Sunday’s possible QB duel: Stephen Morris vs. Zach Mettenberger

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Stephen Morris

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Dec. 29, 2015) – As if we haven’t had enough of the maddening musical chairs act this season, consider the intriguing quarterback showdown that might await us Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium:

Stephen Morris vs. Zach Mettenberger.

Seriously.

Morris would be stepping on the field for the first time – ever – and be the third starting quarterback carted out by the Indianapolis Colts this season. He was signed to the active roster from the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice squad five days ago.

Mettenberger would start a fourth game, and second straight, in relief of the Tennessee Titans’ future, injured Marcus Mariota. He sports an 0-9 career record as a starter.

Let that sink in, and remember we’re talking about the final game of the regular season, not the last game of the preseason.

Morris getting the starting nod would be a fitting end to the Colts’ season of instability at the NFL’s most influential position. He essentially would replace Charlie Whitehurst, who replaced Matt Hasselbeck in the second quarter at Miami, who twice replaced Andrew Luck.

The Colts would start three quarterbacks in a season for just the second time in 18 years.

Whitehurst was placed on the season-ending injured reserve list Monday with a hamstring injury. Coach Chuck Pagano listed Hasselbeck doubtful for the Titans game with a sprained right shoulder. Luck remains in the mix, but needs medical clearance to return from the lacerated kidney. He also needs the OK from Pagano, general manager Ryan Grigson and owner Jim Irsay, who must determine if it’s worth risking the franchise’s long-term future behind a leaky offensive line in a game with crazy odds against them making the playoffs.

“We have to wait to see if that happens,” Pagano said. “If that happens, we’ll cross that bridge.

“There’s still a glimmer of hope.”

Whatever fate awaits the Colts and Pagano – he’s in the final year of his contract – no one should ignore their ability to keep things afloat with their franchise QB missing at least half the season.

Remember 2011? With Peyton Manning sidelined by his neck issues, the team opened 0-13 and bottomed out at 2-14. That was the last time the Colts relied on three QBs: Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky.

Have you noticed Jerry Jones’ ’15 Dallas Cowboys? They were 3-1 with Tony Romo under center, 1-10 with him out with a fractured left clavicle. The Cowboys’ backups – Brandon Weeden (0-3), Matt Cassel (1-6), Kellen Moore (0-1) – couldn’t do for them what Hasselbeck did for the Colts.

League-wide, it’s been a season that’s tested the depth of the quarterback pool. And, not surprisingly, that pool has been rather shallow.

Backup QBs are a combined 26-43. Exclude Hasselbeck’s 5-3 record, and they’re 21-40.

Dallas, Baltimore and Houston have started four different QBs, and only the Texans have overcome the volatility. They’re 8-7 and on the verge of the AFC South title while starting Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallet, T.J. Yates and Weeden.

The travels and travails of Weeden, Mallet and Jimmy Clausen best exemplify the NFL’s Year of the Backup. Weeden is 1-0 with the Texans after going winless in Dallas. Mallet was 1-3 in Houston before oversleeping and being discarded. He signed with the Ravens and led them to a win Sunday over Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Clausen has been ineffective in Chicago (0-1) and Baltimore (0-2).

When a team loses its starting QB, all bets are off. It’s no coincidence that of the 12 teams currently holding a playoff spot, nine have had their quarterback start all 15 games.

When you’re forced to turn to Plan B, according to Pagano, “you’re going to have problems. (The backup is) not going to be able to run the whole (playbook).

“You’ve got a 40-year-old quarterback (Hasselbeck) and you’ve got a guy that just came into the building (Whitehurst). There are going to be limitations, but you’re going to play to everybody’s strengths and accentuate those.”

And hope for the best.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51