What’s the value of a capable No. 2? Is it better to spend or go cheap when it comes to QB depth? This season, backups are having a bigger impact on the NFL playoff picture than perhaps ever before.
Gardner Minshew certainly wasn’t the most notable quarterback to change teams this spring, but he may turn out to be among the most impactful signings of the 2023 NFL offseason.
Brought to the Indianapolis Colts primarily to be an experienced sounding board for promising rookie Anthony Richardson, Minshew’s role has since expanded to starting quarterback and stabilizing presence on a team that would be a surprise inclusion in the playoff bracket if the NFL season ended today.
The Colts seemed destined for a second straight lost campaign when three consecutive defeats followed Richardson’s season-ending shoulder injury in Week 5.
They’ve since rebounded to win three straight to get to 6-5 in the standings and dramatically boost those fading playoff hopes, as our season projection model now gives Indianapolis a 47.9% chance of making the tournament.
AFC Teams With Highest Probability of Making the Playoffs
Minshew has hardly been a savior – his pickable pass percentage of 5.42 is the third highest of the 33 quarterbacks with at least 150 adjusted attempts this season – but he has come up with some very big moments.
Like when he took over for a concussed Richardson in Week 2 and helped Indy win a 31-20 matchup with the divisional rival Houston Texans – perhaps the Colts’ most serious challengers for an AFC wild-card spot. Or when he calmly directed a late scoring drive in Baltimore the following week as the Colts stunned the conference-leading Ravens in overtime.
Those two victories could end up being very important in the year of the injured quarterback.
Aaron Rodgers’ Achilles tear four plays into his New York Jets tenure wasn’t only the most lasting image of 2023’s opening week, but an eerie harbinger of things to come. Five other teams have since lost their starting quarterbacks to season-ending injuries, including three (Daniel Jones of the New York Giants, Kirk Cousins of the Minnesota Vikings, Joe Burrow of the Cincinnati Bengals) that made the postseason a year ago.
The Colts’ resurgence not only illustrates the value of possessing a capable No. 2 quarterback; it also exposes the potential pitfalls teams face when forced to pay an exorbitantly high market rate to keep an elite No. 1.
After making Burrow the highest-paid player in league history in terms of annual value with a five-year, $275 million extension in September, the Bengals went bargain shopping for a backup before settling on Jake Browning, who spent the previous four seasons bouncing around practice squads while never taking a snap in an NFL game.
That cut-rate insurance plan was fine when Cincinnati won four straight games with a healthy Burrow in midseason to crawl back into the playoff picture, until it actually had to use it when its franchise quarterback tore a ligament in his right wrist against the Ravens two weeks back. The offense predictably struggled in Browning’s first NFL start, Sunday’s damaging 16-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers that reduced the defending AFC runners-up’s already slim playoff chances to a very improbable 12.4%.
Browning had the lowest salary of all No. 2 quarterbacks on this season’s opening rosters at $750,000, though the Bengals weren’t the only AFC North team to go cheap. The Cleveland Browns opted to go with rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson as Deshaun Watson’s backup over the more-seasoned Joshua Dobbs following the preseason, a move that saved them approximately $665,000 in cap space (Thompson-Robinson’s salary of $836,000 was the fourth lowest of Week 1 No. 2 QBs).
It wasn’t necessarily the wrong decision. Dobbs, who’s since resurfaced in Minnesota as its new field general following Cousins’ Week 8 Achilles tear, guided the Vikings to wins in each of his first two appearances since being obtained. However, his four-interception meltdown in Monday’s home loss to the non-contending Chicago Bears plants some serious doubt that a team that still owns a favorable chance of making the playoffs can have any kind of sustained run should it get in.
It also wasn’t necessarily the best decision for Cleveland, which is in a very similar situation as the Vikings as a team with a good probability of reaching the playoffs that’s also dealing with real quarterback concerns due to Watson’s season-ending shoulder injury. The Browns have been able to build a 7-4 record largely on the strength of the No. 2 defense in our EVE rankings (efficiency vs. expected), despite the turnover-prone tendencies of both Thompson-Robinson and counterpart P.J. Walker.
HIGHEST PICKABLE PASS PERCENTAGE (MIN. 100 ADJUSTED ATT.)
- P.J. Walker, Cleveland Browns (7.55)
- Tommy DeVito, New York Giants (6.00)
- Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Cleveland Browns (5.88)
- Desmond Ridder, Atlanta Falcons (5.86)
- Jordan Love, Green Bay Packers (5.85)
Sure, the Browns did just sign a quarterback who has won a Super Bowl in Joe Flacco. That was more than a decade ago, though, when this season’s rookie class of Richardson, C.J. Stroud and Bryce Young were all in grade school. And after posting a subpar 77.3% well-thrown rate in four starts with the Jets last season, the now 38-year-old vet likely isn’t the answer to Cleveland’s issues under center.
Minshew, by the way, is the ninth highest-paid quarterback that began the season as a No. 2 with a salary of $3.5 million, a sum the Colts can afford to pay with the benefit of Richardson being on a rookie contract. It’s the same reason the San Francisco 49ers can give Sam Darnold, a below-average starter but one capable of winning games on a team loaded in all other facets, over $5 million to be an expensive insurance policy after uncovering a gem with last year’s selection of Brock Purdy in the draft’s seventh round.
Having a well-paid backup still won’t ensure success, as the Jets have proven with the continued follies of the since-benched Zach Wilson – whose $9.59 million salary was the highest of any non-starting quarterback in Week 1. They were hanging around at 4-3 after beating the Giants in Week 8, but they’ve since lost to the Los Angeles Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders, Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins while totaling 37 points.
That’s true to a lesser extent in Atlanta as well. The Falcons, who are somehow tied atop the NFC South with the New Orleans Saints at 5-6, gave Taylor Heinicke $5.7 million as protection in the event youngster Desmond Ridder struggled, then turned to the veteran for a pair of November games when Ridder did encounter some hiccups. Atlanta lost both outings, including a potentially crippling defeat to the lowly Arizona Cardinals in which Heinicke threw for a laughable 55 yards in three-plus quarters before departing with a hamstring injury.
Though the Colts, Browns and Vikings have been able to hang in the race in spite of their personnel losses, chances are there will be no repeat of 1999, the season where Kurt Warner went from grocery bagger to league MVP and Super Bowl champion after getting an opportunity due to an injured teammate. Or 2001, when a then-unknown Tom Brady won the first of his seven Super Bowls after taking over for an out-of-commission Drew Bledsoe. Or even 2022, when the 49ers reached the NFC championship game after Purdy was pressed into service late in the regular season.
Nope, stability and success have gone hand-in-hand thus far in 2023, as all eight teams that have reached at least eight wins (Philadelphia Eagles, Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs, 49ers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys) have had their starting quarterbacks available for every game.
Of course, some members of that group would potentially be teetering on the brink of disaster if they joined the list of wounded star quarterbacks. The Chiefs currently have our fourth-best odds of repeating as Super Bowl champions, which surely wouldn’t be the case if Blaine Gabbert is slinging passes instead of Patrick Mahomes.
Finding a franchise quarterback is still the most important box a team with championship aspirations must address. This season is proving that keeping him healthy may be a close second on the to-do list, however.