A quarterback battle just sounds like it should be exciting. There’s a reason that movies like Any Given Sunday and shows like Friday Night Lights go deep in depicting QBs jockeying for depth-chart position: The potential for drama is so high. At the end of a game, the rivals part ways. But when the competitors play the same position for the same team, and it’s the most important position on the team? There’s no going home. The two players just have to keep squaring off, every day, with the fate of their squad on their backs. Everybody wants to watch.
But in reality, quarterback competitions are rarely the sort of edge-of-your-seat stuff that TV shows make them out to be. When a team can’t decide who should be their starter, it’s not because the Super Bowl is tomorrow and they can’t figure out whether to start Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. It’s generally August, with a hapless head coach unsure whether to go with the 28th-best quarterback in the league or the 34th best, knowing that a doomed season is creeping closer every single day.
With NFL training camps underway, there are three teams with active quarterback battles right now: the Panthers, Seahawks, and Steelers. (At least the Steelers’ current battle includes a first-round pick, Kenny Pickett, giving Pittsburgh fans reason to be curious, if not optimistic, about the franchise’s future.) The best odds you can get on one of these teams to win the Super Bowl right now is 70-to-1, and none is expected to have a winning record going by preseason win total odds.
But what’s really depressing about the type of quarterback battle in Seattle and Carolina isn’t just the participants’ poor quality of play. It’s the false hope of pretending that one of these two awful players can save your season. It’s the frustration of 51 other players on the roster realizing they might be good enough to win, but the 52nd and 53rd players are so bad that it will waste a year of their careers. It’s the despair of realizing Plan B is just as doomed as Plan A. It’s the angst of two men having the opportunity of a lifetime and letting it slip. The player who gets to start Week 1 is often called the “winner” of the competition, but they often lose their jobs and a lot of games.
For the purposes of this post, we’re considering only training camp battles acknowledged by a head coach as open competitions. That excludes situations where a QB gave way to a backup during the season, like when Tim Tebow usurped Kyle Orton with the Broncos in 2011, or situations where the media speculated that a QB might be competing for a job but the head coach clearly had no interest, like when Tim Tebow didn’t usurp Mark Sanchez with the Jets in 2012. (Something you’ll notice: The same bad quarterbacks keep popping up on this list.) This is a subjective ranking based on how depressed each competition makes me—apologies if I left off the battle that personally makes you the saddest.
Here are the 10 saddest battles since 2000. Get ready to think about Brock Osweiler more than you’ve thought about Brock Osweiler in years.
10. 2022 Seattle Seahawks: Geno Smith vs. Drew Lock
Look, I actually like Geno Smith—but the numbers don’t lie. Mike Sando of The Athletic produces an annual QB Tiers column, asking dozens of NFL coaches and executives to rank non-rookie starters on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being elite and 5 being backup status. This year, 35 QBs were on the list—and Lock and Geno ranked 34th and 35th, with Smith the only quarterback slotted into the fifth tier intended for backups. It’s only the second time in the nine years that Sando has done his preseason ranking that there has been a QB battle where any result would give a team the league’s worst option. (Get ready to read about the other one as well!)
The context of this year’s Seahawks helps here. Since 2012, Seattle has had Russell Wilson, a superstar who guided his team to eight playoff…