Thoughts on Benching a Young Quarterback


Benching the young Quarterback is always a difficult task. Teams invest so much into the QB position and people, seemingly both inside and outside an organization, take sides sometimes which can cloud the decision making process. Though I usually focus on cap related issues I wanted to look at a few situations around the NFL and give my thoughts on the various reasons why certain players could be benched.

Geno Smith– Smith has struggled for most of the season and is arguably worse than Mark Sanchez was for the Jets at any time in Sanchez’ career. The Jets are in an unlikely position of being the Wildcard leader in the AFC and the QB position has been a complete drain on the team. Smith is a 2nd round draft pick, but the Jets are likely not fully invested in the prospect of Smith as the future of their team. They certainly did not think he was worthy of a high first round pick, having passed on him twice at the top of the draft, and made no indication that they felt strongly enough about him to move back into the first round later in the draft to get him. So I doubt the team is worried about damaging his long term prospects with the team.

The thought process is likely compounded further by the relationship between head coach Rex Ryan and GM John Idzik. This is Idzik’s first year in NY and he and Ryan certainly have very different personalities. Ryan is essentially a lame duck coach and may feel as if his best opportunity to stay a head coach is if he gets his team to the playoffs. Developing a QB is not in the best interest of Ryan right now. But I am not sure how much authority Ryan has to make that decision. The Jets have maintained a veteran backup all season long (Brady Quinn and then David Garrard) but he has never been active on Sunday, instead leaving the backup duties to Matt Simms, an undrafted free agent in 2012 that made a team in 2013. I theorized that part of that decision may have been because Idzik did not want Ryan to make a hasty move in a game to bench Smith in favor of a veteran as it is far more difficult for a coach to see a UDFA as an improved option. Rex has now pulled Smith twice from games in the 4th quarter in favor of Simms.

One approach for the Jets is to hope to catch lighting in a bottle with Simms. This is not all that uncommon in the NFL where you bring a guy in with no footage and no expectations and they stun the world. I think we saw that already in Oakland and Houston this year. I think what happens here is that the players on the team actually rally around the QB and the idea that they have to raise their level of play to compensate for the “downgrade” at the QB position. Opposition also takes such QB’s lightly and coaches have limited film work to really coach their players up on and instead have to just focus on generalities of the offense, which may not even be valid.

The negative is that usually this spike in play only happens for a few weeks. Opponents begin to study the player and gain some respect for him. Next thing that happens is the world wonders how in the world is this player the QB of an NFL team.  This is also a move that can shatter the 2nd round draft pick. It’s one thing to bench a rookie for a veteran like Garrard. It is another to bench him for an undrafted player.

Simms is most likely not going to be the future for the Jets.  He would not even be a stopgap starter going forward. If the Jets do not draft a QB, the stopgap starter is Geno Smith or a massive salary reduced Mark Sanchez.  While some teams might be able to use a benching as an “evaluation period” the Jets don’t have that option in front of them.

The other option, and likely the one preferred by the head coach, is to put a veteran on the field and let him run a very controlled mistake free offense. There is zero upside to David Garrard, who hasn’t taken a snap in years, but you know he won’t turn the ball over two or three times in a few minute span. He’ll never be the story in a game, good or bad, and that is what a team would want. Right now Geno Smith is the story most weeks and it’s a negative story.

Garrard brings problems too, though. Having not played in so many years and having retired once this season because offseason workouts were too much for his body, how long can you go with Garrard as a starter?  What do you do if he gets injured?  Bring back Smith who you are admitting is not ready to play in the NFL right now? How do you spin that to the team?  You can’t.

If the Jets go with Simms I think the writing is on the wall for Smith next season. The Jets will be happy with a miracle from Simms that gets the playoffs but if he fails my guess is they will be just as happy with the high draft pick. If Garrard is the guy its simply an admission that Smith is not ready for the NFL and you want to see how he reacts to playing as a backup.

As a side to this discussion is that I think any benching scenario might open up a door, no matter how small, for Sanchez to be involved in a QB competition next season. The Jets should have significant cap space in 2014 to threaten to carry Sanchez’ salary through August if he refuses a pay cut.  If they are unable to get a QB in the draft next season you would think the Jets will go right back to square 1 with the Geno vs Mark battle.

Case Keenum– After starter Matt Schaub had his confidence destroyed the Texans used an injury to Schaub as reason to begin looking at the younger players on their team. This may have been a similar situation to what has happened in a few locations where the head coach makes the change in part to  prove a point to people that it is not the QB’s fault the way people perceive it. In many ways these are token benchings not anticipated to last.

The two cases that I can recall which were similar were Vinny Testaverde being benched in Dallas in 2004 for Drew Henson and Kyle Orton being pulled in favor of Tim Tebow in 2011. In the Testaverde situation the Cowboys coach, Bill Parcells, claimed injury, but by halftime Testaverde came back into the game to replace an ineffective Henson. Parcells wanted to prove a point by starting Henson and having him implode on a big stage, which he did going 4 of 12 for 31 yards and a pick before being benched.

