What Makes for a Good Backup QB?


“He takes the snap. Long drop. He looks left, looks right…he has a man down field! Steps up in the pocket and throws it to his running back for a 3 yard gain.” We’ve all heard something similar to this from the announcer of the game with our favorite team. That’s the description of a large percentage of plays when a team is forced to put in a backup QB. They don’t have the rhythm, the poise and they’re too afraid to mess up. Don’t lose the game the coach says, so they stick to check downs and try not to create a turnover. Not a bad strategy, but when you’re team is down by a score, hello Chicago, instead of leading when the starting QB goes down, you need more than check downs and a don’t lose the game for us mentality.

It amazes me that 30 out of 32 second string QBs in the NFL are not amazing athletes with a penchant for running the ball. The NFL is a QB driven league, it is by far the most important position and these teams generally know what they are doing when they are evaluating QBs that have already shown their stuff in the league. There is a reason that backups are backups. There are usually only 2 backup QBs a year that have the potential to start for another team. But, it is an even more difficult task to come in in the middle of a game. If you have a QB that can scare the defense on two levels, running and passing, that QB is assured of having greater success.

I’ve gone over the past 5 years of NFL games, pulled out every game I could find where a backup QB came in. Whether it was for ineffectiveness, injury or a meaningless game, doesn’t matter, I found them and I crunched the numbers. I put every replacement QB into one of two piles, pocket passer or run ‘n gun. I want to see whether when you put a QB in in the middle of a game, likely with few to no reps in practice with the first team offense, if that QB will have better success if they are a runner or a pocket passer.

A couple things to remember in looking at these stats. The pocket passers are going to have a much bigger sample size, so that may be a more accurate representation of what you’ll get out of any random backup QB. Also, strength of opposing defense and tools that the backup has to work with are not accounted for. This evaluation is not a referendum on backup QBs as a whole, only in the mid-game replacement situation. When given a full week to work with your teammates and prepare as the starter, I am readily admitting that skill and ability have a much greater effect than their basic skill sets.

This is what backup QBs that I have classified as pocket passers have done when coming in as mid-game replacements

7.4/13.1 comp/att; 56.4% comp %; 81.9 total yards (rushing & passing); .38 total TDs; .5 INTs

Compared to run ‘n gun style athletic backup QBs in the same situation.

7.8/13.4 comp/att; 58.4% comp %; 113.7 total yards; .8 total TDs; .4 INTs

To give a basic overview of what I found; running QBs are twice as likely to score a touchdown and still less likely to create a turnover, while also supplying more than 30 extra yards on average. The two most important stats the prove the point that a running QB is better in replacement situations than a passing QB is the total yards (113.7) and the average touchdowns per appearance (.8). If you have twice as much of a chance of your back up supplying you with a touchdown in a close game, that is worth preparing for in an injury situation.

Joe Webb, backup in Minnesota, is included in these stats and, in my opinion, is the best backup QB in the entire league. He can come into a game and scare the defense just as much or more as some starters. This doesn’t mean that he would be a top choice to be a starter, but when your franchise QB goes down, you want a man that will come in and give you a chance to win the game. If you’re going to try and ice the game by running the ball 30 times to finish it out, then it doesn’t matter what type of QB you put in to replace your injured starter. But, if you’re trying to come from behind with a second stringer, he better be able to do more than throw a screen pass and a check down to a tight end. Joe Webb’s single best stat line is;

4/5 comp/att 84 pass yards 2 pass TDs 0 INTs 5 rushes 34 rush yards and 1 rush TD.

That is a stat line that scares defenses and allows you to win a game despite your starter going down. Welcome to the new NFL, it has been said for years, but I think it is about time teams and GMs start to embrace it.

About the author: Colby Rogers

Colby is the Editor-in-Chief, Founder and Lead Contributor to Other League. Also a law student focusing on Labor & Employment law and intersections with law and sports. You can find him on Twitter via @Colby_OL.