I Watched Every Backup QB That Started in Week 3 ... and Lived to Tell the Tale
Week 3 of the NFL season brought us six (!) teams starting their backup quarterbacks. On Thursday, the Morning Huddle handicapped each team’s chances at winning with their QB2 (or 3, in the Jets’ case). Now we have one writer’s adventure in watching every single one of them play...
CHAPTER I: MINSHEW
“Minshew Mania has made its way to Duval….”
Czig Meister Deep Sea Tropics IPA in hand, television on, I am intent to begin my weekend assignment: Watch every backup/first-time starting quarterback snap in the NFL. A recent rash of injuries and ineffective play have sprung the likes of Gardner Minshew, Mason Rudolph, Luke Falk, Daniel Jones, Teddy Bridgewater and Kyle Allen into our football consciousness for the weekend. By NFL standards, this is a strange departure from the familiar faces we have grown accustomed to. The assignment will serve as a deep sonar exploration to the depths of NFL roster management in an effort to see if anything might one day bubble to the surface. Some people cover corruption, world politics and the economy; I’m the one you call during a quarterback shortage.
Minshew, who is spelling the injured Nick Foles, trots out on the field for the first series against the Titans on Thursday Night Football. He looks like the kind of person who runs an unaccredited MMA studio out of his old Nissan Sentra, or, perhaps the kind of new neighbor who invites you over to show you a commercial he’s filmed for a self-financed energy drink made largely of mushrooms that he’d like you to invest in.
There will be long slogs ahead in this game. What feels like hours of three-and-outs. Countless shots of Mike Vrabel’s water-wicking vest getting soaked and drying out again. Big bodied running backs slamming into the line for no gain. But Minshew does not contribute to the malaise.
After an early special teams gaffe, the Jaguars get the ball back and Minshew floats back into the pocket after a play action fake. Seeing James O'Shaughnessy open in the end zone, Minshew releases the ball like the protagonist in an off-brand trick shot video. It’s perfect.
Nothing about his success feels like a glitch in the system. Minshew’s perception on deep-ball throws is pretty incredible, especially when you consider the fact that he was dropping back shoulder fades on some of the best corners in football—a group that, just two weeks ago, was flummoxing Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. This offense can be functional enough to hang around in the confounding AFC South, which is why I’ve decided to take this opportunity to triple down on my Jaguars playoff prediction.
Jacksonville tops Tennessee 20–7, and this journey is off to a good start. Maybe this won’t be so bad, after all. I’m ready to try anything, even the new fall lineup on FOX with the show about the cop whose dad is a murderer.
CHAPTER II: FALK
Luke Falk is all of us, raging against an insurmountable task.
He’s on the road against the New England Patriots, looking a little like a taller, overheated Daniel Radcliffe. On the first drive, the Jets shift into the Wildcat formation, which carries all the unpredictability of hearing “Satisfaction” at a Rolling Stones concert. The broadcast team says that this is the kind of creativity that Bill Belichick needs to be “concerned” about. The greatest head coach in NFL history scribbles something down on a folded piece of paper and watches his defense force the first of 13 scoreless drives (10 punts).
This is your classic backup quarterback game. Falk is pinballing in the backfield, actually getting whacked in the face on dropback, which partially dislodges his helmet; he proceeds to fix the helmet before firing a deep ball out of bounds. I’m sure I’ve seen someone fix their helmet mid-drop-back before, but this feels different.
There were play-action fakes when the running back wasn’t there and one pass where the back was on the wrong side of the formation, allowing a screaming Jamie Collins to shoot off the edge and pummel Falk in the backfield. After that sack, Collins rubbed his stomach.
To be clear, we’re not making fun of Falk. This was a horrendous situation to put a young quarterback in, with no clear effort schematically to try something different. The broadcast crew displayed a graphic with all the similarities between Falk and Tom Brady, including the fact that they made their first start at the same time (three weeks in, age 24), and were drafted in the same spot. How about that!
Here’s another bit from the NFL research vault: The Jets’ 105 net yards were the fewest allowed by the New England Patriots in Belichick’s entire tenure.
CHAPTER III: CHAOS
The 4 p.m. hour brings on an onslaught of replacement-level quarterback play, the energy from which could power a small midwestern city. Saints-Seahawks. Giants-Buccaneers. Panthers-Cardinals. Steelers-49ers.
Insane thoughts flash through my brain like virus warnings on a library computer.
• (First quarter, 11:44 to play) Kyle Allen is fun! Twirling off his back leg, he’s firing off-balance shots into the end zone at Greg Olsen. The pass falls incomplete, but my hopes are high. Here comes a shootout.
• (First quarter, 10:55) Kyle Allen loses the football after being strip sacked by a surging Chandler Jones. Jones picks up the ball and wheels his arm around in circles. A man behind the Cardinals bench is doing the “Push It” dance.
