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The Spread-Option Backups

The Spread-Option Backups

The emergence of the spread-option offense in the NFL has created an exciting new dynamic in an already esthetically pleasing sport.  Quarterbacks are no longer restricted to the pocket.  Instead, they function as passers and decoys, reading the defense and merely reacting to the outside contain man.

There are four teams in the NFL that run a version of the spread-option offense as their main attack:  the Washington RedSkins, the Carolina Panthers, the Seattle Seahawks, and the San Francisco 49ers.  All four of these teams have quarterbacks with strong arms, great field vision, incredible athletic ability, and, of course, a higher probability of getting injured.

As more teams transition to spread-option-type systems, they’ll have to keep in mind that although using the spread-option makes their offense unpredictable and hard to game plan for, it also comes with built in risks.  Clubs will also need to have contingency plans in place in case their franchise quarterback falls victim to a style of play that’s inherently hazardous.  With that being said, let’s discuss which of these teams would fair best if their starting quarterback were to sustain a season-ending injury, and had to rely upon their backups the rest of the way.

Washington Redskins

Starter: Robert Griffin III

Backup: Kirk Cousins

Mike Shanahan and RG3 showcased last season when you combine a rookie quarterback with a competitive drive and a head coach with a penchant for reckless abandonment the result is a hobbled franchise signal caller.  Not a good look.  In last year’s NFC Wild Card round, against Seattle, RG3 took multiple blows throughout the contest, culminating in a torn ACL as his right leg gruesomely twisted under the weight of his body.  Griffin’s play on the field was clearly inhibited, forcing Shanahan to put Kirk Cousins into the game.  Cousins, overwhelmed by Seattle’s defense, went 3-of-10 for 31 yards, with no touchdowns and no interceptions.  But what else would you expect from a rookie thrown into a playoff game facing arguably the best secondary in the league.

Cousins’ performance in that 24-14 loss to Seattle wasn’t indicative of his true capabilities.  In December, while filling in for an injured RG3, Cousins was more than serviceable against the Cleveland Browns. He threw for 329 yards, with a completion percentage over 70.  The Browns, though, were the 22nd ranked defense in the league, so Cousin’s production may be a combination of both poor defense and beginners luck.  The safe bet is to assume Cousins’ production in both of those contests were individual outliers, and his true value as a quarterback lies somewhere in the middle of the two games.  He hasn’t seen a ton of live action at the NFL level, which makes it difficult to evaluate his worth as a viable backup.  But if RG3 is sidelined for a substantial amount of time this season, we’ll find out if selecting two quarterbacks in the same draft turns out to be brilliant move by Redskins’ GM Bruce Allen, or just another questionable decision under Daniel Snyder’s reign.

Carolina Panthers 

Starter:  Cam Newton

Backup:  Derek Anderson

Cam Newton, despite having a pretty damn good season, was considered to have regressed in 2012.  Part of that is true; his numbers did in fact drop last year, but his rookie season statistics were record-breaking, so any follow up season is going to be judged by an unfair benchmark.  Newton, up to this point, has been relatively healthy — which is good news for the Panthers — because if he misses anytime this season due to injury, their season rests on the shoulders of one Derek Anderson.

The Cleveland Browns’ former first round pick in 2005 has been a journeyman quarterback whose never completed more than 60 percent of his passes.  To be fair, Anderson really hasn’t been in the best situations:  he was drafted by the Browns (that’s bad enough) and his top receivers during his tenure in Cleveland were Josh Cribbs, Braylon Edwards, and Joe Jurevicius.  He then landed in Arizona — with Larry Fitzgerald — and finished the season with nine starts and a 51 percent completion percentage. Apparently, Arizona is where bad quarterbacks go to continue there downward trend.  Anderson has thrown a total of four passes for 58 yards in four years with the Panthers.  So if Newton is out for a significant amount of time this season — good luck, Panthers.

