NFL – Realities Of Life As A Backup Quarterback

Byron Leftwich in action on Sunday night – presumably before he broke his ribs

There can’t be many playing positions in professional sport where you are confined to sitting on the bench most weeks. On the whole, the coaches don’t want to see you on the field, your team mates want you to stay on the sideline and the fans would prefer it if you remained there too – although New York Jets fans might argue with that last one.

Going through practice sessions in the week, keeping up to date with the playbook and personnel changes on the squad and generally keeping match fit even though you know, deep down, that your involvement will probably be restricted to catching long snaps and setting up the ball for the kicker. Yet this is the life that faces the backup quarterback in the NFL. There’s a big contrast between the headline grabbing starting quarterbacks who can lead their team on the road to a divisional title or maybe even Superbowl glory. A sudden spate of concussions suffered by starting quarterbacks during Week 10 thrust a handful of backup quarterbacks into the limelight as starters in Week 11. Three of those backups were even given the chance to parade their skills before a primetime audience in the nationally televised matchups.

You could be forgiven for forgetting who Byron Leftwich is. It’s been a long time between starts for the one-time first round draft pick. Leftwich started his NFL life with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Making his first start in the fourth game of his rookie season in 2003, Leftwich held the starting job down until an ankle injury prematurely ended his 2005 season. Another ankle injury the following year effectively ended his spell as the Jaguars’ starter. From then, the tale of this particular backup quarterback becomes all too familiar for many of the NFL’s number two quarterbacks. Spells with the Atlanta Falcons, a first spell with Pittsburgh and then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers led to sporadic starts but poor form or injury were never far away. Leftwich’s last start in the NFL came in week 3 of the 2009 season.

As prepared and professional as you have to be to convince an NFL coach that you can be an effective backup, you can imagine Leftwich’s heart rate would have stepped up a notch or two when regular starter Ben Roethlisberger headed down the tunnel during the Steelers’ game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 10. Big Ben has developed an aura of indestructibility over the years. I particularly remember him limping around in a game against the Cleveland Browns in Week 14 last year. It seemed the Steelers would rather have Roethlisberger on one leg than use a backup. This time, however, the injury was serious and Byron Leftwich stepped in for the end of the Chiefs game. He looked awkward, a little slow and the Steelers fans were thankful it was only the Chiefs they were facing that night. Unlike in 2011, Big Ben’s injury was deemed serious enough to keep him from starting this week. Leftwich would have to be ready for a Sunday Night Football start.

It can’t have helped that the Steelers were facing the Baltimore Ravens, whose rivalry with the Steelers is turning into one of the NFL’s most intense. As last year, it seems that the winners of the Steelers-Ravens matches will determine who will head the AFC North, catapulting the loser on the road in the playoffs as a possible wildcard team. On top of that, Leftwich would have to wear the Steelers’ retro uniforms – a tribute to the 1934 Pittsburgh Pirates. It would have been hard to look cool in those bumble bee stripes as a starter. It may have been impossible for a backup.

A quick scan of the Steelers’ roster for the game suggested that there might not be too much expected of Leftwich. Four running backs were activated for the game. Anyone expecting an old school running, bashing, snarling Steelers offense must have fallen out of their chair during the first 43 seconds of the game. Leftwich launched a booming pass on the opening play of the game, which resulted in a 42 yard pass interference penalty against the defence. A short running play later and Leftwich found himself charging up the field. He was perhaps the most surprised man in the stadium when he tumbled into the end zone after a 31 yard dash. You can only imagine the size of the scowl on injured Ravens’ linebacker Ray Lewis’ face on the sideline.

The end of the touchdown play highlighted another obstacle facing backup quarterbacks. No matter how much practice you put in, it must be hard to replicate the wear and tear on the body that a starting quarterback suffers. It is good in one way because a backup’s body does not take those weekly punishments dished out by the NFL defences. But is it also true that a backup’s body is not tuned in to adapt to those batterings suffered during the game? Leftwich rolled innocuously at the end of his touchdown scramble but came off the field grasping at a shoulder. He never really seemed to recover and could be seen suffering pain down the side of his body several times in the second half. To be fair to Leftwich, he had been given some big shots by the Ravens throughout the evening.

Those first 43 seconds were as good as it got for Leftwich. After an early punt return for a touchdown by the Ravens, the game turned into a proper AFC North arm wrestle and Leftwich had little success for the rest of the game. There was a chance for him to be a hero as he was given the ball at the Steelers’ 16 yard line with 1:05 left on the clock in the fourth quarter. A field goal would have sent the game into overtime but it never seemed likely. A chaotic last drive seemed to emphasise the fact that Leftwich really had hurt himself earlier in the game and his ability to fire the ball downfield was compromised. He left the field to a spattering of boos, not the whole crowd joining in but enough to be heard. It was confirmed on Monday that Leftwich had indeed broken two ribs during Sunday’s game.

