NPF: BACK ME UP

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on September 25th, 2014 by Ed

My Cardinals are off to a surprising 3-0 start, surprising not only because they aren't as talented as many other teams but also because they're down to their backup quarterback. Luckily they're one of the few teams in the NFL that has that valuable commodity known as a backup QB. And I mean the old school kind, the kind you don't see very often these days. The Professional Backup is a unique animal, far more rare than the backups most often seen around the league.

There are four types of backup QB. First and most common is the Failed Starter. Guys like Jason Campbell, Derek Anderson, and Jimmy Clausen are classic FS types. The problem is that they failed as starters because they're not very good, so if you have to play them it turns out that they're…well, not very good. Second is the Untested Rookie. You spent a high draft pick on him and he makes a decent salary so by default he's second on the depth chart. If he has to play, it's a total crapshoot. Third is the Aged Veteran. He was a good starter at some point but he's pushing 40 now. The team hopes that if he does have to play, it will be mercifully brief. Each hit could be his last, and the speed/arm strength are gone. Finally there is the Professional Backup – a guy who knows that he is not the starter, knows his place on the roster, and is competent to play without crippling the team's chances to win. The PB plays a quarter here or there when the starter is having an off day; he starts a game every year or two when the #1 guy sprains his ankle. After each performance he returns to the bench with zero complaints. There is never a "QB controversy" on account of his ego because he doesn't have one.

Arizona's Drew Stanton is a good modern example of the PB, but undoubtedly the greatest ever was Earl Morrall. Most casual fans have no idea who he is. But he backed up some of the greatest greats – Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese, etc – and was always ready to provide competent if unspectacular play in relief. Did any fans out there realize that during the legendary 1972 Dolphins undefeated season Morrall started and won more games than gimpy Griese? Or that in 1970 he took over for an aging Johnny Unitas on short notice and won a Super Bowl? And yet everyone including Morrall himself knew he was the caddy and not the starter. He never set the world on fire when he played; he did the same as Stanton is currently doing in the desert – not making mistakes and playing within his limited skill set. Like a professional.

The PB has disappeared for the same reason that the Long Reliever has disappeared from baseball: there is a shortage of quality quarterbacks so anyone remotely competent is anointed a starter. Josh McCown, for example, is a great backup but now he's starting on a woeful Tampa Bay team. Some other great PBs that come to mind are Zeke Bratkowski (Bart Starr's longtime caddy), Don Strock, Jeff Hostetler (who supported Phil Simms on those great Giants teams), and Jon Kitna. The latter two were eventually turned into starters – Hoss with the Raiders and Kitna with Cincinnati and Detroit – by desperate teams even though it was clear that they were destined to be excellent number twos. Green Bay's Matt Flynn is a recent example of a guy who clearly isn't a starter but who plays great in relief.

Scarcity is slowly driving the Professional Backup into extinction, but there are still a few out there. It's the kind of thing that you appreciate if you're a non-casual fan with an eye for the little things that make the game fun to watch. Viva Earl Morrall.