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Should the Browns invest in a COVID Quarterback?

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Add “COVID QB” to your list of football idioms this year

Cleveland Browns OTA
Drew Stanton

The coronavirus is controlling quite a few aspects of our lives. The lack of people and noise in the stands at Major League Baseball games is certainly less entertaining. One player rocketed a shot into dead center field for a three-run home run only to hear his own player’s react vocally as if it was a church softball game. Maybe the Atlanta Falcons should give a crash course of piping in crowd noise over the PA system.

The National Football League (NFL) has high hopes that their season will begin on time, and end with another Super Bowl. While it has been mentioned it is still too early to tell, the days just keep falling off the calendar. The regular season begins with the Houston Texans at the champion Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday September 10th. Then the rest of the league kicks off that weekend including the Cleveland Browns at Baltimore on Sunday September 13th.

That’s just seven weeks away.

One thing the coronavirus has already changed in the NFL is the entire preseason schedule has been canceled which will affect the bottom third of every roster. Last season, the practice squad (PS) was 10 players. Through the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), that increased to 12 athletes for the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

There are restrictions on who exactly can be placed on the PS. For one, a player can only be placed on the PS for two seasons regardless of which NFL club they are currently employed. The eligibility is also only available for players without an accrued season or have played (or were active) for less than nine games in a single season. Beginning in 2016, the PS was allowed up to four veteran players on this list.

Players are paid a minimum of $8,400 a week. Any PS athlete is available to be picked up by any other NFL club, but must be inserted onto their 53-man roster. This makes the PS players not only eligible to participate in actual games, but are paid more per week.

A change in this virus year is that the practice squad has been expanded from 12 players per club to 16. As a result of the coronavirus, the eligibility requirements of who qualifies to be added to the PS have been completely rescinded. This means anybody can be added at any time regardless of age or tenure.

Which brings us around to the COVID QB

Traditionally, most NFL clubs only keep a duo of quarterbacks on their active roster. Some clubs will keep a third guy - usually a younger player - but most only keep two.

But in the year of the virus with weekly testing, what if one or more of your signalcallers are in the virus protocol? Who will suddenly be thrust under center? Does this force clubs to make unnecessary trades? How will teams suffer for several weeks? Will former QB’s without employment be suddenly thrust into action? All clubs have an “emergency quarterback” but rarely does this player ever see the backside of the center in a live game.

Look no further than the start of Major League Baseball. Already, Miami has half of its roster in protocol and is cancelling scheduled games. Teams are refusing to fly to South Florida or even play the Marlins. Is this an indicator of the future of the pending NFL season?

The good news is the NFL may have inadvertently installed a system that may help every team.

One more change this year to the PS rules is this: four PS players can be designated as frozen to that particular team. Before, any NFL club could claim any PS player as long as they placed that athlete on their 53-man roster. But now, each team can “stash” four players to which no other club can have access to them.

So, why not stash one or two veteran quarterbacks? The obvious reasoning behind this question would be because of the COVID-19 situation and the quarantine rules that each team must follow plus the quarantine waiting periods.

NCAA Football: East-West Shrine Game
Team East quarterback Kevin Davidson (11) warms up prior to the game between the Team East and the Team West at Tropicana Field.
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Currently, the Browns have four quarterbacks in training camp: Baker Mayfield, Casey Keenum, Garrett Gilbert and Kevin Davidson. This year, it may be the best idea to have three QB’s on the active roster at all times, and perhaps two more on the PS stash list. This would ensure that the Browns would always have an experienced field general on the sidelines or at the ready at all times.

Mayfield (6-1, 215 pounds) is the starter with 29 NFL starts. Keenum (6-1, 215 pounds) is 32 years old and is comfortably cemented as Mayfield’s backup. He is a seasoned veteran and is starter material. Keenum in his ninth season and has started 64 NFL games among the seven teams he has been a roster member of. Davidson (6-4, 225 pounds) is a rookie from Princeton.

While with the Carolina Panthers in 2018, Gilbert (6-4, 230 pounds) appeared in a single game. He then became the offensive star of the AAF developmental league before signing with Cleveland in 2019. Last year, he appeared in five games and was 0-3 on passes tossed. Veteran Drew Stanton was supposed to become Mayfield’s backup but was injured in mid-September which regulated Gilbert as Mayfield’s replacement the remainder of the season.

What will happen if Mayfield is in protocol, then Keenum. Both the starting caliber guys are no longer available to play for two weeks. If the Browns keep either Gilbert or Davidson, they suddenly become the starter. What if they become injured, or the following week are subjected to quarantine procedures as well? Suddenly, all three of your quarterbacks are gone for several weeks.

And get this: the two stashed quarterbacks could be players that Cleveland does not keep on the actual practice field nor do they visit the Browns’ facility. They are players at the ready that reside completely away from the club, the employees of the Browns, all players, coaches and the like; but who are prepared with the offense and more importantly – are not infected.

