Are Back-Up Quarterbacks More Important Now than Ever?

 Elsa / Getty Images

Mark Sanchez went out for a cheesesteak Monday night. The backup-turned-starting quarterback celebrated his first win in two years as QB1 with a late-night wiz-wit on Passyunk Ave. with a crowd of selfie-snapping Philadelphia Eagles fans. One game after coming in for the injured Nick Foles and nearly two years after his last NFL start, Sanchez, who couldn’t order a hot dog from a Manhattan street vendor without getting booed during the later part of his turnover-filled Jets career, was enjoying his time as Philly’s new favorite son.

Until he throws away the ball or this second chance at NFL stardom, Sanchez is the city’s latest folksy underdog hero. He is also the processed-cheese-eating personification of the importance of the backup quarterback in today’s NFL. According to a study conducted last year by the Washington Post, quarterbacks suffer injuries less than any other position on the field — once every 236 plays, as compared to most other players who are hurt every 50 plays. But QBs are the most high-profile injuries on the field.

A reason for this are the many rules in place designed to protect QBs, who most often injure their shoulder (17 percent of the time). They touch the ball on almost every play, they are the singular target of defenses, and they are often standing still and easier to hit, so contact with QBs is heavily scrutinized (and heavily regulated).

While a backup quarterback doesn't get on the field as often as a second- or third-string running back, a team’s fifth best receiver, or a special teams player, when he enters the game there is quite a bit more pressure on him to succeed.

As players grow bigger, faster, and stronger, along with the collisions on an NFL field, the number of injuries in football have been on an incline for years. So far this season, eight starting quarterbacks have suffered significant injuries (three of them season-ending), placing a greater emphasis on the understudy than ever before.

A backup has to be capable of coming in on a moment's notice and operating as well as the No. 1 guy. Backups are forced to put on a happy face and be a good teammate and a cheerleader, but deep down, they are rooting for horrible things to happen to the guy in front of them. Sanchez had some experience with this with the Jets when the ball was taken out of his hands and replaced with a clipboard last year.

"I just kept telling myself when I was out that if I get a chance to get back in there, I don’t ever want to be out again until I retire," Sanchez said. "I want to keep playing."

The most valuable player on every football team is the quarterback. Just like the Vice President is a heartbeat away from being the Commander in Chief, the No. 2 quarterback is always one hit away from being the field general. It is not easy putting down the clipboard and putting your team on your back. But then nothing about being a backup quarterback is easy. You get fewer reps, less fame, and typically backup QBs live in anonymity unless the starter either suffers a gruesome injury or really sucks at his job. So far this season, a number of backups have come off the bench to inject new life into NFL teams, from some of the very best to some of the very worst in the league.

The Eagles are an NFC contender this year, they were 5-2 when Foles went down with a fractured collarbone, and the injury has not derailed their championship hopes. Not yet. Not with Sanchez coming off the bench and running Chip Kelly’s offense with the kind of precision that has Jets fans scratching their heads. In his first start against the Carolina Panthers (on Monday Night Football, no less), Sanchez threw for 332 yards, two TDs, and no butt fumbles in a 45-21 win that improved the Eagles record to 7-2.

Sanchez is just one of several backup quarterbacks that have gotten the call this season to come in for an injured or incapable starter. His old team, the New York Jets, turned to backup Michael Vick when Geno Smith — the player the team replaced Sanchez with last season — could not get the job done. Vick — formerly the Philadelphia starter who ironically lost his job to Foles last year — brought new energy to a limp Jets attack and engineered an improbable Week 10 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Not to rub salt in a wound that never seems to heal for Jets fans, the best team in football through 10 weeks is the Arizona Cardinals. They are the Cinderella story of the season and despite losing starting QB Carson Palmer for the year with a knee injury, backup Drew Stanton has inherited a Super Bowl contender in the desert. Just three days after signing a monster three-year, $50 million contract ($20 million guaranteed), Palmer suffered the second torn left ACL of his career. His first, with the Bengals, came 10 days after signing a 10-year, $119.5 deal with Cincinnati in 2006.

A miraculous 48-yard touchdown to John Brown iced Stanton’s latest relief win (they were 2-1 earlier in the year with him under center while Palmer nursed a shoulder injury, and Stanton’s only loss came when he was knocked out with an injury against Denver) and improved the Cards to a league-best 8-1. This is the best part (and Jets fans may want to skip this next sentence): Stanton demanded to be traded by the Jets in 2012 after the team signed Tim Tebow to challenge Sanchez for the starting job in one of the most infamous personnel moves and manufactured quarterback controversies in team history. Stanton was traded to the Colts, got beat out for the No. 1 job there by Andrew Luck, and has resurfaced as a hopeful savior in Arizona.

So far this season almost half the league has made quarterback changes, placing an importance on the backup position like never before. What would happen if Peyton Manning missed significant time for the Denver Broncos? He won’t even let his backup, Brock Osweiler, in for garbage-time snaps at the end of a blowout. Where would the New England Patriots be without Tom Brady? Last season, the Green Bay Packers, 5-2 at the time of the injury, went 2-4-1 with starter Aaron Rodgers out with a fractured collarbone. He returned for the season’s final game to steer his team to an unlikely playoff appearance. Excellent NFL teams typically have exceptional starting quarterbacks. Replacing them is not always as easy as the Eagles and Cardinals have shown.

While Sanchez and Stanton have flourished, plenty of backups have floundered when given the chance. The Houston Texans replaced Ryan Fitzpatrick with Ryan Mallett this week; Tampa Bay benched Mike Glennon for Josh McCown, who succeeded as a backup in Chicago last season; Tennessee turned to Charlie Whitehurst when Jake Locker got banged up; the Buffalo Bills benched E.J. Manual for veteran Kyle Orton; St. Louis put the ball in Shaun Hill’s hands after backup Austin Davis gave up two defensive TDs to Arizona; Washington turned to Kirk Cousins while Robert Griffin III was injured, and then turned to Colt McCoy, who won a Monday Night game in Dallas, before going back to RGIII; rookie Teddy Bridgewater got a chance to play for the Minnesota Vikings when starter Matt Cassel broke his foot; and another rookie, Blake Bortles, is playing for Jacksonville because Chad Henne was just awful. And Browns backup Johnny Manziel has zero starts, and has thrown zero completions for zero yards.

In the wild world of the NFL, two of the best teams in the league are now guided by quarterbacks that started the year riding the pine. Now their teams are riding their arms deep into November with championship dreams and a new appreciation for the importance of the backup quarterback.

While they may be invisible until they’re actually called upon, capable backups are as essential to NFL success as Cheese Wiz is to making the perfect late-night snack in South Philly. Just ask Mark Sanchez and the Eagles. He’s an authority on both right now.