Colin Kaepernick – his agent might be getting a few calls after Monday night

The Monday Night game gave us a rare chance to watch two backups in action. The San Francisco 49ers and the Chicago Bears are two high quality teams with playoff ambitions.

Like Leftwich, Jason Campbell of the Chicago Bears was once the supposed saviour of the team that drafted him. A first round pick for the Washington Redskins in 2005, Campbell graduated to the ranks of starter during the middle of the 2006 season. A familiar tale of promising season beginnings coupled with disappointing endings followed. Add in a dash of injury here and there and the recipe for a backup quarterback becomes clearer. Traded to the Oakland Raiders in 2010, Campbell failed to nail down the starting spot there and eventually moved on to the Bears for the start of this season.

In contrast, Colin Kaepernick has never been a starting quarterback. Kaepernick has made more of a traditional opening to life as an NFL quarterback by backing up a more experienced starter. Drafted by the 49ers in the second round last year, he was always likely to be the backup to Alex Smith. His start on Monday was the first of his career – although once he got under way, it didn’t look like it.

Kaepernick was on fire right straight out of the blocks. Supported by a wide range of offensive formations, Kaepernick seemed comfortable and assured. This was confirmed when a pass play was called on third and one on the first drive of the game. A field goal resulted from that opening drive but Kaepernick’s first touchdown pass of his career was not far away. A 57 yard pass to Kyle Williams sent the 49ers charging down the field and tight end Vernon Davis was on the end of the next pass in the endzone. The following drive was even more impressive with Kaepernick driving his team 96 yards down the field for another six pointer. By the middle of the second quarter, Kaepernick was comfortable calling audibles. The sideline team even called a play designed for a Kaepernick run.

The second half continued in a similar vein although the intensity of the match died down as the 49ers completed a rout of the Bears. Without doubt, it was an impressive performance from a first time starter. If Alex Smith thought he had a headache before, he might get another one if he struggles at all during the rest of the season. The calls for Kaepernick to start will not be far away if Smith slumps.

Jason Campbell – a rare photo of him without a San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman in his face

Jason Campbell’s performance must be put into context. The Bears were disappointing on Monday night. I thought Campbell made a steady start but it was not long before Patrick Willis seemed to be squashing any Bear who dared to enter his territory. The 49ers’ offensive line could not contain their opponents and Campbell had very little time to operate. He was regularly facing snarling defenders before he had any time to scan the secondary – not easy for any quarterback, starter or backup. Campbell was sacked regularly throughout the first half. He did make mistakes though, throwing interceptions both the second and third quarters.

The 49ers’ dominance of the game makes it hard to judge Campbell on his Monday performance. Whether it is Campbell or regular starter Jay Cutler who face the Minnesota Vikings next week, the Bears need to arrest an alarming two game losing slump before their season slips away like last year. Only then can the quarterback be given a fair performance assessment.

It can be a thankless task being a backup quarterback. It is such an important position and there is nowhere to hide when that call to the bench is made. I’m sure the seven figure salary softens the blow a little for the likes of Leftwich and Campbell and Kaepernick has now advertised his ability to the entire NFL. There remains no doubt about the challenge faced by backups. The performance of the rest of the team perhaps becomes more important when there is a backup starting. There is no doubt that it is easier to slot into a team performing well, like the 49ers did on Monday. The teams that the Week 11 backups play for all have realistic dreams of winning the Superbowl this year and they have to be ready to jump in at any stage of the season. Will we see one of them wearing a Superbowl ring at the end of the season?

I think the comments made by Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak sum up the position of backup quarterback neatly. Asked about whether he was frustrated about playing his entire NFL career as backup quarterback to John Elway, he reportedly answered, “I was more than happy to be the backup, I knew I wasn’t any good – I didn’t want anyone else to know.”

Stats for the Week 11 backups:

Byron Leftwich (Pittsburgh Steelers)                     18/39, 201 yards, 1 INT, 51.3 rating

Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco 49ers)                16/23, 243 yards, 2 TD, 133.1 rating

Jason Campbell (Chicago Bears)                            14/22, 107 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 52.7 rating

NFL – Peyton Back In Business On His Denver Debut

Peyton Manning – now a Denver Bronco

Put yourself in Peyton Manning’s shoes back in March. You have had fourteen successful seasons as a quarterback in the NFL. You have led your team to eight divisional championships, two AFC championships and you have that all-important Super Bowl ring on your finger. Dan Marino doesn’t have one of those. You’ve been named by Sports Illustrated as the best player in the NFL during the first decade of the 21st century. And you’ve done all this with one team – the Indianapolis Colts.

