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Friday, September 12, 2008
The life of the backup quarterback

By Paul Kuharsky
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
 
 AP Photo/Robert E. Klein
 Quarterback Matt Cassel finds himself in the spotlight in New England.

He is the most popular guy in town, beloved and flawless, a magic pill who could solve everything if only the coach would just come to his senses.

And then the No. 2 quarterback enters a game and takes a sack or throws a pick or fires a pass over an open receiver's head and he's a bum, just like the guy he replaced in the lineup.

Such is the life of a backup quarterback. In Week 2 of the NFL season we'll already see four of them as New England's Matt Cassel, Tampa Bay's Brian Griese, Tennessee's Kerry Collins and Kansas City's Damon Huard step in for injured starters.

Cassel certainly doesn't fit the No. 2 stereotype -- he's not the alternative the fans crave, he's the no-name nobody ever knew much about because he played behind the most successful quarterback in the league, Tom Brady.

But as backups in low demand, he and Jim Sorgi of Indianapolis, Brad Johnson of Dallas, Mark Brunell of New Orleans, David Carr of the New York Giants, Kellen Clemens of the New York Jets and Seneca Wallace of Seattle are more the exception than the rule.

Elsewhere?

"It seems like everybody wants the No. 2 guy on the field," Titans center Kevin Mawae said. "And then he has a bad game and they are booing him just like they were the No. 1 guy."

"It's one of those deals. You can live in anonymity your entire life, or you can go out there and, I remember Tom Brady was a No. 2 guy, and he became one of the best quarterbacks in the league. So you never know."

Let's look at last season:

I tossed out six teams because they had no certainty at starting quarterback at the beginning of 2007: Buffalo, Cleveland, Kansas City, the New York Jets, Oakland and San Francisco.

Of the remaining 26 teams, 11 had no need during the season to start their No. 2. Seven of the teams that had their top guy all year were playoff teams.

The remaining 15 teams got 87 starts from 23 different reserve quarterbacks. That means nearly half the league needed an alternative at the game's most important spot over one-third of the time.

How do the guys who always are talked about as one step away stay ready with, according to Houston No. 2 Sage Rosenfels, between zero and 20 percent of the practice reps with the first team?

"It's hard for two reasons," said Brady Quinn, who ranks behind Derek Anderson in Cleveland. "One, you're not getting the physical preparation like starters get throughout the league. You can go through the plays on film, in your mind and out there on the practice field. But it's not going to be as close to a game simulation.

"So you don't get that physical rep, coupled with the fact you're never really prepared for that moment when someone goes down. You have to just jump in that game mode right away. So you may not be warm, and you may not be loose... It's a situation where your team needs you. And they need to be on, ready and firing on all cylinders, so it's kind of tough."

Here's a look at a few elements of life as a backup that make the job a little less cushy than it may seem from the outside.

Scout-team work
Some backups might know their team's front-line defensive personnel better than the front-line offensive personnel.

Backups work the scout-team offense, which means they impersonate the quarterback their team will play against in the coming week while working with second- and third-team linemen, receivers and backs. Off cards held up in the huddle just before the play, they run plays that the defense already has talked over in meetings.

"To me it's kind of a pride thing," Collins said. "You want to ... give the defense a good look and be a part of getting them ready to play.

"You've got to try to get quality reps doing that. It's hard. Because the defense knows what's coming and it's off the cards and the timing is not there. But reading things out and seeing things are still important."

Rosenfels said he concentrates on mechanics and considers the scout team the place where he needs to be sure to be sharp with his footwork, since he gets so little time with the first-team offense.

Staying warm
In baseball, relievers get a bullpen all to themselves. But football relievers usually get a couple quick throws on the side while their teammate is looked at by doctors and helped off the field. It's simply not good protocol for a No. 2 to stay warm by throwing on the side.

"I try not to do any throwing or anything unless the starter is actually hurt and does need to come out of the game," Rosenfels said. "I think some coaches can think it's disrespectful for the backup to be in the back throwing and it makes a lot of people wonder what the heck is going on. Is the backup going in the game? Is he not? I'd like to go back there and play catch a lot. But I think to have respect for the starter you basically wait until if and when he gets hurt."

While a backup might not be physically warm, he should be mentally sharp, following each play, assessing blitzes and coverages. If he's called on, he could see something a third time and reap large dividends when his perspective rotates from the sideline to behind the center.

"You have to make sure that you're paying attention to every drive, every play," Quinn said. "You need to see what the time is, you need to see where your coaches are. A lot of times when I see a play and I see (Anderson) get hit, I'll make sure that he's able to get up and see if he's all right, or if I have to get my helmet and take my snaps and get ready for the game."

Maintaining focus
After
those practice-squad periods are over, it might be tempting to catch a break, but it would also be unprofessional. Mental reps might be cliché, but they aren't a pretend concept.

"It's just watching every play of practice as though you, and as best as you can, put yourself in that play even though you're not getting the rep," Vikings backup quarterback John David Booty said. "You still try to read out the coverages, the hots and all the other things we have involved in that play even though you're standing 10 yards back or 15 yards back from the line of scrimmage.

"Those are the kinds of thing they tell you to do. Don't be talking and hanging out with guys in the back who also aren't in the play. Because being the backup quarterback in this league, you don't get a lot of reps. You have to stay involved mentally on your own."

Not listening
Rosenfels laughs off the idea that he's the most popular guy in town.

"I think the most popular guy in Houston is Lance Berkman or Craig Biggio," he said.

When fans tell him he should be playing, he has a stock answer: "I think coach [Gary] Kubiak knows what he's doing. He'sbeen playing quarterback or coaching quarterbacks for the last 25 or 30 years of his life. He's the guy that runs the show and I'm just waiting my turn."

Outside of a dinner out or a movie with his wife, he's not out a lot during the season.

"I really try to stay away from anybody that can fill up my head with those kinds of things," Rosenfels said. "I just try to stay on the down low. For me I just try not to let all the different political situations get into my head."