Backup QB a piece often overlooked

Published on December 22, 2010 by     T.C.

As Seahawks fans scrambled to take sides during that too-little, too-late Monday morning quarterback debate squashed by coach Pete Carroll – the “controversy” between starter Matt Hasselbeck and backup Charlie Whitehurst turned out to have the shelf life of a pot of coffee – a factor widely cited in the case against Whitehurst is inexperience.

Whitehurst, who stepped in for Hasselbeck on Sunday in the final minute of the third quarter, had never thrown an official NFL pass until a Nov. 7 game against the New York Giants. You might recall that as the day Charlie played the role of deer against the Giants’ headlights.

Although Whitehurst was more effective against Atlanta than Hasselbeck – it is difficult to identify a pro quarterback who would’ve been less effective – Carroll had legitimate misgivings about turning a stumbling offense over to somebody who’s attempted only 45 passes in real games.

And yet, that’s 45 more passes than the backup quarterbacks for five playoff contenders have thrown in 2010. Matt Ryan has thrown every pass this season for the Falcons. Drew Brees has thrown every pass for the Saints. Same with the Colts’ Peyton Manning and his brother Eli, who starts for the Giants.

Joe Flacco hasn’t thrown every pass for the Ravens, merely 451 of 453. The other two attempts were divided between wide receiver Anquan Boldin and punter Sam Koch.

The Patriots’ Tom Brady, the odds-on favorite to win league MVP honors, has completed 299 passes in 449 attempts. His backup, a latter-day Maytag Man named Brian Hoyer, is 0-for-2.

It’s a good thing for the Jets that their emergency quarterback, Mark Brunell, is closing in on his second full decade in the NFL, and, thus, is impervious to sustained stretches of inactivity. The former Washington Huskies star, backing up Mark Sanchez, has thrown one pass this season. Ditto Billy Volek, the Chargers’ replacement for Philip Rivers.

Among the teams I’ve just mentioned, one of them probably is going to celebrate a Super Bowl championship, so it’s not as though their coaches are doing something wrong. But by disregarding the notion that a reasonably prepared backup is essential for a playoff run, each coach is taking a gamble.

I’m showing my age here, but I recall a 1965 Colts-Packers playoff game, won by the Packers on a disputed overtime field goal. (No replay review on that one. This was when the technological breakthrough of “instant replay” was regarded as the eighth wonder of the world.)

Anyway, the prevailing memory of that game is how both Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr were on the sidelines, nursing injuries. In the case of the Colts, their backup quarterback, Gary Cuozzo, also was hurt, forcing Baltimore to turn to the job over to halfback Tom Matte.

As for Green Bay, its offense was in the capable hands of Zeke Bratkowski, who enjoyed a long, productive career as a backup.

Throughout the 1970s, the No. 2 quarterback – usually a veteran who was a few years older than the starter – was seen as an indispensable commodity. Earl Morrall, who backed up Unitas in Baltimore, started Super Bowl III and came on in relief in Super Bowl V.

Then he was acquired by Miami as an insurance policy in the event of an injury to starter Bob Griese. In 1972, the year the Dolphins became the only Super Bowl champions to finish with a perfect record, Morrall started 12 times – but not the Super Bowl. Coach Don Shula’s reasoning was not that Griese was the better quarterback, but that Morrall was the better backup.

By the way, the Dolphins achieved perfection by beating the Redskins, whose own quarterback, Billy Kilmer, spent much of the ’72 season as a backup to Sonny Jurgensen.

A short list of reserve quarterbacks who came to define the football equivalent of a bullpen ace: George Blanda, Don Strock, Steve DeBerg, Steve Bono, Matt Cavanaugh, Frank Reich, Cliff Stoudt, Steve Fuller, Gary Kubiak.

These guys were content to sit on the bench – not thrilled, but content – and at a moment’s notice, they brought both attitude and aptitude to the most complex job in team sports.

Glancing at the rosters of the 2010 playoff contenders, a question arises: Where have all the reliable backups gone? Maybe it’s the economics of the salary cap. (Serviceable quarterbacks capable of reading defenses aren’t cheap.)

Along those lines, maybe it’s the culture of free-agency. (Morrall was named 1968 MVP as a Baltimore backup. How much is a free-agent, former MVP worth nowadays? Tens of millions of dollars? In 1972, he was worth a waiver-wire claim of $100 by the Dolphins.)

Here’s what I don’t understand: The NFL coach who doesn’t devote at least 15 hours a day to micro-managing every detail of his team’s game plan is thought to be shirking his duties. Schemes are drawn up that require four or five substitutions between second down and third down.

Summer training camp is preceded by a series of minicamps. Playbooks are as guarded as nuclear codes. A familiarity with the simple points of walk-through practices is so precious to the opposition that spies are hired to tape them.

But the hands-on coaches involved in every last detail of their team – the Patriots’ Bill Belichick, for example – don’t seem concerned about an injury removing a starting quarterback from the playoff chase.

This just in: It’s late December in New England. The weather outside is frightful, the ground is an ice-cold slab of green concrete. What happens if Tom Brady takes a sack that leaves him wobbly?

What happens is Brian Hoyer, and Bill Belichick’s conviction in the power of prayers.

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