Cleveland Browns history with backup quarterbacks isn’t pretty
The Cleveland Browns have had some rough patches with their starting quarterbacks before Baker Mayfield. Although, it hasn’t been better for the backups
Drew Stanton is the latest Cleveland Browns backup quarterback and has stabilized the position for the first time in years. If the starting quarterback situation was a disaster over the past several years prior to Baker Mayfield, it didn’t get much better for the second string.
In recent years, the backup quarterback seemed to be viewed as a threat to the team, a guy who had to be eliminated in order to guard against a quarterback controversy. Stanton is in his 11th season in the NFL and his second year with the Browns. There’s no question that Baker Mayfield will be the starter, and Stanton is not his rival. Stanton is on the team to help him prepare, and to be his substitute if necessary.
For most of their history the Browns developed backup quarterbacks who stayed with team for several years, in contrast to the recent trend of one and done. Though far from complete, the table below lists several Browns backup quarterbacks since their inception in 1946.
The original Browns circa 1946 had Cliff Lewis as the backup quarterback. Coincidentally, like Otto Graham he was a converted defensive back.
George Ratterman was the backup to Otto Graham from 1952 to 1955. George did not play much. In fact, he had only one start in the Graham era, which he won. But when Graham retired, Ratterman failed to establish himself as the starter and retired after the 1956 season. Still, in five years with the Browns, he completed 62.7 percent of his passes, an unheard-of percentage in that era. Perhaps he sets the standard for backup quarterbacks for the Browns.
Tommy O’Connell split time with Ratterman as well as Milt Plum in 1957. O’Connell was outstanding in 1957, going to the Pro Bowl and leading the Browns to the NFL Championship game, but Plum also started several games when O’Connell was out.
Jim Ninowski had two gigs with Cleveland, from 1958-1959 and 1962-1966, taking two years off to be the starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions but was ultimately beaten out by Earl Morrall. He also played for Washington and the Saints, finishing a 12-year career with a 15-15-1 record. That’s pretty good for a second-string quarterback.
Hall of Famer Len Dawson was a backup for two years in Cleveland after flopping as a starter in Pittsburgh. He was highly thought of, but never got game reps. Paul Brown probably did him a favor by cutting him so that he could become a starter in the American Football League.
He took that gig and ran with it, leading the Kansas City Chiefs to an upset win over the Vikings in Super Bowl IV and played his way into the Hall of Fame. Do you suppose perhaps coach Brown underestimated him slightly? Oh well.
Bill Nelsen was brought in as a stopgap to replace Dr. Frank Ryan, the last Browns championship quarterback, whose career ended prematurely due to arm injuries. Like Dawson, Nelsen was a Steelers reject. Browns acting GM Art Modell brought in young Mike Phipps as the quarterback of the future with Nelson supposed to be a well-behaved backup. Nelsen did not cooperate, however, because he kept fighting his way into the starting job.
Nelsen played on two bad knees and did not having the greatest throwing arm in the game, either. All he did was win football games and keep young Phipps on the bench for two years. Nelson finally yielded to Phipps in 1972 and retired after the season.
The Browns also drafted a quarterback in the 13th round that year who was very smart and threw an accurate ball, but he was not big enough to play in the NFL at 6-foot-1 and 195-pounds. That would be Brian Sipe, who spent two years on the reserve squad and didn’t become a regular starter until his fifth year. Like Nelson, he kept fighting his way into the starting lineup.
Coaches Nick Skorich and Forrest Gregg kept on starting Sipe over Phipps until finally, the Browns traded Phipps to Chicago, which actually worked out well for both teams. Phipps went 14-6 as a starter in Chicago, living up to the impossible hype surrounding him in Cleveland. However, Sipe grew up to be the NFL Most Valuable Player in 1980, so the Browns made the right call. Brian Sipe was a backup who became a true star.
Paul McDonald was the main backup for Brian Sipe and performed credibly for four years as the understudy. When Sipe left to play in the USFL and the New Jersey Generals, owned by flashy businessman Donald Trump, McDonald took over as the starter for the Browns. As starter, McDonald was pummeled, taking 53 sacks behind a rebuilding offensive line. After that disaster, the Browns sent McDonald back to the bench where he stayed for another season before going to Dallas for a year and then retired.
When the Browns drafted Bernie Kosar, they also obtained the services of Gary Danielson, a savvy veteran who, in his college days, had also been the successor to Mike Phipps at Purdue. Danielson performed as the bridge quarterback for Kosar and then stayed with the team as a valued second-string quarterback and mentor.
1988 was an amazing year because the Browns played four quarterbacks and made it to the playoffs, with Kosar, Danielson, Mike Pagel and recycled Dolphin Don Strock taking turns getting injured and yet winning games.
