*OR OSWEILER, OR HASSELBECK, OR FITZPATRICK ...
This is an article from the Dec. 7, 2015 issue
THE KID weathered the storm, by which we do not mean the snow showers cloaking Mile High Stadium on Sunday. Before outplaying Tom Brady in the fourth quarter, before leading an 83-yard drive for the go-ahead TD in the final minutes against the Patriots, Brock Osweiler looked like a guy muddling through his second NFL start. He threw a slapstick interception, took a few bad sacks and missed his share of throws. His first five possessions ended punt, punt, punt, pick, punt. "Hey, bad s---happens," concluded guard Evan Mathis. "But Brock never wavered. He was cool all night."
One measure of that cool: After scanning New England's defensive front moments before his third snap in overtime, tied at 24, Osweiler flipped the play call, audibling to a toss-sweep in the other direction. C.J. Anderson's subsequent 48-yard TD run up the left sideline gave Denver a 30--24 victory over the previously undefeated Pats.
It was more than New England's 10-game victory streak that expired. By winning his second consecutive start in place of Peyton Manning (sidelined with plantar fasciitis in particular and advancing years in general), the 25-year-old Osweiler made a loud, clear statement: This is my team now. Even when Manning's left foot is healed and the walking boot comes off, Osweiler should, and likely will, be the starter.
He is a 6'8", 240-pound former high school hoops standout from Kalispell, Mont. After starring at QB for Arizona State, Osweiler entered a 3½-year gestation period with the Broncos, learning from the gimpy, creaking future first-ballot Hall of Famer whom he is now nudging into Life After Football. And while Denver's was, as Osweiler put it, "truly a special team win," it was also a victory for one of the NFL's least appreciated tribes.
JAMES BOND has a license to kill. Meet the men who carry a license to loiter. Behold the backup quarterback as he follows the action on the field, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, debating, perhaps, whether or not to shower after the game, not because his personal hygiene is in question, but because he's barely broken a sweat.
Nor will he in the next game. Or the next. Or—in some cases—in any regular-season game for one, two, three seasons. Or longer. "You do everything you possibly can to prepare," says Drew Stanton, who is Carson Palmer's understudy with the Cardinals. "And usually it goes for naught. You're studying for a test that never comes."
This is not what they signed up for. During speed-date interviews at the scouting combine, hotshot QB prospects do not tell coaches and personnel people, "I hope to go months, sometimes years, between meaningful snaps." They do not daydream, coming out of college, of leading the scout team to moral victories in the middle of the week. They do not say, "I want to be the next Clipboard Jesus." Even Clipboard Jesus didn't want to be Clipboard Jesus.
"Growing up playing quarterback, you want to be Aaron Rodgers or Peyton [Manning] or Tom Brady," says Charlie Whitehurst, whose Fabio-like mane and perennial backup status over a decade in the NFL have earned him that sublime—and now, sadly, obsolete—cognomen. (Backup QBs long ago traded in clipboards for tablet computers.)
"Did I think my career would turn out differently?" asks the considerate, obliging and self-interviewing Tablet Jesus. "Absolutely. I thought I'd be a starter for six, seven, eight years. I'm at the point where I know that's not gonna happen for me. But I'm still around."
And then, suddenly, he wasn't. Two weeks after that jaunty declaration, Whitehurst was waived by the Titans.
DESPITE THE NFL'S desire to swathe them in bubble wrap, QBs keep going down. The same day that Peyton Manning limped off the field in Week 10, brittle Sam Bradford suffered a concussion and a separated shoulder in the Eagles' game against the Dolphins. After tantalizing with some promising relief throws, backup Mark Sanchez reverted to form, committing a ghastly turnover—in this case, an interception on second-and-goal with 4:32 to play, when all Philly needed was a field goal to take the lead. They lost 20--19 and haven't won since.
