The NFL’s starting quarterback carousel added a few new members to the ring this week, with Landry Jones taking over because Ben Roethlisberger is hurt and Geno Smith stepping in because Ryan Fitzpatrick just isn’t cutting it. It all came one week after the San Francisco 49ers asked Colin Kaepernick to start doing more than kneel during football games, and just a month and a half into the season, it has become a game teams either choose to play or pray they don’t have to.
And yet it’s affecting so many teams nonetheless. By Sunday, the NFL will be up to 10 teams that will have started multiple quarterbacks this season. If Joe Flacco was to miss for the Baltimore Ravens with the shoulder injury he said isn’t serious, the total would represent one-third of the entire league.
For every Philip Rivers or Eli Manning who continues to demand every single snap for his team for yet another season, the league has two or three quarterback situations that can only be described as fluid. Some of them have teetered without breaking: Seattle’s Russell Wilson has missed game time due to knee and ankle injuries, but he always finds a way to be the guy taking the first snap for the Seahawks the next week. Carson Wentz has started all five Philadelphia Eagles games and lit it up, but that was only possible after the team traded Sam Bradford to Minnesota to fill Teddy Bridgewater’s void right before the season started. And despite all the debate in Dallas, Dak Prescott has demanded every snap so far after Tony Romo’s back injury took place late in the preseason.
After one high-priced quarterback trade involving Bradford solved quarterback situations in two cities, Dallas will have precisely that decision to make for as long as the Prescott legend continues to grow. Six weeks of NFL play alone have created enough situations around the league where teams would love to have a player they felt good about starting week-in and week-out.
Let’s run through the list of changes that have happened already:
In New England, Tom Brady is unwavering as it gets, having started every game for seven straight seasons as well as in 13 of the past 14 years. But the Deflategate fiasco finally cost him four games of suspension, in which time New England felt lucky it only rolled through two more quarterbacks. The dominance of Jimmy Garoppolo (117 quarterback rating) and the management of third-round rookie Jacoby Brissett combined for a 3-1 record that served as a pretty solid bridge back to Brady.
In New York, Fitzpatrick has been the man by default since he held out in the offseason, threatening retirement in a weird stalemate with a Jets franchise that didn’t believe he was worth a long-term deal. In reality, nobody really did. A one-year, $12 million contract was enough to keep him starting despite throwing 6 interceptions in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, all because the alternatives were uninspiring and the Jets were supposed to follow up last year’s 10-6 mark by pushing for the playoffs again this season. Now that they’re 1-5 in a division with the 5-1 Patriots and 4-2 Buffalo Bills, they’ve run out of reasons not to at least see what former starter Geno Smith can do.
In Denver, the second-strangest offseason quarterback tango led to former seventh-rounder Trevor Siemian winning the chance to replace the two quarterbacks who departed from last year’s Super Bowl-winning roster, Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler. It’s been viewed as a stop-gap move until first-round rookie Paxton Lynch is ready enough to play, but Siemian played well enough to guide Denver to a 4-0 start before injuring his shoulder. A poor first start from Lynch against the Atlanta Falcons gave the job back to Siemian, and six games in, Denver is starting to again look like a team that needs to try to win in ways that involve the quarterback as little as possible.
In Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger leads the league with 16 touchdown passes, but now he’s out for 4 to 6 weeks following meniscus surgery, per ESPN’s Chris Mortenson. Former fourth-round pick Landry Jones will take the reigns for an offense that’s still loaded but banged-up in its own right, ready to face the likes of New England, Baltimore and Dallas in the coming weeks.
In Cleveland, which is always the epitome of quarterback changes, the Browns started the season by continuing a trend from the previous year that produced five different starting quarterbacks in five games. Free-agent signing Robert Griffin III suffered another major injury in Week 1, this time a broken bone in his shoulder, which handed the job to 37-year-old Josh McCown. McCown’s broken collarbone in Week 2 forced into action third-round rookie Cody Kessler, who has fought through his own injuries but managed to play reasonably well in four starts since. The carousel has gotten so real in Cleveland that even Terrelle Pryor, the team’s No. 1 receiver these days, has attempted 9 passes so far this year.
In Arizona, the Cardinals lost a struggling Carson Palmer to a concussion in a loss to the Los Angeles Rams that dropped them to a shocking 1-3. Drew Stanton handed off well enough to David Johnson the next week to produce a win against the 49ers that allowed Palmer to get right and lead the Cardinals back to .500 with a win over the Jets in Fitzpatrick’s last start this past Monday.
In San Francisco, Blaine Gabbert started the first six games even as Kaepernick received more attention during such a lost season. After a season-opening stunner against the Rams, the 49ers sputtered to four straight losses that made it clear the limited Gabbert wasn’t going to change their fortunes. Kaepernick made his long-awaited debut for Chip Kelly on Sunday in Buffalo, and despite a 45-16 loss in which his one big throw was a blown coverage, he’ll hold onto the job at least for the time being as the 49ers search for anything that can make them more competitive.
In Minnesota, Bridgewater was fully engrossed as the starting quarterback for his third NFL season until he tore his ACL just before the season started. With Adrian Peterson now 31 and the defense built to compete, the Vikings felt they had to play to win this season. That’s when they completed a heavily criticized trade of first- and fourth-round picks to the Eagles for Bradford, who has made a career of bouncing around. Career backup Shaun Hill managed a Week 1 one road win against the Tennessee Titans so that Bradford could learn a new playbook. Once he did, even with Peterson out, Bradford has played to his No. 1 overall pick potential this year and has led the Vikings to a 5-0 record.
In Chicago, Jay Cutler began another embattled season as the starter only to injure the thumb on his throwing hand as the Bears were oddly asking him to throw so much in order to win games. In his absence, Brian Hoyer, who signed this offseason for just $2 million, has ranked 9th in passing yards per game and has not thrown an interception. In light of Cutler holding the highest contract value in the NFL, Hoyer’s play has launched Chicago into a full-fledged quarterback controversy as Cutler continues to heal.
In Carolina, the brutal hits Cam Newton had been taking to the head finally caught up to him on a goal-line collision against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4. The difference was the Panthers couldn’t rebound quite the same way, losing that game and the next one to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as Derek Anderson struggled to fill in. Newton stormed back last week, leading the Panthers to a near mega comeback against the New Orleans Saints. But ultimately, the defending NFC champions are 1-5 with real concerns about how to keep the reigning MVP upright.
And more situations are starting to shake around the league. Flacco is making people wonder about his health in Baltimore. Jared Goff continues to wait around in Los Angeles despite being the No. 1 overall pick. And Romo could still seize his starting job back from Prescott.
Quarterback has long been the preeminent position in this passing league. If it was hard before for enough competing teams to find capable winners, it’s becoming a starved process now that so many are going down to injury. Good ones are hard to find. Although it might appear that teams like New England and Dallas have problems to work out regarding talented backups who aren’t seeing the field, they might ultimately be in the most enviable positions that exist.