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Why backup quarterbacks are succeeding more than ever in the NFL now

This is year of the backup quarterback, and that’s no coincidence. Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz explains.

Carolina Panthers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

There will be many ways to define the 2019 season after we’ve gotten a Super Bowl winner in February. But right now, 2019 is shaping up to be the year of the backup quarterback.

Never before have we seen backup quarterbacks have so much success when pressed into duty because of injury. Of course, we have instances of poor play from backups, but I’m focusing on the positive here and the No. 2 quarterbacks who have won at least a game. Just look around the league.

Currently starting

Started for parts of the season

That’s a 20-10 mark for those backups. I’ll leave Ryan Tannehill (3-1) out of the equation because he wasn’t inserted into the starting lineup due to injury. Same for Jacoby Brissett, who was thrust into the job after Andrew Luck’s retirement. That would add a 5-3 record.

This kind of success used to almost never happen with backup quarterbacks, at least not to this extent. Mostly speaking, your season was over if your starting quarterback got hurt. And as fans of our favorite teams, we know the feeling when that happens.

But no longer do we need to feel this way. Why the sudden shift now?

Coaches are tweaking their offense to fit the quarterback, not vice versa

The biggest reason by far is how offenses operate in 2019 as opposed to even a few years before. The game is wide open now, and this is helping backup quarterbacks succeed.

While many of the best offenses in the NFL still have the core of an “old-school” offense, the field is now spread out much wider. NFL teams are making you defend every blade of grass with spread formations and attacking passing games. When you spread out, it’s easier to read the field and find the bigger windows in the zone. So, in theory, there are “easier” throws for the quarterbacks to make within an offense.

There are “easier” throws to be made because plenty of playcallers are just smarter with how they game plan with backup quarterbacks now. The NFL is currently in its 100th season and I feel comfortable saying for, like, 90 years, NFL playcallers were mostly stubborn.

They designed a game plan that fit their current quarterback, or they forced an offense on a quarterback who didn’t have the skillset to make that happen. When that starter got hurt, the backup quarterback just entered the offense and nothing much changed. Offenses might run the ball more or simplify the system, but rarely did they create better opportunities for the young quarterbacks.

But now, when the starter goes out, the coaches adapt the offense more to fit what the backup QB does well. The best example isn’t from this season, but it’s from 2017 when Carson Wentz went out for the Eagles and Nick Foles entered the lineup.

Doug Pederson, Frank Reich, and staff went back to watch Foles play in 2013, when he was successful in a Chip Kelly offense. They implemented a bunch of the run-pass option action and it completely changed their offense. This is how offenses are adapting with young backup quarterbacks. RPOs, quick throws and the screen game are staples. The increased use of play-action passes allows young quarterbacks to have minimal reads and big chunk plays. All of this gives the backups more chances as compared to how it used to be.

Quarterbacks are also more advanced these days

Making this come full circle with scheme and coaching are the players themselves. Most quarterbacks start at a young age with 7-on-7 camps. They head into high school and sling the rock. They are way more advanced at an earlier age. They are learning defenses and spreading them out as early as youth football. Then they are off to college with some of this advanced education and confidence, which only continues as they learn in college.

By the time quarterbacks enter the NFL, they are way more knowledgeable about the game than quarterbacks in previous generations. When they are put into a game now, they aren’t scared by the moment and are comfortable with the schemes they are playing in. That’s so critical to their success.

There are other factors at play here, like more rules that protect quarterbacks now. There shouldn’t be as much fear about getting hit. Plus, plenty of these quarterbacks, like Allen, Minshew, and Rudolph, have been able to play with strong rushing attacks and defenses.

Lastly, some “backup” QBs are actually starters in my mind. For example, Bridgewater was a rising starter before injuring his knee in Minnesota. It feels a tad unfair to call him a backup, even though he is. Bridgewater will find himself a new home this offseason for LOTS of money. Good for him.

So fans, if your starting quarterback gets hurt, don’t fret like in the past. You have a capable backup waiting in the wings. That doesn’t mean that quarterback will end up being a franchise guy, but he can at least help your team win games.