There’s a legendary, potentially apocryphal, story about Peyton Manning’s backup. One day, Jon Gruden asked Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore why Manning’s backup wasn’t getting more reps in practice. Moore responds, “Fellas, if 18 goes down we’re f****ed, and we don’t practice f****ed.” Or so the story goes.
This frames much of the way we think about backup quarterbacks. We watch DeShone Kizer or Tim Boyle and wonder, if Aaron Rodgers goes are the Packers really just f***ed?
But this is the wrong question to be asking and fundamentally misunderstands the way backups can and do succeed in the NFL. We shouldn’t be asking whether or not the Packers have a good enough bad quarterback—this is what a backup, a veteran backup as is often the proposed solution, would be—compared to another bad quarterback.
Arguing the marginal utility of Josh McCown vs. Brock Osweiler vs. Mike Glennon sounds like one of the seven circles of hell, not a valuable use of time or resources. It’s just not worth worrying about.
Instead of thinking about how screwed the team is if Rodgers, or any franchise quarterback, goes down, the question front offices should be asking is “How do I make sure we aren’t screwed if we have to play our backup?” In nearly every case, that has nothing to do with who the backup in question is and everything to do with the context in which that quarterback plays. Coaching and surrounding talent are stickier, more impactful attributes overall, and make the team better even when your starter isn’t hurt. Get better around your quarterback, so if he does go down, your backup is in the best position he can be to succeed.
There aren’t even 32 starter-level quarterbacks in the NFL, which leaves the backup quarterback pool more like a stagnant sewer pond. If you’ve ever played a two-quarterback fantasy league, you have a glimpse of this reality. In Week 14 when Drew Brees has a bye, you might have to grab Case Keenum and hope he doesn’t murder you. This is the reality of finding even reasonable backups in the NFL.
Carolina doesn’t have a fighting chance with Derek Anderson as its backup because he’s really good. He’s not. They scratch out games because of Luke Kuechly and Kawann Short. Chase Daniel won a game for the Bears last year throwing for 230 yards because of Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks. In Daniel’s other start? Chicago lost because the New York Giants put up 30 points. Even one of the three best backups in football can’t overcome his context.
That’s what your starter is for.
Aaron Rodgers can mask deficiencies on a roster. He can have his defense give up 30 to Matthew Stafford because he can score 31. But that doesn’t make it a good idea to try that route, a tact the Packers too often have had to undertake in the Rodgers era. Two of the six losses Green Bay took with Brett Hundley under center came in this precise scenario with the Lions topping 30. They lost a shootout with Pittsburgh in which the Steelers put up 31 at home. Dom Capers’ defense blew a double digit first-half lead against the Saints, couldn’t figure out the New Orleans screen game, and gave up 26 at home on a wet field.
These are games Rodgers would have to be Superman in just to win, and while Hundley was clearly bad for games like Baltimore and Minnesota, it’s hard to imagine Chase Daniel or Teddy Bridgewater being much better given the context. This proves out our premise: even with a good, veteran backup, flawed teams remain flawed. Allocating resources there doesn’t elevate the team enough for it to get the kind of attention it does.
Mike McCarthy’s scheme, which relied on the greatness of its players, including and especially the quarterback, never suited Hundley’s game. No one should be surprised to see Hundley thriving in Arizona under a spread system, albeit in the preseason. Coaching never comes up in the discussion around backup quarterbacks, but there’s no doubting the impact Frank Reich and Doug Pederson had on the run Nick Foles made with the Eagles.
He’s the exception that proves the rule, a $10 million a year backup made possible by a rookie quarterback salary and the right context. He was perfect for the offense they built in Philly, and though he won games with the Chiefs as a backup to Alex Smith, Kansas City started building for the future. Put him onto a team that was already on a 14-win pace with playmakers on offense, a great offensive line, and a ferocious defense, all it takes is for your backup to go on a heater to win a Super Bowl.
The Packers probably don’t have the right quarterback to replicate that run, but that Eagles season stands as irreplaceable, even if it’s not impossible to come close. The teams who can do it don’t look like the 2017 or 2018 Packers. It takes better infrastructure, better coaching, and a much more talented defense. Brian Gutekunst spent the 2019 offseason building out the infrastructure, even if it wasn’t intentionally to buoy the backup quarterback. It’s just as much to elevate Rodgers.
If Matt LaFleur provides more creativity and malleability with his offense than Mike McCarthy, that benefits Rodgers. Likewise, it enhances whatever backup has to play should he need to play. Building the philosophy and culture matters greatly to the success of inferior players. Bill Belichick is a wizard at this. No one can replicate what he does either, but that doesn’t mean coaches shouldn’t try.
Signing three major defensive pieces and uses multiple first-round picks on supporting them improves the Green Bay defense, full stop. All the same benefits that brings to Rodgers in terms of easing his burden trying to win games trickle down to whomever the backup is. Stopping teams from putting up 30 on your home field goes a long way to providing context to win games with a less talented player.
This circles back to our original point: why waste timing worrying about which bad quarterback is on the field when you can and should be worrying about how to improve your team so that if he does have to play, he has a fighting chance? It makes your team better when it’s fully healthy, while also making it easier to win games with the starter. If there are only a handful of quality backups, wailing and gnashing teeth over not having one doesn’t provide productivity, but it might get you likes on Twitter in a performative act of sports virtue signaling.
Signing Curtis Bolton as an undrafted free agent could turn out to be more impactful to the Packers season than the difference between DeShone Kizer and Brandon Weeden. Bolton could actually be good and impact games when Rodgers is healthy. With 12 under center, talent compounds in a different way; it builds exponentially because of what he can do on the field. Planning for him not being on the field should matter. It’s not like with the right supporting cast, the Packers could put me in there and be OK. But focusing on building a roster that supports Rodgers, first and foremost, should be the goal.