Editor's note: Periodically, we'll be taking on the myths of the NFL, and what it takes in order to build a contending team. This is the first post of that series.
There has been a lot of discussion over the last few days about the Colts' backup quarterback situation. Most of it has been thinly veiled (or not veiled at all) criticism towards Bill Polian and the rest of the Colts' front office.
Fans and critics alike have railed on the GM for not acquiring a suitable backup quarterback prior to the Manning tragedy of 2011. The Colts are now stuck with a 38-year old (although he looks about 50) Kerry Collins quarterbacking the team on the fly, with Curtis Painter in the backseat. The situation the franchise finds themselves in now has resulted (so far) in an ugly 34-7 loss to the Houston Texans. Without Manning, the Colts fell, and fell hard.
So, should the Colts have had a better solution readily available in the case of Manning's departure? Did they make a grave mistake?
The answer, despite the growing crowd of pundits calling for Polian's head, is a loud, resounding no.
One article that caught my attention on this subject was that of Greg Gabriel at the National Football Post. In my opinion, it really sums up the opinions of a lot of Colts' fans, and is the best piece I've seen articulating why Polian should have taken care of this before.
Nevertheless, Gabriel is dead wrong. I'm sure Gabriel is a great guy, knowledgeable in the NFL. He's been a scout in the NFL for the Bills and Giants and knows a lot about the business. However, on this issue, he could not be more wrong. From Gabriel:
Which brings up the question of why haven’t the Colts prepared this? As far back as the 2006 season I have had the same thought. When it got to playoff time you had to figure that the Colts were praying that Manning stayed healthy. As Manning goes so go the Colts. Looking at their roster it was clear that if Manning got hurt, they had no one to pick up the slack. Since 2006 the primary backups in Indianapolis have been Jim Sorgi and Curtis Painter.
To answer Gabriel's question: it isn't worth it.
No team in the NFL centered around an elite quarterback is prepared to compete at the same level without him. This is mainly due to the fact that teams simply don't have the money to keep two above average quarterbacks on the roster, especially considering that elite quarterbacks are the highest paid players in the league.
Think about the teams with elite quarterbacks: Indianapolis, Green Bay, New England, San Diego, and New Orleans. Now think about the teams with upper level/edge of elite quarterbacks: Atlanta, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Houston. Just for fun, we'll add another couple of teams with good quarterbacks: Chicago, Tampa Bay, Kansas City (a stretch), and New York (Giants).
What are the backups for those teams? Can you name any of them? Matt Flynn… Vince Young… yep.
Just to add some clarity to the situation, here are those team's backups for 2011: Kerry Collins, Matt Flynn, Brian Hoyer, Billy Volek, and Chase Daniel are the elite quarterback's backups. Chris Redman, Tyrod Taylor, Charlie Batch, Vince Young, and Matt Leinart round out the second tier. The final group includes Caleb Hanie, Josh Johnson, Tyler Palko, and David Carr.
Who in that group could honestly take over the team in case of a season ending injury? Could any of these players lead their teams to victory in the post-season?
Matt Flynn had one good game against the Patriots, but lost. Charlie Batch led the Steelers to a 3-1 record, but only scored over 20 points in one game (in which he only had 186 yards passing). Vince Young probably has the most proven success, but he was pushed out of Tennessee as fast as he would go this past summer. Besides, the Eagles needed a halfway decent backup due to Michael Vick's injury tendencies.
No, in fact, Kerry Collins is the best backup in this list. At least, he's the most proven. Heck, Collins had the 20th best quarterback rating of 2010 (15th in QBR). If Manning went down or was at risk to miss games at some point over the last four years, I have no doubt that the Colts would have gone after a veteran quarterback to hold down the fort.
This is exactly what they did this off-season. While they could (and perhaps should) have done it sooner, the fact is that the Colts did take care of business when it comes to getting a backup for Manning when he was in jeopardy of missing time. Nevertheless, Gabriel contends that the Colts should have pursued a quarterback in the 2011 NFL Draft:
Why would the Colts pass on drafting a developmental quarterback? Well, their thinking at the time of the draft had to be that Manning was fine and they had a quality backup in Painter. The problem many clubs have is they overvalue their own players. They think what they have is better than what they can get in either the draft or free agency.
Why would the Colts spend a valuable draft pick on a quarterback who likely will not see the field for 4-5 years? Manning's surgery was fairly routine, and there was no indication at that point that he wouldn't be ready for the regular season. Besides, even if a developmental quarterback had been drafted, say Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, or Ryan Mallett, would the Colts be in any better of a place than they are today?
Keep in mind that the Colts would have needed to forfeit their top pick for Dalton or Kaepernick, and their second rounder for Mallett. If the Colts had Andy Dalton or Colin Kaepernick right now, without Anthony Castonzo at LT, would the Colts be better or worse?
