Human nature being what it is, though, that competitive fire can disrupt even the most successful teams, threatening to drag a club and its coach into the quagmire known as ''the quarterback controversy.'' Even for those who have mastered the art of the second string, watching a team succeed without you tests one's commitment.

Sideline sidebar: Graham (center) confers with Kannell (left) and coach Fassel.
AP/ Wideworld
Sideline sidebar: Graham (center) confers with Kannell (left) and coach Fassel.

''As a backup quarterback, you have to have all positive thoughts,'' says Reich, a man who backed up Jim Kelly in Buffalo's four Super Bowls. And Reich knows from positive thoughts. He lived the backup's dream in 1992, when he brought the Bills back from a 32-point deficit in the AFC wild-card game to beat Houston 41-38 in overtime; the win still stands as the biggest comeback in NFL playoff history.''Not that [jealous] thoughts don't enter your mind, because they do enter your mind. But you have to restrain them.''

No matter how diplomatic a backup is, when a change is made, egos will be bruised and confidences shaken. And with less than a week to prepare for an opponent, there isn't a lot of time for therapy or apologies.

''Sometimes there's no easy way through it,'' says Graham, who lost his job last season with the Cardinals to Jake Plummer. ''You just try to deal with it. It depends on the two people involved.''

In spite of the millions of dollars and program cover pictures, no quarterback this side of John Elway has his name engraved on the depth chart, a fact most veterans know all too well.

''You have to be able to deal with setbacks,'' Reich says. ''You can't let it ruin you mentally. It happens in everyday life. Things happen that aren't fair. And in some cases, the decision is fair. We're all grown men and guys have to realize it's not just about me or another guy.''

But it is about winning. And for all the shuffling so far this season, at presstime teams that had made lineup changes due to coaching decisions are a combined 3-11 with a replacement under center. Makes you wonder if it's the quarterback who needs to be replaced.

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