Washington's quarterback problem isn't a "problem" so much as it is a condition. It is a gene that has expressed itself throughout the Dan Snyder era, and it can't be fixed just like a person cannot change what is innate to himself without major reconstructive surgery. The easier option is to learn to deal with your condition, and in Washington's case, that's simple: Just start the backup quarterback, and everything will be okay.
Colt McCoy went 11-for-12 passing for 128 yards and a touchdown coming off the bench in place of Kirk Cousins this past Sunday. McCoy's 138.9 passer rating was the ninth-highest by a Washington quarterback since Snyder bought the team in 1999, and still just the third-best by a quarterback coming in cold for an under-performing* or injured starter. Todd Collins had a 144.6 rating when he went 15-for-20 for 224 yards and two touchdowns after Jason Campbell suffered a knee injury against the Chicago Bears on Dec. 6, 2007. Patrick Ramsey posted a 153.3 rating, the second-highest passer rating of the Snyder era, when he came in for an injured Mark Brunell on Christmas Eve, 2005, and went 5-for-7 for 104 yards and a score.
McCoy of course sparked a debate over who should be next week's starter. Cousins is no longer Washington's favored son, though he was for some time after replacing an injured Robert Griffin III. He went 52-for-81 for 677 yards, five touchdowns and one interception over the course of two games -- coming in cold in Week 2 and then starting a full game against Philadelphia in Week 3. Cousins had a 105.8 rating across those two games. Over his next five outings, that rating fell to 65.0.
Cousins' experience was not uncommon in Washington history. Since Snyder took over the team, quarterbacks making their first starts coming out of the offseason or off the bench, or playing significant mid-game action, have performed better than incumbent passers coming off starts the previous week.
|Total QB passing||4,795||8,123||55,427||301||233||80.1|
Given that Washington has just missed the playoffs in years past, even a minor uptick in quarterback performance might have boosted it into the offseason
A stroll through the weird, wild history of backups in Washington
2013: Cousins went 29-for-45 for 381 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions for a 94.8 passer rating in his first full game starting after Griffin was injured/maybe benched by Mike Shanahan. He had a 71.2 and 31.8 rating in his next two games.
2012: Cousins had a 104.4 rating in his only start as a rookie, going 26-for-37 for 329 yards, two touchdowns and an interception against the Cleveland Browns.
2011: John Beck's two highest rated performances in Washington were as a mid-game replacement for Rex Grossman followed by a subsequent start. A week after going 22-for-37 for 279 yards, one touchdown and one interception against the Carolina Panthers, he went 20-for-38 for 208 yards and two picks in a shutout loss to the Buffalo Bills.
2010: Grossman threw four touchdowns and two interceptions in his first full start of the season after head coach Mike Shanahan made the controversial decision to bench Donovan McNabb late in the year. Grossman would not post a higher rated game, and threw just three touchdowns to two picks over the final two games of the season.
2006: Jason Campbell's first NFL appearance was a start against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after Joe Gibbs benched Mark Brunell. Campbell went 19-for-34 for 196 yards and two touchdowns for a 92.3 rating, which was his best game of the season until he posted a 96.2 rating in the season finale against the New York Giants.
2004: Brunell had a yo-yo relationship with Gibbs. A strong 2005 was sandwiched by iffy 2004 and 2006 seasons in which his play led to his eventual benching. In 2004, Patrick Ramsey took his place after Brunell started 1-for-8 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Ramsey went just 18-for-37 in his stead, but at least he threw a touchdown to go with his 210 yards and two interceptions.
2003: Ramsey entered the season as Washington's starter, and did well in his first two games, posting passer ratings of 93.6 and 110.6 in two straight wins, and a career high 356 yards in Week 2 against the Atlanta Falcons. Then he declined steadily, more-or-less, until he was shaken up by a sack against the Miami Dolphins and replaced with Tim Hasselbeck.
Though Hasselbeck was so-so immediately replacing Ramsey, he was great in his second full game as a starter, going 13-for-19 for 154 yards and two touchdowns to post a passer rating of 128.0. Then Hasselbeck did something remarkable. He went 6-for-26 for 56 yards, zero touchdowns and four interceptions, and posted a 0.0 passer rating to become one of 20 quarterbacks ever to attempt at least 20 passes in a game and record a donut.
2002: The year of the ultimate Washington quarterback boondoggle. Former Florida quarterback Shane Matthews entered the season as the starter in Steve Spurrier's first year as head coach. He threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns in the opener, earning NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors, but Spurrier showed little confidence in him the next two weeks, replacing him with Danny Wuerffel in the second halves of two losses before benching him outright for Week 4.
