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Sunday football notes

Can anyone stay healthy? NFL backup and rookie quarterbacks are playing way too much in 2023.

The Vikings lost starting quarterback Kirk Cousins to a torn Achilles' last Sunday.Carlos Gonzalez/Associated Press

When the NFL releases its schedule each May, it’s probably best not to predict the quarterback matchups for games. The chances of both QBs making it to kickoff are increasingly slim.

Scoring and offense are down significantly for the second straight year, and the explanation might be simple — too many starting quarterbacks are sitting.

The 2022 season was the Year of the Backup Quarterback, and 2023 is shaping up to be a redux. As many as nine backups are likely to start in Week 9, with only 28 teams playing. The Falcons-Vikings game will feature two backups, Taylor Heinicke and rookie Jaren Hall.


Last year, 69 quarterbacks started at least one game, an NFL record for a non-strike season. The previous record was 64 in 2007, and there were 63 in 2021.

This season, 42 quarterbacks have started through the first eight weeks, and three more are likely to get their first start this weekend — the Rams’ Brett Rypien, the Cardinals’ Clayton Tune, and Hall.

The 2023 season is also the Year of the Rookie Quarterback. Seven rookies have started through eight weeks, the most in NFL history. First-round picks Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, and Anthony Richardson were expected to start, but Will Levis (second round), Aidan O’Connell (fourth), Dorian Thompson-Robinson (fifth) and Tyson Bagent (undrafted) have gotten starts, as well. Tune and Hall, both fifth-rounders, will become Nos. 8 and 9, which will tie the NFL record (2019).

While it may be coincidence, it does seem that A) players are bigger, faster, and stronger than ever, and injuries are more common; B) more quarterbacks are dual threats who look to run, which leads to more injuries; C) teams are more willing to play rookies because of how cheap they are; D) teams are more willing to bench quarterbacks for financial reasons.


The backup situations for Week 9 can be split into three categories.

The first is the largest group — backups playing because of injury. At least five and potentially six backups will play this week because the starter is hurt.

Levis got his second start for the Titans on Thursday night because Ryan Tannehill is dealing with a high ankle sprain. Hall will get his first start for the Vikings because Kirk Cousins tore his Achilles’. Bagent will start his third game for the Bears because Justin Fields has a dislocated thumb. Gardner Minshew will start his fifth game for the Colts after Richardson was lost for the year with a shoulder injury. Zach Wilson will start his seventh game for the Jets in place of Aaron Rodgers.

Rypien may get his first start for the Rams with Matthew Stafford dealing with a thumb injury. The Giants will get off the backup QB train this week when Daniel Jones returns from a neck injury that knocked him out for three games. And the Browns announced Friday that Deshaun Watson will return again from a shoulder injury that has kept him out for five games.

Another backup, Heinicke, is starting this weekend because of a performance-based benching for Desmond Ridder. The 4-4 Falcons are 28th in points with Ridder, and lost winnable games to the Commanders and Titans in recent weeks.

Then there are the backup quarterbacks playing for financial reasons. That would be O’Connell, a fourth-round pick out of Purdue who is now the Raiders’ starter after Jimmy Garoppolo was benched last week. Interim coach Antonio Pierce said, “We just feel like [O’Connell] gives us the best chance,” but it’s hard not to see this move as financially motivated.


Garoppolo is almost certainly taking a seat so he doesn’t get hurt, and the Raiders aren’t on the hook for $11.25 million in 2024 that is guaranteed for injury only. It’s the same dynamic the Raiders pulled on Derek Carr last year, sitting him for the final few games to avoid paying his $40 million injury guarantee.

There’s a fourth category of backup quarterback, and it’s a combination of two — those playing because of injury and financial reasons. That would be Tune, the Cardinals’ fifth-round pick out of the University of Houston.

Tune has thrown just one pass this year for 4 yards as the backup to Josh Dobbs, who went 1-7 as the fill-in for Kyler Murray, who is returning from a torn ACL. The Cardinals traded Dobbs to the Vikings on Tuesday in the wake of Cousins’s injury, and elevated Tune.

Murray is back practicing, but it’s unclear when, or if, he will return to the lineup. The Cardinals are on their way to getting the No. 1 draft pick, which could mean another quarterback coming to Arizona and the end of Murray’s tenure. One way for the Cardinals to ensure they get the top pick would be to start a rookie fifth-round quarterback who isn’t ready to play. And a way to ensure they can move Murray next offseason would be to keep him on ice for the entire season.


