In less than a month, eight Week 1 backup quarterbacks have seen the field, and that’s without counting Ryan Fitzpatrick and Kirk Cousins, who entered training camp as backups only to step into starting roles once the players in front of them suffered their respective off- and on-field falls from grace. Five of those eight have started at least one game, and on Thursday night, Michael Vick will become the sixth after Steelers cornerstone Ben Roethlisberger was ruled out for the next four to six weeks with an MCL injury.
As NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal pointed out on Sunday, casual fans won’t be able to escape nationally-televised backup quarterback action in Week 4. On Sunday night, it could very well be Brandon Weeden vs. Luke McCown under the lights of the Superdome in a Cowboys–Saints matchup that isn’t quite what NBC bargained for. And at the rate he’s been knocked around through three weeks of losing efforts, would it be a total surprise if Matthew Stafford yielded to Dan Orlovsky for a play or two when the Lions take on the Seahawks in Seattle on Monday night?
October is sure to bring more separation within the division standings, and many of the teams who have already had to send out their second option at QB may be sweating their upcoming schedules, but there is something to be said for knowing what you have on the sidelines. Below, a closer look at what the eight teams who have turned to their backups at some point in the young season have learned about their second-stringers, how they should feel going forward and which backups may be next to tighten their chinstraps.
‘So you’re telling me there’s a chance’
1. Brandon Weeden, Cowboys: two games, one start, 29 of 33 (87.9%), 305 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Weeden picked the worst time for his worst decision of Sunday’s 39–28 loss to Atlanta, a gift-wrapped interception on an overthrow that gave the Falcons life late in the second quarter after the Cowboys had dominated for long stretches of the first half. The Dallas offense sputtered down the stretch, but in steady tight end Jason Witten, pass-catching back Lance Dunbar and slot receiver Cole Beasley (the only Cowboys receiver to catch a pass in Week 3), Weeden has all the weapons necessary to complement his running game with the safe throws expected of a reliable backup until Dez Bryant returns.
The Cowboys were fortunate to bank two division wins before losing Tony Romo to a broken collarbone, and no one else in the NFC East looks ready to go on the type of run that would force Weeden to play outside of his means in the coming weeks.
2. Luke McCown, Saints: one game, one start, 31 of 38 (81.6%), 310 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT
What more could you possibly want from a guy making his first start since 2011? Sure, McCown took what the Carolina defense was giving him and rarely tested the secondary with deep balls, but a dozen other quarterbacks do that every week in the NFL and don’t complete 19 of their first 20 passes. It took a fantastic late interception from Panthers cornerback Josh Norman on one of those rare vertical shots to stop the Saints’ rally short on Sunday.
Drew Brees appears to have avoided the worst-case scenario with his injured throwing shoulder, and McCown may return to his post on the sidelines with some encouraging tape to go with his career 2–8 record as a starter.
Nothing boosts the stock of a backup quarterback quite like returning to the sidelines immediately after a victory in a spot-start. The calls for Manziel should only get louder as the Browns ride a healthy Josh McCown into a murderous seven-game stretch of their schedule that features five road games and home dates with the first-place Broncos and Cardinals.
Cynically, the bench may be Manziel’s fastest path to the full-time starting job. McCown could shoulder the blame for as long as possible during what has the makings of a very painful slide through October and November before yielding to Manziel, who looked miles ahead of his rookie season form in the first two weeks.
‘Get us out of the stadium’
4. Michael Vick, Steelers: one game, 5 of 6 (83.3%), 38 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT
This category is inspired by Mike Tomlin’s ringing endorsement of Vick’s relief appearance in Week 3: “He got us out of the stadium. That’s what the backup quarterback’s job is. If he has to play next week then he gets a full week of preparation, so my standards and expectations will be a little different under them circumstances.”
There’s one problem with that. Vick doesn’t exactly get a full week of preparation before the Ravens come to Pittsburgh on Thursday night. Still, he’s seen everything before, a coveted skill for a backup, and he shepherded the Steelers through the final 20 minutes of an ugly 12–6 win in St. Louis. Le’Veon Bell’s return and Sunday’s strong defensive performance should give Pittsburgh some confidence that it can steal a few games while Big Ben is sidelined.
Bill O’Brien staked his claim to the NFL’s quickest hook when he sent Mallett in for Brian Hoyer in the fourth quarter of Week 1’s loss to the Chiefs, then had his new starter throw the ball 58 times the next weekend. It looks like Mallett, the loser of the off-season’s only true two-man quarterback competition, will be given time and game reps to settle in and work out the kinks before Houston turns back to Hoyer, but make no mistake: There are kinks.
Mallett guided the Texans to their first win over the Buccaneers in Week 3, but he was fortunate to have a few interceptions bounce off the hands of Tampa Bay defenders and a fumble negated by a defensive holding penalty. The good news for Houston is that he seems to know where to find star receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who caught eight of the 14 passes his way on Sunday for 101 yards and a touchdown. Starting this weekend against the undefeated Falcons, Houston needs Mallett to start putting up points.
6. Kellen Clemens, Chargers: one game, 5 of 6 (83.3%), 63 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT
Clemens entered in the fourth quarter of a 31–14 loss to the Vikings to spare Philip Rivers any more punishment behind an offensive line that lost left tackle King Dunlap, left guard Orlando Franklin and center Chris Watt—on the other side of the line, D.J. Fluker and Joe Barksdale stayed in the game despite injuries of their own. Rivers was sacked four times for the second straight week and hit or hurried many more.
Rivers hasn’t missed a game since he took the starting job in 2006, but if he ever reaches his pain threshold, San Diego is in decent shape. Clemens gets full marks for the 14-play, 89-yard touchdown drive he used to melt most of the final nine minutes of clock.
‘All is lost’
7. Jimmy Clausen, Bears: two games, one start, 23 of 40 (57.5%), 184 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT
Clausen played right to script in leading the punchless, banged-up Bears into the nightmare factory that is CenturyLink Field and the full-strength Seahawks: Chicago punted on all 10 of its possessions and never got beyond the Seattle 45-yard line. A similar start this Sunday against the Raiders, whose pass defense sits 30th in the league through three weeks, might be enough to get second-year pro David Fales his first NFL action. Clausen’s 4.6 yards per attempt are tied for the league’s lowest mark with …
8. Matt McGloin, Raiders: one game, 23 of 31 (74.2%), 142 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
Free of context, the stats look almost reasonable, but don’t be fooled. McGloin entered the Raiders’ season-opener after Derek Carr injured his hand on an ill-advised stiff-arm attempt midway through the second quarter. Here’s how Oakland’s next six possessions ended: three-and-out, halftime, interception, three-and-out, McGloin fumble, punt.
Finally, with the Bengals leading 33–0, McGloin engineered two competent yet meaningless drives ending in touchdown passes to fullback Marcel Reece. The magical three-touchdown performance the former undrafted free agent delivered in his first career start in November 2013 feels much, much longer ago than that.
This is all speculative, of course, but Smith seems the most likely backup to next see the field, if only because the deep AFC East will leave little room for error in the coming weeks. Fitzpatrick and Cousins still have the support of their respective staffs, but neither can afford their underwhelming Week 3 efforts to snowball. Gabbert and Orlovsky remain distinct long shots, but Kaepernick’s indefensibly bad afternoon in Arizona and Stafford’s shaky health at this early stage at least throw their projected replacements into the conversation.