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Will Any Backup Quarterbacks Play This Weekend?

On Monday night, Alabama head coach Nick Saban added to his already remarkable legacy with an aggressive coaching decision.  In the national championship game, Saban benched starting quarterback Jalen Hurts — a player who the team was 25-2 with under center and who had thrown one interception in his last 16 games — at halftime of the national championship game. With the Crimson Tide down 13-0, Saban inserted true freshman Tua Tagovailoa into the game, and a couple hours later, Alabama was again national champions and Tagovailoa was the offensive player of the game.

Will any head coach do that this weekend? On the surface, there are three obvious candidates, and four obvious “not gonna happen” situations.

The most concerning quarterback situation is in Philadelphia, where Nick Foles is the starter after Carson Wentz was lost for the season.  If Foles struggles the way he did the last two weeks of the regular season, you can see why the Eagles would consider making a similar switch.

Except Tua Tagovailoa ain’t walking through that door.1 Philadelphia’s backup quarterback is Nate Sudfeld. The former Indiana quarterback had a great college career and played well in a shootout in a winter game in the Northeast in the 2015 Pinstripe Bowl, the last game of his career.  The weather is supposed to be cold, wet, and windy, so the chances of Foles underwhelming are high. But Sudfeld has played in just one game in his career: he took over for Foles and played the majority of the week 17 loss to the Cowboys, where he recorded zero notable statistics.

The most likely case for Sudfeld playing would be if the Eagles defense dominates in a bad weather game, but Foles makes too many mistakes.  Sudfeld is certainly a lower ceiling player than Foles, but if the Eagles need a game manager and are trying to win a 13-10 game, don’t rule out a switch if Foles commits a pair of turnovers.

A much more interesting scenario is in Minnesota, where the Vikings have not just Teddy Bridgewater but Sam Bradford sitting on the bench in the event Case Keenum falters.  Keenum has played well all season, but against the Saints, the Vikings will need to put up points.

The bigger question: if Keenum struggles, which backup quarterback does Mike Zimmer turn to? Bradford was unavailable for much of the regular season, but reports suggest he will be in uniform on Sunday. And Bradford torched the Saints defense way back in week one. Still, Bridgewater feels like the hometown favorite, and the Vikings crowd would erupt into cheers if Bridgewater replaced a struggling Keenum.  And against the talented Saints defense, you don’t have to squint too hard to envision such a scenario.

Finally, we have the Jaguars.  If Blake Bortles continues to struggle as he has the last three weeks, and the Jacksonville defense keeps them in the game, veteran Chad Henne is on the sidelines and ready for action. The former Michigan quarterback hasn’t completed a pass since 2014, while it only feels like it’s been that long for Bortles.

The likely scenario here would be the Jaguars defense playing well but trailing because of Bortles turnovers. In that case, Jacksonville would need to score to win; last week, the Jaguars were content to gain a total of 30 yards and punt three times on the team’s final three drives as they clung to a touchdown lead. But if Jacksonville is down 13-10 thanks to a Bortles pick six, does Henne enter the game in the 4th quarter?

If I had to guess, I’d say Keenum is the most likely quarterback to be benched, followed by Bortles, and then Foles. What do you think?

Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Matt Ryan aren’t getting benched. So that leaves just Marcus Mariota in Tennessee, and it feels very, very unlikely that the Titans would bench him to bring in former Patriot Matt Cassel, who struggled in his only start against his former team. The chance of Cassel appearing are much more reliant on an injury.

Nine years ago, Billy Volek scored the game-winning touchdown for the Chargers in a division round upset of the Colts, but he came in after Philip Rivers tore his ACL. In fact, since the NFL reformatted the playoff system in 1990, no team has ever won in the Division Round after pulling their starting quarterback.

But one team came close. In 1995, Steve Bono was a Pro Bowler and backup Rich Gannon threw just 11 passes. Kansas City went 13-3, but the Chiefs were trailing 10-7 in the 4th quarter against the Colts on a windy, freezing day in Kansas City.  Marty Schottenheimer pulled Bono after the starter threw his third interception of the day and Kansas City was down to its final chance.  Gannon entered the game with just under six minutes remaining and the Chiefs at their own 18-yard line.  He picked up two third downs, one with his arm and one with his legs, and brought Kansas City to the 25-yard line with seconds remaining.  But as every Chiefs fans known: that only set up Lin Elliott to miss his third field goal of the game.

  1. Is this the first time that sentence has been typed before in the history of sports journalism? []
{ 7 comments }
  • Robert Wise

    Saban’s team was not effective running the ball against Georgia. Jalen Hurts is a good player but was playing poorly against the Georgia defense on passing downs, missing open receivers and scrambling into the pass rush. I think Saban knew he had to change something, and in true Nick Saban fashion made the amazing decision to insert the gunslinger from the bench to save the day, and the kid came through.

