So, someone named Brett Hundley is now the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, one of the preseason Super Bowl favorites. And the Packers are no longer any kind of favorite.
The NFL’s salary cap, a little more than two decades old, combined with rules limiting practice time and other changes the league has made, impacted many things around the game. Nothing has been affected more by these changes than the depth at quarterback.
Of course, the cap does not, per se, preclude teams from having a second viable quarterback, but most organizations are so shortsighted they refuse to put significant dollars into what experts generally consider a team’s second most important position – backup quarterback.
Not every team, of course.
In this, as in many other areas, the New England Patriots are ahead of the curve. They had enough viable quarterbacks last year to cover Tom Brady’s suspension and ultimately to trade one of their backups, Jacoby Brissett, to Indianapolis.
But Tennessee, to take just one example, floundered earlier this season when Marcus Mariota was hurt, and now the Packers, even in a weakened NFC North division, are simply deluding themselves to the point they signed another quarterback to the practice squad this week, some rookie named Jerod Evans, who was not even drafted.
It’s hardly stretching a point to say perhaps the Packers should have considered Colin Kaepernick, who had some of his best games against Green Bay, but the Kaepernick issue is something else entirely.
Before the salary cap created a convenient excuse, teams did what they could to stockpile talent. The 49ers retained Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young on the roster together for four years and had Steve Bono in reserve. The Packers kept Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers together for three years.
Now, Rodgers is injured and the Packers starter is Hundley, who before this week had completed three passes in his career. Of course, there is always the possibility that Hundley, a second-year, fifth-round draft choice, will follow the path set by Brady, who was a second-year, sixth-round draft choice when, as Drew Bledsoe’s injury replacement, he began the career that will end up in the Hall of Fame.
But probably not.
It has been 16 years, since the 2001 season, that a team won the Super Bowl behind a quarterback who was not the season-opening starter. Those were heady times, from 1999 through 2001, when Kurt Warner, who went on to the Hall of Fame, Trent Dilfer and Brady began training camp buried on the depth chart and wound up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after the designated starter either became injured or was badly ineffective.
Hasn’t happened lately.
Brady, following the 2001 season, was the last quarterback to win the Super Bowl who did not begin the year as No. 1. (Yes, that stat comes with an asterisk because Brady was serving a suspension when the 2016 season began, but he was simply No. 1 in absentia).
In 2002, quarterback Brad Johnson, who would ride Tampa Bay’s great defense to the championship, missed the final two regular-season games with a back injury. But from 2003 through the 2014 season, Ben Roethlisberger (2005) was the only quarterback to miss more than one regular-season game and win the Super Bowl. He missed six, but returned in time to play the final six regular-season games. Drew Brees was rested for the final regular-season game of his Super Bowl year (2009) and Rodgers missed one game in 2010. Otherwise, every Super Bowl-winning quarterback during that stretch started 16 regular-season games.
In 2015, of course, Peyton Manning missed six games before returning in the playoffs, but he was hardly the driving engine on that Denver team that had the league’s No. 1 defense. Rodgers’ Green Bay situation hardly is comparable; the Packers rank 19th on defense after six games.
And last year, New England started 3-1 with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. The Patriots then won 11 of the final 12 once Brady returned.
A general lack of quarterback depth is one reason teams that draft quarterbacks usually waste little time finding out what they have by getting them into games sooner rather than later. Two of this year’s three first-round quarterback picks already are making an impact for Houston and Chicago, and the third, Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, is biding time behind the league’s highest-rated passer, Alex Smith.
In the old days, of course, San Francisco’s Montana-Young stockpile was the normal way of doing business even if their Hall of Fame abilities were a little above the norm even then.
Jim Plunkett, once a No. 1 overall draft pick, came off the bench with the Raiders to lead them to the Super Bowl title in the 1980 season and repeated that act three years later. As a backup, Earl Morrall guided the 1968 Colts and 1972 Dolphins most of the way to the Super Bowl (one won, one lost). Jeff Hostetler replaced injured Phil Simms, who was having a career year, and helped the Giants win the Super Bowl following the 1990 season.
But no quarterback who did not begin the season as the starter has hoisted the Lombardi Trophy since Brady did it following the 2001 season. Sorry, Green Bay, but that statistic is not likely to change this year.
Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange