Finding A Quality NFL Backup Quarterback
Updated: November 6, 2023
Every NFL roster has one. The No. 2 quarterback. It might be the most important slot of the 53 roster spots available on each NFL team.
Despite being so important, many NFL franchises are willing to settle for a warm body at the backup quarterback position.
Teams that enjoy success typically have a well thought out plan at the No. 2 quarterback. It is an inexact science, but finding a quality backup takes patience.
What to Look for in a Backup Quarterback
There are a number of characteristics that teams look for in a No. 2 backup quarterback. It would be great if a potential backup possessed all of the qualities, but that is usually not the case.
- Experience. If a team can get a guy with experience playing in the league, that is a huge plus. A Matt Schaub or Ryan Fitzpatrick, for example, are guys who have started games (Fitzpatrick has 116 NFL starts) and have played with multiple teams. They know the ins and outs of being an NFL quarterback.
- Intelligence. Learning an NFL offense is difficult enough. Learning it without getting many reps in practice makes it even harder. A guy like Fitzpatrick, a Harvard graduate, must have the intelligence to process tons of information.
- Be a good teammate. A successful backup quarterback is a good teammate. He stands up for not only the starting quarterback, but also the rest of his teammates. When Daunte Culpepper complained about playing behind a young Matthew Stafford in Detroit, the Lions signed Shaun Hill. Hill was the perfect teammate and commanded the respect of his teammates where Culpepper did not.
- Serve as a mentor. Backups like Fitzpatrick or Matt Cassel who have been in the league for several years can serve as mentors to younger starters. Fitzpatrick was signed by Tampa Bay this offseason and will be a wonderful mentor for Jameis Winston as he enters his third year as an NFL starting quarterback.
History of Backup Quarterbacks
There have been several memorable backup quarterbacks throughout the history of the NFL.
A backup quaterback has to have the ability to step in at the most inopportune of times and lead his team to victory. Many times, he needs to lead his team to multiple victories.
Jeff Hostetler was drafted by the New York Giants in 1984 and served as a backup to Phil Simms for several years. In 1990, he was forced into action late in the season when Simms was injured.
Hostetler led the Giants to victories in their final two regular season games and then quarterbacked New York to a Super Bowl victory over the Buffalo Bills.
He played 21 years in the NFL. In 1968, he ended up starting the entire season in Baltimore after starter Johnny Unitas was injured in the final exhibition season game.
Morrall led the Colts to a 13-1 regular season record and a Super Bowl title. Four years later, he was Bob Greise’s backup in Miami.
He started and won nine games in the Dolphins perfect (17-0) Super Bowl season.
Both Hostetler and Morrall had experience, intelligence, and were prepared to step in at a moment’s notice for the sake of their teammates.
Current State of No. 2 QBs
Currently, NFL backup quarterbacks fit into one of four categories.
There are a handful that have tremendous upside and could blossom into NFL starters at some point very soon. Backups in this category include the most notable, New England’s Jimmy Garoppolo, and a quartet of rookies – Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes II, DeShone Kizer, and Deshaun Watson.
Garoppolo started two games last season when Tom Brady was suspended. He completed over 71 percent of his passes, threw four touchdowns, and didn’t throw an interception.
Garoppolo will be a free agent after this season.
Category No. 2
A second category of No. 2 quarterbacks includes seven players who are older and more experienced than their team’s current starter. These are the NFL’s mentor quarterbacks.
NFL teams love a guy who has been a starter or been around the league for many years who is possibly in the home stretch of his pro career.
That guy, one like Fitzpatrick, can provide to be invaluable to someone like Winston who will enter just his third NFL season.
Category No. 3
A third category of backup QBs includes veterans not older than their team’s starters, but guys with experience and a possibility of still becoming a starter.
Remember when Nick Foles went 14-4 with the Philadelphia Eagles?. After a season with the Rams and one in Kansas City, Foles is back with the Eagles to back up Carson Wentz.
In just his sixth season in the league, Foles still has tremendous upside and could become a starter again. The same is true for guys like Geno Smith and Ryan Mallett.
Category No. 4
The final category includes the remaining backups in the NFL. It is a miscellaneous category that fits in guys like Scott Tolzien, a seven-year NFL veteran, and Trevone Boykin, Russell Wilson’s backup in Seattle.
Tolzien and Boykin were guys who were never really considered to be bona fide starters in the NFL. Kellen Clemens will back up Philip Rivers in Los Angeles.
He is a 12-year NFL veteran who had the backup stigma attached to him when he was drafted out of Oregon in 2006 by the New York Jets.
Discussing current backup quarterbacks in the league would not be complete without mention of Colin Kaepernick.
The former San Francisco 49ers starter is the best available backup quarterback in the free agent market. His political statements and protests of the national anthem last year are likely why no NFL has signed him. Kaepernick’s production over the last two seasons has been poor compared to what he had done in the previous three seasons.
Still, he is a significant talent who has led a team to Super Bowl.
NFL’s Toughest Job
For an average of about $3 million per season, you can play the NFL’s toughest position. One play you are on the sideline cheering on your teammates.
You are wearing the headset helping your team’s starter guide the offense down the field. In the next instant, you must grab your helmet, take the field, and perform without missing a beat. You’ll do so with little to no actual practice preparation (Peyton Manning used to take all of the practice reps to get ready for the next opponent).
There is no real measure as to what makes a great backup quarterback, but if you can learn NFL offenses, be a great teammate, sacrifice for the good of the team, and provide some mentorship to a team’s starter; you could land a job as a No. 2 quarterback in the league.