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NFL Quarterback Supply bottoms out

2011 has been a banner year for quarterback injuries.  A week ago, I wrote about that, examining the quality of the injury replacements.  In many cases, the analysis was a simple acceptance of the fact that this team or that team were not prepared to survive the loss of their starting quarterback.

In a typical year, NFL quarterback supply (guys who are ready to go into the game and try to win) typically exceeds the number of teams by about one and a half times.  In a league with 32 teams, there are roughly about 50 quarterbacks with either the experience and the ability to perform at the level expected of an NFL player.  In 2011, a ton of starting quarterbacks got hurt, and the performance of the backups was remarkably disappointing.  In past years, there was never a significant issue with quarterback supply: teams that wanted to improve at the quarterback position and knew how to do it typically could without giving up very many resources.  In 2011, this really wasn’t the case, at least after the draft passed.

A back-of-the-napkin look through an NFL players database shows about 62 names of players on rosters who can perform at an NFL level, about two per team.  But currently 16 of those players are too injured to perform.  It’s not uncommon at the end of an NFL season to have a significant amount of injuries, but there are teams playing guys without NFL ability because of these injuries and because they were not able to do anything to acquire another quarterback.  That means that the NFL is currently rotating through 46 players who are able and healthy enough to play this upcoming week.  The Steelers will be starting Charlie Batch against Kellen Clemens for the Rams this week.

It isn’t just those teams.  For every team like the Lions that goes three deep at the QB position with guys who can run their system in relief of the starter, there are teams like Washington, the New York Jets, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, and Kansas City who went into the season one deep at the QB position.  Some like the Jets did it arrogantly, others like the Redskins did it delusionally.  The Jaguars did it tragically.  For whatever reason, this year of the lockout, 2011, has featured a sharp decline of quarterback supply.  Retirements from guys like Brett Favre are one reason, and the lack of development of the quarterback draft classes of 2009 and 2010 represents another reason.  Beyond that, coaches change teams all the time and that contributes to the disparity of backup quarterbacks.  A quarter of the league has two or three guys who can take the field in this league, a quarter of the league has one, if that.  Most of the league has a starter, and a backup.  But it is not as certain as in past years that teams will be able to afford a backup that they trust.  A quarter of the teams in this league did not even enter the season with a contingency plan at quarterback.

The Houston Texans were fortunate: they re-signed Matt Leinart after drafting T.J. Yates in the sixth round, despite having an established (if injury prone) franchise quarterback.  Prior to that, Rex Grossman and Dan Orlovsky (both part of the 62 figure from my count) had served as backup quarterbacks on the Texans.  Quarterback depth is still very important to the Texans, and that’s one of the reasons their 2011 season is still very live, even after a pair of crushing losses.

With an unprecedented amount of players coming off of IR this offseason, a strong 2012 QB draft class, and the natural development of the 2011 rookie class, this dip in quarterback supply is going to end up being just a blip on the radar.  There will be more than enough quarterbacks for every team to go two deep next year.  It doesn’t seem like many of these QB injuries are career-threatening with a couple of exceptions (Jon Kitna – age, Peyton Manning – neck).  Guys like David Garrard and Chad Henne are going to get right back into the game next season.

Still, this could end up being a major storyline in the playoffs.  The Jets: Mark Sanchez is backed up by 41 year old Mark Brunell.  The 49ers: Alex Smith is backed up by a pair of rookies, Colin Kaepernick and Scott Tolzien.  The Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger is banged up and Charlie Batch is going to have to play (and stay healthy).  The Texans: T.J. Yates is in as a rookie because of injury.  The Ravens: Joe Flacco is backed up by Tyrod Taylor.  The supply of NFL quarterbacks typically mitigates the arguments that teams can blame injury luck at the quarterback position for their misfortune.  To me, teams should have long been better prepared for this.  But this year, even the well prepared teams are down to their last legs at the quarterback position.

The quarterbacks page at Football Outsiders paints this picture well.  The top 32 quarterbacks in both DYAR and DVOA have performed adequately this year.  32 just happens to be the number of teams in the NFL who need performance from their quarterback (all of them).  On the list of 32, there are two Houston quarterbacks (Schaub and Yates), two Oakland quarterbacks (Campbell and Palmer), two Miami quarterbacks (Moore and Henne), and a 33rd player just below the minimum attempts threshold (which is 100 passes), Jake Locker, making two Tennessee quarterbacks (Locker and Hasselbeck).  The three teams that don’t have a quarterback on the list of 32: Arizona, St. Louis, Jacksonville.

In all three of those cases, the projected starter going into camp has struggled with injury.

In Arizona’s case, they were fortunate to find some unexpected depth on their own roster in John Skelton, but having Skelton perform now does nothing to solve the long term issue of the Cardinals quarterback situation.  But quarterback depth (nothing behind or challenging Sam Bradford) and Jacksonville (forcing Gabbert to play after Garrard release because Luke McCown was unplayable) is the story to these teams’ seasons.

It will be interesting to see if teams put more of a premium on rostering backup quarterbacks in the future.  There will certainly be a greater supply in 2012.

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