From backup to baller

Being the backup quarterback is definitely the most difficult job on any NFL team. It is even worse than the continuous worry that a head coach must endure or even the unwavering humiliation of being the kicker. Think about having to be ready to lead a team of 52 other players at any given moment, going from sitting unstressed on the bench to being thrown out onto the field and being expected to be the number one player for your team.

This past weekend’s wildcard games had their share of quarterback dilemmas. In two of the four games a backup entered the game to replace his first-string counterpart, however for completely different reasons.

In the Jacksonville Jaguars 28-3 loss to the New England Patriots, starting quarterback Byron Leftwich was pulled after a less than impressive performance. David Garrard, his replacement, didn’t fare much better against the Pats swarming defense, however he was able to amass a 4-1 record in the final five games of the season while Leftwich was injured.

Garrard’s performance in the final stretch of the season made many believe that head coach Jack Del Rio should choose him as the starter for the wildcard match-up against the two-time defending champion Patriots. However, Del Rio assured everyone that there wasn’t a quarterback controversy, deciding to start Leftwich without hesitation.

Many questions concerning the quarterbacks existed prior to the game, and possibly even more arose following the devastating playoff loss. Should Garrard have started due to the fact that he lead the team to a 4-1 record while he started, losing only to the then undefeated Colts? Does Leftwich’s poor performance mean that his starting job is in jeopardy for next season? These are questions that will clearly decide the fate of Del Rio’s future in Jacksonville and the team’s success next season.

The other team that had to resort to playing their backup quarterback this weekend was the Cincinnati Bengals, though for a far different reason than the Jaguars. It took just two plays for former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Carson Palmer to be carted off the field in his first playoff start.

This meant that less than superb backup John Kitna was no longer on deck, but was now stepping to the plate. Kitna was expected to pick up the pieces that his Pro Bowl counterpart left on the field and lead the Bengals to a victory over rival Pittsburgh. He found himself in a situation where he was no longer the leader of the cheer squad on the sideline and was instead the leader of his team. The Steelers rolled to a 31-17 win over Cincinnati.

These are just a few examples of how a backup quarterback must constantly be ready to take the reins of his team and attempt to lead them to victory. This also shows how important a capable second-string quarterback is for an NFL team. In most cases the backup quarterback is the most valuable piece on a team because it is never known when the starter may go down.

In recent history a couple names come to mind when thinking about excellent backups that received a shot to start and made the most of it. Tom Brady, taking over for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001, led the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles and won the MVP in two of three games. Brady was a sixth-round pick and a supposed lifetime backup quarterback, but once he received an opportunity to play it was his time to shine.

In a similar position last season, then-rookie Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to the AFC Championship game after starter Tommy Maddox was injured early in the season. Even as a rookie Roethlisberger proved that he was a prolific enough quarterback to dominate the whole league, as he didn’t lose a regular season game the entire year.

Both of these quarterbacks were and still are very important to their teams. They were both very young players when the received their opportunities, and they certainly made the most of them. There are many young players just like Brady and Roethlisberger once were, that have yet to be given the chance to be an everyday quarterback.

Coaches should take more chances on these young players and allow them to play because it is proven, most definitely by these examples, that young quarterbacks deserve the opportunity to start and not have to endure years of watching the game from the bench.

Every team needs a capable backup, otherwise they will not be playing in January. I can guarantee that will happen because sometime throughout the course of the season the starter will go down. When the starter is injured the team will have to depend on the backup. That player needs to be competent. Everyone knows this. Backup positions should be designated for older veteran quarterbacks, not the young players with a whole career ahead of them.

Teams should really invest more time trying to develop their young quarterbacks because sometime down the road they will need them. These backup players already have enough on their plate attempting to be the guy that saves the day when the starter goes down with injury.

This is why they should be given more repetitions during practice and should be respected as more of a vital part of the team. Especially because a coach never knows when he might have a Tom Brady or Big Ben on his hands unless he gives the young player an opportunity to display his talent.