As the Seahawks offense produced one punchless drive after another Monday night, the spotlight inevitably fell on quarterback Geno Smith, who has been given the unenviable, if not impossible, task of replacing the injured Russell Wilson.
And while no one expected — or should have expected, anyway — that Smith could easily replicate Wilson’s production, as the Saints game unfolded, many began to ask the question of whether the Seahawks couldn’t have found someone better.
Mina Kimes, an ESPN football analyst, tweeted to her 651,000 Twitter followers in response to a Seahawks fan questioning how Smith ended up as their backup QB: “This is a good point: If you trust your backup QB so little that you’re refusing to let him throw the football … maybe he shouldn’t be your back up QB?”
To which Randy Mueller, who worked in the Seahawks’ front office from 1983-99 and later was general manager of the Dolphins and Saints, would reply: If only it were that simple.
Managing the backup quarterback position is one of the trickier aspects of assembling an NFL roster, especially when considering the salary cap, locker room dynamics and reality that finding even one good quarterback is one of the toughest jobs in all of sports.
As Mueller noted, Wilson is making an average of $35 million and has a salary cap hit this year of $32 million, the highest of any NFL player and 17.5% of Seattle’s total cap, according to Spotrac.com and OvertheCap.com.
“The Seahawks are in a tough spot because they are paying Russell so much and I just don’t know how realistic it is to find a young, ascending guy to train as an option,” Mueller said.
With Wilson making what he is, and having been so durable in his career, it really didn’t make sense for Seattle to pay much for a backup QB, and the Seahawks have not the past few years — Smith is making $1.2 million this year after making $1.187 million and $870,000 in his previous two seasons.
And Seattle is hardly alone .
Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins has the second-highest cap hit of any QB this year at $31 million.
His backup? Sean Mannion, who was in training camp with the Seahawks before being released and re-signing with the Vikings on what is a $720,000 cap hit this year.
Or consider Dallas and Dak Prescott, who has “only” a $17.2 million cap hit this year. His current backup is Cooper Rush, who has 58 career snaps — Smith, remember, has 31 career starts — and an $850,000 cap hit.
“Sometimes it’s just mere economics and the cap,” Mueller said. “It’s hard to genuinely commit that extra money (when you have a highly paid starter).”
Cap considerations just about rule out being able to do what the 49ers did from 1987-92 in carrying both Steve Young and Joe Montana on the roster (free agency arrived in 1992, and the cap was instituted in 1994).
Ideally, as Mueller said, a team would have a young, inexpensive QB as a backup, who can also be prepared for the future.
But first, consider how hard it is to even find a QB in the first round — Sam Darnold anyone? — let alone identifying someone who slips to the fourth or fifth round.
There’s also the issue of not really knowing for sure if a QB is any good until he plays.
Seattle tried the young-developmental QB route with Trevone Boykin in 2016, but coach Pete Carroll has acknowledged that Wilson’s injuries that season helped compel him to want an experienced QB on the roster who had something of a track record for the team to rely on in building a game plan around.
And sure, you can take a QB with a high pick to try to improve the odds of finding a good one.
But that comes with all of its own complications, such as the perception of what such a move means for the future of that team’s starter (Green Bay and Jordan Love, anyone?).
Seattle general manager John Schneider was merely reported in 2018 as attending a workout for Wyoming’s Josh Allen and it elicited days of stories and social media chatter about why he would do such a thing.
For that same reason, teams sometimes shy away from bringing in well-known backups.
Seattle had Colin Kaepernick in for a visit in 2017 — the only team to do so since he became a free agent following the 2016 season — but it’s generally thought one reason Seattle ended up not signing him is what the move might have been perceived as saying about the team’s faith in Wilson — especially in the locker room.
OK. So why not just sign that big-name veteran once the need arises? Carroll, for instance, acknowledged the Seahawks reached out to Cam Newton once Wilson was injured.
Mueller says the reality of an NFL regular season makes such a move far more problematic than might be realized. NFL playbooks are hundreds of pages long and QBs have to have more mastery of it than anyone on the roster.
Mueller says the degree of difficulty in bringing in a quarterback off the street to immediately play in an NFL game in a new system on a scale of 10 “is 9.9. It’s off the charts. … If there’s not some familiarity with the scheme, it’s almost impossible.’’
Knowledge of the playbook is one reason Seattle valued Smith, who has been with the team for three years (and while the Seahawks have a new offensive coordinator this year, there remains a lot of carry-over) and even if he hadn’t played much, had gotten lots of work with the offense during offseason programs and training camp.
Once the regular season starts, practice is devoted almost exclusively to preparing for that week’s opponent, and the starting QB usually gets most of the reps.
“Ideally your backup, you want him to be able to function highly without reps or practice,” Mueller said. “That’s really the job description because he’s not going to get a lot of reps or practice time. So you’d like a guy who can have things sorted out without having reps.”
And with Wilson likely (hopefully?) out just three or four weeks, bringing in someone new didn’t make a lot of sense since that QB might not be conversant enough in the playbook to play effectively by the time Wilson would be ready to return.
“We said for years the Colts were a .500 team without Peyton Manning,” Mueller said. “We were wrong. They were way worse.”
Indeed, in 2011, when Manning missed the season with a neck injury, a Colts team that had won 10 games or more for nine straight seasons went 2-14 starting Kerry Collins, Dan Orlovsky and Curtis Painter.
“The Seahawks have what they have and that’s not going to change,” Mueller said. “It’s hard to alter your roster at midseason for any position and especially quarterback.”
But next offseason may be different now that Seattle is seeing what life without Wilson looks like.
Seattle has drafted just one quarterback since Wilson in 2012 — Alex McGough in the seventh round in 2018.
“My guess is they might think about drafting one next year,” Mueller said.