Commentary

Why not play two NFL QBs?

Teams with marginal starters might be better served by splitting snaps

Updated: October 22, 2012, 12:14 PM ET
By Steve Wulf | ESPN.com

C'mon, men.

Surely, one of you NFL coaches is willing to try something Tom Landry and Bill Walsh tried. Last I looked, 23 of the 32 teams are at .500 or below after Week 6, and 10 of your starting field generals have a standard passer rating below 80.0.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez, Tim Tebow
Elsa/Getty ImagesTim Tebow hands off to Mark Sanchez.

Not all quarterbacks are created equal. Many of them don't have national ad campaigns. For every Aaron Rodgers, there is a Brandon Weeden.

Yet all of you are still locked into the age-old assumption that you have to name a starting quarterback and stick with him for every snap of the game and every game of the season until it's irrevocably lost. You all buy into the belief that One Quarterback Fits All, at least until the day you read that your job is on the line.

Do the Jaguars coaches believe Blaine Gabbert will magically turn into Peyton Manning by virtue of his being out there all the time? Why are the blustery, tough-talking Jets so afraid of a little conjunction like "and" -- as in Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow. Where is it writ in stone that Philip Rivers, caught in a death spiral of inadequacy, can't be replaced by Charlie Whitehurst in the second half? Hell, even Justin Verlander gets pulled every once in a while.

Yes, I know the expression, "If you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks." I'm also familiar with the appellation "Smelley Garcia" to describe a quarterback platoon -- in honor of the former University of South Carolina tandem of Chris Smelley and Stephen Garcia.

No, I don't know any more about football than the casual fan does. I marvel at the long hours and ingenious schemes that you coaches put in, and I understand the need to make your quarterback a leader.

But every once in a while, you have to think outside of your headsets and try something new. Isn't it possible that the macho one-man system is an anachronism and that a well-planned job-share is an opportunity?

So, in the manner of a skeptic, and not an expert, let me pose some questions:

1. If you're trying to protect your long-term investment at quarterback, doesn't it make sense to lessen the risk of injury by giving him the occasional breather? Times change: Starting pitchers don't throw 300 innings any more, and hockey forwards no longer take two-minute shifts. As the speed and size of football players have increased, so has the force of impact. So why subject your most important player to constant, relentless danger? What if the Eagles gave the ribs of Michael Vick a rest every once in a while and sent in Nick Foles for a series?

[+] EnlargeKevin Kolb, John Skelton
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesSure there's only one ball during the game, but on some teams it might make sense to share it between QBs like Kevin Kolb and John Skelton.

2. If the object of an offensive scheme is to keep the defense guessing, what better way to do that than with a different -- and prepared -- quarterback? The Wildcat is an attempt to confuse, but it still feels like a telegraphed punch. When teams like the Cardinals have uninjured co-equals like Kevin Kolb and John Skelton, they can mix and match and muddle. If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, at least try to catch the defense off guard.

3. Why not have different quarterbacks for different situations? Go with the gunslinger if you're behind, or the ball-control guy if you're trying to eat yards and clock. Change quarterbacks according to down and distance the way defenses alter their personnel.

4. Do we really need the drama? Because there's so much emotional investment tied to the anointment of a starting quarterback, the Jets ended up with Sanchez versus Tebow rather than Sanchez with Tebow. So now they're married to a guy with a 70.9 passer rating while Tebow becomes the most dangerous punt protector in the history of the game.

5. Why not use quarterback substitution as a motivational tool? Don't be afraid to sit a starter who's having a bad day, if only temporarily. As the saying goes, "Only the mediocre are always at their best." If A-Rod can sit, so can Romo. And who knows? Maybe the sub will provide a spark. (See A.J. Feeley, 1/6/02, Eagles-Bucs.)

6. What are you paying the backup quarterback for? If it's to hold a clipboard and the ball for kicks, he's being underutilized. You chose him for a reason, and you probably put some thought into it. Why not go with the thought every once in a while?

7. How many elite quarterbacks are really out there? Archie and Olivia Manning stopped having children, so there goes the source of three of the last six Super Bowl-winning QBs. In fact, 10 of the last 11 Super Bowls have been won by the Big Six: Eli and Peyton Manning, Brady, Roethlisberger, Brees and Rodgers. They're a rare breed, so why not increase your chances of finding The Man by giving more quarterbacks an opportunity?

The last labor agreement helps you do just that. Because there's a rookie salary cap, a team can draft two promising quarterbacks fairly high, as the Redskins did with Robert Griffin III (first round) and Kirk Cousins (fourth). That will narrow the gap between starter and backup, and make an injury to the starter less catastrophic.

[+] EnlargeJoe Montana, Ray Wersching
AP PhotoImagine if Joe Montana had been left to just hold for kicks.

I hear the arguments that a two-quarterback system has never really worked, at least in the NFL. But it's a relatively small sample size. And keep in mind that two of them involved Hall of Fame quarterbacks and coaches: Roger Staubach, whom Landry paired with Craig Morton in 1971, and Joe Montana, who understudied Steve DeBerg in 1980 for Walsh. It didn't win them Super Bowls, but it did help their development.

But what do I know? Certainly a lot less than Steve Clarkson, the quarterback guru who has tutored Roethlisberger among many others. "I do believe in having an alpha quarterback," says Clarkson, "but not every team has one. So if you don't, why not utilize the quarterbacks you do have? What's the harm in the Browns using Colt McCoy every once in a while instead of Brandon Weeden? You want to show faith in your guy, but you don't have to put him out there for every down to do that.

"What you can't do is have two very different quarterbacks on the same team, a mobile guy and a pocket passer. Offenses aren't that versatile. That's why I thought Tebow and Vick was a better match than Tebow and Sanchez. But I think the day will come when teams start using multiple quarterbacks."

While we're waiting for that day, though, we're going to have watch Aaron Rodgers do hundreds of State Farm commercials.

Coaches, it's time for a Discount Double Check.

Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer