Just when we thought the golden age of quarterbacks was upon us, it has become the year of the backup quarterbacks and the next-man-up mentality. Through week 15, 18 different teams have had to start a quarterback that was not the initial starter on the roster. All of the offseason buzz around Aaron Rodgers on the Jets was brought to a halt week 1 with a season-ending injury. Deshaun Watson, the strange unknown as the highest-paid ransom by the Browns a year off of his weird suspension year, is out for the season. Joe Burrow, Kirk Cousins, Daniel Jones, and promising rookie Anthony Richardson all have been done for the year. It’s been a murderer’s row of devastation.
That leads us with a plethora of the “Rudolph” scenarios: the coaches requesting for the backups to guide their sleighs throughout the remainder of the season amidst the turmoil in a crisis. The value of the backup quarterback position has become an unbelievably underrated valuable commodity; it can save a season that one was thought lost when investing into the right one. However, there are plenty of elements that go into the perfect backup. Let’s evaluate several of the backups taking over the season and give them an overall “Rudolph” Score in the spirit of the season using the following areas:
If you pay too much for one, the fans will be chanting his name to become a starter, where they idolize someone like Cam Newton, for example, that could lead to a divided locker room should their be a division in the gameplan. The backup has to know his role with a nonthreatening hard hat to come to work.
There also is a believability that comes with being a cult hero as a backup that creates a unique type of moxy. For a backup to be thrown into the fire and perform and galvanize a sense of belief and hope, there’s something special that comes with that. It makes the other players and fans believe in and get along with whomever is now under center and capturing the moment.
There’s also the coaching and surrounding talent that makes the life of the backup easier and creates a will to win to prevent the season from being lost upon the arrival.
Actual Arm Talent speaks for itself despite being someone preeminently seated behind the starter.
Finally, there’s the Anti-Deer in the Headlights Vision- that is a combination of experience, not wavering under pressure to improvise, and embracing the challenge to create clutch moments rather than falling prey to the situation.
Tommy DeVito, New York Giants
Cult Hero Moxy: 10/10
Nonthreatening Hard Hat: 6/10
Coaching and Surrounding Talent: 4/10
Actual Arm Talent: 4/10
Anti-Deer in the Headlights Vision: 6/10
The Giants were 1-5 when starting quarterback Daniel Jones went down, then had to pivot to Tyrod Taylor who went 1-2 with an ugly 14-7 victory against Washington, then had to turn to Tommy DeVito when Jones went down again for the remainder of the year with an ACL injury. In normal circumstances, reaching the third string quarterback after already losing your starter for the year with a not-so-glowing reputation in the first place means you start positioning yourself to improve your long-term position with the upcoming draft featuring a plethora of talented quarterbacks in this class.
But not when you’re Tommy DeVito, the Italian who captured all of our hearts for several weeks.
DeVito epitomized everything the backup should be to galvanize the team and more- he’s an Italian undrafted quarterback from the Jersey community still living with his mother and has an agent that look straight out of an SNL spoof of Entourage. The Italian fingers Emoji that became known as “The DeVito” as he raised it to celebrate was used by Giants teammates, your Giants fan friends and their relatives who might’ve not even been using emojis to begin with, and was even a celebration by the D-III Cortland Red Dragons football team in New York. The man with a name of literally Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas had never been a better fit for the fanbase and save what otherwise was a miserable year.
However, there are two sides to the same coin for the Giants. DeVito has played them out of getting a top 3 pick in the draft by winning 3 in a row, 2 against an awful Washington and New England and one against a Green Bay defense that now looks as vulnerable as ever after Baker Mayfield put up a perfect passer rating against them this week.
DeVito does have an 8 TD/3 INT ratio this year in his appearances, but a 30-6 loss to Vegas, 49-17 loss to Dallas, and now coming back to Earth with a moribund 24-6 loss to the Saints taking 7 sacks has left them in no-man’s land as he’s just appeared to be a fun moment on the year.
He was able to lead a game-winning drive on Monday Night Football and is clearly beloved. Whether on the Giants, on another team, or doing something in media, DeVito will be around even if he’s not necessarily starter-caliber. We’ll always have this month of Tommy Cutlets.
Nick Mullens, Minnesota Vikings
Cult Hero Moxy: 3/10
Nonthreatening Hard Hat: 8/10
Coaching and Surrounding Talent: 6/10
Actual Arm Talent: 6/10
Anti-Deer in the Headlights Vision: 5/10
For two weeks we fell in love with Joshua Dobbs as the Pass-tronaut with fans wearing space helmets to Vikings games as he torched a comeback against Atlanta followed by a win against the Saints, only to fall out of the sky and crash land with primetime losses against Denver and Chicago to leave their postseason hopes in doubt. In comes Nick Mullens- remember him? The guy that Kyle Shanahan made look like Brett Favre for a couple weeks in 2018 when they went down to their third-string? Mullens showed some promise then despite going 3-5 by proxy of Shanahan. Since stepping in and replacing the unfortunate fall of Dobbs, they got a 3-0 win against Vegas leading a game-winning drive, and lost a 27-24 overtime game in Cincinnati where he went 26-33 for 300 yards and two touchdowns, but two back-breaking picks that didn’t pass the eye test and may have reminded you of Carson Wentz in the process.
The Vikings aren’t technically “out” of it, but Mullens may have just played one of his best games in Cincy and it still wasn’t enough. He’s got enough of a supporting cast to elevate his play with Jefferson, Addison, and a well-coached defense from Brian Flores, but the last loss felt like a nail in the coffin despite his play to extend the backup magic.
Joe Flacco, Cleveland Browns
Cult Hero Moxy: 8/10
Nonthreatening Hard Hat: 10/10
Coaching and Surrounding Talent: 7/10
Actual Arm Talent: 7/10
Anti-Deer in the Headlights Vision: 10/10
38 year-old retired and Super Bowl Champion Joe Flacco went from the couch to suddenly starting, and winning, games for the Cleveland Browns, a team that he himself fed on in the division in his prime for the Ravens. Suddenly there are Browns fans clipping videos of this miraculous scenario “My Hero” by the Foo Fighters, entirely juxtaposing the morale of the fan base around Deshaun Watson and the milquetoast offense beginning the year to support what was a dominant defense.
The Browns got to 9-5 this year despite starting four different quarterbacks this season and losing Nick Chubb to an unviewable injury. Flacco led a ten-point comeback with 3 minutes left to play against the Bears just one week after winning a shootout against Jacksonville with over 300 yards and 3 touchdowns and reviving David Njoku into the tight end we all thought he could be.
How sustainable a 38 year-old immobile quarterback behind an offensive line now down to just two starters remains to be seen, but a defense featuring Myles Garrett on the other side, Njoku playing well, and the capability of winning ugly will keep Flacco in position to possibly lead the Browns to a playoff spot. Imagine a Flacco-Baltimore revenge game; do you think he and the Cleveland fans would be up for that upset possibility?
Jake Browning, Cincinnati Bengals
Cult Hero Moxy: 6/10
Nonthreatening Hard Hat: 7/10
Coaching and Surrounding Talent: 8/10
Actual Arm Talent: 7/10
Anti-Deer in the Headlights Vision: 7/10
After the preseason Super Bowl-contending Bengals got off to a dreadful start with Joe Burrow looking like a shell of himself, the clip of him failing to even move his arm forward in a Thursday Night Football loss felt like the final blow to their season at 5-5.
Jake Browning, the former Washington Huskies QB that led them to the College Football Playoff his final year, answered the call to make his first start with a team that now needed to reevaluate itself without the man that means the world to Cincy. Browning wasn’t exactly an inspiring pivot for the Bengals, who were moribund before Burrow and saw his 75.1 QBR this preseason as he played with backups, but we’re beginning to see the Browning that was perfect for leading a talented supporting cast in college, improvising, making smart decisions, and benefitting from a roster that had high expectations.
He’s operated under the “Ja’Marr Chase or Tee Higgins is down the field somewhere” passing offense and it’s paid off in dividends- suddenly the Bengals are back into playoff contention after winning 3 games in a row. He threw for 354 yards (150 of those to Chase) in a Monday Night overtime win against Jacksonville, a 34-14 drubbing of the Colts with 2 touchdowns, and led a 27-24 overtime comeback against the Vikings with one of the most unbelievable miracle touchdowns to Tee Higgins, who suddenly has been found after being posted on the side of a milk carton all season. He’s not only got the support of Burrow and the team, who paid to have his parents in the box at one of the games, but he made history by becoming the first quarterback ever to throw over 1000 yards with a completion % over 75 in his first four starts.
Browning has proven to be a man worthy of beating some of the NFL’s best in his four starts and has given life to a season once deemed over. He’s got the same “veteran college quarterback lost in the draft” energy we felt about Brock Purdy going as Mr. Irrelevant. The final 3 games against Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Cleveland are going to be a critical stretch run that’s tougher than some of the other AFC teams paddling for a wild card spot, but Browning hasn’t shied away from the big lights in his first ever month and has Joe Cool right behind him.
Gardner Minshew, Indianapolis Colts
Cult Hero Moxy: 9/10
Nonthreatening Hard Hat: 7/10
Coaching and Surrounding Talent: 6/10
Actual Arm Talent: 7/10
Anti-Deer in the Headlights Vision: 9/10
The jorts-wearing man. The myth. The legend.
Minshew Mania is back in our lives one again, going from the insane Pac-12 after dark games in the Mike Leach offense at Wazzu, from stepping in for Nick Foles in Jacksonville, working as a backup for Hurts in Philly, to now taking the mantle for injured Anthony Richardson in Indy with his former Philly OC in head coach Shane Steichen. All he has ever wanted is a shot- at ECU he literally got himself drunk and injured himself to get another red shirt year to play ball. He doesn’t care if it’s the backup role or not, but has had enough go-rounds about it, slinging it and being the focal point of offenses, where he embraces the moment.
The Colts entered the year with a ton of question marks on their ceiling- a brand new coach, Jonathan Taylor in a contract situation since Jim Irsay wanted to use his money on the transportation of a whale, and a rookie quarterback deemed a project with a high ceiling, but now, with Minshew stepping in for 10 games, the Colts are 8-6 with a tie for the division lead. They have a chance to make a run with winnable games against the Falcons, Raiders, and Texans, but while Minshew has been the improvisational mastermind being able to operate outside the pocket, he’s been relatively just above average with a 57.5 QBR this season with only one 3 touchdown game this year, this week against the Steelers as they scored 30 unanswered points. It’s certainly playing with fire averaging 24.6 points per game and subsequently giving up 24.5, but Minshew lives for the theatrics and Steichen has made everything easy on Minshew with his connection to Michael Pittman Jr. and activating Zack Moss, but Minshew’s vibes has generated enough belief in a veteran quarterback playing in an AFC South that is a mixed bag heading down the stretch,
Minshew Mania rolls on, a match made in Heaven with Jim Irsay.