In the first quarter of the opening game of his 14th NFL season,
Warren Moon stood on the Seattle Seahawks' sideline in the
Kingdome and contemplated some crucial quarterbacking issues. As
he watched Seattle's offense attempt to move the ball against
the New York Jets, Moon was perplexed about how to handle his
role as a backup. How should I wear my hat on the
sidelines--forward or backward? Moon recalls thinking. Am I
going to wear a headset or not?
Shortly after he resolved those weighty matters--hat forward, no
headset, for those of you scoring at home--the 40-year-old Moon
again became confused. Not only were the Jets rolling up a 27-3
halftime advantage, but they also had knocked out Seattle's
starting quarterback, John Friesz, with a broken thumb on his
throwing hand. Pressed into action at the start of the second
half, Moon was thrown for a loop. "It shocked me," he says. "For
some reason I just never expected to play in that game."
Staying mentally prepared is one of a backup quarterback's
toughest and most important tasks, but Moon can be forgiven
because he had started all but two of the 180 NFL games in which
he had previously appeared. Then again, one reason he had signed
with the Seahawks in March after leaving the Minnesota Vikings
as a free agent was the 30-year-old Friesz's injury-riddled
past. Morbid as that sounds, Moon decided he had a good chance
of getting off the bench quickly in Seattle.
Now, with Friesz expected to miss at least six games, both Moon
and the man who signed him, Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson, look
like sages. Though Seattle wound up losing to New York 41-3 and
was thumped on Sunday 35-14 by the Denver Broncos, the Seahawks'
signing of Moon for a relatively cheap 1997 cap figure of
$687,500 (including a $400,000 base salary) may have more impact
on their season than any of their celebrated acquisitions on
defense. "Guys in this league are going down left and right,"
Erickson says, "and if you don't have a second quarterback who
can come in and win--not just come in, but win--you're going to
be in trouble."
"We felt all along this was a two-man job, and if we had to pay
a premium for a quality backup, so be it," adds Randy Mueller,
Seattle's vice president of football operations. "We didn't want
to go into the season with our fingers crossed. Last year only
one guy in the league [the Jacksonville Jaguars' Mark Brunell]
took every snap, and he went down in the preseason this year."
Already this season injuries have forced six teams--the Jaguars,
the Seahawks, the Atlanta Falcons, the Carolina Panthers, the
San Diego Chargers and the San Francisco 49ers--to rush
substitute quarterbacks into games. (Those teams went 4-2 on
Sunday with backups at the helm.) Two other clubs, the New
Orleans Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles, benched their
starters in Week 1 for ineffective play. What's more, on Sunday
the 49ers and the Jaguars had to start the No. 3 man on their
depth charts because the backups were hurt. Jim Druckenmiller, a
rookie out of Virginia Tech who was the Niners' first pick in
last spring's draft, played well enough for San Francisco to get
a 15-12 road win over the St. Louis Rams. Another inexperienced
quarterback, free agent Steve Matthews, who was signed only
three weeks earlier, threw for 252 yards in leading Jacksonville
to a 40-13 home victory over the New York Giants.
Also, before the first half of the Carolina-Atlanta game was
over on Sunday, both teams had backup quarterbacks at the
controls. Steve Beuerlein, who has played for five teams in the
last seven seasons, was making his second straight start for the
Panthers in place of Kerry Collins (broken jaw). After Falcons
quarterback Chris Chandler wobbled off the field with a
concussion, Billy Joe Tolliver saw his first action since 1994.
Neither quarterback could get his team into the end
zone--Tolliver had a rusty 7 for 17 passing day for 79
yards--and Carolina wound up outkicking Atlanta, three field
goals to two, in a dreadful 9-6 game.
Yet even with this obvious need for skilled backup passers, of
the NFL's top-shelf reserves--a group that includes three aging
players on the downside of their careers (Moon, the Cincinnati
Bengals' Boomer Esiason and the Washington Redskins' Jeff
Hostetler)--only 28-year-old Craig Erickson of the Miami
Dolphins is likely to emerge as a starter and guide his team
into the next century (chart, page 44). His presence in Miami,
and coach Jimmy Johnson's stated willingness to use him at the
first sign that future Hall of Famer Dan Marino is faltering,
could make for a controversy reminiscent of the Joe Montana-
Steve Young transition in San Francisco in the early 1990s. "If
we didn't have Craig Erickson here, the thought would never
cross my mind to make a change," Johnson says. "He has started
in this league and won, and that makes him the ideal backup."
Conventional wisdom has long held that such high-profile
quarterback controversies are ruinous. "The best quarterback
situation is when there's a clear, distinct border," says NBC
analyst Phil Simms, who battled Hostetler for the Giants'
starting job in 1991 and '92. "If a team says, 'We've got two
good quarterbacks,' they don't have any."
