Packers' outlook grim: Loss of MVP-caliber QB nearly always fatal in NFL

Michael Cohen
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) blows out a deep breath during a time out against the Minnesota Vikings Sunday, October 15, 2017 in Minneapolis, Minn.

GREEN BAY - The lives of backup quarterbacks in the National Football League hinge on moral quandary. All of them long for the chance to play in an actual game, to be under center themselves and test their skills against a real defense as 70,000 fans scream in celebration or groan with disappointment. But in order for that to happen, the player ahead of them must get hurt or benched, and neither outcome is enjoyable when the starter often is a friend.

For every Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady or Peyton Manning there is a Brett Hundley, Matt Cassel or Curtis Painter waiting in the wings, hoping and not hoping for a chance to play. From the moment a depth chart is released until the moment they start a real game, the careers of backups are defined by conflicting emotions.

“Aaron is my brother, so it’s hard to see him go down,” Hundley said after the Green Bay Packers lost to the Minnesota Vikings 23-10 Sunday. “I’m praying for him. I pray for him every game and I wish nothing but the best for him. … It’s a tricky situation, especially when the starting quarterback goes down. I’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time now.”

Hundley’s life changed when the weight of Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr pinned Rodgers to the turf at U.S. Bank Stadium in the first quarter last weekend. Rodgers suffered a broken right collarbone that will require surgery; he may miss the remainder of the 2017 season.

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In an instant, Hundley vaulted from a backup quarterback who never had started a regular-season game to a player tasked with leading the team many picked to win the Super Bowl. It is a moment Hundley has waited for since the Packers drafted him in the fifth round three years ago. But it is also a moment in which most backups have failed in recent memory.

Dating to 2000, nine teams have been forced to play five or more games without an injured quarterback who already had won, or would eventually win, a Most Valuable Player award. The results aren’t pretty:

» Seven of the nine teams missed the playoffs entirely.

» Six of the nine teams finished with seven wins or fewer.

» The two teams that reached the playoffs — the 2013 Packers and the 2000 Rams — failed to advance.

» The overall record of the nine teams is 57-86-1.

» The combined record of backup quarterbacks is 34-53-1.

“At the end of the day, I will state no one replaces '12,'” left tackle David Bakhtiari said of Rodgers. “He's arguably the best player to play football, particularly at his position.”

It means that losing an MVP quarterback is almost always a death knell, which doesn’t bode well for the Packers. Even if they rally around Hundley and turn their 4-2 record into a playoff berth, their dreams of winning the Super Bowl likely shattered in Minnesota.

“Anytime you lose a guy who was having an MVP-caliber season,” outside linebacker Clay Matthews said, “ … you can only help to think about the what ifs.”

Here is an in-depth look at the nine teams whose MVP quarterbacks suffered significant injuries since 2000:

Green Bay Packers

Year: 2013.

Injured quarterback: Aaron Rodgers (MVP in ’14 and ’11).

Regular-season record: 8-7-1.

Playoffs: Yes.

Result: Lost in wild-card round to 49ers.

For the Packers, there are obvious similarities between their current situation and 2013, when Rodgers broke his left collarbone in the eighth game of the regular season. He missed the next seven weeks before returning for the Week 17 finale against the Chicago Bears, a game the Packers won. But while they limped into the playoffs at 8-7-1, the Packers had a difficult time replacing Rodgers. They won only two of the seven games he missed, and his three replacements posted a passer rating of 100 or better just once. The first man up was Seneca Wallace, who lost his relief appearance against the Bears in Week 8 and was injured after making the start in Week 9. Then came Scott Tolzien, who played in parts of three games before the Packers pulled the plug following five interceptions and just a single touchdown pass. Matt Flynn started the last four games of the regular season and played fairly well given the circumstances. He won two of his four starts and threw seven touchdown passes against four interceptions. It was enough to keep the Packers alive until Rodgers returned.

Indianapolis Colts

Year: 2011.

Injured quarterback: Peyton Manning (MVP in ’13, ’09, ’08, ’04, ’03).

Regular-season record: 2-14.

Playoffs: Missed.

On Sept. 8, 2011, the Colts announced that Manning had undergone a single-level anterior fusion in his neck to alleviate pain triggered by a herniated disk. He wound up missing the entire season and never played for the Colts again, moving to Denver for the final four years of his career. The 2011 Colts are the poster children of how hard it is to find good quarterbacks in the NFL. With Manning gone, they turned to three different quarterbacks throughout the season: Kerry Collins started the first three games and lost them all, with a combined passer rating of 65.9; Curtis Painter started the next eight games and lost them all, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns and completing only 54 percent of his passes; Dan Orlovsky finished the season and snapped a 13-game losing streak by guiding the Colts to consecutive wins in Week 15 and Week 16. Orlovsky played reasonably well, all things considered, but the Colts came within a month of a winless regular season without their star.

New England Patriots

Year: 2008.

Injured quarterback: Tom Brady (MVP in ’10 and ’07).

Regular-season record: 11-5.

Playoffs: Missed.

