Earlier this year, ESPN declared 2011 the “Year of The Quarterback”. And right from the start, it was hard to argue against the Worldwide Leader as it rolled out all sorts of content and analysis. Months of QB Centric programming, introducing a radical change to the Quarterback Rating System, and documentaries like The Brady 6 (re-airing on ESPN classic. Check your local listings) all helped achieve the objective of generating great discussion of the quarterback position.
As the year went on, six quarterbacks were chosen in the first 35 picks of the 2011 draft. With five weeks to go in the regular season, three NFL QBs are on pace to break Dan Marino’s 27 year old single season passing record of 5,084 yards (Drew Brees 3,689, Tom Brady 3,627, and Aaron Rodgers 3,475, through 11 games). But even after all of that, I’m not sure the folks in Bristol got it exactly right, because while they’ve made it popular to call this The Year of The Quarterback, I think it’s actually the year of the most popular player on the team: The Backup Quarterback.
In any other year the role of the backup quarterback is pretty straight forward: you spend the season taking second team practice snaps, hold a clip board during games and after bad throws from your starter, assure him “I thought he was open too”. Fairly simple. You get to practice a game you love, have the best seat in the stadium, and travel the country seeing some of the most glamorous hotel rooms group rated team discounts can offer. And if you listen to the radio every Monday, it’s very likely at least one station caller will talk about how much potential you have and how the team could go all the way if coach just put you in. Yes, you get all the glory of an NFL player with none of the responsibility (save occasionally holding extra points, but that’s impossible to mess up–see video below). It’s the ideal situation. Unless you’re a backup quarterback in 2011, when seemingly more than ever before the Second Stringer’s number is being called.
Two of the most high profile cases have come in Indianapolis and Philadelphia. Ironman Peyton Manning has missed the Colts first 12 games, the man brought in to hold his place, Kerry Collins, has been replaced by a backup in Curtis Painter, who’s also been whitewashed to the point of replacement, by Dan Orlovsky. Perhaps all the quarterback changes will help Indy turn the Year of the Backup into Luck. It is, after all, also the Year of the Rabbit. For the Eagles, tonight’s Thursday Night Football Matchup with Seattle will be Vince Young’s third straight start in place of exactly the type of star starter – Michael Vick – who had inspired the Year of The Quarterback in the first place.
But the Colts and Eagles are not the only ones making this the Year of The Backup Quarterback. Of the 32 week 1 starters, almost half have missed playing time this season due to injury or poor performance (which when you think about it, is really an emotional injury. One that usually takes longer to heal):
This year’s increased pressure on backup QBs has provided fresh drama, be it how teams will respond to quarterback shakeups during the season, or how they will look for answers in the draft or free agency. The quarterback carousel has given fans something to pay attention to other than records, stats, and fantasy numbers, and that’s a whole lot of underdogs. Whether it’s Rudy, Rocky, the 1980 US Hockey Team, or Shoeshine Boy, America loves to follow unheralded characters facing insurmountable odds. And this year’s NFL has all sorts of underdog quarterbacks, ranging from Alex Smith – who few thought could be more than a backup but who has the 49ers standing at 9-2 – to Tim Tebow, who many claim can’t play quarterback in the NFL even as he is, presently, playing quarterback in the NFL.
Unfortunately, with every feel good story there has to be a feel bad story (Newton’s Law of Journalism dictates so) and last Sunday marked the second start of Chiefs quarterback Tyler Palko. While you may think this would be a happy occasion for me as it strengthens my position that this is YOBUQB, it also reminds us that my favorite NFL player’s season has come to an end. Yes, you read correctly, Matt Cassel is my favorite NFL player. Why? Well for reasons that go deeper than just style of play or wins and losses.
It is well known that Matt Cassel never started a game in college for USC, having backed up both Heisman Winner Carson Palmer and Heisman Winner Matt Leinart. What you may not know is that I also never started a college football game…or played football in college…or went to a University with a football program…and this is why, to me, Matt Cassel is so relatable. He is the NFL’s true underdog, so to see him miss the rest of the season is just plain disheartening. Fortunately his injury shortened season has come in the Year of the Backup, when so many other unsung everymen are out there slinging it for we little guys. Until Cassel’s return, I’ll watch in anticipation of what his and other teams’ backups might do with their opportunities. Now that they’re starting, all these former Number 2 quarterbacks must stand and face the live rush of an opposing defense, and perhaps even more jarring, they must adjust to the reality that they are no longer their team’s most popular player. Now’s their Year to shine.