Backup Quarterback

Holding a clipboard on the sideline, as former Jets QB Mark Sanchez is doing here, is one of the safer spots in football. Nobody hits the backup quarterback.

If I could have a dream job, it would be a backup quarterback in the NFL. There are certain teams I’d prefer to play for, given owners and locations, but any backup quarterback position would do.

Look at the advantages.

A backup quarterback seldom if ever gets hit in a football game. During practices, he gets to wear the same different-colored “Don’t hit me” shirt that the starter wears. In most games, he stands on the sideline, watching and waiting. For backups to men like Brett Favre, the likelihood of going into the game for more than a play or two was highly unlikely.

The expectations for the backup are relatively low. No one expected Peyton Manning’s backups to do what he did, at least in Manning’s prime. And, as I recall, none of the Colts’ backups ever did.

Every now and then, the backup gets to be the hero from out of nowhere. Cowboy fans know the name Clint Longley, primarily for two reasons. The No. 1 reason he’s remembered is for a miracle comeback against Washington in a nationally televised Thanksgiving Day game in 1974. Roger Staubach, the starter, went out with an injury. The Cowboys were behind, 16-3, in the third quarter. A loss would almost certainly knock the Cowboys out of the playoff picture.

Enter Longley. Longley threw a touchdown pass to Billy Joe Dupree, then led the team on a 70-yard drive ending in a 1-yard run by Walt Garrison. With 28 seconds left in the game, with the score 23-17 in Washington’s favor, Longley heaved a Hail Mary to Drew Pearson on a 50-yard touchdown that won the game.

The second thing Longley is known for is throwing a sucker-punch at Staubach in the training room during the preseason. He was subsequently traded to the San Diego Chargers. Longley bounced between NFL and Canadian Football League teams before being out of professional football for good in 1980.

Still, while the backup can be a hero, more often than not, he’s someone whose name is known only to the faithful fans and his parents, family and friends. The benefits of being the backup is that the backup gets to go have a nice meal out without being recognized by most of the other patrons.

And don’t think the backup has it hard when it comes to the pocketbook. Currently, the highest paid player whose job it is to stand on the sidelines and watch is Teddy Bridgewater. For waiting for Drew Brees to finish playing, the New Orleans Saints pay Bridgewater $7.25 million a year. Other backups our readers may be familiar with are guys such as Colt McCoy, who earns $3.36 million, Case Keenum with a salary of $3.5 million, and Baylor’s own RG3. Robert Griffin III earns $2 million annually to guide Lamar Jackson into becoming the Ravens’ star of the future.

Nick Foles recently signed a new contract to become the starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars. His contract is worth $88 million over four years. His backup is a rookie named Tanner Lee. Tanner was selected in the sixth round of this year’s draft with the 203rd pick. He earns a whopping $480,000 a year, which is the league minimum for a full-time roster player.

Let’s suppose we’re not good enough to be a backup quarterback. The best we can hope for is to make the practice squad. Even then, the salary is $7,600 per week at the minimum. Most teams pay players they really like and want to keep around quite a bit more.

If you or I am a successful backup, we can stay in the league for possibly 20 years, holding a clipboard (or electronic equivalent) and biding our time, hoping the starter stays healthy. Afterwards, when it’s time to hang up the old cleats, there’s always the possibility of radio or television, or even coaching. Babe Laufenberg was a backup to Troy Aikman and is now a color analyst for the Dallas Cowboys Radio Network. Another Aikman backup, a guy named Jason Garrett, managed to get promoted from backup to head coach of the Cowboys.

Perhaps the most shining example of being a backup quarterback is Matt Cassel. He was a backup to Tom Brady for four years before being traded to the Kansas City Chiefs. Brady was lost for the season in 2008, but Cassel led the Patriots to an 11-5 season, yet the Pats failed to make the playoffs. His career as a starter outside of New England never really took off.

What makes Cassel unique, though, is that he not only was a backup for Tom Brady, but he spent his entire college career as a backup at USC, behind Matt Leinart. He was such a good backup quarterback in college that the Patriots drafted him to be their backup.

There may be glory and fame and fortune being the starting quarterback for the local NFL franchise. Still, for me, let me be the backup. I’ll practice, learn, be ready to enter the game if I have to, and earn the very decent salary of no less than $480K a year. I could live off of that for a year or two, until something really high paying comes along.

Like a sometimes sports columnist.

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