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.

29 thoughts on “NPF: BACK ME UP”

  • Matt Moore is another one who comes to mind as a professional backup (also, judging from the Dolphins season of Hard Knocks, a hemp necklace and acoustic guitar on the beach bro). That probably would have been the career sweet spot for a lot of others, Matt Schaub, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mark Sanchez, Alex Smith, Kerry Collins, Trent Dilfer, Jake Delhomme and Matt Cassell all come to mind. Their stat lines tend to suggest a ton of checkdowns and short slant routes, somewhere in the 19/30 for 175 yds, 1 td and a pick range. Dilfer and Collins certainly filled that aging veteran role late in their careers, though probably the best modern practitioner would be Matt Hasselbeck (yes, he's still in the league). Jason Campbell and Derek Anderson should have been PBs and don't belong in the same conversation as Clausen, who was never better than slightly north of horrific.

    What's the primary difference, I wonder, between a backup and a starter? An accurate deep ball? The lack of a tendency to fuck up at the most important moments? If the latter, how is Colin Kapernick a legitimate starter?

  • I was never more than a casual fan, and between the concussions and the corrupt owners I can't stand the game any longer.

    That said, without having the stats to back it up, Gary Kubiak was John Elway's backup for years. Besides the solid professionalism when put into games, he was occasionally spectacular, and preserved a season or two during the Broncos playoff runs.

  • The difference between a backup and a starter is that a backup has enough limitations that they will eventually be exposed and, while they can have success for a short stint, defenses will adjust and take away what they can do. A true starter has enough tools that they can adjust once the defense adjusts.

    It's not necessarily arm strength. A guy like Derek Anderson has that in spades.

  • Drew Stanton, Earl Morrall…both Michigan State alums. Another MSU alum, Kirk Cousins, is likely to become a professional backup as well.

  • The only thing rarer than the PB is the non-PB. I can think of only one — Tom Matte for the '65 Colts. We'll never see that again.

  • Salary caps – those odious measures taken to keep billionaire owners from over-paying millions of dollars to too many players, to win the Super Bowl – have made the PB QB pretty much, extinct.

    If there was no salary cap in the NFL, we would see better teams.
    But, with a lot of bad teams.

    So, salary caps are kind of a mixed bag.
    You have a lot of average teams, which have little or no depth, so, when a starter goes down, it can really hurt the team – regardless of position.

  • Matt Moore has a great arm; he's just not always concerned who catches the ball 40 yds downfield. But yes, a good guy, and a good enough QB that the Tannefail crowd is baying for him to start. (And if the Oakland game goes like KC, I might howl a few notes myself.)

  • I'm a very mild sports fan, and football is probably my least favorite major sport. So I enjoy watching the games, and I more-or-less know what's going on, but I don't, you know, actually know anybody's name. ("George Blanda"?)

    As a result, conversations like this help me understand what it must be like when my girlfriend and I get started about comic books when our non-comics-enthusiast friends are around.

  • I think the greatest professional backup of all time had to be Steve Young, right up until he became one of the greatest starters of all time. Spent years brilliantly — not competently, brilliantly — backing up the increasingly injury-prone Joe Montana, and returning to the bench with no complaints, knowing that one day if he bided his time he'd get his shot.

    And did he ever take it.

  • Hey, how about some love for Bubby Brister who stepped in for an injured John Elway in 1998. He went 5-0, saving their season until Elway could return, and actually had better stats than Elway in some categories. Check him out. Sadly forgotten, but actually quite effective when called on.

