The NFL season is nearing its midway point, and the initial starting quarterbacks for almost a third of the league’s teams have either gotten hurt, benched or cut.
Sunday’s crowd at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will get a peek at one of those teams: the Buffalo Bills, who are starting Thad Lewis, promoted from the practice squad following a sprained knee ligament to No. 1 QB E.J. Manuel earlier this month.
Lewis will lead the Bills (3-4) against a 5-1 Saints team that simply can’t relate to the situations afflicting Buffalo and many other organizations. Since arriving in New Orleans in 2006, quarterback Drew Brees has logged 126 of 127 possible starts, including the postseason — missing his lone one when coach Sean Payton decided to rest key players ahead of the charge to Super Bowl XLIV.
As the Bills and Saints prepared for their Week 8 clash, Buffalo coach Doug Marrone and Brees reflected on some of the factors that separated teams employing quarterbacks good enough and healthy enough to handle the vast majority of the snaps, if not all of them, from those that did not.
Some of it is merely physical and mental preparation by the signal callers, they said.
But much of it is luck, an answer that won’t calm any fans praying their teams avoid experiencing how swiftly a season can go from being filled with possibilities to possibly being wasted.
Joining Buffalo as teams whose first-string quarterbacks have recently been or are unavailable because of injuries: 3-4 St. Louis, where Sam Bradford is out with a season-ending torn ACL; 2-5 Houston, where a subpar Matt Schaub missed Week 7 with a hurt ankle and foot; 3-4 Philadelphia, where Nick Foles suffered a concussion in Week 7 after Mike Vick missed 21/2 games with a pulled hamstring; and 4-3 Chicago, where Jay Cutler could sit out four games with a groin injury.
There’s also the 4-3 New York Jets, who went with rookie Geno Smith after Mark Sanchez suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the preseason, though Smith might’ve beaten Sanchez out for the job anyway. But Buffalo, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Chicago and Houston had to or are having to navigate a stretch that’s defining their postseason prospects without stability at QB because of tears, pulls and injuries beyond their influence.
Brees told reporters this week he does all he can to make his body as durable as possible.
“I have a great routine for what I do in the weight room and training room with the body work that I get done ... to make sure that as the week goes on and game day rolls around that I’m in the best physical shape that I can be,” he said.
But Brees admitted there has been a generous dose of good fortune to his durability in New Orleans, which has never even remotely been compromised in the way it was when he was a San Diego Charger and tore his labrum months before signing with the Saints.
There’s “just certain elements of being healthy that are out of your control, as far as what happens game day in the pocket,” said Brees, whose consistent presence on the field has allowed him to become, among other things, the only NFL quarterback to throw for 5,000 yards in three separate seasons.
But for every team bedeviled at quarterback by injuries, there’s one that can blame its struggles at the position on failed personnel decisions.
Cleveland (3-4) benched Brandon Weeden, its first-round pick in 2012, in favor of nine-year veteran journeyman Jason Campbell, 31. Jacksonville (0-7), at least for now, prefers Chad Henne over Blaine Gabbert, its first-round pick in 2011 who has recovered from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for two games. Tampa Bay (0-7) is trying to make a go of it with unimpressive rookie quarterback Mike Glennon after the Buccaneers feuded with, benched and released Josh Freeman, the No. 17 selection in 2009.
Freeman landed in Minnesota (1-5), which in Week 7 opted to start him over Christian Ponder, a first-round draft pick in 2011. Freeman was 20-of-53 for 193 yards and an interception in Minnesota’s 23-7 loss on Monday night to the New York Giants, who opened the year with six consecutive defeats.
Lastly, 2-4 Oakland committed to promising, raw third-year man Terrelle Pryor only after the team had given up a fifth-round 2014 pick and $6.5 million in guaranteed money to acquire former LSU quarterback Matt Flynn from Seattle. Flynn lost the starting job to Pryor at the end of the preseason, was released before Week 6 and has since joined Buffalo, where in the pecking order he’s behind at least Lewis and, upon his recovery, Manuel.
While Marrone and the Bills readied themselves to visit the Saints, the coach fondly recalled serving as New Orleans’ offensive coordinator from 2006-08 and working alongside Brees.
There’s no way for him to know whether Manuel will return and possess anything resembling Brees’ durability with the Saints, but Marrone speaks plainly about what he wishes is the case.
“I hope,” he said, “we have the same luck as we did in New Orleans.”