(Drew Stanton photo courtesy of the Arizona Cardinals)
(Michael Vick photo courtesy of Karl Roser/Pittsburgh Steelers)
By Rick Gosselin
Talk of Fame Network
The Arizona Cardinals were riding high nine weeks into the 2014 season.
They were 8-1 in the NFC West for a two-game lead over the defending NFL champion Seattle Seahawks.
Carson Palmer was at his rejuvenated best for the Cardinals. He threw 11 TD passes with only three interceptions and was unbeaten in his six starts. He passed for 300 yards in victories over San Diego and Philadelphia and lit the Cowboys up for three touchdowns passes in a road victory. His swagger was contagious.
The Cardinals even survived a three-game injury absence by Palmer in the opening month of the season. His backup, Drew Stanton, beat the Giants on the road and the 49ers at home before losing his third start at Denver. There’s certainly no shame in losing to Peyton Manning at Mile High Stadium.
Palmer returned at that point and reeled off five consecutive victories, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury in that ninth game. Stanton again stepped in and won three of his next five starts to keep the Cardinals a game ahead of the Seahawks in the West with two weeks to play. But Stanton himself suffered a season-ending knee injury in that 14th game, a 12-6 victory over the Rams in St. Louis.
Forced to play their third option at quarterback, Ryan Lindley, the Cardinals lost their final two regular season games to miss out on the division title, then succumbed meekly to the Carolina Panthers in the opening round of the playoffs.
How would the Cardinals have fared if Palmer had been able to stay healthy for 16 games? Would Arizona have been the NFC West champion and a Super Bowl participant? That’s the double achieved by the one team that benefited most from Palmer’s absence, the Seahawks.
An injury at the quarterback position is the great fear of all NFL head coaches. The NFL has become a quarterback-driven league, with a large chunk of salary-cap dollars spent each season on the guy who throws the football. But not to his backup.
The talent gap between a team’s first option at quarterback and the second option is Grand Canyon-esque in most cases. Dallas, New Orleans and Pittsburgh all had Super Bowl aspirations this season based on the arms of their veteran Pro Bowl quarterbacks: Tony Romo, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger. All are now playing with backups. Chicago also has had to replace Jay Cutler because of an injury.
The deck is stacked against those backup quarterbacks.
Last season, there were 16 teams that managed to keep their starting quarterbacks upright, healthy and on the field for the entire 16-game schedule. Nine of those teams advanced to the playoffs. Those 16 teams won a combined 58 percent of their games.
The other 16 teams needed backup quarterbacks to get through the season. In addition to the Cardinals, five other teams had to go three-deep at the quarterback position. Twenty-two backup quarterbacks were asked to start games last season. They posted a combined 42-70 record, a modest winning percentage of 37.5.
There have been exceptions over the years. Randall Cunningham went 13-1 filling in for the injured Brad Johnson at Minnesota in 1998. Tom Brady went 11-3 filling in for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001, and Roethlisberger went 13-0 filling in for an injured Tommy Maddox in 2004.
But, like I said, those are the exceptions. The rare exceptions.
Since 2000, when NFL teams have been able to keep their first option at quarterback on the field, they have won 52.5 percent of their games. But when the backups — the second, third and fourth options — have been forced to play, the winning has decreased to 35 percent.
Now Brandon Weeden has the fate of the Cowboys’ season in his hands these next seven weeks. Michael Vick holds the fate of the Steelers in his over the next 4-6 weeks and Luke McCown the fate of the Saints in his for another week or so.
Maybe one or more of them will pull it off, but the deck is stacked against them.