The NFL has a handful of marquee quarterback matchups in Week 9: Tua Tagovailoa vs. Patrick Mahomes; Jalen Hurts vs. Dak Prescott; and Josh Allen vs. Joe Burrow. But a majority of the games will be decided by backups and rookies who were nowhere near fantasy football draft boards two months ago.

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Critical time for

Love in Green Bay

The Packers haven’t made a move at quarterback, but they have been less than thrilled with the transition to Jordan Love after he sat for three years behind Aaron Rodgers. The Packers are just 2-5 entering Sunday’s game against the Rams, ranked 21st in scoring (20 points per game) and 25th in yards, and are riding a four-game losing streak that includes defeats to the lowly Raiders and Broncos.

Love, the 26th overall pick in 2020, averages just 213 passing yards per game, is tied for second in the NFL with eight interceptions (against 11 touchdowns), ranks last among 32 qualifying quarterbacks in completion percentage (57.7), and 28th in passer rating (78.2).

Love also has poor stats in key situations. He ranks among the NFL’s worst in passer rating on third down (57.9), in the first half (65.9), and in the fourth quarter (56.9).

Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst seemed to put Love on notice this past week.

“I think we’ve got 10 games left. These are going to be very important 10 games,” he said.


The Packers have Love under contract for 2024 at a reasonable rate — instead of triggering his fifth-year option, they agreed to a compromise contract last offseason that includes $5.5 million of fully guaranteed salary in 2024.

Still, if Love doesn’t pick up his play, that guaranteed money is a relative drop in the bucket for the Packers, and they could easily move on and find another quarterback.

Jordan Love, the 26th overall pick in 2020, averages just 213 passing yards per game, is tied for second in the NFL with eight interceptions (against 11 touchdowns).Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

Belichick tree

far from steady

Now that Josh McDaniels and Dave Ziegler have been fired in Las Vegas, the number of branches in the Bill Belichick tree is starting to dwindle.

With McDaniels, Matt Patricia, Joe Judge, and Brian Flores all fired, the one head coach remaining is the Giants’ Brian Daboll. He got his start with the 2000 Patriots, spent 11 years with the team over two stints, and won five Super Bowl rings. Daboll’s Giants are 2-6 with the lowest scoring offense in the NFL, so things aren’t exactly peachy.

The other head coach who might be more of a twig from the Belichick tree is Titans coach Mike Vrabel, who obviously learned a lot of football in his eight years playing for the Patriots, but learned how to coach under Urban Meyer and Bill O’Brien. The Titans are 3-5 after Thursday’s loss at Pittsburgh and now face two more road games at Tampa Bay and Jacksonville.

Ziegler, Jon Robinson, and Bob Quinn have all been fired as general managers, but a few Belichick disciples still run front offices. Nick Caserio is in his third year as the Texans’ GM, and after two dreadful seasons has the team on the rebound with a 3-4 record and promising rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud.

Monti Ossenfort, a former 15-year front office employee with the Patriots, is in the middle of his first season as Cardinals GM. The Cardinals are 1-7, but they’re in the middle of a franchise reboot and don’t seem to mind piling up the losses this year. Joe Andruzzi is a football analytics assistant for Ossenfort.

Buccaneers GM Jason Licht also somewhat counts on the Belichick tree, as he spent 1999-2002 as a Patriots scout and assistant director of player personnel, then 2009-11 as director of player personnel.

Falcons’ decision long overdue

Falcons coach Arthur Smith decided enough was enough last week at halftime in a loss to the Titans. Quarterback Desmond Ridder had lost another fumble for his seventh turnover in the last three games, and Smith finally replaced Ridder with veteran backup Taylor Heinicke. Heinicke will start Sunday against the Vikings.

It was long overdue for Ridder to hit the bench. The Falcons are 4-4 and tied for first with the Saints in the NFC South. But they play in the worst division in the NFL and should have a better record. Ridder has thrown just six touchdown passes in eight games, leads the NFL with 12 giveaways, and held the Falcons back in winnable losses to the Titans and Commanders.

Heinicke, who went 12-11 over parts of two seasons with the Commanders and started a playoff game, is clearly more ready to play than Ridder. But it begs the question why the Falcons weren’t more aggressive at quarterback last offseason and handed the reins to Ridder, an unproven, second-year QB.