The Patriots’ season veered off the rails in Week 1 when Brady suffered a torn ACL that would sideline him for the entire year. In stepped Matt Cassel, who had played only in mop-up duty during his first three seasons with the team. What followed is one of the best coaching jobs in recent history, credited to Bill Belichick. Cassel started the remaining 15 games of the regular season and played well. He completed 327 of his 516 passes (63 percent) for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns. He threw only 11 interceptions and posted a passer rating of 89.4, which ranked 10th in the league. Though they won 11 games, the Patriots missed a wild-card spot after losing tiebreakers to the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens. Cassel’s play eventually triggered a trade to the Kansas City Chiefs, who signed him to a six-year deal worth $63 million with $28 million guaranteed. He matched that level of play only once for the remainder of his career.

Arizona Cardinals

Year: 2005.

Injured quarterback: Kurt Warner (MVP in ’99 and ’01).

Regular-season record: 5-11.

Playoffs: Missed.

After one year with the New York Giants, where he started roughly half the season before rookie Eli Manning took over, Warner shipped out to the desert for the final stop of his career. He played the first three games of the 2005 season before injuring his groin and missing more than a month. The Cardinals were 0-3 when Warner went down injured and 2-5 when he returned in Week 9. Warner started the next seven games but played erratically, and the Cardinals won only twice. His season ended in Week 15 with an injured MCL. Warner’s replacement, Josh McCown, won three of his six games as the starting quarterback. McCown threw more interceptions than touchdowns and posted a subpar passer rating of 74.9 as the Cardinals missed the playoffs. Eleven years later, at age 38, McCown is now the starting quarterback for the New York Jets.

Tennessee Titans

Year: 2004.

Injured quarterback: Steve McNair (MVP in '03).

Regular-season record: 5-11.

Playoffs: Missed.

McNair had the best season of his career in 2003 while guiding the Titans to a 13-3 record in the regular season and a trip to the divisional round of the playoffs. He completed 250 of 400 passes (62.5 percent) for 3,215 yards, 24 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. His passer rating of 100.4 was nearly 10 points better than any other season in his career and led the NFL. But the next season, in 2004, McNair was plagued by injuries throughout. He was knocked out of the third game with a bruised sternum and missed the following week. He was knocked out of the seventh game with another chest injury that cost him two more games. And he did not play again after the Titans lost to the Houston Texans in Week 12, his body wearing down quickly. The Titans relied on Billy Volek in McNair’s absence. Volek played in 10 games overall and posted a record of 2-6 as a starter. He threw for 2,486 yards, 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions with a passer rating of 87.1 as the Titans never came close to a playoff berth.

Oakland Raiders

Year: 2003 and 2004.

Injured quarterback: Rich Gannon (MVP in ’02).

Regular-season record: 4-12 in 2003; 5-11 in 2004.

Playoffs: Missed both years.

Gannon’s career began in 1987 and reached its capstone 15 years later with an MVP award in 2002, his fourth of six seasons with the Raiders. He passed for 4,689 yards and 26 touchdowns that season while completing 67.6 percent of his passes. He threw only 10 interceptions. His passer rating was 97.3, the best of his career. But Gannon would not complete another full season, his body ravaged by injuries. In 2003, Gannon started the first seven games and posted a 2-5 record before injuring his shoulder (torn labrum) against the Kansas City Chiefs. His backup, Marques Tuiasosopo, made the first start of his career the next week and lasted less than a half before injuring his knee. Journeyman Rick Mirer, who played for seven teams in 12 years, started the last eight games of the regular season and won only two of them. He threw more interceptions than touchdowns and posted an anemic passer rating of 64.8.

A year later, in 2004, Gannon started the first three games before absorbing a helmet-to-helmet hit that fractured a vertebra in his neck. The injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season, and Gannon never played another game in the NFL. Without him, the Raiders turned to veteran Kerry Collins as their starting quarterback. Collins ran the show for the final 13 games of the regular season and won only three. He threw for 3,495 yards and 20 touchdowns but also tossed 21 interceptions and fumbled seven times.

St. Louis Rams

Year: 2000 and 2002.

Injured quarterback: Kurt Warner (MVP in ’99 and ’01). 

Regular-season record: 10-6 in 2000; 7-9 in 2002.

Playoffs: Yes.

Results: Lost in wild-card round in 2000; missed in 2002.

The storybook career of Warner, who worked in a grocery store and made appearances in both the Arena Football League and NFL Europe, ignited with the Rams in 1999. Warner was the maestro of "The Greatest Show on Turf," and in his first season as a starter he threw for 4,353 yards, 41 touchdowns and only 13 interceptions en route to an MVP award. But a year later, in 2000, Warner missed five games during the middle portion of the season after breaking his finger. The Rams were 8-3 in games he started and 2-3 in games he missed, despite Trent Green playing well as a backup. Green completed 145 of 240 passes (60.4 percent) for 2,063 yards, 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. His passer rating was 101.8, the best of his career. Warner returned for Game 13 and stayed healthy for the remainder of the year, which ended with a loss to the New Orleans Saints in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

Two years and another MVP award later, Warner broke his pinkie in Game 4 of the 2002 season and missed five games. He broke the same finger again in Week 14 and did not play for the remainder of the year. Warner’s first replacement, Jamie Martin, was injured during his initial start in Week 5. He gave way to Marc Bulger, who was terrific in seven starts. Bulger threw for 1,826 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions with a passer rating of 101.5, seven points better than his previous career high. The Rams won six of the seven games Bulger started but still missed the playoffs. Scott Covington made the only start of his career in Week 17 and was pulled after two series. The Rams finished 7-9 and Warner played only two more games for the franchise. 


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