Seattle Seahawks 

Starter: Russell Wilson 

Backup: Tarvaris Jackson 

Other than his family, no one was a bigger Russell Wilson fan coming out of the draft than I was.  His small stature led NFL “draft experts” to question whether or not he’d be able to translate over the success he had in college to the pro level.  I guess there’s nothing left to question.  Wilson started the season off slow.  But as the year progressed, he compiled statistics that rivaled Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, and Robert Griffin III, detailed in this piece by Grantland’s Bill Barnwell.  Last season, Seattle had a top-ten defense, a solid offensive line, and Marshawn Lynch.  Still, Wilson was an integral part to Seattle’s success last year. But if their intent on making the Super Bowl in 2013, Wilson has to stay healthy, or, they’ll have to depend on this guy …

Tavares Jackson, for the most part, has been an average-starter to solid-backup thru seven years in the NFL.  Between 2006 and 2008, the options at quarterback for the Vikings were, well, less then desirable, as Jackson competed for playing time against the likes of Brad Johnson, Brooks Bollinger, Kelly Holcomb, John David Booty, and Gus Frerotte, not exactly a scary imposition.  During that span, Jackson started 19 games, played in a total of 25, averaged a 58.4 completion percentage, threw 20 touchdowns against 18 interceptions, and, jumped up and threw the ball a ton off his back foot.  By 2009, Brett Farve had arrived in Minnesota, relegating Jackson to spotty starts while Farve suffered an injury riddled season in 2010.  In 2011, Jackson was Seattle’s signal caller, playing in a total of 15 contests.  In his first stint with the Hawks, Jackson completed a career-high 60 percent of his passes, thew for 3,091 yards, and tossed 14 touchdowns to 13 interceptions.  Seattle finished with a 7-9 record, resulting in Jackson’s departure.  After a brief stop in Buffalo, where he never attempted a regular season pass, Jackson has arrived back in Seattle where Seahawk fans hope the only action Jackson sees is in the preseason.

San Francisco 49ers

Starter: Colin Kaepernick 

Backup: Colt McCoy 

Last year, Colin Kaerpernick simply made opposing defenses look silly.  When Jim Harbaugh decided to stick with his 2011 second-round draft pick after Alex Smith suffered a concussion, he was either going to end up looking like the biggest goat in the league, or, a genius.  The latter proved to be true.  With Alex Smith relocating to Kansas City, the 49ers no longer have two solid quarterbacks they can rely upon if one ends up getting injured.   Instead, during the offseason, San Francisco inked Colt McCoy to a team friendly, one-year, $1.5 million contract.  Which is good financially, but terrible tactically.

Colt McCoy was never going to end up being a franchise-type quarterback.  He just doesn’t possess the arm strength high-level passers have in today’s NFL.  McCoy was drafted by the Browns in 2010 — which means he was already at a disadvantage — and has yet to prove he has the skill set to remain a starting quarterback in the league.  In his three years with the Browns, he averaged a 56.9 completion percentage, never threw for at least 3,000 yards in one season, and threw the same amount of touchdowns (20) as he did interceptions.  McCoy is the definition of average.

The Verdict …

Both Colt McCoy and Derek Anderson have proven to be subpar quarterbacks with below-average arm strength.  Tarvaris Jackson is approaching the other side of thirty and hasn’t started a game since 2011. Kirk Cousins is a second year player still developing, but has the greatest upside. However, Jackson has played in Seattle before, and is the only one of the four that possesses a skill set similar to the one needed to play in a spread-option-type offense.  I like Cousins, but Mike Shanahan would have to implement an entire new scheme if RG3 went down with a season-ending injury.  The same can be said about the Panthers and 49ers — if Kaepernick or Newton went down, Derek Anderson and Colt McCoy are not mobile enough to run a successful spread-option offense.  One things for sure: if any of these teams lose their starting quarterback, and are forced to go with their second option, these teams won’t be as fun to watch, and I doubt we’ll be seeing them play come January.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @OGDelicious