TEMPE, Ariz. -- Ryan Lindley is in one of those unique positions that can define a career.
If he leads the Arizona Cardinals to a win in their wild-card game Saturday against the Carolina Panthers, the third-year quarterback who has a 1-5 career record as a starter will join a rare, but not-so-distinguished club: He would become the third quarterback since the NFL merger in 1970 to win a playoff game with one or fewer regular-season wins, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“I think it would be a great story, obviously, if they could win a playoff game with their third-team quarterback,” said ESPN “Monday Night Football” commentator Jon Gruden, who will be calling Saturday’s game in Charlotte, N.C.
Cue the dramatic music.
A victory would put Lindley in football lore. It would allow him to write a storybook ending to a season that started with him on the San Diego Chargers’ practice squad.
He could also convince the Cardinals to write a check.
If Lindley leads Arizona to a win Saturday, the Cardinals could have a backup quarterback controversy. Drew Stanton has been more than effective as Arizona’s replacement for Carson Palmer this season, going 5-3 before his own knee injury caused him to miss the last two regular-season games and Saturday's playoff game.
But with $3.2 million scheduled to come Stanton’s way in 2015, is he worth it as a backup? Especially because Lindley has shown marked signs of improvement the last three weeks?
Stanton is due a $500,000 roster bonus and a $250,000 workout bonus on top of his $2.45 million base salary.
Lindley made $234,706 for seven weeks of regular-season work, which would have equaled $570,000 for the entire season. That’s an increase from the $480,000 he earned in 2013 as the third-string quarterback who didn’t get a snap.
Trading or cutting Stanton at the end of training camp would cost Arizona just about $750,000 and would save Arizona $3.2 million against the cap, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
With Palmer scheduled to earn $10.5 million next season, will a $3 million backup be worth it?
Not if Lindley wins Saturday and gives Arizona a date with either Seattle or Green Bay in the divisional round. The vitriol toward Lindley when he was named the starter before Arizona’s Week 16 game against Seattle came from all directions. It continued after a dismal performance against the Seahawks -- the No. 1-ranked defense in the league -- but subsided after he played the best half of his career against the 49ers.
There are areas in which Lindley needs to improve, such as his decision-making and deep passes, but that comes with experience and reps. He showed off his arm strength and touch last Sunday against San Francisco. His poise has also been lauded all week.
But if he beats the Panthers, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians might want to take a step back and evaluate his quarterback room aside from Palmer. Stanton will be 31 by Week 1 next season. Lindley will be 26 and Logan Thomas will be 24.
As much as he’s progressed in a few weeks getting the first-team reps, the upside is with Lindley.
During Stanton’s second stint, the offense slowed to a crawl after he threw two touchdowns in the first quarter against Detroit in Week 11. He didn’t throw another for the next 10 quarters. With Lindley’s NFL-record streak of passes without a touchdown over, it’s not weighing on him anymore.
Neither Lindley nor Stanton were effective against Seattle, as was to be expected. But Lindley and the offense showed enough progress against the Niners to earn some confidence. Put Lindley against the defenses Stanton faced against New York and San Francisco (in the first meeting) and he'd win as well.
If Lindley wins Saturday and puts a playoff victory on his resume, there should be no question about his status heading into the offseason.