If one thing is certain, the 2023 regular season will not go the way you think it will. Every year there are unexpected twists and turns that nobody saw coming, and sometimes those wrinkles revolve around injuries. Some injuries can derail an entire season, particularly if it comes at the quarterback position. However, there are some teams that persevere and still able to remain respectable. The San Francisco 49ers are the prime example of that as they lost two quarterbacks before turning to Brock Purdy last year and were still able to reach the NFC Championship.
That may be the ceiling for what teams can hope for if they lose their starting quarterback, but it is a fascinating thought experiment of which clubs may be best equipped to absorb such a seismic loss and still push for a playoff spot.
As we comb through a handful of teams that fit that bill for 2023, it's important to note that this isn't simply ranking the top backups in the league (Chiefs are a wildly different team when you subtract Patrick Mahomes (no duh). The defending league MVP may have the ability to elevate pass catchers like Kadarius Toney and Skyy Moore, but you certainly look at them differently when it's Blaine Gabbert throwing them the football.). While that's a key aspect of the equation, there's also the overall infrastructure (head coach, weapons, defense, etc.) and the division/conference in which they play in that factor in as well. For instance, the
The Bengals, meanwhile, suffered a significant scare at training camp when Joe Burrow, which, thankfully, is not a season-ending injury. Cincinnati, like many other teams, would struggle if its starting quarterback was lost for a while, or possibly the entire season. Let's look at some of the league's top contenders that should be able to stay afloat even if the unthinkable occurs.
San Francisco 49ers
This was the obvious choice, right? The 49ers were probably the first team you thought of when asking yourself the question of which club could handle the loss of their starter because we've already seen it. Not only do the Niners have Trey Lance, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, available to them if Purdy were to miss time, but they also have veteran Sam Darnold in-house as well. On top of that, Shanahan's offense is very stringent. As long as the quarterback can retain the coaching points, Shanahan will be able to put him in a position to succeed.
San Francisco also has one of the best three-headed monsters at the skill positions in Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle. They make life easier for whoever is under center, and each of them can make game-breaking plays at or around the line of scrimmage, further taking pressure off the quarterback. Meanwhile, the 49ers also have one of the top defenses in the NFL, headlined by Nick Bosa and Fred Warner. They also just bulked up the defensive line by adding Javon Hargrave in free agency. By keeping their opponents off the scoreboard that inherently helps keep things from going haywire and then being forced to ask a backup quarterback to do things that may be out of his capability.
You may be surprised to see Carolina on this list. However, you have to factor in that the Panthers play in a very winnable division in the NFC South, and the NFC as a whole is -- on paper -- more wide open than things are currently slated to be in the AFC. Because of the easier road, that allows more room for error for teams in the NFC, including the possibility of losing your starter, which in this case we're talking about No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young.
Andy Dalton would be the quarterback to step in in the event of an injury to Young, and teams could do a lot worse than the 35-year-old veteran. Dalton was 6-8 as a starter for New Orleans last year, but did complete 66.7% of his passes and had a 95.2 passer rating. With an intriguing receiving corps of Adam Thielen, D.J. Chark, Terrace Marshall and rookie Jonathan Mingo along with running back Miles Sanders and tight end Hayden Hurst, Dalton is plenty capable to put points on the board with this unit.
The Panthers also hired Ejiro Evero to be their defensive coordinator this offseason, which is no small addition. He helped Denver rank No. 10 in the NFL in DVOA on defense last year and has plenty of highly talented players at his disposal in Carolina, including Brian Burns, Jaycee Horn and Derrick Brown.
The Cowboys are another team that has already shown us they can at least carry water if their starter goes down. When Dak Prescott suffered a thumb injury in the opener last season, the club turned to backup Cooper Rush, who led them to a 4-1 record as a starter. Having a quarterback with that proven track record is encouraging when looking at this possible scenario, but having Dallas on this list has more to do with the situation around that position. The club made some savvy additions this offseason, including trades for wideout Brandin Cooks and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Those two are much-needed pieces to their respective sides of the ball and should make Dallas a legit contender in the NFC.
Cooks has shown in Houston that he can produce even with subpar quarterback play, and the Cowboys have a number of top-tier weapons on their depth chart, including Tony Pollard and CeeDee Lamb. It's also worth pointing out that the Dallas offensive line -- headlined by Tyron Smith and Zack Martin -- is among the best in the league.
Meanwhile, the defense is likely going to be the real strength of this team. The Cowboys' starting secondary should strike fear in any opposing quarterback with Gilmore and Trevon Diggs are the corner spots and then the three-headed monster at safety with Donovan Wilson, Malik Hooker and Jayron Kearse still in the fold. Of course, Micah Parsons is arguably the best pass rusher in the league.
Because of their stacked roster, they should, in theory, still be able to push for a playoff spot in a weaker NFC even if Prescott goes down.
All eyes will be on Tua Tagovailoa's durability this season as the Dolphins quarterback is coming into 2023 after suffering multiple concussions last year. With that in mind, this topic is pertinent for Miami. The toughest knock against the Dolphins in terms of making a case that they'd be able to still be respectable and possibly even push for a playoff spot in the wake of an injury to Tagovaila is simply the division and conference they play in. It's a tall task for them to ride a backup quarterback and contend in a division with Josh Allen and Aaron Rodgers, while also in a conference with several other highly skilled quarterbacks and Super Bowl contenders.
Still, Mike White -- who signed a two-year deal with the team this offseason -- is an intriguing backup after a solid run as the Jets starter last year. While he went 1-3 in his four starts, New York's offense was noticeably better with White under center, which presents some optimism that he'd be able to keep things afloat for Miami.
Similar to his mentor Kyle Shanahan, McDaniel would also scheme things to make life easier for his backup quarterback. Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle present enough dynamic speed that they can conceivably work around the line of scrimmage and still be able to create chunk plays.
Meanwhile, Miami's secondary got a boost this offseason with the addition of Jalen Ramsey to pair alongside Xavien Howard and Jevon Holland. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio also should have this defense firing on all cylinders, making the Dolphins a tough team to put points up against.
The Eagles are one of the most complete teams in the NFL, so it's no wonder they're on this list. Of course, it would be a massive step down if Philadelphia needed to go from 2022 MVP runner-up Jalen Hurts to Marcus Mariota, but it could do a lot worse. Mariota has an 89.3 passer rating for his career and would still be able to provide the rushing component from the quarterback position, albeit at a less prolific level than Hurts. He'd also be able to lean on one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL in A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, along with tight end Dallas Goedert and running back D'Andre Swift. The Eagles also have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL headlined by Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson.
Defensively, Philadelphia is once again primed to have one of the top units in the league in 2023 after a prolific season last year where it ranked No. 6 in the NFL in DVOA. The Eagles were No. 1 against the pass in DVOA, thanks in part to corners James Bradberry and Darius Slay along with pass rushers Josh Sweat and Haason Reddick.
This defense should continue to shut teams down, which will keep the Eagles in games even if the offense struggles. And in a weaker NFC, it's not inconceivable they'd reach the postseason as a wild-card team.