There’s a reason that the NFL deploys 29 medical professionals on the sidelines for each game. When helmeted giants collide repeatedly for an hour, someone’s bound to end up broken. And when you’re an under-padded, usually-distracted quarterback, quite often that someone is you.
The ‘next man up’ mentality that NFL teams employ implies that great teams have deep rosters filled with back-ups who can execute the duties of their position just as well as the starters can.
Only every football fan knows that in most quarterback cases that’s simply not true.
Here are five of those cases, where there is just no replacing the injured player because they’re that important to the success of their team. They are the team leaders, the game changers, maybe even future hall-of-famers who put up consistently high numbers and seem to win a lot more than they lose. If the following five quarterbacks can’t suit up in September, the fates of their teams will be greatly and negatively affected.
Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson
All-Rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson passed for 1,699 yards for 10 TDs and 8 picks in just seven games (six starts) for the 4-12 Houston Texans last season. He also rushed for 269 yards and 2 TDs. His rating was a 103 (Tom Brady’s was 102.8!) and his subsequent ranking by his peers (NFL Top 100 Players of 2018) was #50.
Then at a November practice on a non-contact play, Watson tore his ACL.
After that, the Texans won just one more game but their fan base began months of imagining an entire 2018 Texans season with a healthy Watson. Since then he’s has undergone successful surgery and rehab and has reported that his knee feels good.
Watson’s offensive tools are in place, the ones he used to average almost 35 points per game.
Watson plans to play in 2018 and if he can return to rookie form, including his 9.3 percent touchdown rate (last season Tom Brady’s was 5.5!), then the Texans might actually move out of the AFC South basement and into the playoffs, the turnaround that was so rudely interrupted last November.
Miami Dolphins: Ryan Tannehill
In 2016, the Miami Dolphins were a 10-6 AFC wildcard team, but last season they went 6-10 after starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill tore his ACL during the pre-season’s first non-contact practice. He ended up having knee surgery in August and was placed on injury reserve. The future of the Dolphins was dumped into the less capable hands of Jay Cutler and the 2017 ride went straight to third place.
During OTAs this offseason, Tannehill was seen taking part in all the team drills without a knee brace, good news for an offense that was ranked 25th without him. Of course, a lot of that offense has left the building, including receiver Jarvis Landry, tight ends Jordan Cameron and Dion Sims, running back Jay Ajayi and offensive linemen Branden Albert, Mike Pouncey, and Jermon Bushrod.
Tannehill will now work with former Patriots slot receiver Danny Amendola, former Chiefs receiver Albert Wilson, rookie tight end Mike Gesicki and new linemen Josh Sitton and Daniel Kilgore. It’ll be the job of second year offensive coordinator Matt Burke to turn these various new parts into a working Tannehill-driven machine.
Until his injuries, Tannehill’s numbers were rising, peaking in 2016 with career highs in passing percentage (67.1%) and passer rating (93.5). The soon-to-be 30 team-leader needs a healthy 2018 to show Dolphins fans that he’s a rising star ready to take their team to the promised land, which in the Patriot’s dominated AFC East, is probably a Wildcard spot at best.
Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck
Over the last three seasons (including all of 2017), Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has missed 26 games due to injury. When Luck was healthy, the Colts went 11-5 and made the playoffs his first three seasons from 2012-14. But with an unhealthy Luck, the Colts get left behind.
Luck only started seven games during the 2015 season because of an injured shoulder and then a lacerated kidney and a partially torn abdominal muscle and the Colts went 8-8. Then in 2016, despite a semi-healthy Luck throwing for 4,210 yards, 31 TD’s and a career-high 63.5 completion percentage, the Colts went 8-8 again. Later that offseason, Luck had shoulder surgery and didn’t play any games in 2017.
His backup, Jacoby Brissett, was sacked 52 times, the most of any quarterback in 2017. The year before, Luck was tied for second in that same category having been sacked 41 times. With first round pick Quenton Nelson guarding the pocket now along with some other newly acquired lineman (free agent tackle from the Ravens Austin Howard and draft pick guard from Auburn Braden Smith), Luck should be kept safer when he returns. If he returns?
At this point, Luck still hasn’t started throwing. Reports indicate that should happen by training camp. Even though a healthy Luck might not make his light-on-receivers-Colts a playoff team on his own, without him they have no hope, destined to dwell in the underside of the AFC South.
Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers
Last season, the Green Bay Packers allowed 51 sacks, second worst in the NFL. And even worse for quarterback Aaron Rodgers who was outside a collapsed pocket in Week 6 and had his clavicle broken on a hit from Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr.
Despite Rodgers too-little-too-late Week 15 comeback, the Packers could only win three more games after that. They missed the playoffs, put Rodgers back on Injured Reserve and ended up 7-9 and with a real appreciation of #12.
Offseason reports have indicated that Rodgers’ clavicle is now fully healed, one even saying he threw without any apparent limitation at the team’s OTAs. That’s great news for a Packer’s offense that was ranked 4th when he played the entire 2016 season but ranked 26th in 2017 when he didn’t.
The last time Rodgers returned from a similar injury was in 2014. That season, he brought the team to a 12-4 record and an NFC Championship appearance while personally scoring the MVP award. Rodgers claims he’s going to repeat that performance in 2018, but that can only happen if he can stay healthy, which can only happen if his offensive line can protect him.
Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz
The big exception to the ‘franchise quarterbacks are irreplaceable’ rule happened last season when in early December Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz left the game against the Los Angeles Rams, only to discover he’d torn his left ACL and LCL. It was Week 14, and at that point, the team was 12-2 and Wentz had already thrown for 3,296 yards, 33 TDs and only 7 interceptions. But when his knee gave out, Eagles fans figured the dream season was over.
And then backup quarterback and rule-exception Nick Foles took over and never looked back all the way to the Big Game. Foles threw 57 completions for 537 yards and 5 TDs with only two picks in the regular season, and 77 completions for 971 yards and 6 TDs with only one pick to win the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.
Foles was financially rewarded ($2 million raise for the 2018 season and the potential to earn up to $23 million via incentives) but remains the backup. General manager Howie Roseman knows that as well as Foles stepped up, a healthy Wentz is the franchise man. But seeing as Wentz didn’t take part in Philly’s OTA team drills recently (he was seen doing individual work on the side), keeping Foles around and happy is key to a successful franchise in 2018.
Normally, a player with a torn ACL gets back to playing around the six- to nine-month mark, and Wentz is now five months into his rehab regimen. How his rehab goes over the next few months will determine his comeback timeline. Right now, though, there’s some doubt as to whether Wentz will be on the field for a big chunk of the Eagles’ first-half schedule, but with 19 of the Eagle’s 22 starters returning, it looks like his boys in green will have his back until he returns.