Backup QBs Osweiler, Jackson prep for biggest game they won't play in

Wednesday January 29th, 2014

His on-field reps limited, Brock Osweiler (17) has still learned to prepare like Peyton Manning.
John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images

NEWARK -- A Denver Broncos quarterback rides a charter bus to the Prudential Center from the team hotel in Jersey City for Super Bowl Media Day. He spends most of the short, police-escorted ride hunched over and looking down at his lap. There lies an open spiral notebook with scribblings on the team's strategy for its matchup against the Seattle Seahawks. It's Tuesday. The game is six days away.

Had to be Peyton Manning, right? Not according to quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp. The passer he is talking about is Brock Osweiler. Who is Brock Osweiler? He is Manning's emergency contact, the first person the Broncos would call on Sunday if something terrible happened to their precious touchdown JUGS machine. He is trying not to think too much about what an unremitting horror it would be if the worst scenario any team could imagine -- an entrenched starting QB going down --played out during the most-watched event on the planet. "It's hard not to, but you can't really get caught up in the hoopla and all the things that go along with this game," he says. "Because at the end of the day, it's a game."

Osweiler, 23, is a second-string quarterback, a job title that seems as frivolous as "teenage babysitter" on its face. But don't be fooled; the stakes are equally high in both. Each job demands someone of great inexperience to assume a position of great responsibility. It can be overwhelming, sure, especially when accidents happen.

Not that they happen much in Super Bowls. You'd have to go all the way back to 1993, Super Bowl XXVII, to find the last time a starting QB was lost to an injury. In the first half, Buffalo's Jim Kelly was taken out of the game with a bum knee and replaced by Frank Reich, who was buckled by a relentless Dallas defense; the Cowboys won going away, 52-17. Twenty-two years earlier, the 'Boys had whiffed on a similar break in Super Bowl V. Near the end of the first half, the Colts' Johnny Unitas crumpled with bruised ribs and was replaced by Earl Morrall -- one of the all-time great caretakers. He piloted Baltimore to a 16-13 victory over Dallas.

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Seventeen years later, when Washington's Doug Williams pulled up lame early in Super Bowl XXII, he simply handed the ball off. His four first-half touchdown throws, the difference in a 42-10 triumph over Denver, kept the Redskins from taking a tiny hammer to the emergency glass around backup Jay Schroeder. And Schroeder was shattered enough about losing his job to Williams earlier in the season.

Still, at least Schroeder had some playing experience to lean on going into his game. In today's era, where a solid starter sucks up all the oxygen on a team, a backup can only prepare so much. During the week leading up to a game, he cedes all but a few practice reps to the starter. On Sundays, he's lucky to get a few garbage time snaps -- a few handoffs or, if his team is blowing another out, maybe a pass attempt or two. The only game he can win, even dominate, is the one between the ears: breaking down film, studying the playbook -- putting in all the drudgework the passer ahead of him does, without any of the tangible rewards. It isn't for everybody.

And that's just for a backup playing behind an average starter -- not Manning, the Type-A, über-meticulous helicopter parent of the Broncos offense. But, as is typical of Manning's nervous touch, it has made Osweiler better at his job. "To be around Peyton and see [his attention to detail] on a daily basis just reinforces how Brock believes in preparing as a pro," Knapp says.

Osweiler has come a long way from the Arizona State junior who struggled to swallow his awe for John Elway as he tried to convince the Hall of Famer to give him a job two years ago. Many draftniks thought the 6-foot-8 Osweiler would've been better served taking the basketball scholarship Gonzaga offered to him coming out of Flathead High in Kalispell, Mont., and pursing a pro career in hoops. But his work ethic, reflected in his production as a Sun Devils starter (60.6 completion percentage, 5,082 yards, 33 touchdowns and 15 interceptions), sold Elway on selecting him in the second round of the 2012 draft as a possible starter-in-waiting.

And while he's certainly not a one-for-one replacement for Manning -- not now, maybe not ever -- Osweiler has flashed promise within a limited game sample size, completing 11 of 16 passes for 95 yards in four mop-up duty appearances. His finest work -- running the scout team, where he mimics the opposing team's QB -- doesn't earn him an individual stat line; he does it for the defense's benefit. You might not think a 6-8 guy would do a great impression of the 5-11 Russell Wilson, but Osweiler has surprising explosiveness and mobility for a passer his size. "Brock's a bit of an athlete," safety David Bruton says with a chuckle. "He's done a great job of acting like Russell in terms of every now and then making a throw out of the pocket but also extending plays for us DBs and linemen to know if we have to plaster our guy or if we have to try to keep that pocket contained."

