On most teams, the backup quarterback is like the punter: If all goes according to plan, he’ll never have to see the field.
It’s a plan that seems to work for a number of teams with rock-solid franchise quarterbacks. None of Eli Manning, Philip Rivers or Tom Brady has missed a game in at least seven years, largely making their backup situations irrelevant — that is, until Brady sits the first four games of this season due to a suspension for the Deflategate scandal.
A number of teams around the NFL don’t feel nearly so luxurious, either because they might not want their starting quarterbacks to stay on the field or they can’t find a way to keep them there. Ever since Dak Prescott began tearing up the preseason with near-perfect performances, Cowboys fans have gotten excited over the possibilities of what might finally be behind Tony Romo this season after last year’s backups combined for a 1-11 record. With Romo sidelined yet again, this time for 6-10 weeks with a broken bone in his back, the excitement has fully taken off.
Whether Prescott can evolve into a stable long-term backup in meaningful regular-season games as a rookie remains to be seen. For right now, here are the five most stable backup situations in the NFL:
1. Philadelphia Eagles with Chase Daniel and Carson Wentz
Howie Roseman’s obsession with stockpiling quarterbacks will at least earn him some recognition on this list. With Daniel riding $12 million guaranteed and Wentz’s four-year, $26.2 million contract fully guaranteed, no team has invested more in its backup situation than the Eagles have. They likely won’t be able to play them all, and that might be the hope with Wentz, but should Sam Bradford struggle to perform at the right level in Doug Pederson’s quick-strike offense, the first-year head coach will have an option in Daniel with whom he’s more than comfortable after the pair spent the past three years together in Kansas City. Daniel brings smarts, an understanding of the offense and the accuracy to deliver the kinds of throws Pederson would expect if he had to flip the page. Wentz is only a rookie, but he plays a similar style and comes with plenty of natural arm and mobility.
2. Cleveland Browns with Josh McCown
This one is stable and very necessary, as current starter Robert Griffin III has a long history of injuries from his time with the Redskins and could also continue to struggle with pro-style concepts, necessitating a switch. If so, the Browns would have to feel great about handing the reins to McCown. The 14th-year pro was more than adequate as a starter last season in Cleveland, where he threw 12 touchdowns to four interceptions in eight starts on a team lacking legitimate receiving threats. He was perhaps most useful as a backup with the Bears in 2013, when he stepped in for an injured Jay Cutler and threw 13 touchdown passes to one interception in five starts. The Browns have received trade interest in the 37-year-old for a reason: He’s a smart, helpful teammate with a proven track record to step in and manage an offense.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers with Mike Glennon
One of the more underrated players in the league might be the guy now stuck behind last year’s No. 1 overall pick. A third-round pick in 2013, Glennon was certainly capable in 18 starts over the next two seasons, throwing 29 touchdowns to 15 interceptions. At 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, he has the size and footwork to step in and accomplish most of what any offense expects out of the quarterback, including Dirk Koetter’s big-play system in Tampa Bay. The hope is obviously that he doesn’t have to relieve Jameis Winston at any point, but all would not be lost if he needed to.
4. Cincinnati Bengals with AJ McCarron
When Andy Dalton went down late last season with a thumb injury, it certainly felt as if another Bengals playoff loss was looming. Then along came a second-year backup who’d never taken a snap in McCarron, who more than gave them a chance. Following a quarterback in the middle of a career year is no small task, but McCarron’s ability to run Cincinnati’s heavy pre-snap offense right in the thick of a division race cannot be understated. The former fifth-round pick out of Alabama threw six touchdowns to two interceptions in three regular-season games and did a respectable job leading the Bengals back to a late lead against the Steelers in the Wild Card game. McCarron doesn’t boast an arm that’s overwhelming, but he’s another backup who has received trade interest from teams with less stable quarterbacks. Cincinnati was smart enough to keep him right where he is.
5. Chicago Bears with Brian Hoyer
Some of the best backups are former starters who didn’t quite measure up to the spotlight. That’s Hoyer, whose strong arm and functional mobility made him serviceable for stretches in Cleveland and Houston the past two seasons but dreadful when the games got really important. Fans will remember him best by his four-interception performance in a 30-0 Wild Card playoff loss to the Chiefs last season, but it’s worth recognizing that he only really had one player to work with in wideout DeAndre Hopkins. Cleveland wasn’t a lot different. He doesn’t have the accuracy or any great singular trait to be a starter, which is why he settled for a backup role in the first place. But his ability to step in and play the kind of way Jay Cutler does — with a big arm and some mobility — will prove valuable if Cutler’s trend of missing at least one game continues for a seventh straight year.
Honorable mention: Dallas Cowboys with Dak Prescott, New Orleans Saints with Luke McCown, Arizona Cardinals with Drew Stanton
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and can follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.