Commentary

Backup QBs need more practice time

NFL teams let replacements fall behind. No wonder they can't take over in a pinch

Updated: November 12, 2013, 2:01 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Rodgers-TolzienAP Photo/Mike RoemerBackup QB Scott Tolzien (left) is just a placeholder for the Packers until Aaron Rodgers returns.

Here's a question for every NFL quarterback: What did you know about the game you're paid to play, and when did you know it? I ask this because backup quarterbacks seem to be -- speaking objectively and scientifically -- the least prepared humans in the entire world when it comes to doing their jobs.

The quarterback situation is nearing crisis stage for the NFL. Whenever a league invests so much of its capital -- money and marketing -- on one position, the whole enterprise can suffer when that position looks the way it does now, with close to half the guys taking snaps so ill-equipped to succeed that every game they play is borderline unwatchable.

The distance between the top-rung quarterbacks (four, maybe five) and the lowest-rung quarterbacks (nine, maybe 10) is a long plane ride. The unsightly mess at the bottom is masked only by the four-headed Rushmore at the top -- Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, four of the best in history.

In a way, the inequity only underscores the issue: A flawed team with a good quarterback is in better shape than a good team with a flawed quarterback. And don't even bring up the topic of backups. Aside from the currently transcendent Nick Foles, you'd rather have the eighth-string dentist drilling on your teeth than the second-string quarterback taking snaps for your team.

[+] EnlargeJeff Tuel
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesThe Bills will not have to "settle" for Jeff Tuel (0-2) again with EJ Manuel (2-3) and Thad Lewis (1-2) returning from injuries.

Here's a big topic of conversation this week: Should Peyton Manning sit out to rest his bad ankle? Sure he should, providing the Broncos are willing to look like the Raiders for a week or two.

Despite the increased vigilance when it comes to activity that could produce injury -- and can we all agree "point of emphasis" is the worst phrase in sports? -- this season has produced an inordinate number of quarterback injuries, which have, in turn, produced an inordinate number of thousand-yard stares from their backups.

The surest way to become a bad NFL team is to lose a good quarterback.

Rodgers broke his collarbone and the idea of the Packers winning games ceased to be a topic of conversation. Every non-Rodgers game on the Packers' schedule immediately went from potentially memorable to undoubtedly forgettable. To replace him, the Packers went through the ex-49er section of their Rolodex -- Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien -- before signing Matt Flynn on Monday. What are the realistic prospects for Green Bay without Rodgers? Survival? Another out-of-his-mind game from Tolzien? Sure, they hope they can win a game or two while Rodgers hurries up and gets better, but the greater hope is for Rodgers to hurry up and get better.

The quarterback situation in the NFC North is so dire that Detroit is considered the prohibitive favorite, largely because Matthew Stafford is the only starting quarterback left standing.

It's the same story throughout the league. Just as the Bills got excited about EJ Manuel, they went through Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel before reverting back to Manuel. Just as the Titans were coming around to the idea of Jake Locker becoming what they envisioned, he got hurt and they'll have to look at Ryan Fitzpatrick for the rest of the year.

How bad is it? This bad: The Rams, maybe on the basis of serious study of the latest round of Wrangler commercials, placed a call to Brett Favre. This fact might have more to do with a lack of imagination among front-office personnel than a lack of quarterback talent in the greater football community, but think about it: The Vikings, near the end of the calendar year 2013, decided Brett Favre was the best available option.

At the risk of sounding like an apologist, maybe the fault doesn't lie entirely at the feet of the quarterbacks in question.

After talking to Terrelle Pryor for a story in the Quarterback Issue of ESPN The Magazine, I came away shaking my head at all the things he didn't know coming out of Ohio State. Even after two years in the NFL, he conceded that he had no idea how to take a proper drop, release the ball quickly and manage a game.

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
AP Photo/Kathy WillensTerrelle Pryor is 2-3 so far this season with a quarterback rating of 69.0 and a 30.7 QBR.

How does this happen? How does a quarterback with Pryor's obvious ability -- or any NFL quarterback with any ability, for that matter -- get left behind?

In Pryor's case, he was good enough in college to win games without learning the intricacies of the position. He could throw the ball to wide-open receivers, run through tackles on the read-option and turn broken plays into huge gains. What else did Ohio State need? Nothing, but now that Pryor's a starting quarterback, all those things that should have come naturally years ago get tossed aside in the heat of the moment.

Another factor: Backups don't get the practice repetitions they need to step in and be proficient. Do you think Peyton, in all his obsessive glory, ever steps aside in practice and says to Brock Osweiler, "Hey kid, take the next 10 snaps so you're ready in case something happens to me"? That's about as likely as a veteran Dolphins offensive lineman picking up the tab. Pryor says he resorted to standing behind Carson Palmer and mimicking everything he did -- drops, handoffs, rollouts -- in an effort to get the most out of his time.

Keep all this in mind when you watch, or try to watch, as guys in the most important position in professional sports attempt on-the-job training. And keep these five names in mind while you're at it:

Ryan Fitzpatrick. Terrelle Pryor. Case Keenum. Jason Campbell. Jeff Tuel.

This isn't meant to harsh the mellow of the Chiefs' undefeated season, but those are the last five quarterbacks they've beaten.

Hey, all you can do is beat the guy they put in front of you, right? It's just that in some games it's far easier than others.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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