Lovie Smith: You need a backup QB

Caleb Hanie's failures as a starter for the Bears, as well as those of No. 2 quarterbacks throughout the league in 2011, means the demand for backup QBs in the NFL will be at an all-time high this offseason.

The dynamics probably have changed a bit, but when it comes to the quarterback market in the NFL, the old model of supply and demand still holds.

Except there might now be this twist: In a league where the relatively small need for starters belies the perception of an overall lack of quality at the position, the supply might now actually surpass the demand. Granted, for years, NFL observers have decried the dearth of quarterback excellence. But ask yourself: Looking ahead to 2012, how many franchises are really desperate for a new starter?

So chances are that the market for No. 2 quarterbacks this spring and summer will produce a lot more action than the moves for starters. One reason, as noted, is there aren't that many teams that need starters, and there are only so many to go around. Another determinant is that the subset of potential backups is a deep one, and several teams will dip into the available talent pool.

It's easy to suggest that Kansas City needs a change atop its depth chart, but the Chiefs have invested heavily in Matt Cassel and would like to have pending unrestricted free agent Kyle Orton back to battle him for the No. 1 job. The critics aside, odds are pretty good that Tarvaris Jackson (Seattle), Christian Ponder (Minnesota) and Kevin Kolb (Arizona) all open next season as the starters for their respective franchises.

So what's that leave, four maybe five teams, that might have changes, in part based on what occurs in Indianapolis with Peyton Manning?

One would think that Manning, either with the Colts or somewhere else, fills one of the openings, if he's healthy. Green Bay backup Matt Flynn appears attractive to a number of clubs as a starter. Orton could exit the Chiefs for a starting chance in another precinct. As first noted here two weeks ago, and a theory that suddenly has gained some traction nationally, Jason Campbell of Oakland could be a short-term bridge solution somewhere. Even Vince Young, the caddy for Michael Vick last season with the Eagles, but a onetime No. 3 overall pick in the draft, could be an option for some team.

Factor in, too, that one of the two highly regarded prospects in the draft, either Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III, or maybe both, could start as rookies.

The upshot of the quarterback carousel: There figures to be more than the normal complement of decent backups available. And we're not just talking exclusively about older, fallback-type guys who are in decline, such as Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich, Mark Brunell, Jake Delhomme, David Carr, Sage Rosenfels, Derek Anderson and others.

The roulette wheel has already begun to spin, with Philadelphia on Thursday signing "street" free agent Trent Edwards, who didn't play in 2011, ostensibly to replace Young and serve as a safety net for young Mike Kafka, a two-year veteran the coaches like a lot.

There will be more to come.

"There are going to be people some (viable) people, for sure, for teams to look at," Denver coach John Fox, who probably will add to veterans to back up Tim Tebow, told The Sports Xchange. "The landscape could change some between now and the start (of free agency), but if you're looking, the situation isn't bad."

The odds that Young will land a starting spot are slim. But, at only 28, he offers some upside still, a veteran with 50 starts on his resume and a solid alternative who can play well in stretches, and is an intriguing change of pace. The Miami Dolphins have already said they won't attempt to re-sign Chad Henne; and while he has pretty much had uneven results as a starter, the fact remains he is only 26 and might be an upgrade at the No. 2 spot for some club. Assuming Campbell doesn't win a starting job, his resume (69 starts) and relative youth (30) should command some suitors.

Prefer a younger backup-type to develop? How about Pittsburgh's Dennis Dixon, who has only three career starts but is just 27 and possesses terrific athleticism. If the Redskins don't keep free agent Rex Grossman, his experience (57 starts) could make him attractive as a backup.

Yeah, we know, it's Rex Grossman, for cripe's sake. But as a No. 2 guy, he would be an upgrade for many teams.

There are even some unusual alternatives and some unconventional ways for revamping the No. 2 spot on the depth chart. How about a six-time Pro Bowl passer and former Super Bowl starter? If he is serious about resuming his career, and is willing to settle for a backup spot to do so, Donovan McNabb is a possibility. And this week, David Garrard told The Florida Times-Union and The Sports Xchange that he is healthy again after back surgery that sidelined him in 2011, and wants to play.

The bottom line, if history and projected needs offer any kinds of insights, is that somewhere between one-third and one-half of the franchises in the NFL will swap out their primary backups for 2012. And the pool of quarterbacks who might fill those spots is better than normal.

Said Chicago coach Lovie Smith, whose team was 1-5 after starter Jay Cutler was lost for the season to a thumb injury, and who vowed on Thursday at the Combine to be better prepared this time around: "(It's) not bad, really. Not bargain-basement shopping. There's a little something in just about any area where you might be looking. A few younger guys. Older guys. And some sort of in-between guys, too. A decent bunch. And, let's face it, you need a (backup)."

Last season, less than half the teams in the league, actually only 14 of the 32, used the same starter for all 16 games. Quarterbacks regarded as backups started 116 games and registered an aggregate record of just 40-76, a winning percentage of just more than one-third. The numbers are skewed a bit by a few things: Orton began the season as the Denver starter, was released, and signed with the Chiefs, where he won two of three starts as a backup. In Jacksonville, rookie Blaine Gabbert became the starter after only two contests, and his 14 starts are counted among those made by backups. Oakland's Carson Palmer was acquired via trade to be the starter after Campbell was injured, but he technically counted as a backup.

But even given those disclaimers, the cumulative record of backups wasn't pretty, and the chances of winning with a No. 2 quarterback weren't great. There were five legitimate backups who each started at least three games, and were winless. Only two backups with more than three starts posted winning records, and one of them was Tebow. In fact, just six backups, regardless of how many games they started, had winning marks in 2011.

"It's a hard, hard job," Cleveland backup Seneca Wallace, who was 0-3 after starter Colt McCoy went down with a concussion, told The Sports Xchange.

Hard as it may be, in 2012, teams will try to do better.

"Teams have to cover their (butts)," one league quarterbacks coach, who already has logged considerable time reviewing videotape of many of the veterans presumed to be available in free agency, told The Sports Xchange this week.

"And there are some (butt)-coverers who'll be out there this year."


Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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