Reset the counter. It has now been zero weeks since the NFL lost a star quarterback to a potentially season-ending injury. This week it was Justin Herbert, who exited Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos with a fractured finger on his throwing hand. The Los Angeles Chargers haven’t officially declared Herbert out for the rest of the year, but with a handful of games left and the team’s odds of making the playoffs sinking below 1 percent, according to the New York Times model, there’s reason to believe we’ve seen the last of Herbert in 2023.
If that’s the case, Herbert will get added to the growing list of starting quarterbacks who’ve been unable to finish the season healthy. Aaron Rodgers has been out with a torn Achilles since the Jets’ season opener (and even though Rodgers is back practicing, it still looks unlikely that he’ll suit up again this season). Not long after that, the Colts lost rookie Anthony Richardson to a season-ending shoulder injury. Deshaun Watson also required shoulder surgery, Daniel Jones tore up his knee, Kirk Cousins suffered an Achilles tear, and Joe Burrow injured his wrist.
Those are just the quarterbacks who are done for the year. That list doesn’t even include the guys who are just injured at the moment: Geno Smith missed Seattle’s loss to the 49ers with an ankle injury, C.J. Stroud left Houston’s game on Sunday with a concussion, Kenny Pickett is working his way back from an ankle injury, and Trevor Lawrence is dealing with a gnarly ankle injury—though he played through it this week. It’s been a rough (and painful) season for signal-callers across the league.
Through the first 14 weeks of the season, there have already been 55 different starting quarterbacks. And that number will almost certainly jump next week with Easton Stick taking over for Herbert in L.A. and with Josh Dobbs getting benched in Minnesota. Good quarterback play is already in short supply each season, and the long list of injured starters in 2023 has only exposed that issue for the league. We’ve seen Tim Boyle, who couldn’t muster a positive touchdown-to-interception ratio in college, start multiple games for a team with legitimate playoff aspirations. We’ve seen Tyson Bagent, an undrafted rookie out of Division III Shepherd University, start multiple nationally televised prime-time games. We’re weeks away from potentially getting a Baker Mayfield–Nick Mullens playoff duel on wild-card weekend.
It would be easier to overlook this if we were just seeing a random spike in QB injuries this season. But that isn’t the case. In 2022, 69 different quarterbacks started a game, setting an NFL record for a non-strike season. And that number has been on the rise every year since 2018, per Pro Football Reference. This is looking more like a trend—a troubling one that has diluted the product during the regular season and figures to have a big impact on the upcoming playoffs. And if it isn’t already on the radar of the league office, it should be very soon. In order to tackle the problem, the NFL will have to ask and answer two questions: Why is this trend happening? And even after essentially rewriting the rule book 15 years ago to keep QBs from taking dangerous shots to their heads and knees, is there more the league can do to reverse it?
The simplest explanation for the increase in quarterback injuries is the expansion of the regular season to 17 games. More games are being played, which naturally means that there are more opportunities for injury. In 2020, the last time the NFL played a 16-game schedule, 58 quarterbacks started at least one game. That number jumped to 63 in 2021, and then to 69 last season. It’s not hard to spot a pattern here. But as we can see in the table below, we were already heading in this direction before the extra game was tacked on.
The start of the trend, which can be traced back to early last decade, coincides with a few major changes to the way the sport is played. For starters, teams began passing more than they ever had before, which led to
more dropbacks and more chances for a quarterback to get hurt. While sack rates have been down in recent seasons, the total volume of hits on quarterbacks has gone up. We’ve also seen more offenses use tempo as a weapon in the past decade, which has sped up the game and increased the number of plays. That combination means not only that quarterbacks are playing significantly more snaps now, but also that the ball is ending up in their hands more often. In 2022, for instance, we didn’t just see a record number of QB starters: We also saw a record number of dropbacks and quarterback runs.