  • When I think of professional backups I think of the Bears. Basically all of their starting quarterbacks for the last 20 years would have been average to great backups. It's just our luck that they were made starters on the Bears. Examples since ~1990:
    Jim Harbaugh –
    Surprisingly mediocre QB. I remembered him being good in Indy, but it was only 1 year and he returned to normal. His 1 great year looks like a baseball steroid year it's so far beyond his averages
    Mike Tomczak –
    14 years, career 68.9 QB rating. 73 starts.
    Erik Kramer / Dave Krieg / Rick Mirer –
    Wow, these 3 guys over a 4 year spread. All would have been great PB's but at times in their career teams actually wanted them to play all 16 games. I'm maybe being a bit harsh on Krieg here who actually had some solid years.
    Jim Miller / Rex Grossman / Kyle Orton / Josh Mccown – Prototypical quality backups. They're all fantastic but should never have been named the starting QB out of training camp for a professional team.

    The Bears traded two 1st round picks and a 3rd round pick for Jay Cutler (and got a 5th). Best trade ever for the Bears.

  • @chicagojon
    Agreed about Cutler. The QBs you listed were actually above the 50th percentile as far as Bears QBs.

    My memory goes all the way back to the Bobby Douglas/Garry Huff QB controversy. Talk about scarred for life.

  • Nothing like a good quarterback controversy. I grew up in LA in the 50s-60s. There was always one going on. Waterfield/Van Brocklin, Van Brocklin/Wade, Wade/Ryan, Ryan/Munson…Interesting that when they were traded away, Van Brocklin (Eagles), Wade (Bears) and Ryan (Browns) they all won NFL titles with there new teams. I thought Pro Football was great fun in those days. I loved the old AFL. But not anymore.

  • I did not see it mentioned but Morrall was the 1968 NFL MVP. As a 10-year-old, I was devastated by and did not understand their loss to the Jets. Some said Shula did not have them ready. Some of the players said they were held on every play. Others said the game was fixed (including Bubba Smith in 1983). Even Lombardi picked the Jets to win.

    Years later the most plausible explanation was that their interior lines got beat (they were older and were more of a finesse offense) and that the team was worried that Morrall would turn into a pumpkin. Unfortunately, that happened at the Super Bowl. Left unsaid in my mind was that the AFL had more black players than the old NFL and they had more speed. Never have seen numbers on this.

  • Kyle Orton, to me, is the picture of the Professional Backup, and he got no respect in Chicago. I like him. He's a pro, he does a fine job, no drama, no muss, no fuss. Unlike the pouty, injury-prone leading man he got traded for. Yeah, I know, Jay Cutler has amazing stats and potential out the wazoo, but until he takes the Bears to the Super Bowl, he's no Jim McMahon.

  • You say professional backup an I can't help but think of Koy Detmer, who managed to get a spot on the Eagles' roster for 9 seasons despite rarely ever approaching competence when called upon. In fact, Detmer's own backups, like A.J. Feeley and Jeff Blake, usually outplayed him. Sweet gig if you can get it.

    Feeley himself had a pretty good career as a PB including a 4-1 record in 2002 and almost leading the Eagles to a win against the 2007 Patriots (yes kids, losing by a field goal against the Pats was considered an achievement back then).

  • Earl Morrall shared the starting position with Milt Plum for the Lions in the early 60's when I attended my first football games at Tiger Stadium.
    Like Z wrote above, Steve Young is the all-time greatest backup QB. Some other notables who came off the bench and had a certain amount of success include Jim Plunkett, Brett Favre, and Tom Brady.

  • Jeff Heikkinen says:

    Interesting how close the analogies are with NHL backup goalies. I can definitely recognize the four types you name among those guys.

    I think there's a fifth type of backup QB, and this one doesn't have a hockey analogue, but I don't know football well enough to say how common it is and it does overlap somewhat with the other types, especially the Failed Starter. Call it the Specialist. I see this somewhat regularly on CFL rosters, don't know about the NFL. As an example, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers a few seasons ago had an okay, if glass-jawed, starter and a backup who was just a little worse in every respect but two – he wasn't as fragile, and he had a semi-deserved reputation for being very good in short-yardage situations. If it was second and inches (there's only three downs in Canadian football), they'd often pull the main guy off and put the backup on.

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