Seldom have the NFL's backup signalcallers been more under the microscope.
That's what happens when Peyton Manning, arugably the most durable and indispensable quarterback in league history, goes down for the count indefinitely with a neck injury, significantly altering the league's landscape in the early stages of the 2011 season.
Enter Kerry Collins, entrusted with the unenviable task of keeping the Colts competitive while their four-time league MVP uncomfortably recovers from another surgery.
In the months and weeks ahead, more than a few of Collins' counterparts will also be under the gun under center in starting roles, as injuries and other extenuating circumstances no doubt take their toll.
In an attempt to determine which bullpen artists offer the best relief in a pinch, the staff of Pro Football Weekly has combined forces with top league talent evaluators to rank the NFL's top backup QBs, top to bottom.
Suffice it to say, coming to a consensus in our final rankings was a challenging task. The ultimate goal was to identify the backup QBs best-equipped to stem the tide in an emergency situation and continue capably handling a starting role for a prolonged period if necessary.
With that in mind, experience and track records couldn't help but be major measuring sticks.
Where we frequently ran into problems, though, was deciding to what extent, if any, well-worn proven commodities with declining skills, such as Mark Brunell and A.J. Feeley, deserved to be ranked ahead of well-regarded "QBs of the future" with tremendous natural talent, such as high-round rookies Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder and Colin Kaepernick.
The balance between taking into account both the "here and now" and the future — with the likes of Gabbert and Locker possibly being thrust into starting roles sooner than later should their teams hit an early snag — was delicate indeed.
But whether you agree with PFW's bullpen rankings or not, you can be guaranteed we've gone to great lengths to make sure they aren't just a bunch of bull.
Legend: Each player is listed with his current team, his age (as of Sept. 18, 2011), his updated career record as a starter, and the statistics from his last start.
1. Vince Young
Team: Philadelphia Eagles
Age: 28 | Career Record: 30-17
Last Start: Nov. 21, 2010 (Tenn. vs. Wash.)
12-of-16, 165 yds, 0 TD, 0 INT
Young is the backup in name, but he's dealing with a hamstring injury that has kept him out of practice recently, which makes second-year QB Mike Kafka the backup in his place. (Kafka was pressed into second-half service last week vs. Atlanta when Michael Vick left with an injury.) However, Young is the better talent and has more experience. His record as a starter, though he lost his lone playoff start, is commendable, but he was run out of town in Tennessee after having once been "the franchise savior." Young is playing on a one-year deal, and Michael Vick has been injury-prone in the past, so there's a good chance that Young will get an opportunity to prove himself again. He says he's motivated to do so.
Scout's take: "The most dangerous backup in the league when his mind is right and he's healthy — two big 'ifs.' "
2. Matt Flynn
Team: Green Bay Packers
Age: 26 | Career Record: 0-1
Last Start: Dec. 19, 2010 (G.B. at N.E.)
24-of-37, 251 yds, 3 TD, 1 INT
Flynn proved his worth with a stellar starting effort on a national Sunday-night stage in place of Aaron Rodgers (concussion) in Green Bay's 31-27 loss to the Patriots in Week 15 last season, posting a 100.2 passer rating in a near-upset of one of the league's better teams. Flynn's arm strength and accuracy have steadily improved, and he possesses excellent poise, toughness and mobility. Having just entered the final year of his contract, Flynn could be one of the more attractive players in the next free-agent market, if the Packers don't re-sign him.
Scout's take: "An ascending starter very well-groomed in Mike McCarthy's incubator."
3. Kerry Collins
Team: Indianapolis Colts
Age: 38 | Career Record: 81-97
Last Start: Sept. 18, 2011 (Ind. vs. Clev.)
19-of-38, 191 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
For the first time in 14 years, being the Colts' backup QB actually means something. Collins announced his retirement in July, only to be persuaded by Bill Polian — who drafted Collins first overall for the Panthers in 1995 — to sign with the Colts and be thrust into action until Peyton Manning's neck pain subsides. With less than three weeks to prepare before Week One, Collins' Colts debut was one to forget. The 17th-year veteran fumbled twice in the club's first three possessions and never appeared comfortable in a blowout loss in Houston. He got off to a nice start in Week Two, completing nine of his first 12 passes before going cold. He also had two more turnovers. Collins, who ranks 10th in career passing yards in NFL history, has two Pro Bowl appearances and one trip to the Super Bowl on his résumé. He still possesses an above-average throwing arm, but his lack of mobility and pocket awareness are clear weaknesses.
Scout's take: "Smart, strong-armed, experienced starter capable of starting for the bottom half of the league. Needs a strong supporting cast to function."
4. Jon Kitna
Team: Dallas Cowboys
Age: 38 | Career Record: 50-74
Last Start: Dec. 25, 2010 (Dall. at Ariz.)
12-of-20, 115 yds, 1 TD, 2 INT
Kitna answered a lot of questions about his age and rust last season when he dusted off the wing and led the Cowboys to a surprising 4-5 mark after Tony Romo went down for the season with a broken collarbone. Kitna threw for 2,365 yards in 10 games (nine starts) and kept the offense afloat, even though Dez Bryant also went down later on. Although Kitna is turning 39 this coming week, he appears to remain spry and gives the Cowboys hope if Romo goes down again.
Scout's take: "One of the toughest quarterbacks in the league and a proven backup on the downside of career."
5. Shaun Hill
Team: Detroit Lions
Age: 31 | Career Record: 13-13
Last Start: Jan. 2, 2011 (Det. vs. Minn.)
28-of-39, 258 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
A former starter in San Francisco, Hill is an above-average reserve who has shown he can capably lead the offense if Matthew Stafford is out of the lineup. Hill, who has thrown 39 TD passes and 23 interceptions in his career, knows how to find the open receiver and deliver the ball on time and with accuracy. He lacks arm strength, foot speed and height, but he has produced when he has played, and he's in a very good situation in Detroit.
Scout's take: "Tough competitor just good enough to get you beat as a starter but can will a team to victory off the bench."
To learn who we have ranked Nos. 6-32, order a copy of the current issue of Pro Football Weekly. The digital edition, which contains the entire "Ranking the backup QBs" feature, plus much more, can be found at the PFWStore.com.