The Importance of the Backup Quarterback

Ross Waddell (@RossWaddell92) takes a look at the importance of the back up quarterback position following Andy Dalton’s signing with the Cowboys.

I woke up early on Sunday morning to the news that Dallas had signed former Bengals QB, Andy Dalton to a one year deal worth up to $7m. Instantly, I read a number of takes ranging from this being another excellent move in a promising offseason to this move indicating a reluctant admission that the Cowboys may need to move on from current starter Dak Prescott should be be unwilling to sign a long term extension with America’s Team.

The first thought that I had was that it’s another sign of the change from the previous regime which, in recent seasons, devalued the backup QB position to the extent that they expended, at most, a fifth round pick on Mike White in 2018, but otherwise were content to trust their title chances on undrafted back up QB Cooper Rush should Prescott be injures. The move to sign Dalton is the move of an organisation that believes it is on the verge of a Super Bowl title. Whilst Dak Prescott has played every game since assuming that starter role (ironically, as a back up for the injured Tony Romo in 2016), he has, because of his playing style and the inherent risk in playing in the NFL, suffered injuries which have limited him in some games (most recently an arm/hand injury before the vital match against the Eagles in Week 16 last season). The reality is that starting quarterbacks are always at risk of significant injuries. Whilst the coaching staff may have departed, the Cowboys front office may not have forgotten the chastening experience of 2015 when, fresh off a play off run the year before, the Cowboys went into the season with high expectations only to lose Romo to a collarbone injury twice (week two against the Eagles; week 12 against the Panthers). They subsequently went 4-12 for the season and 1-11 without Romo and instead under the stewardship of a combination of Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore.

The 2015 season will have haunted Jerry Jones who knows that his own window to win another Super Bowl is closing. Jerry hopes that this year, his team can finally return to the sport’s biggest stage and hoist the Lombardi Trophy aloft. 

The Cowboys clearly feel that they have a great roster this season, after a strong draft and smart free agency business. This is another clever move to maximise their chances in 2020. Dalton is instantly considered to be a high end backup, which is why he was initially linked with the Patriots and Jaguars, neither of whom seem set at the game’s most important position.

So what is the importance of a backup QB in recent history? The Eagles famously won their first Super Bowl with a backup QB, Nick Foles, under centre having lost MVP candidate, Carson Wentz, to a season ending injury in week 14. The Eagles are a team who, more than most, appreciate the importance of the backup position hence we’ve seen them invest a second round pick in Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts in the draft. It is legitimate to question whether, at that spot and given other needs, picking Hurts was excessive or wasteful whilst Cam Newton and Joe Flacco are available (and Dalton would be soon to be available after the Bengals picked Joe Burrow). However, it’s a sensible move to get a high end backup behind an injury prone QB1 and if Wentz misses time this season with Hurts stepping in successfully, you can be sure that Howie Roseman will be praised for his foresight. 

The reigning Super Bowl champions show the basic premise of what teams hope to achieve from their backup. When the Kansas City Chiefs saw Pat Mahomes crumpled under a mass of bodies with a worrying knee injury in week seven last season, the prospect of winning a Super Bowl would have seemed a million miles away. Fortunately for the Chiefs, Mahomes was only out for two games and perennial backup Matt Moore stepped in to lead the Chiefs to a 1-1 record in his absence keeping the Chiefs on track to win their division. That is really what you hope if your backup steps in – that he can, as a minimum, go right around .500 to keep your team in touch. In 2005, Ben Roethlisberger missed four games, during which the Steelers went 2-2 before Big Ben returned to lead the Steelers to a Super Bowl victory.  

The Chiefs, Steelers and Eagles are not alone in receiving help from their backup QB on the way to winning on the biggest stage. To start the 2016-17 season, legendary QB Tom Brady was banned for four games following the “Deflategate” scandal. At the time, the rest of the AFC would have been licking their lips at the thought of the Pats being potentially 0-4 or 1-3. In his absence, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett stepped in to lead the Patriots to a 3-1 record and set the Pats on the way to another Super Bowl victory.

Whilst they may not have won the Super Bowl, the Saints still succeeded last season under the direction of a backup QB, Teddy Bridgewater, after starter Drew Brees missed five games with a thumb injury. In his absence, Bridgewater won all five games and parlayed that into a three year, $63m contract with division rivals, the Carolina Panthers. The Saints may have lost Teddy Bridgewater this offseason but have, instead, replaced him with a low cost, potentially high upside back up in Jameis Winston, a former number one overall pick. In addition, they’re paying Taysom Hill up to $21m over the next two seasons. 

By contrast, look at the impact that a bad backup can have. Like the Cowboys in 2015, the Green Bay Packers approached  the 2017 season with Super Bowl aspirations and they started strongly with a 4-1 record. Disaster struck against the Vikings as the Packers lost Aaron Rodgers to a collarbone injury. In his absence, the Packers went 3-5 and ultimately finished the season with a 7-9 record to miss out on the playoffs. Brett Huntley, Rodgers’ understudy, threw nine touchdowns and 12 interceptions. 

The Cowboys and Saints will hope that neither Dalton nor Winston throw a meaningful pass in 2020. The quarterback is undeniably the most important position in all of sport, but history tells us that success can still be achieved with competent backups stepping in when necessary to keep championship dreams alive. Both the Saints and Cowboys have wisely insured their chances of success by signing quality back ups in what is shaping up to be a fascinating NFC this season.

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