But the increase in plays doesn’t fully explain this phenomenon. Across the seasons that have had 17 games, we’re seeing an increase in the number of starting QBs even as the number of plays has started to level out. So far in 2023, we’ve seen 55 different starting quarterbacks over 16,886 total quarterback plays. That’s about 307 plays for every quarterback who has started a game. Last season, that number was at 315. It was at 350 in 2021, the first year of the 18-week schedule, and 366 the year before that. There’s another clear pattern here.
Total QB Plays Vs. Number of Starting QBs by Season (via Pro Football Reference)
|QB plays/starting QBs
|QB plays/starting QBs
Quarterbacks are running more than they ever have, so a larger proportion of their touches are ending with a tackle. In 2010, the year before Cam Newton sparked the NFL’s zone read revolution, quarterbacks combined for 1,377 rush attempts, which includes both scrambles and designed runs. Last season, we saw more than 2,400 quarterback runs. We’ve already seen more than 1,800 of them this season, with a month remaining.
That’s not to say quarterbacks are being injured on running plays specifically, but that those plays are more physically demanding than dropbacks. So quarterbacks are both working more than they did in the past and also working harder. Even with all the protections recently built into the rule book—pass rushers can’t go in low on a passer or forcibly hit a quarterback in the head or neck area—playing the position has never been more physically demanding or grueling. At least not during the modern era.
Out of all the factors contributing to this mini injury crisis, though—including the use of artificial turf, which is already a point of contention for players, especially after Rodgers’s injury—the schedule seems to be the biggest cause. The NFL added an extra regular-season game without making significant changes to the rest of the schedule, outside of eliminating the final preseason game. No extra bye weeks were added to provide players with more breaks, forcing some teams to play games in 13 consecutive weeks—as Arizona and Washington had to do this season. A reduction of midweek games or overseas travel may have been a fair trade-off for the expanded schedule, but the league went in the opposite direction there, adding even more of those games this season.
In 2019, Dr. John York, the 49ers owner and chairman of the NFL Owners Health and Safety Advisory Committee, made the bold claim that the change to the schedule could, “in some cases,” lead to a decrease in injuries. Players including Richard Sherman, who played for York’s 49ers, felt differently. “It’s always odd, when you hear player safety is their biggest concern,” Sherman said in 2020, ahead of the 2021 collective bargaining agreement negotiations. “But it seems like player safety has a price tag. Player safety, up to the point of, ‘Hey, 17 games makes us this much money, so we really don’t care how safe they are.’”
York’s claim was based on unreleased data that he said showed “minimal” changes in player safety when a preseason game was swapped out for another regular-season game. But that preseason data would include a number of players who don’t make the final regular-season roster—players who could have used an extra preseason game to impress coaches in live action and potentially land a job. And in practice, the 17-3 model just exposes already rostered players to more games and the potential for more hits.
Now the NFL has to ask itself whether people will tune in to watch a game regardless of who’s playing quarterback. It may get a good test run of that this postseason. If the current standings hold, these would be some of the quarterbacks we’d watch play in the wild-card round: Mullens, Mayfield, Joe Flacco, and Gardner Minshew. We might as well be watching a fourth preseason game.
When the league was in the process of expanding the regular season, Roger Goodell called it a “fight for quality,” per Sports Illustrated. Goodell said the 17-game schedule would “bring even more drama, more opportunities for teams to make it to the postseason and improve the quality of what we do.” A look at the league’s standings shows that Goodell was right about one thing: The playoff race is as competitive as ever. But with star quarterbacks going down seemingly every week, the fight for quality has been a losing effort. Last year’s AFC South decider between the Jaguars and Titans is an excellent example of the flaw in Goodell’s framing of things. It was a de facto playoff game, which created plenty of drama. But due to injuries and incompetence at the QB position, Tennessee was forced to start Josh Dobbs just days after signing him. The stakes were high, but the game was hardly watchable.
There are only so many Bailey Zappe–Mitch Trubisky prime-time games fans can take. And only so many seasons of star players going down before fans and players alike deem this trend untenable. If this quarterback crisis bleeds over into the playoffs and starts cutting into league ratings—and affecting owners’ pockets—the NFL may finally be forced to acknowledge the most obvious drawback of a 17-game schedule.