For the last seven years, the Ravens watched from afar as other teams endured a fruitless game of quarterback roulette.
In 137 consecutive games, including the playoffs, Joe Flacco took the first offensive snap for the Ravens. Yet elsewhere, past-their-prime backup quarterbacks took center stage, and waiver wire acquisitions and street free agents became sudden starters.
When Flacco suffered a season-ending left knee injury Nov. 22, the Ravens joined the league-wide trend. Heading into Sunday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens have started two quarterbacks, Matt Schaub and Jimmy Clausen, in the past three weeks, and a third, Ryan Mallett, could get an opportunity before season's end.
Their quest to find a reliable backup prompted the Ravens to claim Clausen, who is 1-12 as a starter, on waivers, promote undrafted rookie Bryn Renner from the practice squad and sign Mallett, a player who was cut by the Houston Texans in October for a pattern of unprofessionalism. All of those moves, and Renner's eventual release, happened within the last four weeks.
"If you look at the teams that have played with other quarterbacks, the results are not so good," said former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, a CBS analyst who is part of Sunday's telecast. "I think there's a real issue of supply-and-demand at that position in our league right now. It's a major problem as the Ravens are finding out first hand. It's one thing if you don't have your starting corner, if you don't have a starting right guard, if you don't have your running back. But if you don't have a quarterback, that changes everything."
When A.J. McCarron starts for the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday in place of an injured Andy Dalton, he'll become the 52nd quarterback to start an NFL game this season. Ten of 32 teams have used two different starters and another five, including the Ravens, have needed three.
The season of quarterback shuffling is exemplified by Sunday's AFC South first-place battle between the Texans and Indianapolis Colts. The Colts are expected to start 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck, who initially planned to retire after last season, while the Texans will counter with T.J. Yates, who was out of football for about a month and a half before he was signed by Houston in late October.
"There aren't 32 guys walking the face of the Earth that can play quarterback in the National Football League. It's just that tough. It's a very rare skill set," said former Ravens coach Brian Billick, no stranger to having to juggle quarterbacks. "There's that elite level of guys that can really play. And then there's a bunch of teams playing with guys that are starting quarterbacks in the NFL only because someone has to start at quarterback in the NFL. And then you can get into that third level. If you have to go to the street as some teams are doing now, it's not a pretty picture."
Banking on Flacco
In fairness to Schaub, who won one of his two starts before sustaining chest and shoulder injuries, and Clausen, who did a commendable job in last week's loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the Ravens have had many other issues beyond the play of their quarterback.
"Even if Joe were there, I'm not sure the fate of the Ravens would be altered right now substantially," said Billick, an analyst for NFL Network. "But yes, those that choose to be critics of Joe Flacco certainly have seen what life without Joe Flacco looks like."
The Ravens were 3-7 and on the outskirts of the playoff picture when Flacco went down. They've gone 1-2 since, guaranteeing their first losing season of John Harbaugh's tenure. If nothing else, Flacco's absence, coupled by the teams' ongoing issues keeping quarterbacks healthy, has underscored how fortunate the Ravens were that the quarterback didn't miss a game in his first seven-plus seasons.
"Just to be able to take the hits that I know that he's taken over his career and to never miss a game up until now, that speaks for itself," said Ravens wide receiver Kamar Aiken. "The injury rate in the NFL is 100 percent and he went 7½ seasons before missing a game. That's unbelievable."
Because of Flacco's durability, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has never been compelled to invest assets or significant money into a backup quarterback. Marc Bulger, a Raven in 2010, was Flacco's only accomplished backup before the team signed Schaub this year. Tyrod Taylor, who backed up Flacco for four years before becoming the Buffalo Bills' starter this season, was a sixth-round pick in 2011.
Even Schaub, a two-time Pro Bowl selection in Houston, came relatively cheap. He signed a one-year, $2 million deal with an additional $1 million in reachable incentives. The highest-paid backup quarterbacks, a group that includes the Chiefs' Chase Daniel, are making between $3.5 million and $5 million a year.
Such contracts reveal why the perennially cash-strapped Ravens were willing to take a chance on Mallett with designs on him backing up Flacco next season. Mallett agreed to a two-year, $1.6 million deal that includes no guaranteed money.
"You have to have good backups at every position, and quarterback being the most important position," Harbaugh said. "That better be the most important place. It's not easy finding good backups."
The Arizona Cardinals were 8-1 last season when starting quarterback Carson Palmer went down with a season-ending knee injury. They lost four of their final six regular-season games and were beaten in the first round of the playoffs.
This year's Dallas Cowboys started 2-0 and lost seven straight games after Tony Romo got hurt. Matt Cassel and Brandon Weeden are a combined 1-8 as starters for Dallas.
"How can you have a playoff team and not have a real good answer at backup quarterback? That's a major flaw and mistake that the Cowboys made this year," Gannon said. "[Owner/general manager] Jerry Jones has admitted as much. I think too many teams make poor decisions identifying the talent at that position and once they get in the building, they don't do a good enough job of training them."
Billick views it differently. He doesn't see the logic in spending significant money on a backup quarterback, because there aren't enough quality ones available that will help teams consistently win. He cited how little money the Colts used to invest in Peyton Manning's backups.
"They recognized, if Peyton Manning went down, 'We're done. We're not under this illusion.' It's one thing if your quarterback is out one or two weeks and you hope to survive that. But if your guy goes down for the season, where is your team?" Billick said. "I don't know if there's a bona fide backup in the league right now that you can look at and say, 'Oh yeah, he's worth $3 million a year because if our starter goes down, this guy can get us to the Super Bowl.' That just doesn't exist. It's kind of wasted money."
Hasselbeck has kept the Colts in the playoff hunt with Andrew Luck ailing, but he appears to be running out of steam. Indianapolis has been outscored 96-26 over the past two weeks.
The NFL has five teams with nine wins or more and the only one in that group to start more than one quarterback to this point is the Denver Broncos. Meanwhile, of the five teams that have used three signal callers, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the only one with a winning record.
The Ravens last started multiple quarterbacks in a single season in 2007. After that season, they drafted Flacco and haven't had to worry about such matters until this year.
"I've always said that your best ability as a quarterback is your availability. My goal every year was to start and play 16 games, and it's hard," Gannon said. "That's what I've admired about Joe. Not only has he not missed games or starts, there have been a couple of seasons where he's taken every snap. To me, that says two things: one, the guy is tough and durable. And he's smart. It's not just luck."
When A.J. McCarron takes the first snap on Sunday for the Cincinnati Bengals, he'll become the 52nd quarterback to start an NFL game this season. Five teams have started three quarterbacks, including the Ravens, and the Steelers are the only one of them with a winning record.
Team; QBs (No. of starts); Record;
Ravens; Joe Flacco (10), Matt Schaub (2), Jimmy Clausen (1); 4-9;
Steelers; Ben Roethlisberger (8), Mike Vick (3), Landry Jones (2); 8-5;
Browns; Josh McCown (8), Johnny Manziel (4), Austin Davis (1); 3-10;
Texans; Brian Hoyer (8), Ryan Mallett (4), T.J. Yates (1); 6-7;
Cowboys; Matt Cassel (6), Tony Romo (4), Brandon Weeden (3); 4-9;