The Kansas City Chiefs joined them Thursday night in the most distressing example of the trend. Patrick Mahomes dislocated his kneecap on a quarterback sneak, and the team hopes the NFL’s most electrifying quarterback will resume playing in a few weeks. Matt Moore will take his place, joining a plethora of quarterbacks who have traded ball caps for helmets.
Backups found themselves on the field for varying reasons, and they left teams in varying situations. For some teams, the switch represented involuntary organizational overhaul — the Colts subbed in Jacoby Brissett after Andrew Luck retired and gave Brissett a contract extension for the sake of stability. For others, it was inevitable torch-passing — the Giants swapped out Eli Manning for Daniel Jones in Week 2 and may never look back.
The most compelling cases have happened somewhere in the middle, forcing teams to confront major decisions they never anticipated. Nowhere is this truer than Jacksonville and Carolina, which both entered the year with entrenched starting quarterbacks in their apparent prime, and now face questions prompted by both the surprising play of young backups and the NFL’s financial structure.
Starting with the Jaguars and Panthers, here is a synopsis of the NFL teams that have turned to their backup.
(The Bears and Jets are excluded because their young starters are close to returning and have returned, respectively.)
Even as a sixth-round rookie, Minshew has established his baseline as a lower-tier NFL starting quarterback with his intelligence, accuracy and mobility within the pocket. The Jaguars have to weigh whether Nick Foles, whom they paid like a top-15 quarterback when they gave him $88 million (about $50 million guaranteed) over four years, makes them better by a wide enough margin to forgo the roster-building bonanza of paying their starting quarterback less than $800,000 for the next three seasons.
While they would pay a short-term salary cap penalty by trading Foles, the Jaguars would gain flexibility in the long run and add to the draft arsenal they built Tuesday night, when they acquired two first-round picks and a fourth-rounder from the Rams for disgruntled cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
Foles makes 20 times as much as Minshew, and he is obviously not 20 times as valuable. But the calculation isn’t that simple. Even marginal differences at quarterback have enormous repercussions on a team’s chance to win. The way Minshew plays the remainder of the season may settle the question for Jacksonville, but it will be a fascinating debate.
It would be difficult and probably foolish to move on from Newton. He is the best player in franchise history. In 2015, he produced one of the most dominant seasons in league history. It has been years since Newton at full health hasn’t been one of the top eight quarterbacks in football, and that is probably conservative. If Newton is healthy, he instantly makes the Panthers a playoff contender. He is only 30. Teams don’t walk away from players such as that.
But several factors have complicated Carolina’s outlook. What constitutes full health for Newton after years of punishment and shoulder surgery remains unclear. Even 75 percent of peak Newton is a great quarterback. After full rehabilitation, does he have that in him?
It would be a moot conversation if the Panthers had no clear second option. But they do. Allen is 4-0 this season as a starter and won his only start last year, when he played a meaningless Week 17 game. He has completed 66 percent of his passes without throwing an interception this year. He is not a typically pedigreed undrafted quarterback — coming out of high school, Allen was ranked as the best quarterback recruit in the nation.
Allen’s early success has put Carolina in position to think the unthinkable: trading Cam Newton. They could pay Allen next to nothing for the next two seasons. Newton carries only a $2 million dead cap hit for 2020, which means the Panthers could trade him with no penalty. Quarterbacks such as Newton, even with his health concerns, rarely come available. The Panthers could acquire a draft haul for him.
There’s a lot of season left, and first-time quarterbacks tend to get exposed. Coach Ron Rivera has not definitively said Newton will regain his job once he returns from a Lisfranc injury in his foot. Allen’s 4-0 start may be a distant memory by Christmas. But if Allen keeps winning and holds the job, Newton’s future will become the most interesting transactional subplot of the NFL offseason.
Starter: Ryan Fitzpatrick
The Dolphins are going back to Fitzpatrick, and the most reasonable response to the entire situation is, who cares? But the Dolphins have done something peculiar with Rosen, turning a highly drafted quarterback they traded second- and fifth-round picks for into a distressed asset.
By not starting him right away, playing him in horrible circumstances and benching him, the Dolphins hindered Rosen’s development and devalued him as a trade chip. He’s still two years removed from being the 10th pick in the draft and four years away from having been viewed as a potential first overall pick. It’s possible another team will buy low and eventually give him a chance.
Starter: Ben Roethlisberger
Backup: Mason Rudolph/Devlin Hodges
Unless Roethlisberger’s recovery from elbow surgery goes sideways or he has a change of heart about how long he wants to play, there shouldn’t be much quarterback intrigue in Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger signed a two-year, $68 million extension that takes him through the 2021 season. Rudolph will be in charge for the remainder of 2019, but his performance would have to be incredible for him to even have a shot at replacing Roethlisberger.
The Colts had no choice but to promote him, and it seems they will give Brissett, who has led Indianapolis to 3-2 with an AFC South showdown against Houston looming, every chance to remain the starter. The Colts traded former first-round wideout Phillip Dorsett for Brissett two years ago, and he signed a two-year, $30 million contract after Luck retired. A beloved teammate who has the size and smarts for the job, Brissett may become a staple for a franchise building an annual contender.
New York Giants
The Giants’ baton-passing happened earlier than expected, just two weeks into the season. But now that it has happened, the Giants’ outlook is clear. The only intrigue is whether Manning tries catching on with a different team next season or retires.
Backup: Dwayne Haskins/Colt McCoy
Keenum is a pretty good journeyman option. Haskins is the future. A team with no present prospects is playing Keenum, which is surprising. The most compelling theoretical comes into play if Washington falls into a top-two pick. Would it trade Haskins, a la the Cardinals with Rosen last spring, and take either Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert?
Coach Mike Vrabel announced this week that Tannehill, a former first-round pick and forever-project for the Dolphins, will replace Mariota, the No. 2 pick in 2015. Maybe Tannehill can finally get healthy for an extended stretch and establish himself as a mid-tier starter; his most likely fate seems to be knocking around for years as a bad starter/good backup.
Mariota will not become a franchise quarterback as envisioned, but it may not be over for him. Mariota has been in difficult situations for the majority of his career, surrounded by mediocre receivers and ever-changing offensive systems. His character is off the charts and he still has the physical talent that won him a Heisman Trophy at Oregon. He wouldn’t be the worst bet to defy a typical quarterback career arc.
New Orleans Saints
Backup: Teddy Bridgewater
What happens this year is clear. Brees will play when he is healthy, and the Saints seem perfectly capable of winning with Bridgewater in the meantime. What happens next year is more interesting. Brees does not seem to be slowing down enough for retirement to be realistic after this season, even if he is 40. Bridgewater’s strong performance in relief could make it difficult for the Saints to retain him. They paid him $7.25 million for one season, and that price is only going up. They want him to be Brees’s long-term heir, but Bridgewater may be playing too much and too well for that to remain possible, assuming Brees has another two or three seasons left.
Kansas City Chiefs
Mahomes was injured in the second quarter of Thursday night’s win over Denver. He will have an MRI exam on his dislocated kneecap Friday that indicated no further structural damage. Moore took over with a 10-6 lead and finished with a 30-6 win, completing 10 of 19 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown, but the minute Mahomes is healthy, the defending league MVP will step back behind center again. Moore, who was coaching his old high school team before Andy Reid coaxed him out of retirement, has been a serviceable placeholder before. The Chiefs can only hope he will be again, and won’t have to be for long.