Through Sunday, 58 different signal-callers have stepped onto the field and fired passes. (That's a lot, but nowhere near the El Niño of injuries and ineptitude that soaked the 2010 season, when 79 QBs logged attempts.) So far this season, such marquee gunslingers as Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Jay Cutler have missed multiple games; Tony Romo and Joe Flacco are out until '16. Their replacements have ranged from Even-Worse-Than-We-Expected (the Bears' 10 Jimmy Clausen--led possessions in their 26--0 loss to the Seahawks resulted in ... 10 punts!) to Much-Better-Than-We-Expected. When Big Ben's backup, Mike Vick, tore his right hamstring against the Cardinals on Oct. 18, his place was taken by Landry Jones, a fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma in '13 who'd never suited up before this season. Taking the field against Arizona, his team trailing 10--6, the heretofore third-in-command hooked up with Martavis Bryant for an eight-yard TD on his second NFL pass. Previously written off by many of the Steelers' faithful as a wasted draft pick, the ex-Sooner engineered four straight scoring drives, capped by another TD to Bryant—this one went 88 yards—that put the game out of reach.
It's understandable if backups feel a trifle ghoulish: Their big break often depends on someone getting hurt. Not all those injuries happen on the field. On Aug. 7, Jets starter Geno Smith was sucker-punched by teammate IK Enemkpali, who broke Smith's jaw. Into the breach stepped journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, nicknamed the Amish Rifle for his voluminous beard. To reverse New York's grim mojo following a recent 1--4 spell, Fitzpatrick trimmed back his topiary. The result: He threw four TDs on Sunday in a rout of the Dolphins, keeping the Jets afloat in the AFC wild-card race.
Recall Prince Humperdinck beseeching Buttercup in The Princess Bride. Should her beloved Westley fail to return for her, the prince implores, "please consider me as an alternative to suicide." The caliber of backup QBs in the NFL today spans the gamut from a handful of Humperdincks on one end of the spectrum—Clausen, Kellen Clemens, Zach Mettenberger—to Matt Hasselbeck on the other. At the age of 40, he is 4--0 in relief of Andrew Luck, whose injuries this season include a sore throwing shoulder and a lacerated kidney. During one especially heroic span in October, Hasselbeck won two games in five days. In so doing, he kept the Colts' playoff hopes alive and gave new meaning to the expression "intestinal fortitude."
After a decade as The Man in Seattle, during which time he made three Pro Bowls and led the Seahawks to six playoff appearances, including the first Super Bowl in franchise history, Hasselbeck spent two seasons with the Titans as a part-time starter and full-time mentor—Crash Davis to Jake Locker's Nuke LaLoosh. Hasselbeck's move to Indianapolis two years ago from Nashville made sense: He was leaving a dysfunctional franchise for one that was expected to contend for Super Bowls. But it was also a steep comedown, a concession to his advancing years. No one in Indy (where Luck was firmly entrenched as the starter) even bothered to pretend that Hasselbeck would be competing for the starting job. He'd enjoyed a long, highly productive career, but if he wanted to stay in the league, it was time for him to enter the figurative compartment where so many of his fellow backups already resided: the box bearing the legend, IN CASE OF EMERGENCY BREAK GLASS.
"A lot of the satisfaction I've gotten has come from working with other guys," says Hasselbeck—and that extends beyond Luck, whom he says doesn't really need his help. "Take Khaled Holmes," who is seated, facing his own stall, 10 feet away, and who looks over sheepishly at the mention of his name. "The guy didn't dress for [most of] two years. Now he's our starting center. Then you've got Jack Doyle—he was my scout-team tight end in Tennessee. The Titans cut him. He's our third-team tight end [in Indy], but he's ballin' for us. When Jack Doyle scores a touchdown, I'm cheering louder than everyone except maybe his mom."
Hasselbeck cheerleads. He coaches. He works on his Luck impersonation. Seriously. "For the longest time [in Seattle], it was my backup's job to imitate me and my cadence," he says. "Now it's my job to mimic Andrew. He says it, Hustle-HUS-tle ... set GO! And I've gotta say it exactly the same way."
