Why you should care

Because this seemingly small, cost-cutting gamble may cost your team the Super Bowl. 

In the NFL, it’s becoming more evident with each passing season that in the club of elite quarterbacks, if two is company, three’s a crowd.

Even people who have a life on Sunday know that quarterbacks are pretty crucial to any team hoping to make a Super Bowl bid, much less win many games. But in a move that only the most addicted fans may have noticed, a growing number of teams are relying on only two QBs week in and week out, contrary to the standard practice of a three-man unit that served as insurance against injury. All of which raises a burning question as we huddle up for another weekend of pro football: Why the choice to make this potentially crucial player a third wheel?

Just half of the NFL’s 32 teams had a third-stringer a little more than halfway through the season. A decade earlier, the majority of squads, 60 percent, had one. In 1993 — the year the NFL increased rosters from 47 to its current 53 — more than 70 percent of the league’s franchises filled the position. It’s a change rife with risks: Teams with a pair of signal-callers have to hope that both aren’t felled by injury in a sport marked by them. Plus, many third-stringers are veterans who help bring up the next crop of young quarterbacks.

… having a backup to the backup doesn’t always seem … absolutely necessary.

Tim Hasselbeck, former NFL backup quarterback

“I just think it ends up being a likelihood thing,” former seven-year NFL backup Tim Hasselbeck, now an analyst for ESPN, tells OZY. (Team officials declined comment.) He says years ago, before new rules were created to better protect quarterbacks, many in the star position were got banged up. Today, “the idea of having a backup is obviously necessary,” he says, “but having a backup to the backup doesn’t always seem to be something that’s absolutely necessary.”

But the answer may be even simpler. In a few words, it’s all about winning. And winning now. The NFL, after all, is the richest pro league in the United States, a juggernaut with more than $6 billion in revenue last year. Any team managing a winning season or, even better, a Vince Lombardi Super Bowl Trophy is headed for a nice slice of the pie. The desire to win quickly means it may make sense to unload a benchwarmer in favor of a fourth tight end, seventh defensive back or expert special-teamer, whose appearance could change the whole complexion of a game. What’s more, a needier team at the position might be willing to offer an attractive trade to get a reserve QB who can be a starter or reliable backup on its roster.

To some degree, this is all the same win-now approach that calls for quarterbacks taken early in the draft to immediately transition from college to the starting role — to varying results. For every Aaron Rodgers or Philip Rivers, both allowed to enter the NFL and learn for several seasons under a mentor in Green Bay and San Diego, respectively, there are gobs of others where the exact opposite is true: Robert Griffin III with Washington and Teddy Bridgewater with Minnesota, just to name two.

Still, ditching backups can be risky, and already this season, some teams are thanking their lucky stars they stuck to the traditional backup plan. In one feel-good story earlier this season, third-stringer Austin Davis gained attention after becoming the starter for the St. Louis Rams after the original starter was injured and his backup was benched. In eight games taking snaps, the team is 3-5, but still in the hunt in the difficult NFC West.

There is, of course, a financial element that’s led to the decline of the third-stringer.

Meanwhile, during a midseason Monday Night Football game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins, Washington called upon its second reserve, Colt McCoy, to start under center. And he played admirably, completing 25 of 30 throws for 299 yards as he led the team to an improbable 20-17 overtime victory over the heavily favored Cowboys. “I was a little bit rusty and I missed a few things,” he later told reporters. “I called a wrong play in the huddle one time. But we found a way to win.”

Colt McCoy #16 of the Washington Redskins waits for play during a game against the Tennessee Titans

Colt McCoy of the Washington Redskins waits for play during a game against the Tennessee Titans.

Source Patrick McDermott/Getty

The Cowboys also lost star gunslinger Tony Romo to a back injury in the defeat, requiring him to miss the next game. But as one of the other teams to roster three players at the position, Dallas was probably thankful it didn’t have to go out and sign a guy off the street as the team was forced to last season with retired 41-year-old Jon Kitna for a pivotal game that decided if it made the playoffs.

There is, of course, another financial element to the equation that’s led to the decline of the third-stringer. For 2014, the collective bargaining agreement states that rookies on the 53-man roster can make no less than $420,000 for the season, with 10-plus-year veterans taking home no less than close to $1 million. Compare that to the practice squad, which was expanded from eight to 10 players this year — and where a QB may also be developed, though he can be signed by another team at any point. The minimum there is $6,300 per week of the season. “There’s no question that you start to figure out how you have to allocate money to that position,” says Hasselbeck, noting that top starters command around $16 million a season.

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