As I wrote earlier this season, the apparent promise of starting a backup quarterback -- that a diamond in the rough will rise to heroic status when given an opportunity -- usually proves to be a mirage. More often than not, the dream comes to a crashing halt. After all, most backups are backups for a reason. But what happens when a team with serious playoff hopes finds itself relying on the understudy under center?
That's the situation facing the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles. The 8-1 Cardinals have the NFL's best record, but they'll have to go the rest of the way with Drew Stanton, as veteran starter Carson Palmer was ticketed for injured reserve Monday with a torn ACL. The Eagles, meanwhile, will attempt to stay in the fight for the NFC East behind Jets castoff Mark Sanchez.
Before we delve into Stanton and Sanchez, let's consider how backup quarterbacks have performed thus far this season. It's been a mixed bag, to say the least.
Kirk Cousins was 1-4 in his five starts for the Washington Redskins -- and though it is technically credited to Cousins, the one win was secured after he was replaced by Colt McCoy, who rallied the troops to come back against the Titans in Week 7. Derek Anderson completed 70 percent of his passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 1 win for the Carolina Panthers. Brandon Weeden had an awful completion rate of 54.5 percent and threw more picks than touchdown passes in his spot start for the Dallas Cowboys. Austin Davis, who began the year as the St. Louis Rams' third-string quarterback, has a respectable 3-5 mark as a starter, but nothing about him screams long-term fixture. And while Stanton did win in Palmer's stead earlier this year, we should note that when he gave the job back to Palmer heading into Week 6, the Cardinals had the 29th-ranked overall offense.
Here are my takes on Stanton and Sanchez going forward, with one facet of the game emerging as especially crucial for both quarterbacks:
Drew Stanton, Arizona Cardinals
Stanton already has two wins under his belt this season from a three-game stretch that Palmer missed with a nerve issue. In Week 2, he beat the Giants in MetLife Stadium, then stymied the 49ers in Arizona in Week 3 -- his one loss was to the Broncos in Denver in Week 5. That's a cross-country road win, a win against a team that was a favorite in the NFC West and a relatively close loss -- the Broncos didn't truly pull away until Stanton left with a concussion -- to what many believed to be the best team in football. Of course, now that Palmer is done for the season, Stanton's job has really just begun.
Stanton's 2014 stat line is hardly impressive; he's completed less than 50 percent of his throws with just three touchdowns on 93 total attempts. In his two complete games this season, he averaged just 205.5 passing yards, slightly better than his lifetime average of 172.3 as a starter. While that is hardly anything to cheer about, one bright thing stands out: Stanton has yet to commit a turnover this season. And a quarterback who takes care of the ball always gives you a chance, particularly when you're a Cardinals team with a defense playing the way it has been. When a backup is under center, it's OK for drives to end in kicks -- even a possession that results in a punt can be a good one. Just don't turn the ball over.
Consider what the Cardinals did after Palmer went down on the first drive of the fourth quarter in Sunday's game against the Rams. Facing a four-point deficit, Stanton completed an 11-yard pass, scrambled for 4 yards, threw for another 26, then connected with John Brown for an explosive 48-yard touchdown that gave Arizona the lead. The Cards' defense then picked off Davis twice in a row, returning one interception for a touchdown, before forcing a fumble that was also returned for a touchdown. Obviously, a team can't plan to clinch games with multiple defensive touchdowns, but a team can most certainly limit its mistakes and hit big plays when opportunities present themselves.
This isn't limited to Stanton. The quarterbacks I mentioned in the introduction have a combined record of 7-11. In their seven wins, they combined for a total of just four turnovers; in their 11 losses, they combined to turn the ball over 20 times. Seems pretty simple to me.
Mark Sanchez, Philadelphia Eagles
With Nick Foles out six to eight weeks while he recovers from a broken collarbone, Sanchez will get his first start under Chip Kelly on Monday night. And while Sanchez, who made 62 starts with the New York Jets, is certainly a known commodity, he is still the backup quarterback.
Fantasy experts might lead you to believe Sanchez is the answer to all your problems, but real life is different from fantasy football: You lose a lot more than two points when you throw an interception in the NFL. And Sanchez has certainly done his fair share of that. In two of his four seasons as the Jets' starter, he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and his career touchdown-to-interception ratio is 70:71.
I know what you're saying: The two picks he threw in relief of Foles last week weren't his fault. The first one was tipped by a receiver; as for the second, you could argue Riley Cooper didn't turn fast enough for the hot read. Still, a turnover is a turnover. Regardless of who's at fault, turnovers damage the team's cause and make it harder for the quarterback to win, a problem that is magnified when a backup is slinging the pigskin.
The bottom line is, if the Cardinals and Eagles want to keep rolling, it won't be enough to just win the turnover battle; they'll have to live by it. If they avoid making mistakes and stick to the formula, both squads can make the playoffs behind their backups, particularly with the head start they have. That said, in today's NFL, you need more than a game manager to win in the postseason. Are these teams capable of making a Super Bowl run? Yes. But are they likely to? Not exactly.
Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @CoachBillick.