Did it really matter? It wasn't as if Hasselbeck was likely to be taking many snaps. Entering this season, Luck hadn't missed a single start in his four-year career—until Oct. 4, when he was sidelined by that bum right shoulder. Hasselbeck was better than workmanlike in his first start in 35 months: 30 of 47 for 282 yards, one touchdown and zero picks in a 16--13 overtime victory, at home, over the Jaguars. His passer rating of 87.4 would've been higher were it not for at least four drops by his receivers—and for the fact that he spent the intermission puking his guts up.
His condition worsened from "vomiting" during the game to "crazy vomiting, with massive headache" after it. So compromised was Hasselbeck that he couldn't drive all the way home, stopping instead at Luck's house, where he was ministered to by Andrew's saintly mother, Kathy.
While the Colts faced a short week heading into their next game, a Thursday-night tilt in Houston, it felt like a very long week for Hasselbeck, whose frequent evacuations were by this time taking place via—his words—"the basement and the attic." While that quip drew guffaws, his situation was dire: Badly dehydrated, he required daily IVs. Two nights before the game, he was at the hospital until 2 a.m. as doctors tried to figure out what was ailing him. He looked terrible at Wednesday's walk-through, after which quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen gave him an out: "You don't have to do this. If you feel that you can't, we'll find a way."
Even as Christensen gave him the option to sit this one out, it was not a choice Hasselbeck gave himself. The QB says, "Trent Dilfer always used to tell me, 'You always play your best when you're sick or you're hurt. It forces you to focus, to stick to your reads, to not try to do anything extra.'"
Those two QBs overlapped in Seattle from 2001 through '04. Hasselbeck remembers one day badly bruising his right knee. On the bench he told Dilfer, "I don't think I can finish this game." As it happened, the two passers had been bingeing on episodes of the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers at the time. And whereas most backups might have commenced warming up, Dilfer evoked the heroes of Easy Company: "What would Major Winters do right now? Let's go, man! You got this!"
Hasselbeck finished that game. But he dug far deeper to take the start against the Texans in Week 5 this year. Audibling deftly, playing with savvy and patience, he completed 18 of 29 passes for 213 yards and two TDs. He led the Colts to scores on five of their first seven possessions. His best throw was his last: a 43-yard rainbow dropped into the hands of T.Y. Hilton to ice the game.
Hasselbeck's voice cracked slightly as he tried to explain for a sideline reporter how he'd been able to go: "For some unknown reason, I was able to finish. I can't explain it. It was amazing."
Where did the tears come from?
It had been an emotional day, he explained. "I've got nothing left."
He does, it turns out. Which is a good thing. Luck isn't expected back in the lineup until mid-December.
HOW DOES the Maytag Repairman of professional athletes stay sharp and engaged? How does he resist the temptation to coast through a week, to let his mind wander rather than performing yet another of those "mental reps" on which these walking insurance policies are forced to subsist? As thespians are wont to ask: What is his motivation?
"Sooner or later, you know that test is coming," says Stanton, whose three-year drought ended last season when he started eight games in relief of Palmer (ACL). "And when it does, the difference between winning and losing can come down to one read."
But what if it's not coming this week? Or this year? Or the year after?
"You almost have to lie to yourself, brainwash yourself into believing you're going to play," says Dan Orlovsky, who mops up for Matthew Stafford in Detroit. "If you don't, you're not gonna be prepared, and it's gonna show. Then you're not going to be around."
"If you love [football] and you love your teammates, you get yourself prepared," says Chargers offensive coordinator Frank Reich. "You know there are a lot people, in and out of that locker room, depending on you."
Reich thought he was prepared for the Bills' wild-card playoff against the Houston Oilers on Jan. 3, 1993. Jim Kelly, Buffalo's starter, had suffered strained ligaments in his right knee in Week 17, giving Reich, his backup, all week to get ready.
But the game was a disaster for the Bills. Warren Moon threw four touchdown passes in the first half, after which the Oilers led 28--3. Reich promptly uncorked a pick-six to open the third quarter. And that, he has since concluded, was "the key" to what was about to transpire. "At halftime," he surmises, "they were probably telling each other, 'O.K., we gotta come out in the second half like it's 0--0!' Once they were up 32 points, they lost a little bit of their edge."
