Want to contend for Super Bowls? Keep your starting QB healthy and on the field

Rick Gosselin

Andrew Luck reminded us this week why the NFL bestows those $100 million contracts on its starting quarterbacks.

Luck gave the Indianapolis Colts a chance every time he took the field. That’s the value of a franchise quarterback. His presence in the huddle automatically elevates his team to playoff contention status. Without him, a team can slide from contender to pretender quite quickly.

That’s what happened to the Colts this week when Luck, at 29 years of age, decided to retire. He managed to stay healthy in five of his seven NFL seasons and went to the Pro Bowl in four of them. He passed for 4,000 yards in four of his seasons and led the NFL with 40 touchdown passes in 2014, taking the Colts to the AFC championship game.

But Luck missed the final nine games of the 2015 season with a lacerated kidney and then sat all of 2017 after undergoing offseason surgery on his right shoulder. He returned in 2018 to pass for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns, taking Indianapolis back to the playoffs and winning NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors. But there will be no more comebacks following his retirement.

That leaves Indianapolis in the hands of Jacoby Brissett, who has started only 17 games in his three-year career and won just five of them. Thus, the Colts’ Super Bowl Express has been derailed even before opening day.

This is not a situation unique to Indianapolis, however. If the Patriots lose Tom Brady to an injury, could they really remain a Super Bowl favorite with Brian Hoyer taking the snaps? How about if the Saints lose Drew Brees, the Chiefs lose Patrick Mahomes or the Packers lose Aaron Rodgers?

There’s a reason these franchise quarterbacks are paid the big bucks. Any and all Super Bowl optimism stems from the quarterback taking the snaps for his team.

Since 2000, when NFL teams have been able to start their quarterbacks of choice – the primary option at the position -- they have won 52.6 percent of their games. But when the first option is unable to play for whatever the reason, the chances of success decrease dramatically.

Since 2000, when NFL teams have been forced to start their backup quarterback – their second, third or fourth-string options -- they have managed to win only 42.8 percent of their games. Second-string quarterbacks have won 43.5 percent of their games since 2000 and third-stringers have won just 29.4 percent.

Last season, the primary options at quarterback won 52.8 percent of their starts. The backup quarterbacks combined to win 39.1 percent of their starts. The projected backup quarterbacks in 2019 have started 765 career games and have won only 39.3 percent of them.

There are four former Pro Bowl quarterbacks serving as backups – Matt Schaub at Atlanta, Robert Griffin III at Baltimore, Tyrod Taylor at the Chargers and Teddy Bridgewater at New Orleans.

Schaub has started 92 career games, tops among the NFL backups. Ryan Tannehill at Tennessee has started 88 games, Josh McCown at Philadelphia 76 games and Blake Bortles at the Rams 73 games. Schaub has been to two Pro Bowls and Bortles quarterbacked the 2016 Jaguars to the AFC title game. Griffin was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year with the Redskins in 2012.

Those seven quarterbacks represent the best of the NFL’s backups for the 2019 season. Yet their combined record as NFL starters is only 139-211, a humble 39.7 percent.

Fourteen NFL teams will head into the season with backup quarterbacks who have started fewer than 10 career games apiece. Four teams – Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Washington and the Giants – figure to have rookies as their primary backups. It’s not a script for success.

But if your starting quarterbacks goes down with an injury in today’s NFL, there is no script for success.


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