Wuerffel wasn't appreciably better in his second-half appearances, and didn't make it out of the first quarter of his Week 4 start before getting hurt, which ushered Ramsey onto the field. But Ramsey KILLED (relatively) in his first ever professional appearance, going 20-for-34 for 268 yards, two touchdowns and a 103.6 passer rating that was the fifth-highest of his career. In classic Ramsey (and Washington) fashion, he struggled mightily the next two games before going back to the bench.
Spurrier finally turned back to Matthews after that, and Matthews turned in a quality eff-you performance in Week 7 with 210 yards and two touchdowns after openly expressing his contempt about being sidelined. He posted a 86.6 rating in the game ... then never posted a passer rating higher than 60 over what would be the final three starts of his career. He was benched.
Wuerffel came back, went 16-for-23 for 235 yards and a 102.6 passer rating, then didn't post a rating higher that 72.0 over his next two games before giving way to Ramsey, who had the best performance by a Washington passer of the season in his next game, posting a 110.8 rating before, of course, crumbling.
Ramsey started the season finale, and went 17-for-31 for 209 yards and two interceptions in a merciful win to finally put a taxing 7-9 season to bed.
In chart form, the first row are quarterbacks entering as mid-game replacements (min. 4 attempts) or making their first start in place of another player. The second row is everything else:
|Total QB passing||299||556||3,509||23||20||72.0|
Note: Included in the "Backups" row is Ramsey's 21-for-43, 320-yard, one-touchdown and four-interception performance after his big Week 4. Excise that game, and the "Backups" passer rating jumps up to 97.2 (!).
2001: Just the weird performance of Kent Graham, who came off the bench to replace an injured and struggling Tony Banks. Graham went 12-for-18 for 123 yards, 2 touchdowns and 123.1 passer rating against the Broncos. He led a comeback after Banks went 4-for-13 to start game. The performance meant nothing, however. Graham threw just one more pass in his NFL career.
So how can Washington only start a backup?
This isn't a paradox on the Turing test. Of course, if you're named a starter as a backup, you are by definition no longer a backup. However, there are a few measures that Washington could take to throw off the fates and make sure that they are starting a bonafide backup every time they take the field. It's just three easy steps:
1) Never ever name a starter
Washington is usually pretty good at this. Washington had to decide between Cousins and McCoy for this week's game against the Dallas Cowboys, and coupled with reports that Griffin could make an impromptu appearance, it seemed the team was in good shape for Week 8. Check out this quote from head coach Jay Gruden:
"You'd like to have your decision made as soon as possible to get ‘em ready," Gruden said during his post-game press conference on Sunday. "Then you throw Robert in the mix. Robert has a chance to practice on Wednesday, so we'll have to see where he is - see where he is health-wise, and from there I will make a decision from watching the tape of what I'm going to do."
As Gruden's brother would say, "this guy gets it." Then all Washington needed to do was release a depth chart that looked something like this:
Unfortunately, Gruden named McCoy the starter Monday, but a decision on Griffin is still forthcoming. There are now reports that Griffin is out this week, but nothing official from the team. Washington either hasn't caught on to the pattern, or they're already executing an advanced form of Step No. 2:
2) Prepare your backup (starter, but SHHHHH) as if he will be the backup
It's not enough to simply keep the public in the dark, however. Your quarterbacks need to be unsure of their standing, and that means giving all of them equal snaps with the first and second teams. Note: it's okay to start the same player two games in a row, but you're pushing things if you try to make it three. The first moment your "starter" looks shaky, yank him for the next backup in line. Heck, yank him even he's playing well. Odds are, the new guy will be better no matter what.
3) Keep the rotation fresh
Your players are going to catch on to the ruse pretty quick if you don't mix things up. After you've run through the current depth chart, bring in legendary backups from the past. Is Ramsey good any more? No! But will he be for the one half of football you need him? Absolutely. The man is one of the best ever at wandering onto the field wide-eyed and playing pretty okay.
Washington has had 15 different starting quarterbacks in the Snyder era. That number will go up to 16 with McCoy's start against Dallas. It doesn't have to start the same quarterback twice if runs through every quarterback that has started over the last 16 season. There would be absolutely no continuity, and it would be exactly what Washington needs right now.
*Rodney Peete came off the bench to post Washington's sixth-best passer rating of the Snyder era, going 6-of-9 for 99 yards and two touchdowns against the Dolphins in January 2000, but Brad Johnson had played just fine beforehand, going 7-for-11 for 75 yards. The mid-game switch had been planned beforehand, with Washington already playoff-bound in Week 17.