In the heyday of the Tennessee Titans, quarterback Steve McNair often played through serious injuries.
But when he couldn’t go, the Titans knew they had reliable backup options they could put into ballgames, first with Neil O’Donnell and later on with Billy Volek.
After the offense struggled with Matt Cassel at the helm Sunday filling in for Marcus Mariota, many are now wondering why GM Jon Robinson and the Titans have stayed with Cassel or haven’t pursued a different option at the No. 2 quarterback spot.
Other than perhaps Colin Kaepernick, who finds himself unemployed more due to his social stance (and the distraction that would come from signing him) than his talent, the pickings are extremely slim among the list of available backup quarterbacks.
Former Titans general manager Floyd Reese, now co-host of an afternoon talk show on 102.5 The Game in Nashville, said that for a number of reasons, a player of O’Donnell’s caliber isn’t walking through the door to backup Marcus Mariota or any other starting quarterback in the league.
“The truth is, there aren’t 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL,” Reese said. “There are four or five teams who have to start somebody who really isn’t an NFL-caliber quarterback, because they don’t really have anybody else. So when you start talking about backups, they’re not even as good as those guys most of the time.”
Reese attributes a couple of reasons for the lack of backup quarterbacks around the NFL. One reason, he says, is that colleges are not producing enough pro-style quarterbacks to be made available in the draft.
“The time was you could go to places like Stanford or Cal, or USC or UCLA, or any number of places and find a guy in the draft, because most programs ran a pro-style offense and you could draft and develop a guy,” Reese said. “Nowadays, though, so many teams are running the spread offense that it makes it really hard to evaluate these guys.”
Reese has a point, because even when the Titans selected Mariota with the second overall pick there were questions as to how he would adapt from running a spread, shotgun, no-huddle offense to even the simplest things in the NFL, such as running a huddle an taking a snap under center. Fortunately, for the Titans, Mariota has made an easier transition than most. But for all the reps it took, Mariota was locked in as a starter from day one. A backup, getting far fewer reps, would need even more time probably to learn the necessary pro-style skill set.
The other issue that Reese spoke of is that with all the money paid to today’s starting quarterbacks, that veteran guys like O’Donnell find it easier to just retire rather than stay on a few more years as a backup.
“When we had Neil, we were really fortunate. There was no way really that we should have had a guy of his caliber and his credentials as a backup quarterback,” Reese said. “But he was at the point of his career where he was willing to stay and be a backup, and we were better for it.
“Nowadays, most starters make $20 million a year, and rather than move into a backup role later in their careers, they’d rather just retire. You take a guy like Philip Rivers with the Chargers. There’s no way he’s going to stay around and be a backup. He’ll probably just retire,” Reese said.