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No guarantee for injured starters

Billick on players losing their starting spot
Billick on players losing their starting spot
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Brian Billick

Brian Billick served as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens from 1999-2007, winning Super Bowl XXXV. He has also authored books, including More Than A Game: The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL. Follow him on Twitter.

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There is an age-old adage in the NFL that you can’t lose your starting job to injury, particularly at the quarterback position. That theory is just that though … a theory that doesn’t seem to play out as black and white in reality. We have already seen the theory squashed in Minnesota and are likely to see it play out in Philadelphia and Jacksonville and maybe even Houston.

But this certainly isn’t unique to this year. Just last season we saw the San Francisco 49ers pull the rug out from under Alex Smith as Colin Kaepernick starred in what was supposed to be a spot start for Smith as he recovered from concussion symptoms. Kaepernick took that opportunity all the way to the Super Bowl and hasn’t looked back. And for his part, neither has Smith. He took over the reins in Kansas City and has led the Chiefs to a 6-0 start and the best turnaround in NFL history. But it rarely works out so cleanly.

The writing is clearly on the wall for Christian Ponder in Minnesota after the Vikings signed Josh Freeman during their bye week. Not only did the Vikings sign him, but they originally hoped to ink him to a multi-year deal. But Ponder knew his job was in jeopardy well before that. He knew it as soon as that rib cracked in the second quarter against the Browns in Week 2. He finished the game and even practiced early in the week leading up to Week 3 in London against the Steelers. He played through the pain of a fractured rib just to hold onto his starting job … if he sat, he knew he might never get his job back. And that was before Freeman was even available on the open market.

Matt Cassel eventually started that game in London and performed fairly well, going 16 of 25 for 248 yards and two touchdowns. But here’s the thing: Backups are backups for a reason. Even though he played well, the staff already knew that Cassel wasn’t the long-term solution. Interestingly enough, it was reported that Leslie Frazier told Freeman that he wouldn’t just come in and be the anointed starter -- he would have to win the job as Ponder “couldn’t lose it to injury.” But that theory didn’t hold up very well once reality set in.

Cassel was once again named the starter over a now-healthy Ponder this weekend. And as Cassel suffered through a beating by the Carolina Panthers in which he was sacked three times and threw two interceptions, it became apparent Freeman will get that starting job sooner rather than later. I said on the broadcast that it would be within the next two weeks, but now I’d be surprised if it wasn’t next week against a non-divisional opponent and a very leaky defense in the New York Giants. That will be a good primer game before they host the Green Bay Packers in Week 8.

In Philadelphia, it’s not as cut and dry. Michael Vick and Nick Foles have been battling for the starting job ever since Foles earned his first start in Week 11 of last season. And why did he get that start? Vick had suffered a concussion in Week 10, opening the door for Foles to start every game for the remainder of the season. That competition remained after Chip Kelly was hired and waited to name Vick as the starting quarterback two weeks before the regular season.

And that was the case until Vick pulled his hamstring last week and couldn’t finish the game. It was almost immediately reported that Foles would start in Week 6, but just like Ponder in Minnesota, Vick knew that could be the beginning of the end. He tried to practice all week, as to not lie down and just surrender the starting role, if even for a week. I can’t picture Vick practicing through a hamstring injury if he knew the job was securely his upon a healthy return. He was going to force Kelly to make a decision.

And that decision got a little more difficult on Sunday. Foles dissected a pretty decent Tampa Bay secondary for nearly 300 yards and three touchdowns while completing better than 71 percent of his passes. Vick’s best completion percentage is just 63.9 this season. Foles even added a fourth touchdown as he did his best Vick impersonation on a designed QB run up the middle.

Kelly stayed on the fence in his postgame press conference, not yet ready to identify his starter for next week, but I’d be surprised if they went back to Vick so quickly after what he saw from Foles. Whoever starts next week has a chance to put the Eagles alone in first place atop the division as they will host the Cowboys. Not only would the starting quarterback put them in the driver’s seat of the NFC East, but he will probably look really good doing it. The Cowboys are the 30th-ranked total defense and the 30th-ranked passing defense.

After that, the Eagles will host the Giants, the league’s worst scoring defense, in Week 8. With matchups like that, the starting quarterback over the next two weeks should have an opportunity to cement himself in the role for the remainder of the season and I think that person will be Foles.

Jacksonville has been in this position already this season as Blaine Gabbert missed the Week 3 start due to a hand injury and then missed this week with a hamstring injury. When Gabbert returned from the hand, he was pushed right back into the starting role and head coach Gus Bradley made it clear he was the guy. Well, that may not be the case after Week 6.

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Yes the Jags lost, but only losing by 16 in a game they were supposed to be blown out of counts for something. Chad Henne threw for 303 yards and kept them within striking distance all day against the Denver Broncos. In fact, had it not been for a Justin Blackmon drop at the goal line, the Jaguars would have been within one score late in this game. Henne did throw two interceptions, but compare that to Gabbert’s seven and it doesn’t look too bad. We will see how this plays out in Jacksonville.

And then there is Houston. The fans have been begging for Matt Schaub to be benched and have even screamed obscenities outside his house. Then they cheered his injury in Week 6, only to have TJ Yates come in and throw a pick-6 on the very next possession.

Careful what you wish for, Houston.

Tagged: Chiefs, Vikings, Eagles, 49ers, Jaguars, Michael Vick, Alex Smith, Matt Cassel, Josh Freeman, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Nick Foles

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