One of the more exciting battles entering training camp for many teams is that at backup quarterback. More than 90 percent of the time, who actually wins that battle won’t see an NFL field for more than a few, often meaningless, snaps on a season. Still, it’s always fun to imagine a worst-case scenario being turned around by an unlikely hero in a backup quarterback. Tom Brady got his start that way, as did Tony Romo, and it was the biggest storyline of the Philadelphia Eagles’ first Super Bowl win with Nick Foles.
Some recent comments by Matthew Stafford helped shed some light on a lesser known but often more important aspect of backup quarterback’s duties, and with the Lions’ QB2 spot unresolved it’s illuminating.
“I can’t watch every snap of every game a team has played for the last however many years,” Stafford said. ”There’s just not enough time in the day, so being able to get a separate set of eyes on some tape and some ideas, maybe a guy has played against a guy in college or played against him two years ago in the pros or was on his team. All that stuff is information that is relevant and can help.”
If any of that sounds vaguely familiar to you, loyal Pride of Detroit readers, it’s because this type of role is one that we’ve been talking about ad nauseum since long before Jake Rudock came to Detroit. Well, more specifically, since I started contributing to the site. No, this isn’t going to be me talking about how smart I am (I have a personal blog for that), but it’s a good time to go over my thoughts about the backup QB position.
You see, in 2016, which happens to coincide with Jake Rudock’s drafting in Detroit, I began polishing a new way to evaluate quarterbacks in the draft. More specifically, it’s looking at backup quarterback as an entirely separate position than a starter.
Once you separate quarterback evaluation into two different positions, starter and backup, the Lions’ approach to the quarterback position since drafting Matthew Stafford becomes far clearer. It’s similar to how you would look at a long snapper. A long snapper needs to be able to block, but you’re not going to draft one that can block but can’t snap. With quarterbacks, you separate them into to distinct groups. Those who can play football well and those who know football well.
The first group is obvious. If a guy has the requisite athleticism, arm talent, and accuracy to play in the NFL, you plant him firmly in the first two rounds because NFL teams absolutely must have a signal caller who can play. You end up with guys like Christian Ponder, Josh Allen, E.J. Manuel, and Cam Newton who you know have wrinkles to their game but have all the tools.
It’s also easy to see why guys like Kellen Moore, Colt Brennan, and Graham Harrell were never destined for NFL stardom despite putting up huge college numbers. Players like Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck, and Baker Mayfield aren’t very difficult evaluations if you’ve seen any NFL quarterback play.
So spotting a guy who can play isn’t conceptually difficult, nor is pointing out a guy who probably never will. Filling in the gaps in-between is where it gets murky.
The first half of that middle group are pretty simple. Guys with starter traits, but enough fatal flaws that there’s no way to see them as immediate starters without incredible luck. These guys need time, so you sit them behind a starter for a few years.
The other half of that group includes players like Jake Rudock, Chase Daniel, Dan Orlovsky, and dozens of others. You see them in camp and preseason and wonder how the hell they’re on an NFL roster. How can a guy with that weak of an arm, a guy who wasn’t even good in college, a guy who lacks anything resembling accuracy find a way to stick in the NFL for as long as some of these guys do? The secret is exactly what Matthew Stafford talked about: Film room value and game planning.
As fans, we want to imagine our backup QB as someone waiting in the wings, ready to jump in and start with as little drop off as possible if the starter goes down. Teams want that as well, but unlike fans, that tends to be more of a ‘nice to have’ than a necessity. More important is their ability to assist in game day prep, much in the way Stafford describes.
When scouting backups, you’re not looking at whether they’re accurate or not. You’re looking at how many offenses they had to learn in college, and how complex they were. You care less about how strong their arm is and more about whether they come from a football family. Athletic traits? How about academic ones, instead.
A Jake Rudock, with an arm barely strong enough to get by in the Big 10, a master of checking the football down immediately and staring down his receivers, he’s undraftable based on football alone. Moving from Iowa to Michigan, however, he learned multiple pro style offenses and picked them up swiftly. Learning from Dan Orlovsky, who’s foray into media shows just how sharp his football mind is, the hope was that Rudock could take the next step and be a steady help to Stafford in game prep.
Yet the team brought in Matt Cassel. A proven commodity on the field (in that he’s a career backup on the tail end of his career), Cassel brings a breadth of experience facing off against teams the Lions will face in a similar offense to what the Lions will run. Like Dan Orlovsky and Shaun Hill before him, Cassel brings a veteran outlook, a decade’s worth of film work experience and a pro’s eye.
So to break it down, we as fans have been looking at this backup QB battle in the hopes someone would look like they want it on the field. The problem is, we as fans don’t get to see the battle that really matters. The battles that see guys like Todd Collins employed for 15 years while only starting a grand total of 21 games. Battles that seem heated despite having players like Jake Rudock fighting with Matt Cassel while somehow a quarterback of Matthew Stafford’s quality is intently paying attention to who will win.
Kyle Meinke, who wrote the piece quoted earlier in the article, put it far more succinctly.
“The main thing is he has to be able to help Stafford with the tape.”