A little bit? In a span of six minutes and 52 seconds the Bills cut that deficit to four points. With three minutes to play, Reich threw his fourth TD pass of the second half, a 17-yarder to Andre Reed, giving Buffalo its first lead. Al Del Greco's chip shot field goal sent the game into overtime. Houston won the toss but lost the game 41--38.
The man who engineered the greatest comeback in NFL history started just 20 games in his 13 seasons. For eight of those campaigns, he backed up Kelly, an eventual Hall of Famer. Surely he could've started, and starred, on numerous other teams. Right? Asked if he had any regrets, Reich replies, "No," and does not elaborate. Considering the mark he left on NFL history, we should take him at his word.
Stanton could be The Guy in quite a few NFL cities. He is, arguably, the Frank Reich of his day. He won five of his eight starts in '14 and was in the top 32 of almost every statistical category. That said, he notices a difference in the way he is regarded by teammates, depending on whether he is officially No. 1 or No. 2. "When you're the starter, all of a sudden you have this confidence about yourself—you can demand more out of people," he notes. And should he raise his voice to a fellow player after reverting to the No. 2 guy? "They're gonna be like, Dude, you don't even play on Sundays."
It is a feast-or-famine existence: long intervals of boredom followed by moments of excruciating pressure. Welcome to the paradoxical existence of the backup QB, by definition a selfless team player who would confess, under the influence of a powerful truth serum, that it would not break his heart to see the starter indisposed for a series—or a game, or a month—or two. The man who might be the most invisible player on the roster is also, arguably, its second most important.
By the time you realize you need an upgrade at QB2, it's too late. Four years ago, with Peyton Manning's recovery from multiple neck surgeries taking longer than expected, the Colts trotted out 38-year-old Kerry Collins, who lost three games and was replaced by Curtis Painter, a scatter-armed Kurt Cobain look-alike who dropped eight more. Indy lost 14 games that season (Orlovsky, the fourth-stringer, swooped in to win two of five down the stretch), and vice chairman Bill Polian lost his job, but not before learning the lesson articulated by the incoming general manager, Ryan Grigson: "If you don't have a backup quarterback that can do it, you basically just gave up your season."
The Cowboys did not "give up" their season as a result of failing to have an adequate replacement for Romo (who twice this season broke his collarbone). Just three quarters of it—the dozen games he will miss in 2015. Taking unsteady hold of the tiller following Romo's first exit, in Week 2, was Brandon Weeden, who entered the next game carrying a 56.0 completion percentage from the previous three seasons. Three losses later—in his defense, Weeden didn't have All-Pro Dez Bryant to target—he was benched in favor of Matt Cassel, who lost all four of his starts. Paging Babe Laufenberg.
Before fracturing his collarbone again last Thursday, against the Panthers, Romo appeared dazed and confused while throwing three interceptions. Covering for him was CBS analyst Phil Simms, who explained that it would take several weeks for Romo to regain his "rhythm" and timing. Backups, meanwhile, are mothballed for entire seasons at a stretch and get no meaningful practice reps during the week. "If we said we need a few games to get into a rhythm," says Reich, "we'd get annihilated."
TEDDY BRIDGEWATER was facedown on the turf on Nov. 3, still woozy from a forearm to the head by Rams cornerback Lamarcus Joyner. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was launching f-bombs toward the Rams' sideline. Shaun Hill, for his part, was already taking warmup throws, preparing to replace Bridgewater, who was concussed and done for the day.
Hill is 35 and holding up well—as would most pro athletes who've started just eight games in the last five years. Humble, easygoing and chipmunk-cheeked, he bears more than a passing resemblance to Will Ferrell, which is fitting. Just as Chazz, Ferrell's satin-robed, meatloaf-craving satyr in Wedding Crashers, stands at the pinnacle of that vocation, so is Hill the apotheosis of his. Bow down to the King of the Mental Rep.
