Forget about hitting a baseball or facing a hard rubber puck whistling toward your face at 90 mph. Try being a backup quarterback in the National Football League, standing all afternoon along an NFL sideline only to be called in at a moment’s notice to save your team with nary a practice throw. Succeed and your coach and teammates keep their jobs, while you get to keep your ass on the bench. Fail and heads roll because you couldn’t spark a team that was down 31-6 when you entered the game. Not only the toughest job mentally in sports, of late it has become the most controversial job in the game.
Since the preseason, five teams have promoted backups due not to injury, but chemistry. And with Vinny Testaverde’s four-touchdown performance in Week 3 against Indianapolis, many are wondering if the Jets could be the fifth.
”I think there’s more pressure on coaches than before,” says Detroit Lions second-stringer Frank Reich of the backup-as-starter trend. ”With the salary cap situation [and all the personnel changes that come with it], you have to win now.
”In my earlier years, you had a core group of guys who were there for a long time, so a chemistry develops.” With the advent of free agency in the NFL, teams do not have the luxury of assembling a talented group of players who develop a bond over a number of seasons. Chemistry now has to be manufactured, and the only way to do that is by going with the hot hand, be it the millionaire on the front of the game program or the journeyman on page 63.
Ironically, as the expansion of the NFL into a 30-team league has diluted starting quarterback talent, it has strengthened the pool of veteran backups, making the temptation to switch signal-callers especially enticing.
With each struggling team that lavishes a rookie with the kind of money that dictates he must play with the first team comes another former starter. As some of these displaced QBs find new life on the depth chart in a league bloated with teams, the line between starter and reserve becomes increasingly blurred.
”Basically, you need to have two or three guys that have started in the league before,” says June Jones, offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers, where rookie Ryan Leaf seemed in danger of crossing that line with a recent 1-for-15 performance against Kansas City. ”The pressure to win is so much, it is hard to develop young talent, [so] you’re apt to sign veteran backup players.”
When a coach looks down his bench and sees a guy who not only knows the playbook but also knows how to be a primary signal-caller, the leap of faith needed to replace a struggling starter is not far. And unlike a rookie inserted in the throes of blowout to run out the clock by handing the ball off to the fullback, veteran replacements know their job is to win and win now.
”You have to go at it when you come in as a backup,” says Kent Graham, who backs up Danny Kannell for the Giants. ”The key is to get comfortable as quickly as possible, so you need to get in there and start throwing.”
Almost more than physical preparation, the success or failure of a quarterback change rests on the backup’s mental toughness. According to Jones, a replacement has to be able to enter a ball game cold and offer the appearance of having practiced with the first team all week. This in spite of the fact that most backups receive a fraction of the practice time of an expected starter.
”As a backup, you never know when you’re going to play, so you have to know the playbook as well as the starter,” says Graham. ”You have to do a lot of studying, going through [the game plan] mentally.”
Baltimore Ravens quarterback coach Don Strock, who spent a 15-year career standing on the sidelines with Miami, Cleveland, and Indianapolis, estimated he received about 25 percent of the snaps each week in practice. ”You have to stay in the game [mentally] at all times. Putting that mental with the physical is the toughest part.”
When that physical aspect of the job isn’t needed, most backups play the role of a psuedocoach, one part sounding board, one part tutor, with a dash of cheerleader. ”Number one, you’re trying to help the guy on the field,” says Reich. ”Number two, you’re trying to get a feel for the flow of the game: the way they’re playing coverages and so forth.”
Graham, who’s been on both sides of the equation in previous stops with the Giants, Detroit, and Arizona, strives to get in sync with starter Kanell during games. ”We talk about [plays] on the sidelines,” says Graham. ”Stuff he can get easy completions with.”
No matter how helpful a backup is, most admit they’re not merely content to hold a clipboard on Sunday afternoons. ”You can’t diminish the fact that a backup wants to be a starter,” admits Graham. ”He’s competitive.” And as any coach worth his headset will tell you, that sort of desire–in theory–can only help spur both quarterbacks to better play. ”You don’t want a guy that doesn’t feel that way,” says Jones.
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.
”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.