• Eli Manning is staring into the sun, an earpiece plugged into his ear and a white hat on his head as Daniel Jones takes the field. Manning’s replacement looks like a spokesman for an online chino pants company poised to “shake up the game.” Early on his first drive he hits Evan Engram for a long play action throw and, this is unconfirmed, but the 18-yard pass feels like the longest Giants completion since 2015. On a third-and-nine, he hits Sterling Shepherd. Then, a reverse! All of a sudden, the Giants’ playbook has expanded beyond the four-option display borrowed from original Tecmo Bowl. Later in the drive, Engram catches a third-down pass with one hand. It’s confirmed: Jones will start the next 290 Giants games, until he is ready to be replaced by Eli Manning’s nephew, Arch.
• It’s the beginning of the second quarter and Jones is breaking free on the edge and sprinting down the sideline. The entire coaching staff is getting 10-year extensions after this. Holy… the Giants are running zone read. QB rushing touchdown. This offense is surging through eras right now, making up for lost time like an aging man gobbling psychedelics.
• Allen touchdown. Some great vision dropping a rope to Curtis Samuel in the back corner of the end zone when Samuel’s man stumbles.
• Six offensive linemen. Full-house pistol look. Sean Payton is creating an offense so exotic around Teddy Bridgewater that the Seahawks are unsure if there’s actually a quarterback under center.
• Drone shots of the Golden Gate Bridge transition us into Levi’s Stadium (the two locations are separated by an hour and five minutes in game-time traffic) for a Mason Rudolph first down with six minutes and change to go in the first quarter. Under the helmet, Rudolph is to Shadow as Jimmy Clausen is to Sonic. Sort of an evil twin vibe. The Steelers run a shotgun draw to James Conner, and then another shotgun draw to James Conner. Then, a third-and-five quick slant when the defense is obviously expecting it. If I were to distill the essential backup quarterback drive into one digestible shot, this would be it.
• KYLE ALLEN TOUCHDOWN. WE HAVE DISCOVERED THE NEW MARKET INEFFICENCY.
• The Jets should have kept Teddy Bridgewater.
I’ve found that there is sort of a rhythm to calling these games on television. To be an analyst in a game where there is a backup quarterback, is to quickly find a way to characterize any decision made by the coaching staff that week as one that helps out the quarterback. You see here, Jim? That’s why they traded away his left tackle. To force him to anticipate these throws sooner. You also need to circle the tight end before every play and guess that he’ll get the ball.
These are the games that so often expose the gap between people who are truly adept at drafting and developing quarterbacks (and understanding mismatches, strengths, weaknesses, ect.), and those who have been riding the coattails of superior offensive talent for decades. The Saints would not be the Saints without Drew Brees, but their ability to perforate a very good Seahawks team with some clever play design is pretty remarkable.
Time for bourbon.
As it turns out, a weekend of watching middling quarterback play takes your body directly from normal to light-beer-hangover without needing to consume any alcohol. There’s something unassumingly intoxicating about a doomed third-and-15 pass whipped helplessly downfield to a location where a receiver was expected to be, but is nowhere near.
But before we try and zap it all away with distilled spirits, a few thoughts since, oddly, this smattering of games could lend itself to some pretty damning conclusions if we’re not careful….
• Please do not view the Panthers game as a sweeping indictment of Cam Newton. Looking at both Allen and Newton’s spray charts (via Next Gen Stats) doesn’t indicate that Newton’s backup has somehow activated a portion of the offense that Newton can’t. This offense was buoyed by some YAC plays that are randomly gifted throughout the season, and some horrendous gaffes and untimely slips on behalf of the Cardinals’ defense. That said, Allen played well and made accurate, starter-level throws at critical times. He is an upgrade from a battered, unhealthy Newton. Let’s leave it there for now.
• Isn’t it amazing what functional QB mobility will do for an offense? Jones made some A-plus throws for the Giants on Sunday against the Buccaneers, but for the first time in a decade, there was the tangible threat of a passer leaving the pocket—or, at the very least, the threat of a passer escaping impending doom to complete a pass downfield. The Giants were able to run some light read-option looks with Saquon Barkley before he left the game with an ankle injury. Jones was able to take advantage of a massive hole in Tampa Bay’s zone defense to trot in the game-winner. What a lift that will give the team in the game planning process.
• I am not at all ready to count out the Steelers. This division is going to be NFC East murky, and Rudolph is good enough to beat the Bengals next week, and the Dolphins in three weeks. It will be interesting to see if their offensive staff gives Rudolph the green light to make some more downfield throws. Despite one of the lowest intended air yards per pass numbers this weekend, Rudolph led the league in percentage of aggressive throws, according to NGS.
After all of this, I say, who needs Baker Mayfield vs. Jared Goff on Sunday Night Football? I have been to the quarterback mountaintop already this weekend. And it was good.
1. Saquon Barkley insists he’s not out for the season.
2. Eagles receivers struggle once again in stunning loss to the Lions.
3. Happy, non-coach-hating Aaron Rodgers says this is the cleanest his jersey has ever been after a game.
4. How the Buccaneers blew the chance to derail the Daniel Jones era.
5. A Broncos receiver on his current situation: We’re living in a “world of suck.”
You’ve got no fear of Daniel Jones. That’s why you will not survive.
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