Even if you think they'd be better, would it result in a playoff spot? No.
Then, Manning would return in 2012 and the young QB would be relegated back to the bench. Drafting a quarterback was, is, and will remain a silly idea for the 2011 draft. Still, Gabriel moves on:
You might give them a pass for not drafting a quarterback but not going after a QB during free agency may be inexcusable… There were quarterbacks out there with valuable experience such as Matt Hasselbeck who may have jumped at the opportunity given the situation but the Colts chose to stand pat until after three weeks of practice and two preseason games — and it became evident that they knew they were in trouble.
Gabriel brings up one guy who was available in free agency: Matt Hasselbeck. You really think Hasselbeck would come to Indianapolis to sit the bench when he could be starting in Tennessee (for more money)? Remember, there was no indication yet that Manning would not be playing this season. Oh, and quick little note, Collins had a better 2010 than Hasselback did.
Besides Hasselbeck, who was out there that the Colts should have pursued? They sure weren't going to go after Kevin Kolb or Kyle Orton. Even if this off-season didn't present the right opportunities, Gabriel argues that the backup position should have been taken care of earlier.
Still in my thinking, upgrading the backup quarterback position was a situation that needed to be addressed a long time ago, not now because of an emergency. Teams like the Patriots have a history of drafting quarterbacks in the mid rounds, developing them and then trading them away for more than they originally paid. It’s a prudent strategy and it pays off. Why haven’t the Colts done the same?
The Patriots have this brilliant strategy? Somebody better let them know about it.
Since Tom Brady became a full-fledged starter, the Patriots have drafted the following players: Rohan Davey, Kliff Kingsbury, Matt Cassel, Kevin O'Connell, Zac Robinson, and Ryan Mallett. Guess what they've gotten from those picks: jack squat.
Out of the six quarterbacks, four were cut. Ryan Mallett is still on the team (a rookie), but is currently the third string quarterback. Matt Cassell was a big surprise, and led the Patriots to a winning season… but not a playoff season. He was traded to the Chiefs for a second round pick (along with Mike Vrabel, who knows what Cassell alone would have brought).
That brilliant strategy of bringing in quarterbacks to develop? It cost the Patriots two third round picks, a fourth and sixth rounder, and two seventh round picks. Not to mention the time and energy spent attempting to develop the young QB's. All that, and all the Patriots have to show for it is a second round pick (who ended up being Patrick Chung) and a third string quarterback. I don't think I'd take that trade.
Just for fun, here are the picks the Colts' took immediately preceding the Pats' genius backup quarterback picks: David Thornton, Cato June, Dave Rayner, Philip Wheeler, Kavell Conner, Benjamin Ijalana. Gee, what were the Colts' thinking?
I would much rather the Colts spend their draft picks on positions of need than waste them on quarterbacks who will likely never pan out. The success rate of quarterbacks taken outside of the top 15 is abysmal, and is definitely not worth the risk, especially with Bill Polian's tendency to find gems in the later rounds of the draft.
Overall, the myth that teams should have a good backup quarterback is nothing but that: a myth. While occasionally a miracle will happen (Aaron Rodgers dropping to the Packers) or a late round surprise will pop up (Matt Cassel/Tom Brady), the vast majority of quarterbacks taken in mid-to-late rounds never give anything in return.
Quarterback is the most influential position on a football team where only one player plays the position (others would be center, kicker, and punter). Quarterbacks also tend to get less dings throughout the season due to the lack of constant hitting. This means that quarterbacks rarely miss a couple of games here and there, cutting way back on the opportunities a backup quarterback would have to "hold down the fort" until the starter was back in.
When a team has a quarterback of elite status, especially on a team as quarterback and offensively driven as the Colts, the team does rest on the quarterbacks shoulders. No backup is going to be able to lead that team to the playoffs, much less a Super Bowl. A team is better off using their draft picks to fill holes in the roster than waste time and picks on backup quarterbacks.
If a situation arises, then the team can pursue a short-term solution, and likely find something better than available options among young quarterbacks (which is exactly what the Colts did this offseason). The need for a good backup quarterback is a myth. It is the most irrelevant position on an NFL team, especially one with an elite, or even above average, quarterback.
He doesn't rotate in to provide depth like a defensive linemen, linebacker, or running back. He isn't someone who comes in for certain situations, such as nickel/dime DB's or coverage linebackers. He isn't a plug and play stop-gap like depth offensive linemen. He can't contribute on special teams.
He's a practice player, someone to keep the defense sharp throughout the week. His appearance in games will likely not affect the outcome in a positive way, no matter who the backup may be. If the starting quarterback is out, the team is not looking good. If the starting quarterback is Peyton Manning, it's a disaster. A different backup quarterback isn't going to change that.