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But then again, Osweiler can afford to throw himself into his work. He has his whole career ahead of him. Tarvaris Jackson doesn't have the luxury of time. The flecks of gray hair in the 30-year-old's neat fade and trimmed mustache and chin patch serve as reminders of his seven years in the league. He is Russell Wilson's backup, the Seahawks' emergency contact. And if he appears unfazed by the enormity of that task, it's because he was starting in this league when Wilson was playing high school varsity.

Like Osweiler, Jackson was selected in the second round (in 2006, out of Alabama State) as a starter-in-waiting, but for the Vikings. The succession plan was anything but smooth. After waiting and watching behind a disused Brad Johnson for a year, he was thrown to the wolves in '07. His numbers weren't great -- he completed 58.2 percent of his passes for 1,911 yards, nine touchdowns and 12 interceptions -- but they weren't terrible for a young starter, especially one who went 8-4 while playing on a strained groin.

But Minnesota, convinced its Super Bowl window had just cracked open, couldn't wait on Jackson to develop. So the next year the Vikings signed Gus Frerotte and got as far as the wild-card round of the playoffs. The year after that, they traded for Favre and came a field goal short of reaching Super Bowl XLIV. In '10, the window slammed shut; Minnesota fell to 6-10. The season after that began a three-year odyssey in the game for Jackson, from Minnesota to Seattle to Buffalo and back to Seattle. Jackson's first season with the Seahawks, in '11, was like '07 all over. He was solid again -- upping his completions to 60.2 percent, his passing yards to a career-high 3,091 yards and his touchdowns to 14 against 13 interceptions -- but that damned window opened again, and the Seahawks brass shivered.

They handed a three-year, $20.5 million contract to Packers backup Matt Flynn, who seduced them with the 480-yard, six-touchdown performance he made in his one relief start the previous season against Detroit. And Seattle took a third-round flier on some shrimp out of Wisconsin. Of course Flynn is long gone, Wilson is the man and Jackson is the man behind The Man. Never mind if some feel he doesn't quite belong there. "I pay attention to every quarterback," says fifth-year Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, "Especially, um, the...the colored ones. He's one of those guys that doesn't get a lot of credit. He's been successful in the NFL. He does a great job of preparing us each week."

Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who held the same position in Minnesota while Jackson was there, believes the second stringer is good enough to start elsewhere. "I don't know that he's ever had a full, true opportunity," he says. "Obviously we gave him the opportunity the one year, and he did really well."

But then the circumstances changed, and Jackson was forced to accept a babysitter job. It's one that comes to him a lot easier than it does Osweiler, if only because he's worked under Bevell in all seven of his NFL seasons but one -- his lost '12. "It's amazing to me," Bevell says. "I can talk to him in practice when he gets the little bit of reps that he gets. I can start to say the play, and he's already got it. He's a really, really smart guy. He understands the offense. He knows what to do."

And his Manning impression? Spot on. "To have Tarvaris mimic some of his nuances a little bit better, some of the non-verbal communications, some of the audibles, that is important for us," Bevell continues.

The defense's No. 1 ranking this year is proof of Jackson's intangible gift. What's more, if a crisis required him to enter the game, it's unlikely the Seahawks would change much. Though slightly taller than Wilson (who isn't?) at 6-2, Jackson is similarly talented as a runner, a thrower and a thrower on the run.

Handing Seattle's offense to Jackson is like putting an older sibling in charge instead of a stranger: He might not like the responsibility, but the stakes will bring out a deep-seated maturity. "He has a lot more knowledge on the game," says Seahawks wideout Percy Harvin, who also played with Jackson in Minnesota. "Just talking to him a lot of times when the second group is on the field, he'll say things that he sees that I might do differently, [circumstances] I should adjust my route [in] or not. You can definitely tell he's grown."

Most importantly, Jackson is not bitter. He, like Osweiler, couldn't be happier to be here, inside a hockey arena, talking about the biggest football game he might not even play in. Barring disaster, it'll be one hell of a mental rep -- win or lose. "I definitely just want to try to take everything in," Jackson says. "That's all I'm doing, just trying to -- if my number's called, now, tomorrow, whenever. I'm just trying to be ready."

After all, Osweiler and Jackson could easily wind up back on this stage again some day -- not together, necessarily, but perhaps on their own terms.

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