Backup quarterbacks ideally won't ever take a meaningful snap, but they can make or break a team's season.
As the importance of the quarterback position increases, so does the importance of having a capable replacement ready to go in case the starter should miss any time.
Week 4 featured the play of six quarterbacks who were not exactly expected to be starting back in August. Most were on the field because of an injury to the man ahead of them on the depth chart. Some will stick for an extended period, either because of talent or need, while others will go right back to the bench as soon as the starter is healthy enough to play again.
NFL history is replete with quarterbacks who have made the most of their opportunity when pressed into service, from Steve Spurrier to Brett Favre to Kurt Warner to Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady. Of course, it's also littered with second-stringers who left something of a black hole at the position, sucking their teams' fortunes down with them.
So how many of the backups seeing significant time this season have what it takes to step up and play as well as -- if not better than -- the regular quarterback? And which understudies are in danger of being swallowed up in the spotlight? I've ranked all six quarterback situations below, from best to worst, according to my assessment of each backup.
1) Cleveland Browns: Brian Hoyer
Hoyer has great mental quickness, and guys with mental quickness always have a chance in the NFL. He reminds me of Trent Green coming out of college: a very smart, hard-working player with a good (but not great) arm and good (but not great) athleticism. Hoyer is perfect for the Browns, who have the weapons (in Josh Gordon, Jordan Cameron, Chris Ogbonnaya and Davone Bess) that fit his game.
Hoyer might lack a certain "wow" factor, but he produces results. The fact that the Patriots kept him as a backup for three years -- and the fact that New England and the Arizona Cardinals saw fit to place a second-round tender on him -- tells you something; you don't keep someone for three years unless you believe he'll eventually do something.
2) Tennessee Titans: Ryan Fitzpatrick
I think this Titans team is the most talented squad Fitzpatrick has played with in his NFL career. He's a tough competitor who has a strong body for a quarterback. He also brings some mobility outside the pocket. The smart Harvard product will be paired with another intelligent guy in Titans offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. Between Loggains' game plan and Fitzpatrick's talent, Tennessee shouldn't really see a drop-off at quarterback while injured starter Jake Locker is out.
Fitzpatrick has been less than impressive when given chances to start before, but those opportunities came with inferior teams. Yes, he was cast aside in Buffalo, but I think the Bills' decision to part ways with him had more to do with the sizable contract extension they'd given him than it did with his ability. The Titans, meanwhile, are a pretty salty group, and Fitzpatrick has a chance to do something with them. Tennessee is facing a tough stretch of the schedule, with home games coming up against the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers, plus a road matchup with the Seattle Seahawks sandwiched in between.
3) Minnesota Vikings: Matt Cassel
Cassel can get the ball downfield for the Vikings, as we saw in Sunday's win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. He has a stronger arm than injured starter Christian Ponder. Though Vikings coach Leslie Frazier has voiced his support for Ponder, Frazier acknowledged Tuesday that the starter might not be healthy enough to play after the team's Week 5 bye. However long Cassel continues to start in Ponder's stead, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave should be able to work with him.
It's tough to get a bead on Cassel, as he has experienced great success (guiding the Patriots to 11 wins in 2008 and taking the Chiefs to the playoffs in 2010) and failure (compiling a record of 5-12 and giving up 21 interceptions in his final two seasons in Kansas City). One thing you can say: Even as things were going downhill with the Chiefs, he never complained. I'm not quite sure why it seemed to fall apart for him. Ultimately, I'm enthusiastic about Cassel's chances were he to start for a significant stretch -- perhaps a bit more enthusiastic than his history would suggest I should be.
4) New York Jets: Geno Smith
The situation in New York obviously is a bit different. Incumbent starter Mark Sanchez appeared primed to fight off Smith and keep his job before suffering what proved to be a season-ending shoulder injury in a preseason game. So while Smith never truly was a backup, per se, and while there likely always was a decent chance he was going to see the field at some point in 2013, it's safe to assume the Jets are leaning on him a bit earlier than they'd planned to.
Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is the exact right coach for Smith, as Mornhinweg has a lot of patience, and that's what it'll take to help the talented rookie develop. Smith has ability, but he also takes too many risks (see: his attempt to swing the ball around his back Sunday in Tennessee, which led to a fumble and a Titans touchdown). Mornhinweg never will let anything like that happen again.
Smith has good mobility and arm strength. I've noticed that when he's on the sideline, he looks like he's into the game and concentrating, which is a good sign. He also seems to be well-liked by his teammates; it appears to me he has a much better rapport with the rest of the Jets than former starter Mark Sanchez did.
Back when I thought Sanchez would be the Jets' quarterback, I wouldn't have expected them to be 2-2 after four games. With Smith as their man, I think they have a shot to finish with seven wins.
5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Glennon
Backup quarterbacks always are difficult to get a handle on, given how small the sample size tends to be. This is especially true when it comes to rookies like Glennon. I do know he was a limited athlete at the NFL Scouting Combine, posting a 26.5-inch vertical jump -- low among quarterbacks -- and a pedestrian 8-foot-6 broad jump.
Glennon connected on 24 of 43 passes for 193 yards and one touchdown while being picked off twice in his first NFL start, a 13-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. He tends to throw a rope ball without much velocity, though he did pass for more than 30 touchdowns in each of his two years as the starter at N.C. State -- even with his receivers dropping a lot of balls.
Some liked this player a lot in the pre-draft process. Others, myself included, were not excited about his pro prospects. I wonder if Glennon has what it takes to be a leader at this level, though it is worth noting he was elected captain in college. The Bucs have talent -- running back Doug Martin and wide receiver Vincent Jackson stand out on offense -- but with Glennon playing in place of released starter Josh Freeman, I don't think they can win more than four games.
6) Oakland Raiders: Matt Flynn
Flynn is another curious case, with sort of a Jekyll-and-Hyde résumé.
On one hand, Flynn won a national championship at LSU, and he threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns as a fill-in starter for the Green Bay Packers late in 2011. On the other hand, he lost consecutive training-camp competitions in 2012 and '13 and earned his coach's ire with a poor performance last Sunday. Then on Wednesday, Dennis Allen announced Flynn had been demoted to No. 3, behind undrafted rookie Matt McGloin, while confirming that Terrelle Pryor has recovered from his Week 3 concussion and will start Sunday against the San Diego Chargers.
To be honest, I didn't think Flynn would be drafted coming out of LSU, and yet, the Packers picked him up in the seventh round in 2008. I was surprised the Seattle Seahawks signed him for as much money as they did before the 2012 season, only to supplant him with a rookie in Russell Wilson. Even then, the Raiders still were interested, sending two draft picks to Seattle in exchange for Flynn.
I spent three days at Raiders camp and came away thinking McGloin looked better than Flynn, who didn't throw the ball well. So Wednesday's announcement didn't surprise me.
Fortunately for Oakland, Pryor has "it." He's enthusiastic, and the Raiders do a good job coaching him. If Pryor had been the quarterback last Sunday, I don't think Oakland would have fallen as easily to the Washington Redskins.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.