Sports

It’s the year of the NFL backup quarterback, for better or worse

The NFL is a quarterback-driven league. People are tuning in to watch Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen do downright crazy things with a football; they want to see Tom Brady continue his assault on the record books; they are rooting for young up-and-comers like Trevor Lawrence.

It’s a quarterback world, and we’re all just living in it. During the 2022 season, however, it has often times also been a backup quarterback world.

The Wild Card round was no exception, with three teams being led into the playoffs by passers not atop the depth chart at the start of the year. Their teams only went 1-2, but they played as prominent a role as any backup QB could hope for.

Take the Baltimore Ravens’ Tyler Huntley, who arrived in the NFL in 2020 as an undrafted free agent. With the team having Lamar Jackson under contract as its unquestioned QB1 — at least at that point in time — Huntley’s future was clear: sit on the bench, and be ready to go should the time come.

It did come both in 2021 and 2022, with Huntley starting a combined eight regular season games in place of an injured Jackson. This year, he also got the chance to play in a postseason contest.

Then, there are Brock Purdy and Skylar Thompson. Both are in a similar situation: they entered the league as seventh-round picks in the 2022 draft, and started out as the third quarterbacks on the San Francisco 49ers’ and Miami Dolphins’ depth charts, respectively. When the options ahead of them all went down injured, it was their time to prove themselves.

Now, here is the part where we have to talk about performance for Purdy, Thompson and Huntley. Because, well, they are backups for a reason.

Purdy’s 49ers did win their Wild Card game against Seattle in rather lopsided fashion, pulling away in the second half to advance on a 41-23 win. The youngster finished with an impressive stat-line — 18-for-30, 332 yards, three touchdowns — but he did have his ups and downs while operating in one of the NFL’s most quarterback-friendly offensive schemes.

Thompson and Huntley, meanwhile, came up on the wrong end but also had their moments. Miami kept it close against Buffalo, losing 34-31 despite entering the contest as 14-point underdogs; Thompson did have some encouraging plays despite ending up completing just 18 of 45 throws for 220 yards with one touchdown and two picks.

Huntley’s Ravens also fought tooth and nail versus the heavily-favored Bengals. And, boy, did he do his best to keep his men in this one: he found success both as a passer and as a runner, executing coordinator Greg Roman’s calls on a high level. Until he did not, that is: his fumble while trying to reach the ball across the line on a quarterback sneak proved to be the difference against the reigning AFC champions; the ball came loose and Cincinnati returned it 98 yards for the game’s decisive touchdown.

Huntley’s performance was therefore not unlike Thompson’s and Purdy’s. There was some good and some bad. It was what you would expect from a backup QB.

Still, the three also did not completely melt down with all eyes on them. Sure, that is a low bar to clear but we’ve also seen backup quarterbacks falter in the most spectacular of fashions when asked to suddenly carry the load. Looking your way, 2014 Ryan Lindley.

Obviously, not everybody can be 2001 Tom Brady or 2017 Nick Foles. But if there is something like a Foles-Lindley spectrum for backup quarterback play in the postseason, all three probably were a bit closer to the former than the latter. But again, it was a mixed bag throughout for all of them.

In a way, they therefore perfectly represented one of the bigger storylines for the 2022 season: backup passers unexpectedly being thrown into action.

Only 10 of the NFL’s 32 teams saw their quarterbacks start all of their games. Eight of those clubs — all but the Jared Goff-led Detroit Lions and the Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay Packers — made it into the playoffs.

The other 22 teams had, at one point, call up the reinforcements either due to injury or performance. The 49ers, Dolphins and Ravens are among them, as are three other postseason participants: the Eagles, Giants and Cowboys, coincidentally all residing in the hyper-competitive NFC East.

That meant that players such as Gardner Minshew or Cooper Rush got their shot. The same was true for Mike White and Bailey Zappe, Jarrett Stidham and Brett Rypien, John Wolford an Malik Willis. A ragtag group of players if you ever saw one.

But at the end of the day they played a vital role in writing the still ongoing story of the 2022 NFL season. The same is true for Skylar Thompson and Tyler Huntley, and the only one left standing: Mr. Irrelevant himself, Brock Purdy.

Will Purdy lead San Francisco to the promised land? Maybe, maybe not. At the very least he will continue to hold the flag high for at least one more week, something nobody expected when he first joined the 49ers back in May.

But given how the current season is going, seeing him start a divisional round game next week is par the course. Turns out it is, after all, the year of the backup quarterback.

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