Mad scramble at quarterback

10/24/2013 - NFL

Maybe the growing number of injuries at quarterback will alter a baffling trend.

Quarterback is the most important position in football. Teams can't win without a good one. Despite that reality, more teams are rolling the dice regarding backups. Fourteen teams started the season with only two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. Fifteen teams gambled with backups who had two or fewer wins to their credit.

This year, injuries are starting to hit the teams that kept two, and it's creating plenty of scrambling. The St. Louis Rams lost Sam Bradford in Week 7. They had only veteran Kellen Clemens, who does have experience in Brian Schottenheimer's system, as a backup. They had to scramble to add Brady Quinn and Austin Davis.

No team had to do more scrambling than the Buffalo Bills, who opened the season with rookies EJ Manuel and Jeff Tuel as the only quarterbacks on the roster. Manuel injured his knee, and Tuel, who was undrafted, wasn't ready for the job. The Bills moved Thad Lewis from the practice squad and later brought in Matt Flynn to learn the offense as a veteran.

They've survived. But will others do as well?

The pool of experienced backup quarterbacks is at an all-time low, and the league needs to figure out ways to fix that problem. A development league is desperately needed. When the New York Jets added David Garrard off the exempt list and put him on the active roster, Garrard became only the 16th backup quarterback with more than two wins on active rosters.

The alarming number of injuries this season should prompt owners to consider modifications on roster configurations. It's time to think about allowing teams to dress more than 46 players for games. Coaches shouldn't have to short themselves at quarterback to add an extra special-teams player.

Unfortunately, it looks as though the number of quarterback injuries will increase going forward. Bradford, Jay Cutler and Nick Foles all went down Sunday. Sacks are up. Pass attempts are up. More quarterbacks are running. That's a formula for injuries, and too many teams may not be able to handle such losses.

Teams need to be better prepared for quarterback injuries. The position is too important to neglect.

From the inbox

Q: With the Cleveland Browns' woes at most offensive skill positions, is it feasible to give Greg Little a try at the running back position? He's a tremendous athlete who might be better served as a third-down back than a third or fourth receiver.

Jessy in Youngstown, Ohio

A: From a size standpoint, Little, who is 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, could do it, but I think that would be the wrong type of move. First, you wonder if he could handle blocking blitzing linebackers or big pass-rushers. Second, if he would make the conversion, it would be more on third downs, where he could also be used as a pass-catcher. Little needs work on his hands. While some people project him as a good No. 2 wide receiver, he has shown he's probably a No. 3. I think he should stay as a No. 3 wide receiver instead of being a backup running back.

Q: My question is regarding player safety. Each week defensive players get flagged/fined for helmet-to-helmet hits. During the Broncos game, Colts punter Pat MacAfee clearly hit Trindon Holliday with a helmet-to-helmet hit, but no flag was thrown. Do the refs/league "let these go" since kickers are largely viewed as poor tacklers? When was the last time a kicker was fined for a hit? With the league pushing player safety, isn't this a double standard?

Sampson in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

A: Holliday doesn't get the protection of being a defenseless wide receiver because he was making a return and was considered a runner. A runner can protect himself. I do think there is a special exemption on this hit. First, it was clear the hit was helmet on helmet. Holliday is only 5-5. McAfee was trying to get his shoulders into him. In bringing down his body to deliver the hit, his helmet was going to angle toward Holliday's helmet. I don't know if he could have avoided such a helmet hit. We'll see what the NFL decides after watching the tape. If they believe it was a helmet hit, McAfee could get a fine. I don't think he deserves one, though.

Q: To buy additional time, quarterbacks tend to roll away from pressure and head to the sideline while keeping their eyes downfield. As they approach the sideline, logic dictates they should step out of bounds or throw the ball away. However, more times than I think would be normal, they dance along that sideline and get popped (like Nick Foles did this weekend). What is the reason for quarterbacks consistently trying to squeeze every last second out of a busted pass play? Are QBs taught to do that or is that just their competitive fire? Do you find most QB injuries occur this way?

