback, Brandon Weeden, throwing for 329 yards and two touchdowns, with a rushing touchdown to boot(leg) in Washington's must-have 38-21 victory.
That win, the Redskins' fifth straight, moved them into a tie with the Giants in the NFC East, and proved the wisdom of head coach Mike Shanahan spending a mid-round pick on Cousins last April. That was a selection that I and many others derided as a "luxury'' purchase that Washington could ill afford after trading up so expensively for Griffin at No. 2, but I think a 104.2 passer rating and four second-half touchdown drives against the Browns in his first career start made the case for Cousins quite nicely. (Mea culpa once again, Mike).
And Cousins had already paid major dividends before that clutch Week 15 victory, subbing for the injured Griffin late in regulation at home against eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore the previous week. Taking over for the battered RGIII, Cousins tied the game on a final-minute, 11-yard touchdown pass to Leonard Hankerson, adding a superb quarterback draw for the necessary two-point conversion that produced overtime and ultimately a galvanizing 31-28 Washington win.
Cousins and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick were the clear-cut backup quarterback stars of the year in the NFL last season, with Kaepernick's relief job so exceptional for the 49ers">49ers that he led his team to the Super Bowl and drove former starter Alex Smith right out of town.
Once again, we learned that having a backup plan can be essential to success. Who will be the pivotal No. 2 passers in the 2013 season? With more than one-third of the league making a change at backup quarterback this season, here's our very subjective ranking of the teams that have made those moves, based on the strength of their new guy at No. 2:
Fitzpatrick has played the No. 2 role before, with the Rams in 2005-06, Bengals in 2007-08 and Bills in 2009, so he knows the job description. He's a good teammate, and I expect he'll be a steadying presence and helpful mentor to Locker. The more Fitzpatrick plays, the worse he tends to look, but if you need him for a two- or three-game stretch at some point, he can light it up. He'll throw some picks (64 in his 55 games as a Bill), but he also had three consecutive 3,000-yard passing seasons, including more than 7,200 yards and 48 touchdowns in 2011-12.
He can look ragged at times, and he needs consistent protection to play his best, but the guy has twice led teams to 10-5 records as a starter (the 2008 Patriots and 2010 Chiefs) and not many NFL backups can match that. Cassel is a decent 29-33 as a starter, with 82 touchdowns and 57 interceptions in his twin four-season stints in New England and Kansas City. An 80.4 career QB rating and three seasons of at least 2,900 yards passing were highlighted by his 2010 Pro Bowl year (27 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 93.0 rating).
If anything should happen to Luck, Hasselbeck won't be able to fill in without a dropoff, but it won't be Kerry Collins-Curtis Painter ugly either. Then again, if the Colts hadn't taken their medicine with that 2-14 disaster in 2011, they wouldn't have Luck in their pocket today. So perhaps they owe Collins and Painter a debt of thanks.
The bad news is Garrard is 35, and hasn't played a game in the NFL since 2010 with Jacksonville. That could mean Garrard is healthier and raring to go, or buried beneath a layer of rust that won't be easily removed. But the bar is set fairly low for Jets quarterbacks, given Sanchez's difficulty staying out of the way of his own offensive linemen's backsides in 2012.
The Browns have upgraded at backup because it was Colt McCoy behind rookie Brandon Weeden in 2012, and Campbell's career numbers have McCoy beat by a mile. In his seven NFL seasons, Campbell is 31-40 as a starter with three teams, with 76 touchdowns, 52 interceptions and a solid 60.9 completion percentage. At his best, Campbell should be able to push Weeden for the starting job.
The sheen of the Saints offensive success under Drew Brees certainly helped buttress Daniel's reputation. But he's also a very nice fit for Andy Reid's West Coast-style offense in Kansas City, plays an intelligent brand of ball like new Chiefs starter Alex Smith, and had the benefit of some strong preseason showings the past three seasons in New Orleans. He's mostly projection in terms of the regular season, but my sense is Daniel could prove to be a wise investment for Kansas City.
So far, you have to trust 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and his handle on quarterbacks. In two seasons in San Francisco, he and offensive coordinator Greg Roman and quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst have resurrected Alex Smith's career and unearthed a budding superstar in Kaepernick. They get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making something out of McCoy that Cleveland couldn't.
The Cardinals were abysmal at quarterback the past two seasons, which is largely why head coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves were fired. With Palmer and Stanton on board, and the quarterback guru Arians hired as head coach, Arizona's nightmare at the game's most crucial position appears over.
As a Raiders starter, he once upset the Steelers at Heinz Field, effectively ending Pittsburgh's defense of its Super Bowl championship in 2009. Gradkowski also had a strong preseason in 2012, throwing three touchdowns without an interception. Given Big Ben's injury track record, he'll play some for the Steelers. Gradkowski, who played high school ball in Pittsburgh, has now been with every AFC North team except Baltimore, where his little brother, Gino, is a Ravens center.
McCown last saw any meaningful action in Jacksonville, but it was eminently forgettable. He started two games, going 1-1, but threw four interceptions and no touchdowns for the Jaguars in relief of rookie Blaine Gabbert. In New Orleans, where Brees is king, McCown will only be relied on in worst-case scenarios.
He has 15 touchdown passes and 25 interceptions in his three-year NFL career, with 3,707 yards passing, and he and former Browns third-stringer Josh Johnson are expected to compete for the No. 2 job behind Andy Dalton in the preseason. Johnson is 0-5 as an NFL starter, all with Tampa Bay from 2009-11. Cincinnati's No. 2 spot belonged to Bruce Gradkowski the past two seasons, so it's hard to see how the Bengals' quarterback depth has improved.