Though it may be hazardous to a team's chemistry and salary cap,
many NFL decisionmakers conclude that having a top-notch backup
quarterback on the roster is vital. "As soon as your starter
goes down," Johnson says, "the backup quarterback is the most
important player on your team." After the implementation of the
salary cap in 1993, however, many teams reduced the amount of
money they allocated for their backups, going instead for
untested players or out-of-favor veterans willing to play for
salaries near the league minimum. Says Moon, who chose the
Seahawks over the Chargers, "Now, because of all the injuries,
teams are going to have to reevaluate what they pay for a
One big problem: In a league still groping for enough first-rate
starters to go around, there aren't nearly enough quality
backups to be had. "There's more of a premium on number 2 guys
than there is on the first-string guys," says Fox analyst Ronnie
Lott, a former All-Pro defensive back. "It's like a big man in
basketball. Every team needs a guy who can fill up the middle,
so you can be a slow, white guy who's 7'4" and still get a job."
Rather than relying on the football equivalent of such a
player--for instance, weak-armed yet fundamentally sound backup
passer Steve Walsh of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers--some teams opt
for a younger quarterback with the potential to become a
frontline performer, as the Jaguars did with Rob Johnson. A
fourth-round draft pick in 1995, Johnson led Jacksonville to an
opening-week victory over the Baltimore Ravens in his first NFL
start while playing much of the game on a sprained ankle.
Trouble is, given the free-agency system and Brunell's status as
the Jaguars' franchise quarterback, Johnson is almost certain to
sign with another team for the chance to start, not to mention
the first-string money, when his contract expires after next
season. That's how Jacksonville was able to land Brunell in a
trade with the Green Bay Packers two years ago: Green Bay, which
had drafted Brunell in '93, was committed to Brett Favre for the
long haul. "If you're grooming a young quarterback, you may be
grooming him for someone else," Jimmy Johnson says. "I don't
care anything about drafting a quarterback unless I'm committed
to making him a starter by his second year."
Another significant concern is that young players often are
ill-equipped to deal with the special demands of the backup
role, which requires a quarterback to be prepared for live game
situations without the benefit of much practice. For this reason
some teams go the route of the Eagles, who chose veteran Rodney
Peete to back up Ty Detmer while heir apparent Bobby Hoying, a
second-year player, languishes as the third-stringer. But even
someone as polished as Moon can have trouble staying sharp, as
his Week 1 experience indicated. After splitting practice time
with Friesz during the preseason, Moon received less than 20% of
the repetitions during the week leading up to the game against
the Jets. "That kind of shocked me," says Moon, who completed
just 7 of 21 passes for 89 yards in relief against New York but
bounced back in a starting role against Denver with a 20-for-33
performance and 222 yards.
Often the backup receives as little work with the first team as
Moon did before Friesz's injury, though there have been
exceptions. In 1990 Montana, then still the San Francisco
starter, bristled when the 49ers coaches gave Young 40% of the
snaps. "That was unhealthy in terms of chemistry," says Lott,
who played on that team, "but Steve didn't have a lot of
mechanics at that point, and the extra snaps brought him along
Says Johnson, "Keeping your backup fresh is something coaches
have toyed with and struggled with forever. I know I have." So
has 49ers coach Steve Mariucci, who was the Packers'
quarterbacks coach in 1993 and '94 when Brunell and Detmer
backed up Favre. "We would alternate them each week--one would
be the backup and the other the emergency third-stringer,"
Mariucci recalls of his two reserves. "We were just trying to
find a way to keep them happy."
It's hard to measure how well a backup quarterback is prepared
mentally until he enters a game. "It really takes a motivated
player to pull it off," says Broncos offensive coordinator Gary
Kubiak, who spent nine years backing up John Elway in Denver.
"Nobody really knows if you're taking care of your business
until your chance comes. If a guy prepares and takes advantage
of that chance, he might become a starter. If not, that's
usually the end of the line for him."
So, while players like Jeff Blake (Bengals), Brad Johnson
(Vikings), Scott Mitchell (Detroit Lions) and Elvis Grbac
(Kansas City Chiefs) performed well enough in relief to become
starters, there have been numerous busts--Tommy Maddox and Sean
Salisbury, to name two. Then there are the players who spend
nearly their entire careers as backups and elevate the role to
an art form. The classic example was Earl Morrall, who came off
the bench to lead two teams, the 1968 Baltimore Colts and the
'72 Dolphins, to Super Bowls. His successor in Miami, Don
Strock, lasted 14 seasons as a backup to Bob Griese, David
Woodley and Marino. His secret? "On Wednesday nights, after the
coaches gave us our game plan, I would go home and make up my
own game plan," says Strock, now the Baltimore Ravens'
quarterbacks coach. The exercise was a way for Strock to stay
sharp and to better familiarize himself with plays that were to
his liking and suited to his ability.
Another way for backups to stay sharp is to work overtime after
practice. Both Seahawks rookie Jon Kitna and Broncos second-year
man Jeff Lewis throw to receivers after a workout has ended.
Lewis, a fourth-round draft pick from Northern Arizona, hopes to
convince Denver coach Mike Shanahan he can be a worthy successor
to the 37-year-old Elway. Kitna, a free agent out of Central
Washington whom Dennis Erickson stumbled upon two years ago,
starred for the Barcelona Dragons of the World League last
spring. He completed 42 of 51 passes during the 1997 preseason,
and now Erickson regards him as Seattle's quarterback of the
future. "We'll be able to develop him, which is nice," Erickson
says of Kitna. "He might be playing sooner rather than later."
In other words, like all backup quarterbacks these days, Kitna
had better be prepared.