Depending on your point of view, one of the more or least interesting "battles" in camp is for the third quarterback spot. In one corner is cult phenom and former Broncos starter Tim Tebow, out of the league for two years. In the other is the incumbent 3rd stringer, Matt Barkley, who's most memorable moment in the NFL is this picture. Each has their own strengths compared to the other. Tebow is obviously the better threat on the ground, which on any other NFL team wouldn't matter, but on the Eagles is no small consideration. Barkley is far from a polished passer, but is Tebow's superior in that regard. Both are prone to turnovers, with Barkley throwing four interceptions in his 50 career attempts, Tebow, in only 14 games in 2011 led the league in fumbles. Part of "winning" the third string job will be a matter of playing style as much as playing performance. Because playing performance doesn't really matter. 3rd string quarterbacks are really, really bad players.
Two years ago it looked like Barkley might have had to start in place of an injured Mike Vick and Nick Foles. Curious to see what a reasonable expectation for a third stringer was, I looked at the average performance of all third string QBs. The results were not pretty. Fortunately, Barkley didn't wind up starting, unfortunately, he did wind up playing and he was predictably awful. Digging deeper it turned out that being a rookie isn't a hinderance for performance, in fact in some aspects rookies actually played better (though marginally) than veterans. This makes sense when you look at the circumstances. Rookie third stringers are likely to have been on the roster the entire season prior to playing, with the team choosing to carry three quarterbacks all year, such as Barkley in 2013. Veteran third stringers are more likely to have joined the team during the season after the team suffered injuries. In some cases they were never even on the team in training camp, so they have less knowledge of the playbook and less familiarity with teammates, the most extreme example of this was the Vikings starting Josh Freeman 10 days after they signed him in October 2013. Journeymen and undrafted free agents are the definition of "replacement level player", they are freely available for no cost.
With the third string QB spot up for grabs this year, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit this, with two more years of data to help paint a better picture. First, a caveat. Originally I included Freeman's rookie year, but I have removed him from this, and excluded Teddy Bridgewater as well, despite both being the third quarterback to start for their teams. Both players were first-round picks drafted to bad teams, their coaching staffs felt it better to throw veteran QBs to the wolves until they felt comfortable enough with the rest of the team to not get their rookie killed; or started them because their hand was forced due to injury. These were not "true" third string quarterbacks, the coaching staff intended them to eventually start whereas coaches hope they never have to play a third stringer. The rest of the rookie QBs that appear in this list are fitting with the "spirit" of the third string player: they're day three draft picks or undrafted free agents, making the team in the hopes that they can develop into a competent backup.
Whether they be rookies, veterans just trying to hang on or journeyman backups, there is one recurring theme with third string QBs: they are awful. In 2684 attempts, the equivalent of roughly 5 full seasons as a starter assuming an average amount of pass attempts per year, third string quarterbacks average a 56.6 completion percentage, a 72-114 TD-INT ratio, a passer rating of 66.4, an average yards per attempt of 6.22 and an adjusted yards per attempt of 4.85. To put that into perspective:
|Stat||3rd String Average||NFL Career Equivalent|
|Comp %||56.6||Trent Dilfer, Charlie Batch|
|TD/INT Ratio||72-114||Mike McMahon, Matt Lienart|
|Passer Rating||66.4||Joe Webb, Bruce Gradkowski, JaMarcus Russell|
|Yds/Att||6.22||Shaun King, Dan Orlovsky|
|Adj Yds/Att||4.85||Blaine Gabbert, John Beck|
The expectation of performance from a third string quarterback is a combination of Trent Dilfer, Mike McMahon, JaMarcus Russell, Dan Orlovsky and Blaine Gabbert. In other words, a hopeless situation.
With that in mind, the best course of action for the Eagles this year is for Tim Tebow to be the third stringer. If both Sam Bradford and Mark Sanchez go down, the Eagles are screwed anyway. Matt Barkley is going to dink and dunk and turn the ball over. At this point in his career he is a replacement level player, the Eagles have had him available for trade in exchange for peanuts and no one has dealt for him. If they cut him, he'll very likely be available during the season if needed. Tebow too is a replacement level player, he's been available as a free agent since the Patriots cut him during 2013 training camp. But in the Eagles offense there's reason to believe that he can be reasonably effective on the ground, and as a starter in Denver he was able to occasionally get the ball to his wide receivers for big plays, whereas Barkley in extremely limited playing time made no plays. As a "pure" QB, Matt Barkley is the better player than Tim Tebow. But when you're down two QBs, all hell has broken loose and a street free agent caliber passer can't help you. As bad a passer as he is, Tebow gives the Eagles offense options that Barkley never can.
No matter who the third string quarterback is, the Eagles are going to run the ball a lot if they have to play. In 2013 we saw what a good running QB can do for the ground game when Mike Vick was starting. If Tebow can spearhead a strong running game, that might be enough to keep the Eagles afloat if he has to only play one or two games. Anything more than that and the Eagles are in trouble no matter who the QB is.
And hey, he'd be a lot more entertaining.