Years ago, former Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore was asked why he didn't give Peyton Manning's backup more snaps in practice.
"If 18 goes down, we're [expletived]," goes the apocryphal response. "And we don't practice [expletived]."
No single position in team sports is more important to a team's success than the starting quarterback in football. Yet only six of the AFC's 16 teams have had their Week 1 starting quarterback play every game: The Ravens (Lamar Jackson), Dolphins (Tua Tagovailoa), Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes), Jaguars (Trevor Lawrence), Bills (Josh Allen) and Broncos (Russell Wilson) – and that number could be knocked down to five this weekend if Lawrence can't clear concussion protocol before Jacksonville heads to Tampa to face the Buccaneers.
That leaves 10 teams that've needed backups to start at least one game, including all three teams currently in wild card positions. The No. 5 seed Cleveland Browns have started P.J. Walker, Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Joe Flacco in place of Deshaun Watson; the No. 6 seed Cincinnati Bengals turned to Jake Browning after Joe Burrow sustained a season-ending wrist injury; and the No. 7 seed Colts will play their 11th game with Gardner Minshew II as their starter on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.
Welcome to the NFL's Year of the Backup, where the teams that don't fit Moore's colorful description are best-positioned to make the postseason.
"I think that is a very, very important position – having that backup guy because you never know, right? It's one play away," head coach Shane Steichen said. "Obviously, you don't want your quarterback to go down for the whole year. But shoot, you look around the league, it's happened to a lot of teams. I think if you've got that guy that can step in and give you a chance to win games, it immensely helps your outcome come Sundays. That's what Gardner has done for us. He's been tremendous for us."
No team in 2023 has won more games with a backup quarterback than the Colts, whose 6-4 record with Minshew behind center has them squarely in the AFC playoff picture. Minshew started wins over the Ravens, Steelers and Buccaneers and helped steady the Colts after a three-game October losing streak threatened to sink their season.
Minshew may be 20th in the NFL in passer rating (86.2) and 21st in yards per attempt (6.7), but his teammates value a few things about him more important than the box score: His even-keel, next-play mentality on the sidelines, and his ability to make big-time plays at any moment on the field.
"His steadiness provides a level of comfort for everyone around him, because they know they can trust him to do his job," quarterback Sam Ehlinger said. "And regardless if it's really good or really bad, it's always on to the next."
"We always know he's got a crazy play hidden up his sleeve," tight end Kylen Granson said. "He's going to pull at least two or three out during the game."
Against the Steelers in Week 15, those traits came up in a few key situations.
Minshew's playmaking ability sparked the Colts' first scoring drive – which started to erase an early 13-0 deficit – when he escaped pressure to his right, bought time, pointed downfield and floated a pretty pass to wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. for a 42-yard gain. Later in the first half, his next-play mentality brought him back to wide receiver D.J. Montgomery – who dropped a touchdown to end the Colts' previous possession – for a 34-yard gain with under a minute to go; he found Montgomery a few plays later for a touchdown.
"I told him in the end zone after he dropped it that I'm coming right back," Minshew said. "I've seen enough from D.J., I know that one drop is not going to turn me away."
That kind of leadership and unflinching trust in himself and his teammates, no matter what just happened over the course of a game, resonates with the Colts. No matter if he just threw an interception or a wide receiver just dropped a pass, Minshew maintains a mentality to which the Colts gravitate.
"He has a natural charisma," Granson said. "I don't know – 'Minshew Magic.'"
"He is locked in and has been as cool as he can be when the seas are rough, which you don't say that about everybody either," offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. "Gosh, sometimes things don't go great. It's easy in this world, anything we do when things aren't going great to change your mindset, to adjust your mindset and sort of put yourself in a worse place. Gardner doesn't do that."
The Colts, collectively, don't take this part of Minshew's personality for granted. Not every quarterback possesses it, especially backups.
"I think that's special at the quarterback position," Steichen said. "You've got to have that mindset, next play, no matter what happens because you're going to go out there, you've got to pull the trigger in clutch situations. Obviously third down, standing in the pocket and delivering the throws to guys with guys barreling down on you in the pocket. I think that mindset of next play no matter what happens, good or bad – moving on to the next play, he's got that."
Behind the scenes, the Colts know Minshew as a brilliant football mind with an engaging personality and a hyper-competitive drive that's all about winning. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said Minshew thinks "creatively" about how to attack opposing defenses within the Colts' scheme; Granson said Minshew is committed to "personalizing" routes based on the specific strengths of each player he throws to.
The guy Colts players and coaches know Minshew to be isn't necessarily the guy most of the public would expect. He's got a goofy streak, sure, but living in a van, wearing jorts, sporting a fu man chu – those aren't the things that define Minshew as a player and teammate.
"He loves winning, he loves football, he loves the X's and O's, he loves the preparation," Ehlinger said. "I think everything about the game is what makes him tick."
So as the Colts continue to navigate an AFC playoff race filled with backup quarterbacks, they'll do so with a high level of trust in their ability to win critical games with Minshew behind center. The Colts have seen for months how they can win with Minshew. If they keep it up, Minshew will quarterback a team into the playoffs for the first time in his five-year career.
"Every time he steps on that field, that's what you want in a quarterback," Steichen said. "You want that confidence and you want that quarterback that is going to give us a chance to win every time we step out there."