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Backup quarterbacks are in the spotlight as the NFL playoff picture takes shape

Backup quarterbacks are in the spotlight as the NFL playoff picture takes shape
Cowboys quarterback Kellen Moore looks down field before throwing an interception against the Jets during the first half. (Tom Pennington / Getty Images)

Want to know about the sorry state of NFL quarterbacks?

Look no further than the state of sorry NFL quarterbacks.

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With two weeks left in the regular season, the state of Texas is on its eighth starter at the position — four each for the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans.

The 4-10 Cowboys have cycled through Tony Romo, Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel and now Kellen Moore. It's only the second time in club history the Cowboys have used four starting quarterbacks in a season. They did so in 2001, when they started Quincy Carter, Anthony Wright, Ryan Leaf and Clint Stoerner, finishing 5-11.

"For the most part, you're either playing an older guy who just got there and you're hoping he has something left, or you're playing a younger guy who just got there and you don't know what he can do — and the Cowboys have had both," said former NFL quarterback Babe Laufenberg, now color analyst for the Dallas Cowboys Radio Network.

The Texans, who are leading the AFC South at 7-7, are on Weeden — signed after he was cut by the Cowboys — and have also started Brian Hoyer, the since-released Ryan Mallett and T.J. Yates.

"It's been a strange year," Weeden told reporters this week. "Even when I was in Dallas, just the way the year had gone there and then, obviously, getting the opportunity to come here and it's a great opportunity, you know to be the fourth guy, that is the way this league is, there's injuries, there's certain things that happen, you got to be ready."

Those franchises are two of the glaring examples of what has occurred around the league, where the revolving door at quarterback has spun at a dizzying rate.

Some teams have survived it — playoff-bound Cincinnati and Denver are down to second-stringers, AJ McCarron and Brock Osweiler, respectively — while others have struggled mightily, such as Cleveland (Josh McCown, Johnny Manziel, Austin Davis) and Baltimore (Joe Flacco, Matt Schaub, Jimmy Clausen and now possibly Mallett).

In New Orleans, questions linger about the availability of Drew Brees against Jacksonville on Sunday because the star quarterback is dealing with a torn plantar fascia in his right foot. He said he would play. He has missed only one game in his career because of injury, and that came against Carolina in Week 3 this season because of a bruised rotator cuff.

Because backup Luke McCown underwent season-ending back surgery last month, the Saints would have to call on either Matt Flynn or rookie Garrett Grayson if Brees is unable either to start or finish a game.

The point is, as the season winds down, some of these teams aren't just leaning on their backups or players who have been holding a clipboard behind the starter and are intimately familiar with the offensive systems. They're fresh off the street and into the fire.

"We give a kid a driver's license at 16, even though they're probably not ready to drive, and then we just hope that both they and the car come back in one piece," Laufenberg said. "That's just like some of these young quarterbacks, you just hope after a three-hour game they come back in one piece."

Not surprisingly, some of the hottest teams in the league — Carolina, Arizona, New England, Seattle, Kansas City and Green Bay — have had the same starting quarterback since the beginning of the season.

Cam Newton's Panthers are 14-0 and have remaining games at Atlanta and home against Tampa Bay, with a chance to match New England's 16-0 mark in 2007. (The 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only team to go unbeaten start to finish [17-0], played in an era when the regular season was 14 games.)

After last Sunday's 38-35 victory over the New York Giants, Newton said he felt fine.

"Just a couple of nicks and bruises," he said, "and yet it's not ballet, it's not baseball. It's a physical sport."

In the second-to-last weekend of the regular season, it's possible the league could emerge with all 12 playoff teams locked in, and only seedings up for grabs on the final Sunday of games.

Monday night it's the backup bowl, with McCarron's Bengals playing at Osweiler's Broncos. Each team could be in position to clinch its respective division with a victory.

That means all over the league it will be understudies — and sometimes understudies of understudies — who will be under the microscope.

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer

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