There was a perfect veteran quarterback option likely available to the Falcons last offseason in Ryan Tannehill, who went 18-8 with 55 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 2019-20 with Smith as his offensive coordinator in Tennessee. Tannehill, 35, is in the final year of his contract, and the Titans probably would have listened to trade offers.

So, why didn’t the Falcons do it? The obvious reason would be money. Tannehill is making $27 million this year. Ridder is making league-minimum $950,000, and Heinicke is making about $7 million.

The Falcons have a stout defense ranked No. 6 in yards allowed, and some intriguing offensive playmakers in Bijan Robinson, Kyle Pitts, and Jonnu Smith. It would be a shame if the Falcons missed the playoffs because they went cheap at quarterback.

Using his head on helmet choice

Patriots tight end Pharaoh Brown not only has a knack for making big catches this year, averaging 24.3 yards per reception. He also stands out with his strange-looking helmet, which is front-loaded with padding and looks like something out of the “Alien” movies.

Brown and the 49ers’ George Kittle are among the handful of tight ends wearing these new helmets designed specifically for trench players to provide more padding for the front of their heads, where most of their collisions occur. NFL executive vice president Jeff Miller said about 20 players wear the helmet, including Brown.

Brown, 29 and a seven-year veteran, said he started wearing it in training camp with the Colts this year.

“I’ve had a couple concussions, and I’m a father now, so just make sure I’m always in the best equipment,” Brown said. “I definitely feel protected. In my blocking and stuff, I haven’t been feeling anything. Sometimes early in camp, early in the season, guys aren’t used to taking some hits, that’s when you kind of feel it. And the helmet has definitely been standing up. I stand behind it.”

Pharaoh Brown stands out with his strange-looking helmet, which is front-loaded with padding and looks like something out of the “Alien” movies.Ethan Miller/Getty

Buccaneers are getting it right

The Buccaneers introduced an initiative this past week that every team should copy, announcing the creation of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers National Coaching Academy. It is an open application process in which 25 people will be selected to attend rookie minicamp next May and spend seven days working with the team on and off the field. The Buccaneers will then select five people for the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship for training camp and the preseason.

“Welcome to all, this is for those who are ready to prove their skill set on the biggest stage in football,” the Buccaneers said in a statement. It’s a great way to break down barriers, find hidden talent, and promote diversity for their coaching staff.

Extra points

Few quarterbacks have had a stranger football journey than seven-year veteran Josh Dobbs, now on his ninth team. Last year, Dobbs finally got his first NFL start when the Titans signed him off their practice squad and started him a week later. It got stranger Aug. 24 when the Cardinals traded for Dobbs from the Browns and installed him as the starter two weeks before the regular season. Then after starting eight games with the Cardinals and playing every snap, they traded him Tuesday to the Vikings, where he will serve as backup this week but will likely start several games. “I had one week at home with all my stuff — my couch, my bed,” Dobbs said. “And then got to pick up and move across the country again. It’s a part of the process. It’ll be a tremendous story to tell.” . . . Pretty rich of Raiders receiver Hunter Renfrow to rip Josh McDaniels on the way out the door. Of interim coach Antonio Pierce, Renfrow said, “I think he just let us kind of be ourselves and let our hair down. Just have fun playing football again and not just walk on eggshells everywhere.” Few players have been bigger disappointments than Renfrow, who signed a two-year, $32 million deal last year and has produced just 46 catches for 404 yards and two touchdowns . . . The Steelers finally scored a touchdown on their opening drive Thursday night, leaving the Jets as the only team not to have scored on their first offensive possession this year . . . Weird but true: Mac Jones has great numbers in the fourth quarter. He leads the NFL with a 109.5 passer rating (minimum 20 attempts), with 517 yards, a 70.9 completion percentage, five touchdowns, and no interceptions. Jones didn’t make it to the fourth quarter in blowout losses to the Cowboys and Saints, but his 79 pass attempts in the fourth quarter do rank fourth. All it means is he’s racking up stats in garbage time . . . Now that the Texas Rangers have won a championship, the oldest North American pro sports franchise without a title is one of two NFL teams. You might consider the Vikings, founded in 1960, since they have never won a Super Bowl. But technically the Vikings won the 1969 NFL championship, the last before the merger, before losing the Super Bowl to the AFL champion Chiefs. The Falcons, born in 1966, have never won anything.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.