One big problem: In a league still groping for enough first-rate starters to go around, there aren't nearly enough quality backups to be had. "There's more of a premium on number 2 guys than there is on the first-string guys," says Fox analyst Ronnie Lott, a former All-Pro defensive back. "It's like a big man in basketball. Every team needs a guy who can fill up the middle, so you can be a slow, white guy who's 7'4" and still get a job."
Rather than relying on the football equivalent of such a player—for instance, weak-armed yet fundamentally sound backup passer Steve Walsh of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—some teams opt for a younger quarterback with the potential to become a frontline performer, as the Jaguars did with Rob Johnson. A fourth-round draft pick in 1995, Johnson led Jacksonville to an opening-week victory over the Baltimore Ravens in his first NFL start while playing much of the game on a sprained ankle. Trouble is, given the free-agency system and Brunell's status as the Jaguars' franchise quarterback, Johnson is almost certain to sign with another team for the chance to start, not to mention the first-string money, when his contract expires after next season. That's how Jacksonville was able to land Brunell in a trade with the Green Bay Packers two years ago: Green Bay, which dad drafted Brunell in '93, was committed to Brett Favre for the long haul. "If you're grooming a young quarterback, you may be grooming him for someone else," Jimmy Johnson says. "I don't care anything about drafting a quarterback unless I'm committed to making him a starter by his second year."
Another significant concern is that young players often are ill-equipped to deal with the special demands of the backup role, which requires a quarterback to be prepared for live game situations without the benefit of much practice. For this reason some teams go the route of the Eagles, who chose veteran Rodney Peete to back up Ty Detmer while heir apparent Bobby Hoying, a second-year player, languishes as the third-stringer. But even someone as polished as Moon can have trouble staying sharp, as his Week 1 experience indicated. After splitting practice time with Friesz during the preseason, Moon received less than 20% of the repetitions during the week leading up to the game against the Jets. "That kind of shocked me," says Moon, who completed just 7 of 21 passes for 89 yards in relief against New York but bounced back in a starting role against Denver with a 20-for-33 performance and 222 yards.
Often the backup receives as little work with the first team as Moon did before Friesz's injury, though there have been exceptions. In 1990 Montana, then still the San Francisco starter, bristled when the 49ers coaches gave Young 40% of the snaps. "That was unhealthy in terms of chemistry," says Lott, who played on that team, "but Steve didn't have a lot of mechanics at that point, and the extra snaps brought him along quicker."
Says Johnson, "Keeping your backup fresh is something coaches have toyed with and struggled with forever. I know I have." So has 49ers coach Steve Mariucci, who was the Packers' quarterbacks coach in 1993 and '94 when Brunell and Detmer backed up Favre. "We would alternate them each week—one would be the backup and the other the emergency third-stringer," Mariucci recalls of his two reserves. "We were just trying to find a way to keep them happy."
It's hard to measure how well a backup quarterback is prepared mentally until he enters a game. "It really takes a motivated player to pull it off," says Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who spent nine years backing up John Elway in Denver. "Nobody really knows if you're taking care of your business until your chance comes. If a guy prepares and takes advantage of that chance, he might become a starter. If not, that's usually the end of the line for him."
So, while players like Jeff Blake (Bengals), Brad Johnson (Vikings), Scott Mitchell (Detroit Lions) and Elvis Grbac (Kansas City Chiefs) performed well enough in relief to become starters, there have been numerous busts—Tommy Maddox and Sean Salisbury, to name two. Then there are the players who spend nearly their entire careers as backups and elevate the role to an art form. The classic example was Earl Morrall, who came off the bench to lead two teams, the 1968 Baltimore Colts and the '72 Dolphins, to Super Bowls. His successor in Miami, Don Shock, lasted 14 seasons as a backup to Bob Griese, David Woodley and Marino. His secret? "On Wednesday nights, after the coaches gave us our game plan, I would go home and make up my own game plan," says Strock, now the Baltimore Ravens' quarterbacks coach. The exercise was a way for Strock to stay sharp and to better familiarize himself with plays that were to his liking and suited to his ability.
Another way for backups to stay sharp is to work overtime after practice. Both Seahawks rookie Jon Kitna and Broncos second-year man Jeff Lewis throw to receivers after a workout has ended. Lewis, a fourth-round draft pick from Northern Arizona, hopes to convince Denver coach Mike Shanahan he can be a worthy successor to the 37-year-old Elway. Kitna, a free agent out of Central Washington whom Dennis Erickson stumbled upon two years ago, starred for the Barcelona Dragons of the World League last spring. He completed 42 of 51 passes during the 1997 preseason, and now Erickson regards him as Seattle's quarterback of the future. "We'll be able to develop him, which is nice," Erickson says of Kitna. "He might be playing sooner rather than later."
In other words, like all backup quarterbacks these days, Kitna had better be prepared.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]