Zubin in Stamford, Conn.

A: Great point. Quarterbacks are just trying to make plays, but when a quarterback gets greedy, he pays a price. Russell Wilson may be the smartest scrambler in football because he's usually looking to go out of bounds. But even he will try to squeeze out the extra chunk of yards in fourth quarters if he thinks it will move the chains. Quarterbacks have to be smarter. The rate of quarterbacks doing down this year is becoming scary. Foles and Bradford have to do better jobs of protecting themselves.

Q: Even though roster sizes are determined by the labor agreement and nothing can be done for many years, why don't they expand them? There's the obvious problems of keeping within the salary cap and the owners' desire to push for an 18-game schedule, which would prohibit both sides from agreeing to bigger rosters. However, it would seem to be a logical benefit to both players and owners if the overall roster and game-day roster could be expanded. Teams could keep more developmental players and continue to work with them. Expanded game-day rosters would allow teams to keep fresh legs out there and possibly cut down on some game injuries. It would also allow greater depth during a game when the same position loses two players to injury. The owners would gain cheaper developed players who would be better prepared to play, and the players would add to their ranks in the NFLPA.

Brian in Austin, Texas

A: You are correct. Nothing will be done until major adjustments occur in the salary cap. But you are on the right path. Something needs to be done. It wouldn't be a bad idea to study having more than 46 active plays. Teams pay 53, and they fall into dangerous patterns in putting their 46-man rosters together in a time of increased injuries. Most teams keep seven active offensive linemen. That's become a bad idea. Oakland suffered two offensive line injuries early in a game and had to move a guard who had never snapped the ball to center. If all teams had the luxury of keeping eight or nine offensive linemen, that shortage would never be a problem. Having more than 46 active players might entice teams to have a third quarterback around.

Q: I sent in a message last year before the draft addressing the Houston Texans and their offensive line. From what I have seen so far this year, Chris Myers and Wade Smith are really starting to show their age. Myers is still the intelligent player that has allowed him to play well in years past, but he just isn't able to consistently get to plays in time and hasn't been able to get to the second level consistently at all. Smith just isn't able to pull out like he has before, and neither has been able to have a consistent push in the run game, which is what this offense lives by. They are also showing serious signs of wearing down later in games, which is a big problem. Is it time for the Texans to really address the interior of their offensive line?

Josh in Forest Grove, Ore.

A: It is heading in that direction. I would say replacing most of the offensive line wouldn't be the team's biggest priority, but the Texans need to start drafting interior players and begin the long-term search. Houston runs a complicated offensive line system, so it needs experienced hands to work it properly. The Texans have made commitments to find young guards and tackles. General manager Rick Smith isn't like some general managers who neglect using good draft choices to take good, young offensive linemen. The team is tight against the cap, so free agency isn't much of an option in the next couple of years. The big assignment for Smith is figuring out what to do with Matt Schaub and seeing if there is a suitable replacement for him next year.

Q: Do you think it's time for coaches to abandon the old-school type thinking of clock management in the final minutes of a game? There was a time when playing conservative, calling running plays and basically conceding to punt in exchange for taking time off the clock and forcing other teams to burn their timeouts made sense and was effective. However, in today's game it does not seem to be effective at all. Today's passing games, quarterbacks and receivers are far more efficient and explosive than they have ever been. Teams are able to get down the field and into scoring position in a minimal number of plays while taking very little time off the clock regardless of the number of timeouts they have.

Scott in Minnesota

A: Those coaches who don't go to the new school won't be coaches long. The game has changed. Being too conservative can lead to defeat. I watched the Lions go from midfield after a punt into field goal range with only 34 seconds left on the clock. It set up an easy field goal. Matt Ryan and other quarterbacks don't need more than 50 seconds to drive from their 20 into scoring range. The key for new-school football is finding a way to get two or three first downs in the four-minute offense. Great question.