Geno Smith is in the MVP conversation. Cooper Rush went 4-1 as a starter. Matt Ryan was benched for a sixth round pick. Bailey Zappe, a fourth round rookie on the Patriots, has a passer rating of 100.9 through four extended appearances. Jacoby Brissett ranks seventh in QBR. Taylor Heinicke has been an upgrade from Carson Wentz. P.J. Walker has outplayed Baker Mayfield. Andy Dalton should have been starting all along for the Saints. And the 49ers couldn’t keep Jimmy Garoppolo down for long.
If the L.A. Rams can’t get something positive out of their longtime backup quarterback on Sunday, then why has John Wolford been the backup for three years?
All around the NFL this season, backups and third-string options and journeyman fill-ins for starters with sketchy off-field issues have done their jobs and lifted teams towards competitiveness and victories. Tom Brady is in a division with a fourth-string QB (Walker), a backup (Dalton), and a bridge (Marcus Mariota) but the division is up for grabs to any of those four players.
Even Matthew Stafford is in a division with a veteran who everyone had written off before the season (Geno Smith) and technically another backup (Garoppolo) and is looking up at both of them in the NFC West. If the Rams do lose to the Cardinals on Sunday, it could be to a backup: Kyler Murray is questionable with a hamstring injury and Colt McCoy is in line for his eighth start in the last four years.
McCoy is 2-1 as a starter this season with a passer rating of 101.4.
Wolford isn’t a rookie who Les Snead found in the fifth round this season. He’s not a Chase Daniel who has been kicking around the league for more than a decade and it would scare the shit out of you if he actually had to make a start. (Daniel has made five starts since first entering the league in 2010.)
No, John Wolford is a 2018 undrafted free agent who has spent almost his entire career learning from Sean McVay and practicing with the Los Angeles Rams. Wolford was on the Jets practice squad in 2018, then the Rams practice squad in 2019, but he’s been McVay’s preferred choice of backup since 2020.
That means that Wolford has prepared for 41 regular season games and five playoff games with McVay and the quarterbacks. He has prepared to start twice, once against the Cardinals and once against the Seahawks. He was also surprisingly activated to start a preseason game this year, the first time since 2019 that McVay wanted to put Wolford at risk in a preseason game.
It’s all been leading up to an opportunity for John Wolford to eventually start again and with Stafford in concussion protocol and questionable to play against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 10, Wolford’s long tenure as McVay’s favorite backup could be called upon for the second time. When Wolford start and won a game against the Cards in 2020, it was speculated that he may have finally ended Jared Goff’s tenure as the starter. Until a head injury in the wild card round ended that discussion and brought Goff back for one more start prior to being traded to the Detroit Lions.
Now what will it mean for Wolford if the Rams need him again, but he doesn’t play as well as expected and isn’t as successful as all those teams I listed in the opening paragraph?
Well, here’s the thing: It SHOULD be expected for John Wolford to play well. He’s in his fourth year with the system. If Wolford has to start and gets benched for Bryce Perkins, it will be time for another question to McVay about L.A.’s personnel decisions:
“Why have the Rams kept three quarterbacks for the last two years, if all this time in the system isn’t worth getting them prepared for life without Matthew Stafford?”
When everyone talks about John Wolford in 2020 against the Cardinals, it's always about how he only led the offense to three field goals.— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakDTR) November 10, 2022
That's leaving out a lot of context that Cam Akers fumbled at the two-yard line and offense had back-to-back false starts at the one.
In the interest of “We don’t know who the starting quarterback will be for either team,” the line for this game has moved all over the place this week at DraftKings Sportsbook. The Rams are favored by 3 points at DraftKings as of Saturday, which is also considered the “homefield advantage” difference for any betting line. Since the game is at SoFi Stadium, that essentially means that this game is considered a coin toss.
So the Rams better win the opening coin toss.
A lot of that unpredictability is tied up by the injuries for Stafford and Murray, but to some degree most people overrate the loss of a starting quarterback. The greatest quarterback of all-time began his career as a starter when the New England Patriots lost the highest-paid QB in the league at the beginning of the 2001 season. That was considered a disaster at the time, it turned out to be the greatest thing that ever happened to the organization.
That’s the exception to the rule, perhaps, but on a broader scale we’ve seen that the game has been made a lot “easier” for quarterbacks in the last 10, 20, 40 years, and that “good stats” are achievable for anyone. Even Bailey Zappe, Sam Ehlinger, and P.J. Walker. The Rams aren’t making Wolford play football on his own either.
Though the offensive line seems to get more bad news after bad news, with backup left tackle A.J. Jackson now doubtful to start, the Rams spent a ton of money on Cooper Kupp and Allen Robinson. They could get a spark in the backfield from Kyren Williams, if they’re lucky. And Sean McVay has indeed won a Super Bowl, been to another, and developed a reputation for being one of the smartest minds in the NFL.
What better chance for L.A. to prove that they’re still a good football team than to elevate the play of Wolford or Perkins in a must-win game against a 3-6 opponent who the Rams have dominated for the last 5 or 6 years?
All of these backups having a year or getting praise for a week or a month. It would not look good for the defending champions to fall behind them too, if Stafford has to miss this all-important NFC West matchup. It would call into question why L.A. has kept Wolford for four years, Perkins for three years, if they don’t play like they have many more years ahead.
Losing your starter is understandably expected to be bad news. But as we’ve seen, it should never be devastating news.