Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Commentary [Print without images]

Thursday, September 22, 2011
Time for a new NFL backup QB plan

By Johnette Howard
ESPN.com

Other than recalling that he was the rookie who was abruptly thrown into a game on his own 10-yard line when the Indianapolis Colts were playing the fire-breathing Jets' defense two seasons ago, and basically told, "Don't blow our perfect 14-0 season, kid'' -- which, of course, he promptly did with two deer-in-the-headlights turnovers -- I don't know much about Curtis Painter. To me, he just looks like Kurt Cobain in shoulder pads. But I do know the poor guy doesn't deserve what he seems to have become now that Colts star Peyton Manning is out indefinitely: the poster boy for all that's wrong with NFL backup quarterbacks. Can't trust 'em, can't play 'em, can't win with nearly any of 'em.

Curtis Painter
Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter study on the sidelines against the Texans.

Lately, that mantra goes for 38-year-old Kerry Collins, too, whom the Colts coaxed out of retirement when Painter started giving them night sweats. And it's already been applied to Vince Young, Michael Vick's new backup in Philadelphia, who was so maligned early in the preseason for not instantly picking up the Eagles' playbook, coach Andy Reid finally defended him by saying, "It's like learning French in four days."

Actually, what NFL teams ask of their backup quarterbacks is even more ridiculous than that. After all, your typical French 101 textbook isn't a phone-book-thick 800 pages, like Oakland Raiders offensive coordinator Al Saunders' infamous playbook. (Raiders starter Jason Campbell has called it "Webster's Dictionary.") And at least when learning French, you can practice it out loud as much as you like.

In the NFL, a backup quarterback is routinely asked to master the offense and save games in emergencies despite getting no practice snaps -- or reps, in NFL-speak -- with the first-team offense at all week after week, month after month.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is sheer lunacy, isn't it?

Baseball teams don't tell their backup second basemen they can't take part in pregame infield practice, do they? NBA teams don't tell their No. 2 point guards to imagine what it would be like to run the offense while the starters run up and down the practice court nine or 10 months a year. No NHL team would ever tell its backup goaltenders to go off to the side and just pantomime making saves. No slapshots for you, pal. We gotta get Marty Brodeur ready in case there's a wrist shot he hasn't seen.

So why do NFL teams -- who like to brag that football is the ultimate team game, a beautifully synchronized ballet of 11-on-11 that plays out each Sunday on the emerald chessboard down on the field, and blah blah blah -- do this to backup quarterbacks who are just one hit away from having to step in and play the sport's most important position? They run the scout team, stand a few yards back and mentally run through each play the first team runs in practice, jumping in if the starter says he's tired or has a dead arm. On most teams, that's it.

What makes how NFL teams prepare their backup QBs even worse is no one seems quite sure how it became standard procedure. And it isn't even a function of today's more intricate offenses or the Information Age-overload that has gripped football coaching staffs like everyone else.

Tom Moore, who was Manning's coach in Indy from 1998-2008, has worked in football since 1961. That's long enough to have coached Terry Bradshaw during the Steelers' last two Super Bowl runs in the late '70s, and to remember Earl Morrall coming off the bench to lead Baltimore and Miami on title chases before that. And yet, Moore says the no-rep rule has always been thus for NFL backup quarterbacks.

"When I was with the Steelers, Bradshaw took every rep, too," Moore says. "That's why -- and I know this sounds funny -- to me, being a backup quarterback is one of the toughest jobs in pro football. You have to prepare yourself every single week just exactly like the starter. Then you go through 60 minutes and you don't get to play. So now you go back next Wednesday and you've got to do it all over again. It takes a certain kind of person."

Vince Young
Vince Young could be the next QB thrown into a game with minimal first-team practice.

Rather than ask why more NFL backups don't play well, the better question is how do any NFL quarterbacks succeed at all when brought in as an emergency fill-in?

"You have a point," Moore laughs.

The way NFL teams treat their backup QBs may just be the dumbest unwritten rule in sports.

If you really think about what they're up against, it doesn't seem entirely fair to write off backups as pretty faces with visors and clipboards, or mock them by saying you hold a damn fine extra point, sir.

The real hothouse flowers are the pampered No. 1 quarterbacks who fret about not having an entire training camp to "perfect" their timing with their receivers, or talk about successfully handling the snap when their backup center is forced into a game as if they just defused a nuclear bomb with BBQ grill tongs. The temptation is to tell them -- how can this be put politely? -- get over yourself. Or, as Bill Parcells liked to say, take a look in the mirror. You're a practice piggy, son. Every day you strap on the feedbag and gorge on a feast of reps. Piggy, piggy, piggy.

Moore, now 72, says he has no idea how the idea that NFL starting quarterbacks have the divine right to take every practice snap with the first team started.

"It is kind of silly when you think about it," says Jim Sorgi, who used to be Manning's backup in Indy when Moore was still there and Manning's 227-game consecutive starts streak was intact.

Sorgi, who was Manning's backup for six of those seasons before moving on to the New York Giants, where shoulder problems marred his 2010 season, says, "Some years I'd get lucky because Peyton would lock up the division so early, I'd get to play a game or two at the end of the season, which was nice. But there were other years, like our Super Bowl season, when I'd go from last game of the preseason through the whole regular season and never take a snap until the last game of the regular season. Not one snap from late August to January. It's like taking a whole season off.

"Then we were playing the New England Patriots in the AFC title game, and Peyton hit his hand on a helmet throwing the ball. As he came off to sideline he looked at me and said, 'Be ready.'"

Earl Morrall
Earl Morrall came off the bench successfully for both the Colts and the Dolphins.

Be ready? Now?!

"I take a lot of pride in preparing every week like I'm going to start, and you tell yourself you can do it … but it was the most nerve-wracking moment of my career," Sorgi admits with a laugh.

"There's so many different emotions that go over you, and most of it is just the unknown,'' agrees Chris Weinke, a former Heisman Trophy winner at Florida State who was both a starter and backup during his seven-year NFL career. Most recently, Weinke helped rookie sensation Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers cram during the NFL lockout for the start of the regular season as director of the IMG/Madden Football Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

"One thing people often said to me was, 'Well, you played the game at a high level in college -- what's the difference?'" Weinke says. "Everybody watches the game on TV and to them it looks so easy: 'How did you not see this guy? How did you not see that guy?' But think about it: You're running out into the game [in an emergency] and you're not loose. You've been sitting around all day and now you're running with the bulls. You're running for your life, and you have to process all this information, you know you haven't had any physical reps with the first team, and it's like you're strapped into the worst car crash you've ever been in -- that's what it sounds like when you're in there on the field. Yet somehow [you] have to convince yourself you can go in there and succeed."

Isn't that a little like asking an Indy car driver to throw a balled-up piece of paper into a wastebasket he's flying past at 200 mph?

"That's one analogy," Weinke says with a laugh.

But nobody on the outside wants to hear it. Another thing a backup QB quickly learns is never explain, never complain.

But somebody should do it for them.

Some NFL backups will never be terrific no matter how much practice they get. Others are talented enough to win. Would it kill NFL teams to make their starting quarterbacks start sharing a few more reps? Or, failing that, at least tell the rest of us to get off Curtis Painter's back?

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

MORE COMMENTARY