As an NFL coach or general manager, it's your worst nightmare: Your starting quarterback -- the guy around whom you've built your entire roster and on whose shoulders the fate of your season rests -- goes down with an injury. So you go to his backup ... who also promptly goes down, leaving you with a gaping hole at the game's most important position.
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The Green Bay Packers recently found themselves in this predicament, forced to play former practice-squad signal-caller Scott Tolzien when backup Seneca Wallace -- who was in for injured starter Aaron Rodgers -- suffered a groin injury (which landed him on injured reserve Tuesday). Of course, with Tolzien promoted, the Packers' quarterback cupboard became quite bare, prompting them to bring back former backup Matt Flynn.
What do team decision-makers do when they find themselves scrambling to beef up the depth chart at that crucial spot? If they're like legendary former coach Bill Parcells, they go straight to the list they've been maintaining for just such an occasion: the 10 best emergency fill-ins available from the ranks of the so-called "street" free agents, guys who currently are without a team. In fact, most teams have a list like that, put together by the pro personnel department in case of catastrophe. It's a crucial way to cut through the cacophony of agents who will have called you as soon as your starter hit the deck, telling you how the player they represent has been working out like crazy and is ready to jump into the right situation.
What goes into making that list, though? What are teams looking for in a quarterback who can come in and potentially start running their huddle if necessary? The qualities are much the same as what you'd look for in any quarterback, including first-stringers, though a few special characteristics -- such as suitability for your system and mental quickness -- trump others.
Here's a quick look at what teams seek in a replacement quarterback when disaster strikes:
1) Suitability and familiarity
When you're looking for a QB who can step in on short notice and help keep your team on track, these are two of the most important characteristics to consider. Forget overall talent and upside for a moment. Do his abilities fit with your system and scheme? How closely does he match the original starter, whose specific style and skills shaped your plan for the season? The player who fits in with as little adjustment as possible is the player who gives you the best chance to get where you need to go.
Think of Case Keenum, whose suitability for the Houston Texans' play-action-heavy game plan made him a better choice to replace Matt Schaub than fellow backup T.J. Yates -- even though Yates has a playoff win on his résumé. Similarly, Seattle backup Tarvaris Jackson probably is the closest match, in terms of playing style and ability, to starter Russell Wilson among all the options available to the team -- so much so that the Seahawks brought him back this season after trading him away in 2012.
Often, a team will look first to the quarterback on its practice squad -- someone who likely was kept there because, while he didn't make the final roster cut, the team believed he had potential -- before going to the free-agent pool in a pinch. The more familiar a team is with a guy, the better. Consider that former practice-squad signal-caller Thad Lewis was able to win one of the three games he started for the Buffalo Bills.
Tolzien is another good example of this. The Packers likely knew a lot about Tolzien, given that he played college ball at Wisconsin, which probably factored into their decision to bring him in after he failed to stick with the San Diego Chargers and San Francisco 49ers. Familiarity also was at play in Green Bay's decision to bring back Flynn, who had thrived in the Packers' system in the past.
2) Mental quickness
This is one of the most important criterion for determining success as a quarterback in general, and it's no less true when searching for someone to sign off the street. Teams don't care if a guy lacks upper-body strength. They just want a quarterback who's smart enough to grasp the system and playbook quickly and make sharp decisions on the field, someone who can figure out on the fly how best to take advantage of a given situation.
Football is all about quickness and making the necessary adjustments between plays. You don't want someone who'll take forever to get the play in; you want someone who's so quick, they're actually waiting to snap the ball. If you're going to ask someone to join your team at quarterback when the season already is in full swing, mental dexterity -- the ability to rapidly learn and adjust -- is a crucial ingredient. A guy can rifle the ball 40 yards down the field with the flick of a wrist, but if he's too slow upstairs to grasp the playbook, he's not going to do you much good.
Some guys simply have the necessary smarts -- Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are prime examples -- and some guys don't. But once you've found a quick-witted guy, you know he's going to stay quick-witted. Mental acuity, as opposed to athletic ability or strength, is not a degenerative quality in the NFL. That's why some of the psychological and mental evaluations of prospects and players are so important.
If you're looking for a quarterback in the middle of the season, chances are you're going to be facing some tough situations, which means you need someone who's naturally competitive. If you fall behind by a couple touchdowns, you want someone who's going to hang tough and do everything possible to keep his team in it, someone who will make plays when it seems like all is lost. Keenum is a prime example of this.
When I worked for the Dallas Cowboys, we were lights out when it came to finding and signing undrafted free agents. Why? Because we were able to pull the right guys out of the crowd, discerning what made one player better than three others who appeared to be similar to him.
One thing we looked for -- something that's just as applicable to weeding out guys off the street -- was character. Again, this is about fitting in. If your quarterback is going to work hard and do what he can to blend in with the team without causing undue disturbances, you have a better chance of succeeding.
This is one thing to watch out for when considering the many available free agents who have been around the block without sticking somewhere -- the guys who have been out there for a while, signing with and being cut by team after team, or going to workout after workout without landing a deal. If they've repeatedly been passed over because of character concerns, stay away.
Beyond all the above characteristics, teams will, of course, consider physical traits such as strength and explosiveness, but they're not nearly as crucial. It's important to remember that every available free agent is available for a reason; he has some sort of critical flaw that has kept him off a roster to this point. If he has a cannon for an arm, then he's probably not so quick on the uptake, which will lead to disaster when he's thrust into a tight spot by your team. Far better to take the weaker player with the wits to keep you afloat than sink with the relatively dim-witted physical specimen.