There are only two absolutes in the NFL. First, you need elite quarterback play to make it to the Super Bowl. Second, it's a league where the next man on the depth chart needs to be ready to step in at any moment and play. (There was a third absolute, eloquently stated once by Herm Edwards, but after watching the Jets last year we can no longer say that you do, in fact, play to win the game.) Combine those two absolutes, and what's the result?
Brady in 2001. Warner in 1999. Hostetler in 1990. Williams in 1987. Who among the NFC's second-best signal callers is ready to join their company in 2013?
We'll start with David Carr, Giants backup who's only thrown 61 passes in the last five seasons combined while looking fully capable in his preseason opportunities. Sure, he's 34. But he's a FRESH 34! And just think of the "FORMER FIRST PICK MAKES GOOD" narratives.
In the three games where he came on in replacement of an injured Robert Griffin, Redskins backup Kirk Cousins only completed 47 percent of his passes; he was better in his lone start (a road win in Cleveland), but even that had a rocky beginning, as Cousins went 1/6 for 4 yards, an interception, and a sack on the first three Washington drives. He may get there yet, but Cousins doesn't currently have the seasoning to join the list of legendary QB2s.
Lack of experience, however, doesn't apply to the Dallas Cowboys' Kyle Orton, who hasn't won consecutive games as a starter since 2009. Take his last 16 starts, and you'll only find five games where Orton threw more touchdowns than picks. Most damning? Kyle Orton is a major reason why Tim Tebow is a frequent topic of NFL conversation.
One interesting development in the Nick Foles experience last season with the Philadelphia Eagles: in his first three starts, Foles only attempted 18 deep passes, completing just five. In his next three starts, Foles improved to 11/28 on deep throws. On the other hand, it's entirely possible Foles wins the starting job, in which case no, we're not picking Mike Vick to come off the bench and win a Super Bowl.
The pick: Carr. I don't know exactly how much psychotherapy it takes to get over being sacked 200 times in your first four seasons, but six years' worth seems like a reasonable amount.
Now with the San Francisco 49ers, Colt McCoy's best game for the Cleveland Browns was a loss to a 4-12 Bengals team: 19/25, 243 yards and two touchdowns. Seattle Seahawks backup Brady Quinn's best game as a Brown: 21/33, 304 yards, four touchdowns, and a loss to a Lions team that went 2-14. What I'm trying to say here is that replacing Colin Kaepernick with McCoy or Russell Wilson with Quinn would cause civil unrest so widespread martial law would be imposed across the Pacific time zone.
Entering his eighth season, St. Louis Rams' backup Kellen Clemens has clear pros and cons as a quarterback. Biggest negative? He's never thrown for multiple touchdowns in a game. Not once. Biggest positive? Always keeps his hair neat and tidy. "But Austin Davis could beat him out!" you retort. It's a good point, but I'm already uncomfortable with how much we've talked about the Rams, so too bad.
That leaves us with the Arizona Cardinals' largely untested Drew Stanton, who hasn't thrown a regular season pass in the last two seasons. Of course, he's been behind Matt Stafford in his 41-touchdown year and Andrew Luck in those two years, so you can understand why opportunity wasn't knocking much.
The pick: We'll take a chance here and settle on Stanton, mostly because the guy who came up with "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't" didn't have to watch Brady Quinn bumble around.
Minnesota Vikings backup Matt Cassel stepped into the starting role for the Patriots in 2008 when Tom Brady was lost within the first eight minutes of the season, and he was . . . totally competent! Ten wins as a starter, a healthy 63 percent completion percentage, roughly a 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio -- yes, the future seemed bright. But Kansas City is where futures go to die, and die Cassel's did in his four years with the Chiefs.
Perhaps no backup quarterback in the NFL has a smaller body of work than the Green Bay Packers' Graham Harrell, who's only thrown four regular season passes in his career to date. Sure, Harrell's name is all over the career leaders list in the college game. But what happened on his first play as a professional?
That's . . . less than confidence-inspiring.
(points to chart) (raises eyebrows) (pantomimes vomiting)
The pick: Some flowers flourish when given plenty of sunshine, while others thrive best with less light. Matt Cassel is a delicate flower of the latter sort, not to be exposed to the blinding brightness of being a Week 1 starter. Welcome back to the cool shade of backupdom, Matt.
Given that I have no idea who's going to win the second-string job for the New Orleans Saints, I'll write this in such a way that it can fit either option. Ahem.
"Journeyman quarterback (Luke McCown/Seneca Wallace) arrives in the Big Easy looking to prove he's still got something to contribute in his 10th season. After years toiling on teams with inferior supporting casts, could this be the roster that lets (McCown/Wallace) ride off victoriously into the sunset? Call us optimists, but we think the answer could be (fart noise/fart noise)."
Things are less hazy in Atlanta, where Falcons backup Dominique Davis is quite possibly the only man in college football history to lose to Virginia Tech and beat UCF at two different schools. Then, of course, there's his work as a pro, which is ERROR FILE NOT FOUND.
Davis is still technically more experienced than Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie backup Mike Glennon, who seems like a nice young man but will never win a Super Bowl in Tampa because a clumsily written local ordinance classifies any animal taller than 6'6, human or otherwise, as a "feral circus beast, which may not be publicly displayed on property supported, in whole or in part, with county tax revenue."
As we examine Carolina Panthers backup Derek Anderson, this is a good point to stop and reflect on September and October of 2007 when, in six games as Cleveland's starter, Anderson threw 16 touchdowns to seven interceptions, averaged over nine yards per attempt four times, and led the Browns to their first three-game winning streak since the 2001 season. Could it be, then, that Anderson's subsequent tumble down the Cleveland depth chart and onto the Arizona Cardinals was the result of those glorious six weeks spent flying too close to the sun? Will this always be Derek Anderson's peak?
The pick: No. Anderson showed his true capacity for greatness on Oct. 11, 2009, in the hostile confines of Ralph Wilson Stadium. It isn't that he beat the Bills that day. It's the stat line he assembled in that victory:
2/17, 23 yards, one interception. Show me another backup who can win with that kind of mathematical albatross.