May 23, 2012; Irving, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks Stephen McGee (7) and Kyle Orton (18) during organized team activities at Dallas Cowboys headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Clipboard Kings: Assessing the Dallas Cowboys QB Depth


We hear it every year at this time, the backup quarterback is one of the most important positions on the roster.  Whether it is or not is a debate for another time, but it’s under the microscope now more than ever as teams try to justify how many resources, or in some cases how few, they’ve committed to the position….and you hear reports of young QB’s who are just “killing it” in their mini-camps.

The position can either be rendered completely irrelevant: Jim Sorgi never getting his uniform dirty in meaningful situations backing up Peyton Manning from 2004 – 2010.  Or franchise altering: The Colts never addressing the position appropriately, team goes 2-14 without Manning in 2011, total housecleaning, first pick, Manning moves on, Andrew Luck now in place. 

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at every team’s backup situation.  These aren’t grades, just an overall look at the total sum of each team’s outlook if their starter were to go down.  I’ll consider the immediate situation and the longer-term picture.

I’ll go in order of my NFL Power Rankings 1.0, published May 10th.

Today, the Dallas Cowboys:

STARTER: Tony Romo (10th Year)

PROJECTED BACKUP: Kyle Orton (8th year)

It’s not often when a team can replace a valuable player with someone equally as capable, but in one of the most vital roles on an NFL roster the Cowboys did just that.  Jon Kitna was one of the most reliable and committed backup QB’s in the league the last 10 years.  When he chose to retire after last season it appeared to leave a huge void on the Cowboys roster.  Enter Orton.  At a time when he should be entering his prime, and could certainly start for a number of quality NFL teams, he chose to accept the job as Romo’s clipboard caddie.  Good for him, and good for Dallas.  IF he truly is committed to doing the things that make a backup QB so valuable, it’s hard to do much better.  Most good backups are game-managers, capable of doing enough to help you win a few games while trying not to screw it up too badly when the starter is unexpectedly unavailable.  Orton is so much more.  I remember the disbelief I felt when I saw that he had signed a 3 year deal in Dallas. Maybe he surveyed the landscape of the NFL and saw the trend to commit to young signal-callers more than we’ve ever seen, and made the best career decision he could.  Or maybe he looked at the frequency with which Romo seems to get hurt and figured this would be his best chance to get some snaps for a potentially elite team.  Whatever the case, the Cowboys did as well as one could hope in protecting themselves in the event that Romo should go down again.

Verdict: One of the elite non-starting QB’s in the league.

PROJECTED 3RD QB: Stephen McGee (4th year)

McGee was considered a sleeper of the 2009 draft.  After playing in an option offense his first 3 seasons at Texas A&M, he had the opportunity to play in an NFL-style scheme as a senior.  A shoulder injury limited his snaps, but he had the size, athleticism and arm to intrigue NFL scouts.  In his limited regular season chances, he’s completed 56% of his passes with 3 TD’s and no interceptions.  He has potential, but the investment made in Orton makes you wonder how confident the Cowboys are in him.

Verdict: Potential solid backup

OTHER CONTENDERS: Rudy Carpenter (3rd year)

Carpenter had a great career at Arizona State, but went undrafted.  He originally signed with the Cowboys, spent some time on their practice squad, ended up as the 3rd stringer in Tampa for a bit, and then signed back with Dallas this offseason.  He is a fiery competitor with a funky delivery but a knack for making plays and leading the huddle.  I always liked this guy, and I think he could push McGee for a spot on the active roster.


The Cowboys have constructed their QB hierarchy exactly the way I propose every NFL team should.

  1. Established starter, either elite or potentially top-flight NFL performer
  2. Solid, dependable, proven player who is willing to serve as backup but can win games for you if called upon.
  3. Interesting, reasonably high-ceiling developmental prospect with tools to become a starter someday if the opportunity arises.

It seems like such a simple formula, but many…. make that most teams fail to follow it.  In fact, if you look at the Top 10 teams in this series, you’ll see that most teams with an elite QB take it for granted and fill out the rest of the positional depth chart with guys who fit in salary-wise.  Here, that’s not the case.  Romo is one of the best in the league.  Orton should be a starter for someone else, but instead is a luxury for the Cowboys.  McGee and Carpenter have enough intriguing potential to believe that there is a potentially effective starter between them.  Say what you want about the Cowboys and how Jerry Jones conducts his business.  In this case, he’s done well.  Dallas is in good hands in the quarterback department.



Tags: Dallas Cowboys Kyle Orton Rudy Carpenter Stephen McGee Tony Romo

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