This means the Browns would always have a guy ready to go to play quarterback. And these stand-ins would be paid more than the standard PS player to the tune of $12,000 a week.

This may be the saving grace to the Browns 2020 season. Perhaps if Mayfield and Keenum are in virus protocol for weeks and cannot suit up, the COVID QB would only show up for the Friday walk-through, then at the stadium for warm-ups.

Another idea is to not have a quarterback room at all this year. An outbreak in any position room would cripple a team, especially the most important position on the offense. Perhaps every QB could perform meetings through Zoom or Skype instead of meeting live at the facility. This potentially would cut down just one more avenue to avoid contact around unsuspecting virus carriers.

Who are some COVID QB options? Here’s a Baker’s Dozen

The trick is not to employ a developmental player, but a guy who has NFL experience and can make quick adjustments on gameday. Yes, he would have to know each week’s game plan despite the fact that he may never play. Despite this, isn’t that what every backup quarterback does already?

Another strategy is to not necessarily go after the best free agent quarterback available, but the best free agent quarterback who either knows Kevin Stefanski’s offense already, has played an offense that is similar, or is already familiar with Cleveland’s offensive players.

Minnesota Vikings v Tennessee Titans
Quarterback Trevor Siemian #3 of the Minnesota Vikings looks for a receiver
Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

1. Trevor Siemian (age 28)

Stefanski was the QB coach with the Vikings in 2018 and then became the interim OC the same year. Siemian was QB Kirk Cousins backup. He did not have any starts, but more importantly he was the guy who would have to be ready each week to come into the game if Cousins became injured. This meant he not only had to be ready each week but had to study the game plans. While with the Denver Broncos, Siemian had 24 starts and one start last year with the New York Jets, so he has seen the field plenty.

2. Blake Bortles (age 28)

Bortles is a former first-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars and is still a young man. During his five years in Jax, he started 73 games so the game experience is there. His best completion percentage was in his final year with 60.3% before signing with the Los Angeles Rams last year. His touchdown to interception ratio is 3.2 to 2.7, so he makes too many mistakes. But, he has played quite a bit.

3. Drew Stanton (age 36)

A former Brown who found the IR list last season, however, this offense is not the same. But Stanton knows most of the players already and especially the offensive line. Stanton has extensive practice time with wide receivers OBJ, Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, KhaDarel Hodge, D.J. Montgomery, JoJo Naston, Taywon Taylor and Damion Ratley. Chemistry may play a big part of this COVID QB strategy, and Stanton would fill that nicely.

New York Jets v Cleveland Browns
Josh McCown

4. Josh McCown (age 41)

This former Brown has age but can still play. Between 2015 to 2016, he had 11 starts with Cleveland and threw 24 Tds with 10 INTs. Altogether in his 17-year career, he has attempted 2,633 passes with 1,584 completions for 17,731 yards with 98 TDs and 82 INTs. If you are looking for a guy to stash with experience, it’s McCown.

5. Landry Jones (age 31)

A former fourth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was supposed to be the young buck in waiting to eventually wrestle the job away from Ben Roethlisberger, but that never materialized. But he has the size (6-4, 225 pounds) to be effective in games as well as the arm strength. He has only five NFL starts (all with Pittsburgh) and is a good game manager but will make plenty of mistakes. Browns’ fans may remember when Jones was the starter in an overtime win in 2016 in which he was 24-37 with 277 yards, tossed three touchdowns with just a single interception. Played well in his short stint most recently in the XFL with the Dallas Renegades before the virus shut down their season. When Roethlisberger went down last year with a season-ending injury , the Steelers tried to re-sign Jones but the inquiry was blocked by the XFL office.

Others to consider:

Brett Hundley (age 27)

Tom Savage (age 30)

Joe Webb (age 33)

Former Browns: Kevin Hogan (age 27), Cody Kessler (age 27), Brock Osweiler (age 29)

XFL quarterbacks: Cardale Jones (age 27), Josh Johnson (age 34)

Of course, having one or two COVID QB’s would only work if these players are not in the vicinity of the other players whatsoever, they stay in shape, learn each week’s game plan, are game ready each week and most importantly - remain isolated from the rest of the world.

And by stashing a pair of COVID QB’s instead of one, this means you will always have a healthy guy at the ready.

And the league wouldn’t even be involved. The NFL has already laid the groundwork for this to become a reality by allowing the four frozen players that until this year could be snatched up at any time by any of the other 31 clubs. If two veteran QB’s are snagged, the other two slots could be used for vital positions as well such as a cornerback or a versatile offensive lineman.

Will a system of COVID QB’s work? This much we know for certain: if every rostered quarterback contracts the disease with positive results and are mandated to sit out weeks at a time, the answer to that question would be a resounding: why didn’t we think of this?