  • Deacon Drake

    Never understood why teams never let Billy Volek compete for a starting job, yet it seems like every year someone thinks Sam Bradford, or Josh McCown, or Matt Flynn is the answer. Even Drew Stanton got some love from the Jets until Favre came available. Brock Osweiler keeps getting looks. Where’s the outrage for Volek?

    • sacramento gold miners

      Volek had the misfortune of playing for the Titans and Chargers during a time when those clubs were committed to McNair and Rivers. As a free agent coming out of college, Volek did not have a ton of options in terms of going somewhere to compete for a starting job. Barring injury to the starter, he did not have many opportunities to display his talents.

    • Richie

      Interesting. Billy Volek had 561 pass attempts over his ~12 year career. That’s basically one season’s worth of pass attempts for a starter.

      He was 337/561 60% 3,754 27-15 with a 5.41 ANY/A and 84.9 passer rating.

      There were 69 QB’s who attempted at least 500 passes from 2003-2009. Volek ranked 31st in ANY/A among them. Ahead of guys like Kerry Collins, Vinny Testaverde, Matt Cassel, Kyle Orton, Jon Kitna, Vince Young, Drew Bledsoe, Michael Vick, Joey Harrington, Josh McCown and Alex Smith.

      Of course, most of those guys were highly drafted. (In fact, Collins, Testaverde, Bledsoe, Vick, Harrington and Smith were all top-3 picks.) I think that shows how much pedigree matters when coaches and GM’s are making their personnel decisions. Teams kept giving Harrington a shot since he was a top 3 pick. But in his 2,500+ attempts, he never really showed much ability to be an NFL QB.

      But since Volek was undrafted, nobody wanted to commit to him. It’s interesting how a couple years of college football holds so much more weight than actual NFL performance.

      I keep assuming that Case Keenum’s season is a fluke (like one of those Josh McCown or Damon Huard seasons). But maybe teams have just been too quick to give up on him, since he was undrafted. But looking back, the coaches who gave up on him were Bill O’Brien and Jeff Fisher, both of whose QB decisions are starting to look bad in hindsight. Plus, isn’t Keenum is the all-time leader in passing yardage in college football history, by over 2,000 yards.

      Maybe the NFL just downgraded Keenum too much based on his system in college.

      “Strengths: Reads the defense and gets rid of the ball quickly.
      Has a nice, easy release. Possesses good vision and keeps his eyes down
      field when moving around in the pocket.

      Weaknesses: Keenum’s production was due in part to an
      offensive system that allowed him to take advantage of the short passing
      game. Has questionable arm strength. Almost exclusively a shotgun
      quarterback in college. Torn ACL in 2010.”

      • Richie

        The Cardinals drafted Ryan Lindley (from San Diego St) in the 6th round in 2012, with Case Keenum still on the board. In 2014, the Cardinals were 11-3 and holding the #1 seed in the NFC, when Drew Stanton went down. Lindley came in and the team lost the final 2 games and then their playoff game.

        Makes me wonder what would have happened that year if they had taken Keenum instead.

    • Mark Growcott

      Volek had a great opportunity going into the 2006 season after McNair was traded to the Ravens. Fisher named Volek the starter and all was going well until Fisher then decided to sign Kerry Collins during camp. The story goes that the signing of Collins upset Volek and drove a wedge between himself and Fisher and Volek was subsequently traded to the Chargers. The Titans who had drafted Vince Young earlier that year, started Collins in the first 3 games of the season and then turned to Young. Going to the Chargers was never going to give Volek any great exposure and so there he remained entrenched as the back-up.

      Volek who had filled in admirably for McNair during that 2004 season had few opportunities in 2005 with a now relatively healthy McNair at the helm and so perhaps if he had been able to latch onto another team in need of a QB at the start of that 2005 season then his fortunes may have changed but by 2006 and his best opportunity gone with the Titans he faced a decidedly gloomy future.

      He will always be remembered for becoming just the 4th QB at the time (after Fouts, Marino and Simms) to Pass for 400 Yds in consecutive games.

    • Mark Growcott

      Volek had an opportunity (albeit probably short term) going into the 2006 season after McNair was traded to the Ravens. Fisher named Volek the starter and all was going well until Fisher then decided to sign Kerry Collins during camp. The story goes that the signing of Collins upset Volek and drove a wedge between himself and Fisher and Volek was subsequently traded to the Chargers. The Titans who had drafted Vince Young earlier that year, started Collins in the first 3 games of the season and then turned to Young. Going to the Chargers was never going to give Volek any great exposure and so there he remained entrenched as the back-up.

      Volek who had filled in admirably for McNair during that 2004 season had few opportunities in 2005 with a now relatively healthy McNair at the helm and so perhaps if he had been able to latch onto another team in need of a QB at the start of that 2005 season, then his fortunes may have changed but by 2006 and his best opportunity gone with the Titans, he faced a decidedly gloomy future.

      He will always be remembered for becoming just the 4th QB at the time (after Fouts, Marino and Simms) to Pass for 400 Yds in consecutive games.