Todd Philcox was the main backup after Pagel. Playing three years with the Browns until breaking his thumb in 1992 and never fully recovering.
Vinnie Testaverde, who had gotten ripped to pieces in Tampa Bay was signed to back up Kosar and eventually deposed Bernie in 1994, much to the shock of the entire city. Bernie was not permitted to stay as a backup, however, as head coach Bill Belichick wanted to avoid a potential quarterback controversy. Given how much Bernie was loved in Cleveland, you might not agree but at least you could understand how Belichick might have felt that way
However, that seemed to set a precedent for the Browns in 1999 and forward, when they seemed to automatically run the quarterback out of town instead of simply demoting him to second string.
Ty Detmer was the bridge quarterback for Tim Couch, at least for the opening game. Detmer also started Week 17 when Couch was injured and nearly pulled off a win. The next year, he suffered a season-ending injury and was not retained.
Doug Pederson, who later became the Super Bowl-winning coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, was the next to go one and done, starting eight games for an injured Couch.
Kelly Holcomb was brought in after languishing on the Indianapolis bench for several years and proved to be a reliable backup for Couch, and actually led the team into Pittsburgh and nearly pulled off a playoff win, throwing for over 400 yards. He became the starter when Couch was unable to return to form due to a shoulder injury which proved to be career-ending.
Charlie Frye backed up Trent Dilfer for a year and seemed to be on a trajectory to become the starting quarterback. However, on opening day he threw an interception and was sacked five times in the first half, and then was immediately benched and traded before Game 2. Talk about being run out of town.
Derek Anderson was promoted in place of Frye and made the Pro Bowl. Maybe Romeo Crennel was not as insane as we thought? But then the confidence in Anderson wavered, and the Browns brought in sure-fire franchise quarterback Brady Quinn. Anderson had to be run out of town to avoid a quarterback controversy, so he went on to a long career as Carolina’s backup for Cam Newton.
More from Dawg Pound Daily
- Cleveland Browns critics continue to misplace their judgement
- 3 Cleveland Browns players who don’t deserve another season in 2023
- How the Browns could maximize Nick Chubb in 2023
- Can Deshaun Watson get to Patrick Mahomes level for Cleveland Browns?
- 3 Cleveland Browns who should see an expanded role in 2023 and 1 who should not
Seneca Wallace was a true backup quarterback, although he himself might disagree with that assessment. He was talented enough to return punts and play wide receiver in the NFL and was an amazing athlete. At 5-foot-11 and 205-pounds and very quick, he is the perfect guy to come into the game and disrupt the opposing defense’s game plan. He was supposed to give Colt McCoy a chance to develop, though injuries forced McCoy into the starting lineup earlier than the Browns would have liked.
McCoy marks a turning point in the Browns quest for excellence at the quarterback position. McCoy threw more TDs than interceptions with Greg Little and Mohamed Massaquoi as his wide receivers. That is not bad. Nevertheless, he had to go in order to make room for the team’s first-round draft choice, Brandon Weeden. Really? This was not quite like Montana versus Young, except in the mind of the GM.
This seemed to set off a chain reaction, in which the Browns’ front office felt compelled to get rid of the second string quarterback, year after years. McCoy, Weeden, Jason Campbell, Brian Hoyer, Robert Griffin III were all traded or cut as soon as it became clear that they wouldn’t be the starter. Josh McCown was the only quarterback who hung around briefly after losing the starting position.
At no time were Browns quarterback antics more ridiculous than in the Hue Jackson era, when quarterback depth chart was completely unstable, literally week to week. If you recall the 2017 season, the Browns had Brock Osweiler go from fourth string to second string to first string to fourth string (cut) in four weeks. In came would-be college junior DeShone Kizer, who was scarcely old enough to shave, never mind be an NFL quarterback.
He became a starter despite a poor showing in the exhibition season. The Kevin Hogan era lasted one game, which was enough to convince Jackson to yank him and put Kizer back in. The presumed first stringer that year was Cody Kessler going into summer camp. He was quickly demoted to third string and was last seen hitch-hiking to Philadelphia.
Would it be too much of a stretch to suggest that over the past ten years or so, the front office actually became paranoid about the second string quarterback? It seems to this observer that the backup quarterback was regarded as a threat to the number one guy, and for that reason it was important to get rid of the second string quarterback as soon as possible. The front office sincerely believed it was improving the team by getting rid of the second string quarterback “Addition by subtraction” was the mantra.
Yet when the Browns had winning teams, they usually had a stable player or two backing up the first string star. Being able to spend four and five years carrying a young quarterback to develop him as a backup first before giving him a shot at the starting position would be almost unthinkable for the weak Browns teams of the past 10 years.
The recent trend has been to rely heavily on players in their first year with the team and to give up early on them rather than developing them.