This is Hill's second tour of duty in Minnesota. The club first signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2002. Then-coach Mike Tice liked the former Maryland Terrapin—just not enough to put him on the field during Hill's three years as a Viking. (Correction: Hill did take two snaps—back-to-back kneel-downs during a win over the Bears in '06.) Over the following 13 years, before circling back to Minneapolis, Hill made stops in San Francisco, Detroit and St. Louis, starting 34 of a possible 208 games, burnishing his reputation for no-frills dependability, in the process earning guru stature in the backup-QB world.
"Shaun could teach a college course on the subject," says Stanton, who in 2010 was Detroit's No. 3 behind, in order, Stafford and Hill. "I wouldn't be in the league if it wasn't for everything he did for me, showing me how to prepare, how to be professional and how to have fun with it."
One of Hill's lessons to his apprentices: Wear your helmet during the game, even on the sideline. Most backups know the cautionary example of Orlovsky, who as a Houston backup in 2010 was unable to find his headgear when Texans starter Matt Schaub was forced to leave a game. Finally, Orlovsky borrowed the helmet of tight end Garrett Graham. Alas, it was comically oversized, making Orlovsky look macrocephalic, like the Jack in the Box mascot, and resulting in additional ridicule.
During Vikings practices these days, while Bridgewater calls plays in the huddle, Hill stands at a close remove, calling the same plays to a pretend assemblage of imaginary teammates. Like a good understudy, he doesn't want to be tongue-tied when it's finally his turn to take the stage. "Some of these calls can get lengthy," he points out, "and if you don't practice them, it's going to be tough to get them out in a game."
Equally meticulous in his prep is the Saints' Luke McCown, who single-handedly drove up the coolness factor of second-stringers by appearing this fall in a Verizon commercial extolling the company's backup generators. Where Hill repeats a play call aloud, McCown merely mouths the words that starter Drew Brees is verbalizing, giving him the appearance of a bad ventriloquist. Check that—a bad stalker ventriloquist. When Brees breaks huddle, McCown approaches the line of scrimmage 10 or so yards behind him. "I'll walk up, identify the front and the coverage, all that," he says. But McCown's mental rep has just begun. "On the practice film it looks kind of funny—you can see me dropping back right behind Drew, going through the same motions of the play."
This is above and beyond what many reserves do. "I want to feel the speed of the game," he says. "I want my eyes to have to sort through moving bodies, to see holes and throwing lanes."
Chronically insecure, the members of this backup tribe are constantly seeking ways to add value. They can do this by ... well, by not oversleeping in training camp, by not being tardy for meetings and by not missing the team flight to an away game, as Ryan Mallett did on Oct. 24. Three days later the Texans whacked him.
These men often serve as emissaries for their teams' starters. McCown says he spends time drawing Brees out on "what he's looking for on certain plays." Armed with that info, he will sidle over to a receiver and make a clarification or a correction about that player's angle coming out of a break, or the size of his split in a formation. Panthers backup Derek Anderson, who won consecutive games for Carolina (three TDs, zero INTs) when Cam Newton went down last season, turns up the volume on telecasts of upcoming opponents: He wants to hear how the other team's quarterback—the guy he'll be impersonating all week on the scout team—calls plays. After studying that opposing offense, he'll kibitz with the Panthers' defensive coaches, sharing observations. "If they make a big play on something I pointed out because of the tape I watched," he says, "that's a good feeling for me."
As McCown delivers his last line in that Verizon ad—"I bet if they had the chance, some of those backups would really shine"—his expression seems forlorn, sad. But he debates that characterization: "I would say it's more ambiguous, more open-ended." It allows for the possibility of a heroic outcome, is his point.
Because backups have a secret. They live with the conviction that their close-up, their Frank Reich Moment, awaits. Until then, barring emergencies, they're not on the field much, it's true. But they're in the room, on the sideline, on the plane.
Like Clipboard Jesus, who was unemployed for all of one day in November before the Colts signed him off waivers, they're still around.
61.3% COMPLETIONS 63.3% / 81.9 PASSER RATING 90.7
6.3 YARDS PER ATTEMPT 7.4 / 1.4:1 TDS-TO-INTS 2.0:1