When Tom Brady opens the 2016 season on the New England sideline at Arizona’s University of Phoenix Stadium, he’ll be just the eighth quarterback in modern league history to miss games because of suspension.
The other seven quarterbacks are a mixed bag of superstars and has-beens, shut down by vices that span the range of human depravity, from gambling (Baltimore’s Art Schlicter in 1983) and insubordination (Atlanta’s Jeff George in 1996) to illegal dogfighting (Atlanta’s Michael Vick in 2007) and a violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy brought upon by sexual abuse allegations (Pittburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger in 2010).
The destruction their absences wrought their teams varies just as greatly.
Roethlisberger’s suspension in 2010 was expected to derail a promising season for the Steelers, who entered the campaign coming off a disappointing 9-7 season, with playoff expectations just two years after Roethlisberger’s second Super Bowl win. The seventh-year quarterback was initially suspended six games by Roger Goodell in April after a pair of sexual assault allegations, but his punishment was lowered to just four games in September. With a still-dominant defense that held the first three opponents to fewer than two touchdowns, the Steelers opened the season 3-1 behind quarterbacks Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch. Roethlisberger returned in Week 5 and led Pittsburgh to a 9-3 record to close the regular season and a 31-25 loss to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV.
The Falcons, on the other hand, did not fare so well.
During a September 22, 1996, 33-18 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles that dropped Atlanta to 0-3, George was involved in a sideline altercation with Falcons head coach June Jones after being benched. The team suspended the starting quarterback indefinitely and went on to a 3-13 record and George signed with the Oakland Raiders during the offseason.
That’s nothing compared to the fallout that resulted from the most well-publicized suspension in league history – at least, before Deflategate entered the lexicon.
In 2007, Vick was 27 years old and coming off a brilliant season that saw him throw for 20 touchdowns, a career-high to that point, and record an astounding 1,039 rushing yards. In April of that year, though, news broke about allegations of his involvement in a massive dogfighting ring. After pleading guilty to federal charges, Vick was suspended by Roger Goodell indefinitely, and the Falcons were left in tatters. With their franchise quarterback now persona non grata throughout the league, Atlanta turned to Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich, who ironically was scheduled to be Roethlisberger’s backup in 2010 with the Steelers before suffering an injury in the final preseason game.
Harrington and Leftwich collapsed, head coach Bobby Petrino resigned 13 games into the year and Atlanta went 4-12, setting itself up to draft Matt Ryan in the following NFL Draft.
“I’m angry over the Michael Vick situation,” Atlanta owner Arthur Blank said at the time. “It happened over an extended period of time, some six years. Michael made a series of bad choices in judgment when it came to who he associated with and some of the acts he performed himself personally. I feel very bad about it.”
Chicago’s Jim Miller own career took a big hit when he was suspended for four games late in the 1999 season for steroids, just as he’d taken the reins of the Bears offense down the stretch. After rookie Cade McNown and veteran Shane Matthews proved ineffective midway through the season, Miller became starter in Week 9, threw for 422 yards and three scores in an overtime loss to Minnesota, outgunned Jim Harbaugh in a 357-yard, one-touchdown performance in a win over San Diego and threw two more scores in a narrow loss to Detroit. The next week he was suspended, and the 5-7 Bears would finish the season 6-10.
None of the other quarterbacks on the list had any tangible effect on their teams, or in the case of Tim Couch, any team at all. Oakland’s Terrelle Pryor was suspended five games in 2011 to start his NFL career for his role in a memorabilia scandal at Ohio State, but he wasn’t expected to play for the Raiders that season anyway. Couch was a free agent in 2007, recently cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars at the tail end of a disappointing career, when he was suspended six games for violating the league’s steroid policy.
But the saddest story of all might be Schlicter.
The Colts’ second-year quarterback was banned for the 1983 season for betting on NFL games, among other sports, during a time when suspensions of any kind were rare. Between 1948 and Schlicter’s suspension in mid-May 1983, there were just three total suspensions in the NFL, two coming in 1963 when the legendary Alex Karras (Detroit Lions) and Paul Hornung (Green Bay Packers) were barred for the season, also for betting on NFL games.
Schlicter’s ban helped usher in a new era – there would be five NFL suspensions in the ’80s, five more in the 90s and then nearly 50 in the 2000s. What Schlicter’s ban didn’t do is have much effect on the Colts. A top-five pick in the 1982 Draft, Schlicter flamed out his rookie season, never competed for the starting job and was expected to back up Mike Pagel in 1983. He’d return to play in 1984 but was out of the league by 1985.