Twelve Septembers ago, on the first Sunday of regular-season NFL play in 2007, a daydream of mine played out on TV: Instead of trudging through a season with an out-of-his-depth quarterback, a change was made at the position during Game 1.
The Cleveland Browns, my favorite team, played host to the Pittsburgh Steelers, quarterbacked by the redoubtable Ben Roethlisberger. The Browns’ quarterback depth chart was far less dependable: Although the club had drafted a big-name player earlier in the year, Notre Dame graduate Brady Quinn, the season commenced with Charlie Frye as the starter and Derek Anderson as the backup; Quinn had the No. 3 spot.
The AFC North contest was about as compelling as a Steelers scrimmage. Led by Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh players possessed toughness, quickness, and intuition that could not be equaled by that team long rumored to be their rivals.
Midway through the game, though, something startling took place: Following a first half that resulted in 34 yards gained through the air, Frye — the stocky University of Akron alum for whom the act of throwing a football did not seem altogether natural — found himself on the sidelines. For the second half, coach Romeo Crennel had appointed the lanky, laidback, goateed Anderson as the man to stand in the shotgun. The Steelers still tromped the Browns 34-7, but in pulling one quarterback and tossing in another, Crennel had at least injected interest into the game.
And the season. Following the slaying by the Steelers, Frye was ushered out the door and traded to the Seahawks, while Anderson was tapped to guide the team through the balance of the 2007 campaign. The club finished with the unlikely record of 10-6.
The appeal of backup quarterbacks might be compared to the allure of channel surfing. In this case, we were bored with Frye and curious about Anderson. There was no reason to assume that Anderson would get the job done, but at least he was fresher than Frye. Maybe our generation of pro football fans has become too accustomed to the “Madden NFL” video games, in which the makeup of teams can be altered with the press of a button. Want Russell Wilson on the Dolphins? Just put together a trade. Want to add some has-been in the free-agency pile? Just sign him.
Well, the Browns felt like a real-life “Madden” team that season. Even as Anderson’s high-wire style of play was producing results, his backup Brady Quinn was poised with his helmet in hand, ready to jump into the action. And behind Quinn was third-stringer Ken Dorsey — the clean-cut, soft-spoken product of the University of Miami.
It may sound perverse, but I enjoyed the quarterback carousel in Cleveland, and in the process of watching the drama unfold in 2007 and later seasons, I came to realize how much I admired the idea of the backup quarterback. He must content himself with being part of the jigsaw puzzle of a team rather than its featured attraction. If he finds himself on the gridiron, it is usually owing to the guy ahead of him getting hurt or being deemed inadequate (as in the Frye-Anderson transition) — not ideal conditions, but he must buck up and do his job anyway. His stat lines each season may consist of a few attempts and even fewer completions, but he must live to impress when given his shot — just as, for example, Patriots backup Matt Cassel did when Tom Brady emerged injured after a tackle in 2008.
Like fireflies on a summer evening, the backup quarterback shines brightly oh-so briefly — witness the magic moments authored by such backups-turned-starters as Jacoby Brissett, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Josh McCown, even as they were unable to carry the load over the long run. And who can forget stories like that of Jeff Hostetler, the backup who led the Giants to a Super Bowl victory in 1991 after Phil Simms went down for the season. Or Nick Foles, who in 2018 stepped in for injured Eagles QB Carson Wentz and led Philly to a championship over the Patriots and Tom Brady, whose own career as a starter was sparked by injury to Drew Bledsoe.
Some backups are goofy (such as J.T. O’Sullivan, inexplicably picked over Alex Smith to lead the 49ers in 2008) and others tragic (the late Jared Lorenzen, the overweight player who once served as wingman to Eli Manning on the Giants). Yet even these characters add spice and interest to the game.
As the new NFL season nears, pardon me if I hope that Cardale Jones plays a few downs for the Chargers, Matt Barkley sees some time with the Bills and Drew Stanton gets one last shot at stardom with my beloved Browns.
Peter Tonguette writes for many publications, including the Wall Street Journal , National Review and Humanities .