Expert Analysis


7 min read

Importance of Backup NFL Quarterbacks Being Revealed in 2023

Minnesota Vikings QB Josh Dobbs
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Joshua Dobb (15) drops back to pass against the Denver Broncos in the first quarter at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Early in my NFL management career with the Minnesota Vikings, our general manager Mike Lynn told me, “The most important player on the team is the starting quarterback and the second most important player is the No. 2 quarterback.” He insisted on not calling this player a “backup QB.”

This was after nine-year veteran Bob Lee had come to the rescue when our Hall of Fame QB Fran Tarkenton broke his leg in Week 9 of the 1977 season. Lee, who had 27 career starts at the time, led our team to the division title and a road playoff win against the Los Angeles Rams before we fell in the NFC title game at Dallas.

Ten years later our vet backup Wade Wilson had 10 career starts before he stepped in for the injured Tommy Kramer. He got on a hot streak late in the regular season, and we won road playoff games at New Orleans and against top-seeded San Francisco when Wilson beat Hall of Famer Joe Montana. We lost that season’s NFC Championship in Washington on the final play.

I didn’t necessarily take Lynn’s statement as gospel when we had all-pros at many other positions. However, I got his main point which was always to prioritize the No. 2 quarterback spot.

I replaced Lynn as GM in 1991, and I followed his lead a few years later by signing former Philadelphia Eagles Pro Bowl QB Randall Cunningham to back up Brad Johnson. When Johnson went down with a high ankle sprain in Week 2 of the 1998 season, Cunningham led us to a 15-1 regular season and another conference championship game where we lost in overtime to the Atlanta Falcons. Cunningham won MVP that season.

The following year when I moved to the Tennessee Titans, our No. 2 QB Neil O’Donnell (a former starter on a Super Bowl team in Pittsburgh) won four of his five starts as Steve McNair recovered from back surgery; we eventually made it to the Super Bowl.

Having a capable, veteran No. 2 quarterback as an insurance policy is not followed by enough current GMs. Nine starting QBs have been lost to major injuries, with many of the teams stuck with inexperienced backups.

Many of the teams eschewing experienced No. 2 QBs don’t want to pay a higher salary to a veteran. Instead, they choose cheaper rookies to save money against the salary cap. That seems to be a penny-wise and pound-foolish decision in virtually all cases.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jake Browning (6) takes over as Joe Burrow is injured in the second quarter of the NFL Week 11 game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023.

That’s the path the Cincinnati Bengals chose as Jake Browning makes his first career start this week against the Steelers in place of Joe Burrow, who is out for the year with his wrist injury. Browning spent his first three seasons on the Minnesota Vikings and Bengals practice squad before he was chosen as Burrows’s backup this season.

Browning completed 8 of 14 passes for 68 yards and one TD in garbage time as he was unable to rally his team last week after Burrow left in the second quarter of a 34-20 defeat to division rival Baltimore (a loss that dropped the Bengals to 5-5 and put their season on the brink).

>> READ: Joe Burrow Is Latest Victim in NFL Season Defined by QB Injuries

Since the Bengals lost Burrow, they have not made a move to sign a quarterback with NFL game experience. Perhaps, they would’ve traded for a veteran if Burrow’s injury had occurred before the trade deadline three weeks ago.

It's hard to understand how a Super Bowl contender wouldn’t have a bonafide backup, especially to a QB like Burrow, who has missed time with injuries before. He landed on injured reserve with a knee injury that cost him the final six games in his rookie season of 2020 and missed most of training camp this year with a calf injury. That injury hampered him for several weeks in the regular season as the Bengals got off to a 1-3 start.

The Cleveland Browns have the league’s No. 1 defense and are in contention for the AFC North title and a wild card spot at 7-3. But with Deshaun Watson (shoulder) lost for the season, they’ve hitched their wagon to fifth-round rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson. He passed for only 165 passing yards and an interception last week against the Steelers. The Browns won, 13-10, but the defense was mostly responsible.

Wouldn’t the 7-3 Browns love to still have Josh Dobbs who they traded to Arizona in August for the pittance of a swap of late-round picks? He and his seven years of NFL experience would be starting in place of Thompson-Robinson.

Dobbs would give the Browns more credibility and veteran savvy considering his performance in Minnesota the past three games. He has two wins and a one-point loss after arriving with no knowledge of the offense whereas he was with the Browns for six months.

Dobbs’ terrific performances in wins over NFC opponents Atlanta and New Orleans have kept the Vikings in playoff contention at 6-5 with a 6-2 conference record. That is beneficial for potential tie-breakers as they hold the final NFC playoff spot.

The Vikings were smart to not rely on rookie fifth-rounder Jaren Hall (with vet Nick Mullens on injured reserve). They're fortunate Dobbs was available and Kyler Murray was returning to the Cardinals starting role. Also, Kirk Cousins tore his Achilles in Week 8, two days before the trade deadline.

Nov 19, 2023; Landover, Maryland, USA; New York Giants quarterback Tommy DeVito (15) throws a pass against the Washington Commanders during the second half at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The mistakes with relying on inexperienced No. 2 QBs go on with the New York Giants playing Tommy DeVito in place of Daniel Jones and Tyrod Taylor, who are both on injured reserve. DeVito performed poorly in ugly losses to the Las Vegas Raiders and Dallas Cowboys before beating the unmotivated Washington Commanders.

The Chicago Bears lost Justin Fields to a thumb injury for four weeks. Their backup is undrafted Tyson Bagent (from Division II Shepherd). He turned it over twice in a loss to the Vikings before splitting his next four games with the wins coming against the 1-9 Carolina Panthers and the Raiders with 38-year-old Brian Hoyer and Aidan O’Connell playing poorly.

The New York Jets’ season went awry after Aaron Rodgers was lost with his Achilles injury in Week 1. Coach Robert Saleh stuck with beleaguered former second overall pick Zach Wilson whose poor play led them to sign Rodgers. Saleh was forced to make a move after their current three-game losing skid.

Saleh switched to Tim Boyle, who is on his fourth team and is 0-3 as a starter with a ridiculously low career passer rating of 50.9.

Another team on the right side of the backup QB decision-making process is the Indianapolis Colts. They signed Gardner Minshew (24 carer starts entering this season) in free agency and reunited him with coach Shane Steichen. Steichen was his offensive coordinator in Philadelphia when Minshew backed up Jalen Hurts.

The Colts then drafted Anthony Richardson fourth overall, and he started four games before going on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.

Minshew has kept the Colts alive in the playoff race, going 3-3 as the starter for the 5-5 Colts.

With so many high-profile starting QBs having major injuries this season, we’ll see if more GMs spend a few more cap dollars on a veteran No. 2 QB. If not, they’re playing with fire and the possibility of a future season going poorly, which could lead to their own firing.

So my advice to NFL GMs — young and older — is to save money on the salary cap at positions other than No. 2 quarterback (and in some cases No. 3 QB too). It’s a major crapshoot to rely on a later-round draft pick or undrafted player rather than a vet who has started and won some games.