If the starting quarterback is the most important player on an NFL team, what does that make the backup? Collectively, the NFC North will get that answer -- perhaps painfully -- in Week 15.
As of Thursday morning, there was a high likelihood that three backup quarterbacks will make starts. Jay Cutler is our only healthy starter, and without him, it's hard to imagine the Chicago Bears in first place of this division.
The Minnesota Vikings appear likely to start rookie Joe Webb against the Bears on Monday night. Green Bay Packers starter Aaron Rodgers (concussion) would need a dramatic recovery by Sunday night to avoid being replaced by Matt Flynn against the New England Patriots. Either Drew Stanton or Shaun Hill will start for a Detroit Lions team that has had Matthew Stafford for parts of only three games this season.
Each team took a unique approach to staffing its quarterback depth. In some cases, politics and stubbornness prevailed over visual evidence. In others, internal disagreement left teams scrambling. While we have a moment this week, let's examine how each NFC North team arrived in its current state.
Starter: Jay Cutler
No. 2: Todd Collins
Experience: 16 years
No. 3: Caleb Hanie
How it happened: There were rumors for much of the offseason that new offensive coordinator Mike Martz preferred a veteran with experience as his backup to Cutler. The Bears' front office apparently thought otherwise, having developed Hanie for two previous seasons and probably unwilling to spend premium money to back up an established starter. But when Hanie injured his shoulder in the preseason opener, Martz finally prevailed. By that time, however, the group of available free agents was thin. Collins was the Bears' choice because he had played in a similar offense for several years in Kansas City. His only start this season was a four-interception disaster against the Carolina Panthers.
Bottom line: With Collins still stacked at No. 2 on the depth chart, the Bears are fortunate Cutler has remained healthy. Quite fortunate.
Starter: Matthew Stafford
No. 2: Shaun Hill
No. 3: Drew Stanton
How it happened: The Lions decided early last offseason to part ways with 2009 backup Daunte Culpepper. They wisely decided against promoting Stanton, a fan favorite who hadn't yet demonstrated the proficiency needed to guide an NFL team on even a short-term basis, and acquired Hill from the San Francisco 49ers. Hill played three seasons under current Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan in Minnesota, and in San Francisco had demonstrated a competitive edge that projected well for short-term appearances.
Bottom line: Hill has proved an ideal No. 2, putting the Lions in position to win most of the games he started. Meanwhile, Linehan altered his offense in Stanton's two starts to capitalize on his strengths as a runner out of the spread formation. At the very least, you can say the same thing about Stanton as you can about Hill: He's a gamer.
Green Bay Packers
Starter: Aaron Rodgers
No. 2: Matt Flynn
No. 3: Graham Harrell (practice squad)
How it happened: Flynn is a classic product of general manager Ted Thompson's philosophy to build depth from within. In the absence of any veteran competition, Flynn won the backup job in 2008 after the Packers made him a seventh-round draft pick, beating out fellow rookie Brian Brohm. To anyone's knowledge, the Packers have never considered a veteran option behind Rodgers, who has started 45 consecutive games since taking over the job. In a handful of appearances over the past three seasons, Flynn has completed 25 of 46 passes for 246 yards and two interceptions.
Bottom line: The fairest way to assess Flynn is that he is a complete unknown and thus a risk for any team with Super Bowl aspirations. More often than not, Thompson's young backups have risen to the occasion. And Flynn has put in three years working with two excellent quarterback tutors in coach Mike McCarthy and quarterbacks coach Tom Clements. But the middle of a playoff chase is not the ideal time to find out if your backup can play winning football.
Starter: Brett Favre
No. 2: Tarvaris Jackson
No. 3: Joe Webb
How it happened: Jackson was the five-year pet project of former coach Brad Childress and therefore had a tenured track to this job. Childress overlooked Jackson's underwhelming preseason and never gave veteran Sage Rosenfels a chance to unseat him. Webb was drafted as a receiver, and my strong suspicion was that Childress switched him to quarterback to provide an avenue to get Rosenfels off the roster. Ultimately, the Vikings traded Rosenfels to the New York Giants shortly before the season.
Bottom line: In parts of two games since Favre sprained his SC joint, Jackson demonstrated none of the improvement the Vikings claimed he had achieved in practice. He threw four interceptions, was inaccurate on routine passes and proved unable to stay healthy. The Vikings thought so highly of Webb at quarterback that they had moved him to receiver in the week before Favre's injury. So the prospect of Webb starting against the Bears' defense shouldn't sit well with any Vikings fan.