Next Man Up: The NFL’s Unfortunate Opportunities

25
Sep

Question: What do Don Majkowski, Trent Green, Drew Bledsoe, and Tommy Maddox have in common?

Answer: They were all starting quarterbacks who were injured during the regular season and who were ultimately unable to reclaim the starting spot from their backups. Their backups, by the way, were Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Tom Brady, and Ben Roethlisberger, all of whom would eventually appear in multiple Super Bowls and end up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

The point is, sometimes it takes an unfortunate injury for the best player on your team to see snaps. The quarterback position is particularly tough to get snaps in as a second-string player. There are usually only two quarterbacks carried on an active roster, and they aren’t rotated in throughout a game like wide receivers or defensive lineman. Major injuries happen every week in the NFL, but you never know when a team will come out ahead once a backup finally starts taking snaps with the first team.

Here, we take a look at three players who have been thrown into the starting lineup following an injury to their predecessor. While some these players were drafted with the intent of being groomed to start, similar to Brett Favre and Ben Roethlisberger, others were simply brought in as depth or were selected under the draft philosophy of best player available, much in the fashion of Kurt Warner and Tom Brady.

Teddy Bridgewater – Minnesota Vikings

Replacing: Matt Cassel

Probability of keeping starting job: 90%

With the Vikings trading back into the first round to select Teddy Bridgewater with the 32nd pick in the 2014 draft, it was very likely that we would see Bridgewater on the field this season. However, even after a very convincing preseason, it was announced that the starting job would be awarded to Matt Cassel. The decision by first year coach Mike Zimmer seemed justified when Cassel put up solid numbers in an opening week victory in which he threw for two touchdowns and no interceptions. Cassel’s performance since that game, however, has been downright awful, starting with a Week 2 game in which he threw four interceptions against the Patriots. On the season, Cassel has thrown for a league-high four interceptions, and he is tied for the lowest passer rating among quarterbacks who have started games this season.

Bridgewater was thrown in against the New Orleans Saints when Cassel, who has since been placed on injured reserve, went down with a foot injury. Both Vikings quarterbacks were under consistent pressure from Junior Galette and Cam Jordan, but Bridgewater showed admirable poise in the face of a constantly collapsing pocket, scrambling for several first downs and completing multiple short passes in his brief playing time. With Cassel’s performance, as well as Bridgewater’s preseason reputation and draft stock, it’s very unlikely that Cassel will start again for the Vikings. Bridgewater has thirteen games to develop as a passer, and his potential is the lone bright spot on a Vikings team marked with scandal and injuries.

Kirk Cousins – Washington Redskins

Replacing: Robert Griffin III

Probability of keeping starting job: 60%

Kirk Cousins was drafted by the Redskins in the 4th round of the 2012 draft, four rounds after Washington had selected Robert Griffin III with the second overall pick in the draft. From day one, it was obvious that Griffin had been brought in as the face of the franchise, a decision that was affirmed by an outstanding Pro Bowl rookie season by Griffin, whereas Cousins was simply a value pick for depth. Little had been seen of Cousins before Griffin’s Week 2 injury, and his previous performances were rather erratic. In his sole start of his rookie season, Cousins threw for 466 yards and four touchdowns, an impressive stat line that was marred by three interceptions. He started three games last season, in a move that was labelled a play by the front office to increase Cousins’ value for a trade. His play, however, losing all three games and throwing seven interceptions, kept him in Washington over the offseason.

Discontent with Griffin was growing even before his most recent injury, though. His play in 2013 was seen as inconsistent, a shell of his former potential. He showed discomfort in the pocket, and frequently relied on primary reads, a large reason why Pierre Garcon led the league in receptions last season. Griffin was often criticized by the media, and even the coaching staff, for his immaturity and developmental issues. Cousins immediately looked to be the better quarterback when he stepped in, throwing for 677 yards, five touchdowns, and a single interception in the one and a half games that he’s played. His future with the Redskins is uncertain, though. While Jay Gruden prefers quarterbacks in the style of Cousins, the team gave up an enormous amount of value when it traded up to the second overall pick to draft Griffin. The heavy price, jersey sales, and heavy-handed ownership might give Griffin continued life in Washington, even if Cousins’ numbers don’t regress.

Kyle Fuller – Chicago Bears

Replacing: Charles Tillman

Probability of keeping starting job: 95%

Kyle Fuller was the second cornerback taken in the draft this year, selected 14th overall by the Chicago Bears. With two Pro Bowl cornerback in Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, though, it looked like Fuller would have to spend his first season competing with other backups for time in the nickleback position. This, of course, changed when Charles Tillman went down with a triceps tear in the second game of the season. Fuller jumped in as the primary cornerback, ultimately sealing the game with two late interceptions against the 49ers’ Kaepernick. In his first full game as a starter, Fuller put up another late interception, as well as two forced fumbles (including a Charles Tillman style punch) and seven tackles.

With news that Tillman was placed on injured reserve, Fuller now has the entire rest of the season to prove that his early performance as a starting cornerback is something other than beginner’s luck. He has an extremely good chance of keeping the starting job into next season, especially since he is the highest rated cornerback by Pro Football Focus. This rating is even more impressive considering that PFF’s season metrics are on an accumulative games played basis, rather than an average per game basis, meaning that other corners with consistently positive play should have an advantage over Fuller, who only has one start to his name this season. Fuller’s chances are bolstered by Tillman’s age and the gravity of his injury. Tillman might not even return to Chicago next year; he is on a one-year contract after visiting other teams in free agency this offseason, and he will be 34 before the start of next season. Fuller is on pace for Defensive Rookie of the Year and a Pro Bowl selection, and he’ll almost certainly be lined up as the number one corner for the Bears next season.

About the author: Cale Finta