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The Second Best and the Brightest
PHIL TAYLOR
December 24, 2012
Years ago I listened to George Blanda, the Hall of Fame quarterback who became an outstanding backup in his 40s, reminisce about coming off the bench to lead several game-winning drives. He said he was initially surprised that he was successful as a substitute because he had never envisioned himself in that role. "No one," he said, "ever dreams about being a backup quarterback."
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December 24, 2012

The Second Best And The Brightest

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Years ago I listened to George Blanda, the Hall of Fame quarterback who became an outstanding backup in his 40s, reminisce about coming off the bench to lead several game-winning drives. He said he was initially surprised that he was successful as a substitute because he had never envisioned himself in that role. "No one," he said, "ever dreams about being a backup quarterback."

With all due respect to the late Blanda, he was wrong about that. Perhaps because I'm not competitive enough (or big enough or strong enough or young enough) to even dream of being an NFL starter, second-string QB is exactly the role to which I aspire. It's not just because this has been an eventful year for No. 2 QBs, with Charlie Batch, Kirk Cousins, Nick Foles, Colin Kaepernick and Tim Tebow making news in various ways. It's certainly not that I consider the job to be easy. On the contrary, I wonder how any backup signal-caller thrives at all in a role that seems set up for him to fail. They get few if any reps with the first team in practice, they're often perceived as a threat by the starter, and they're expected to drop their clipboards and lead the offense at a moment's notice. That's like suddenly being pulled off the pit crew to drive Daytona.

Still, I think I'd be the ideal No. 2. No, I don't have the arm to throw a seven-yard slant, but so little of being a backup QB is actually about playing. Most reserve quarterbacks are on the bench for a reason, and a team that has to press one into action is probably in deep trouble anyway. I have other qualities that make me right for the role. I can, for instance, manage an extremely businesslike facial expression while wearing a backward baseball cap or a wool beanie—de rigueur sideline fashion for the position. Do you have any idea how hard it is to appear to be a potential leader of men when your headgear makes you look like you're ready for a game of Frisbee golf?

There would be no need to even issue me a helmet because I would not have the slightest intention of entering a game. In fact, I would try so hard to avoid physical contact that I'd make punters and placekickers look like a bunch of Ray Lewises. If a backup quarterback plays his cards right, he can have a long NFL career while exposing himself to minimal risk. I would pattern myself after QBs like Batch, who has thrown fewer passes (278) in his 10 years with the Steelers than Aaron Rodgers threw in his first eight games this season, and Matt Cavanaugh, who enjoyed a 14-year NFL career while starting only 19 times. Considering that all quarterbacks go untouched in practice, you can take more hits in a crowded aisle at Safeway than some reserve quarterbacks get in an entire season. That's my kind of position.

Having a safe spot on the sideline doesn't mean a second-stringer has to spend his career in anonymity either. Tebow took 124 snaps in the Jets' first 13 games, yet you may have noticed that he's received a bit of publicity this season. All it takes is a couple of red zone interceptions by the starter to make the TV cameras show the backup on the sideline. That's when I'd start pretending to look for my helmet, while actually looking for a couple of linemen to hide behind.

Most teams would be better off having a substitute QB like me, one whose ambition is as modest as his talent. A viable backup often leads to headaches. Niners coach Jim Harbaugh replaced his starter, Alex Smith, with Kaepernick last month even though Smith was doing a perfectly good job before missing a game with a concussion. Now, with Kaepernick having played no better than Smith, Harbaugh has to give a State of the Quarterbacks address every week, and the debate rages over which candidate is better equipped to lead San Francisco into the postseason. If I had been the No. 2, Harbaugh wouldn't have outsmarted himself. He'd have been begging Smith to take his job back.

A lousy backup quarterback allows everyone to relax, especially the starter, who is almost always overly protective of his status. It was heartwarming to see injured Redskins QB Robert Griffin III embrace his replacement, Cousins, after his fellow rookie threw for a touchdown and then ran for the game-tying two-point conversion against the Ravens on Dec. 9, but that kind of supportive relationship is rare. Cousins threw for two touchdowns in a win over the Browns on Sunday. If he strings together a few more impressive performances, RG3's renowned good nature will be put to a serious test.

I would have no fear of failure as a reserve QB. In fact, I would embrace it. If I found myself in an actual game, I wouldn't play nearly well enough to fool other teams into throwing a fat, ill-advised contract at me based on a few strong performances, the way the Chiefs did in signing onetime Patriots backup Matt Cassel or the Seahawks did in acquiring former Packers reserve Matt Flynn. My incompetence could save a general manager his job.

That's why a team would be smart to make me an offer. Trust me, I cannot be lowballed. If called upon, I'll do what every No. 2 should: deliver the most mediocre performance I can. I'll even supply my own clipboard.

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