When the season began a month ago, 10 starting quarterbacks were at least 32 years old. If that shouldn't be viewed as a recipe for disaster -- after all, one of them was Tom Brady, who is playing the best football of his life at age 38 -- it was, at the very least, a suggestion that backup quarterbacks shouldn't get too complacent holding a clipboard or comfortable in the likelihood that they wouldn't have to play.
When Michael Vick started for Pittsburgh on Thursday night in place of Ben Roethlisberger -- a game the Steelers lost 23-20 in overtime -- five of those original 10 already had been injured and missed at least one start this season: the Saints' Drew Brees, Browns' Josh McCown, Cowboys' Tony Romo, Bears' Jay Cutler and Roethlisberger.
The switch to backups is hardly unique to those teams, although for the Cowboys and Steelers -- both considered strong playoff contenders -- the weeks-long absences of their starters are particularly unnerving. Through the first three weeks of the season, 38 different quarterbacks already had started a game, the switches made because of injury or incompetence -- and that does not include Vick's appearance in the first game of Week 4. The NFL is on a statistical path that doesn't just make the injury report must-read material, but imperils seasons: It is well ahead of the pace of the catastrophic 2007 season, when 64 starters were used, the most in any season with the exception of 1987, when replacement players were used.
Last season, 16 teams -- half the league -- started the same quarterback for all 16 regular-season games. Nine of those teams were in the 12-team playoff field. Of the other three playoff teams, the Arizona Cardinals stand as the cautionary tale. When Carson Palmer played his last game before getting hurt on Nov. 9, the Cardinals were 8-1. They went 3-4 without Palmer, fell behind Seattle in the NFC West and into a wild-card spot, and lost their first playoff game on the road.
Charlie Batch was both a starting quarterback and a backup, including in Pittsburgh for Roethlisberger, and Batch has a modicum of encouraging news for those who wonder if Vick and Brandon Weeden, starting in Dallas while Tony Romo's broken clavicle heals over the next two months, can keep their respective teams afloat for a late-season playoff push. The timing of the injuries, devastating though they are, should help.
"When you have a quarterback go down early in the season, it's not as hard, because you're not that far removed from training camp and getting starter's reps," said Batch, who led the Steelers to their only win vs. the Ravens without Roethlisberger since 2004. "When it's later, it could be two, three, four months since you took starter's reps."
Vick is at a significant disadvantage, though. He was signed late in training camp, so the Steelers' system and terminology is still very new to him. That is why Vick said this week that he and coaches spent time going through the playbook and took out things he was uncomfortable with. And Vick looked rusty on Thursday night, completing 19 of his 26 passes for just 124 yards (a meager average of 4.4 yards per attempt) while getting sacked four times. Still, there is one thing the Steelers do not have to worry about: However many games Vick has to play, the moment will not be too big for him, as it might be for a less-experienced backup.
It is no accident that teams like the Steelers, Cowboys and Saints -- all of whom possessed top-tier starters and playoff aspirations before the season began -- have seasoned veterans and not wide-eyed newbies as backups. Finding competent backups is complicated by simple math, as Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley explained in an interview last year: There aren't even enough good starting quarterbacks for the 32 teams, let alone 32 good backups. Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson was determined to find a veteran to be Andrew Luck's backup (40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck fits the bill), not just because he wanted to give the young passer a "corner man" he could lean on for advice, but because he wanted a quarterback who could win games if Luck ever went down.
"If you don't have a backup quarterback that can do it, you basically just gave up your season," said Grigson, whose Colts might have to play without Luck on Sunday due to a shoulder injury. (Though head coach Chuck Pagano said on Friday that he remains "supremely confident" his QB will be available.)
Batch had very specific ways he tried to make sure the Steelers' season would survive a Roethlisberger injury. He always was determined to know the game plan better than Roethlisberger and spent time in meetings going over it with Big Ben. When Batch had to play, he concentrated on reciting the snap count with the same cadence as Roethlisberger, to minimize the adjustment for offensive linemen.
Still, for the backups being used in recent weeks, it is clear accommodations are being made. Weeden, playing without Dez Bryant, did not throw downfield or outside the numbers in a loss to Atlanta last week, although he does have the league's highest completion percentage (87.9) among those who have thrown at least 30 passes. Luke McCown, if he has to play again in place of Brees against Weeden and the Cowboys on Sunday night, likely will use more of the efficient dink-and-dunk offense that was displayed last week against Carolina than the deep shots Brees is comfortable taking. The Saints' backup has the league's second-highest completion percentage at 81.6 percent.
And with weeks to go and games to be won to keep pace with the Cincinnati Bengals until Roethlisberger returns, Vick is certainly hearing the most important message of all for any backup thrust from the sideline to the line of scrimmage:
"They will have a conversation -- you cannot take any unnecessary hits," Batch said. "You better believe they're having that conversation -- slide or throw the ball away. But do not get hit."
Three more things to watch around the NFL in Week 4.
1) The injury report might be the most important part of the Giants vs. Bills game. The Bills could be without running back LeSean McCoy, who powers the league's top rushing attack, and receiver Sammy Watkins. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor has an injured ankle, which could help a Giants pass rush that has just three sacks. The Giants had hoped to have receiver Victor Cruz back, but he had a setback in Wednesday's practice and won't play Sunday. But the most intriguing part of this game will be what Rex Ryan has his defense do to try to contain Odell Beckham Jr., who has played just 63 snaps with Cruz as a Giant. The Bills have given up two 100-yard receiving games in the first three weeks and are ranked 31st in passing defense. Beckham has recorded more than 100 yards in eight of his last 12 games. If it's close going into the fourth quarter, the Giants might get nervous: Their defense has given up at least 14 points in every fourth quarter played this season.
2) The return of Adrian Peterson to the Minnesota Vikings has gone even better than they could have hoped, with Peterson rushing for 291 yards in the first three games. That's more than he had through three games in 2012, when he was the league's MVP. In Denver on Sunday, though, he will face the best defense in the league, one that is allowing an average of just 4.25 yards per play. The pass defense has been especially effective, allowing just one touchdown pass with six interceptions and 10 sacks, while the rush defense is ranked sixth in the league. Expect the Vikings to test the unit early and often to see if the Broncos' defense can continue to carry the team while Peyton Manning and Gary Kubiak settle on an offensive system. They, too, will get a test, because the Vikings' defense has manhandled the two quarterbacks -- Philip Rivers and Matthew Stafford -- it most recently faced.
3) The Raiders and Bears are franchises headed in opposite directions. It's been a very long time since we could say this, but it's the Raiders who are going the right way. The Bears, who might be the worst team in the league, conducted something of a fire sale earlier this week. The Raiders have not been above .500 after four games since 2002, but back-to-back games with at least 400 yards of offense -- which would have delighted late owner Al Davis -- hold the promise of more to come from the Raiders' trio of young talent: quarterback Derek Carr, wide receiver Amari Cooper and running back Latavius Murray. The Bears -- who punted on all 10 drives last week -- already have the worst scoring differential in the NFL. And while the Raiders have allowed the most yards per game in the league, the Bears could be without quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Alshon Jeffery, both of whom missed last week's game. The bigger question: If the Bears sink to 0-4 for the first time since 2000, who else does the front office move as it rebuilds the roster?