The pressure to bring in Tebow was overwhelming in Denver. Nobody in the organization supported him but this was considered a lost season and starting Tebow solved a dilemma of having to face mounting media and public pressure to start him the following season. The Broncos released Orton as a favor to Orton so that he could continue his career elsewhere. Along the way, though, Tebow took the Broncos on a miracle playoff run making the situation more complex. The Broncos proved the point that Tebow could not play a traditional QB role in the NFL, but they had failed to realize the way the team, in particular the defense, responded to him playing. They raised their level and Tebow did just enough late in games to sneak away with some wins based on the immense leg of their kicker. The Broncos traded Tebow away the following year because they never wanted him in the first place.

I don’t think Texans coach Gary Kubiak considered the fact that Keenum might look competent in these games. Keenum created that spark that I mentioned above, except the Texans were not winning games like Tebow did. They simply did not look lost and incompetent. To many that is progress but Keenum was pulled in middle of yesterdays game for really no good reason.

In most cases coaches are loyal to their guys. If not for Schaub, Kubiak probably would not have a job in Houston right now. That is his guy and he is going to go to bat for him.  Kubiak is also going to send a message to management with the move. If you want to retain Kubiak know that it is either Schaub or a draft pick as QB. He is not going to work developing someone he does not believe in. He is also not going to waste his time letting people evaluate Keenum on his watch if he is going to be let go. That can be their job next season.

Of all the possible moves this benching makes the least sense, but I do not think it is as big of a problem as many are making it out to be.

Terrelle Pryor- The Raiders are in a difficult position. I don’t think anyone in the organization knows if they will or will not be back in 2014. You have to feel bad for some of those guys as they walked into the worst situation in the NFL and were given a task to clean it up. It is not unlike what happened to the New York Knicks who hired guys to literally suffer through awful seasons so they could create cap space to get a star. Eventually they were all fired after they did their jobs of cleaning house and fielding non-competitive teams.

Pryor is a prospect. He is very athletic but extremely raw. As the weeks have gone on he’s looked worse and worse and an injury allowed them to bring in UDFA Matt McGloin. McGloin sparked the team to a victory and in the awful AFC the Raiders are legitimately in contention for a wildcard spot. Finding a way to remain relevant through December is the best opportunity for all involved to be retained by ownership moving forward.

In terms of evaluating players the Raiders have likely seen enough from Pryor to determine if he can start for them next season or simply be a backup player. His numbers have plummeted and they have gone as far as they can with him this season. In the first four games of the year Pryor was completing 68.2% of his passes for 845 yards with 4 TDs to just 2 interceptions. Since then he has completed just 50.8% of his passes for 715 yards. He has just 1 touchdown and 8 interceptions in the last 4 games.

The Raiders need a spark and if McGloin gives that to them they need to make the switch. Pryor gave them that spark early but the league caught up. Maybe McGloin can give them a few weeks and then you can turn to Tyler Wilson after that. For this team they have to do whatever they can to keep their jobs. None of the players are considered high end prospects so they are not really hurting any development by not bringing Pryor back.

Robert Griffin III– I find this situation to be fascinating. RGIII was basically the best rookie in the league in 2012 but he has been awful in 2013. He is the face of the franchise but he has not looked the same following his knee injury and his relationship with the coach is icy to say the least. I would lean towards thinking that Mike Shanahan will not be back as coach of the Redskins in 2014. Considering he is only 24-34 in four seasons I don’t think anyone will shed any tears over him leaving either. I think that fact should play into a decision.

If I am running the organization I want to make my coach bench RGIII and look like the bad guy in the situation, if he wont return next year. I believe in RGIII but I need him healthy and right now he is not doing anything to stay healthy nor is he winning the confidence of his teammates. He looks lost. Getting him to take a step back is probably in the best interest of the Redskins.

The Redskins also have to realize how bad the personnel on the team is. Last year they had a wild ride and ran to the playoffs but this year every wart was exposed. The problem for them is that they gave up next years first round draft pick to the Rams as part of the RGIII trade. They need to replenish the farm system but don’t have the picks to do it with.

The Redskins have a capable backup QB in Kirk Cousins who people were crazily discussing as fetching a first rounder in a trade. I know that won’t happen but I want to use the next five or six games to showcase Cousins around the NFL. If he can play well they can recapture at least a 2nd round pick for him. Maybe they can even grab a 2nd and 4th or 2nd and 3rd. Losing with RGIII only makes the Rams happier. Losing with Cousins might net the Redskins something in return.

If the coach is not coming back I would not expect any negative effect on the confidence of my star young player. People have already turned on Shanahan. He is going to get the brunt of the negative press for his handling of the summer with the QB and general poor overall record with the team. When the new coach comes in and welcomes RGIII in with open arms all of the discussion will be about how the prior coach wasted a year of RGIII’s career.