You have undergone surgery on your neck to alleviate pain that had been building, caused by so many throws of the football over the years. The injury needed time to heal and you had to miss the entire 2011 season. There are even whispers that you might not play in the NFL again. Then, the bomb is dropped. The Colts tell you that they are releasing you from your contract.

At 36 years old, you would be forgiven for thinking of calling it a day. The NFL is different to most other leagues. The high performing quarterbacks in the NFL don’t simply move teams and have repeat success. Try and think of one who has now. There haven’t been any who have won Super Bowls with different teams. The legendary quarterbacks of the game are all inextricably linked with the teams they played for. Try imagining Bart Starr out of his Green Bay Packers uniform, Dan Marino without a dolphin logo on his helmet or Terry Bradshaw not playing in black and yellow. And that’s before getting to John Elway. Some players have tried to move on after long stints with one team, most notably Brett Favre with the Minnesota Vikings and the New York Jets and Joe Montana with the Kansas City Chiefs, but they did not emulate their Super Bowl successes with another team.

No, it would probably be time to call the TV stations and see if they need an analyst for the new season, maybe buy yourself a restaurant or whatever else retired NFL stars do. Crack open a beer, smoke a Cuban cigar and think about the good times. Maybe that’s what you or I would do. I think I would – and that is why I sit here typing at a keyboard whilst Peyton Manning has just set out on a new chapter in a glittering career.

There is no doubt that John Elway being the Executive VP of Football Operations at the Denver Broncos helped Manning to make his decision on which team to join. The question would be how Manning would deal with a return to action. Did he still have that burning passion for the game? Did he still have the ability? Would he be able to inspire a new bunch of team mates for the first time in 14 years?

A little under six months later, it was time for Peyton Manning to once again step into the limelight. It wasn’t going to be easy.  The NFL schedulers have a way of matching teams that the fans want to see. The Pittsburgh Steelers had spent the entire offseason growling after getting Tebowed out of the playoffs last season. There would be nothing better for the Steelers and their number one ranked defence to go straight back to Mile High Stadium and spoil the party. There was only one game to show on primetime Sunday Night Football.

Manning did not show any nerves at the beginning of the game but must have felt like the new boy at school after so many years with the same team. At least the colour of the uniform was not entirely unfamiliar to him but it had been a long time since he had worn the orange of the University o f Tennessee. Manning’s presence did seem to lift the Broncos’ offensive line with NBC announcer Al Michaels describing their play “as if they were guarding a museum piece”.

There were a few brief flashes of the old Manning in the first quarter but it wasn’t until the second quarter that we started to see that he is not ready for any museum yet. A player like Manning has to be allowed a lot of input into the offensive strategy and he clearly decided it was time for action on the Broncos’ fourth drive of the game when he switched to a no-huddle offence. He orchestrated a 12-play 80-yard Denver drive ending with a Knowshon Moreno seven yard rushing touchdown.

Manning would not take another meaningful snap for almost an hour as Ben Roethlisberger orchestrated two huge clock-eating drives around either side of half-time. With 6:05 to go in the third quarter, the Broncos were trailing by 13 to 7. It was time for Manning to prove he still had it what it takes. He had been out of the game for almost two years. Could he still put together a touchdown drive when he needed to? We didn’t have to wait long to find out. The answer came 36 seconds later as Demaryius Thomas stormed 71 yards for a touchdown reception – a fitting way for Manning to bring up his 400th career touchdown.

It still wasn’t all over. The Steelers scored again and Manning had to start another drive on his own 20-yard line (seriously, they should stop bothering with kick-offs in Denver) facing a 14-19 deficit. Manning looked assured at the helm once more but credit must also go to the Broncos’ receivers who were there for him all night.

One of the key plays of the game came as the players were regrouping after a failed coach’s challenge by Pittsburgh with the ball at the 1 yard line. Manning had seen something in the defensive lineup – you could almost sense the glint in his eye – and he changed the play at the line of scrimmage. He knew that tight end Jacob Tamme had a favourable one-on-one matchup and found him with a simple pass to his left. Simple to someone like Manning – genius to most of us.

An interception by impressive Broncos cornerback Tracy Porter was returned for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter and a 31-19 triumph for Denver was sealed.

It was only step number one on a long road for Peyton Manning. He will be publicly playing down any talk of the Super Bowl for Denver this year and it is ludicrously early in the season to start making such predictions but, inside, the Manning fire still burns. He answered a lot questions tonight, he silenced a lot of doubters and looked so assured. An outsider would not have known that Peyton had missed the entire 2011 season.

There must already be great excitement at the prospect of Manning lining up against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in week 5. Possibly Peyton’s biggest achievement of his time in Denver so far is that he already has the Broncos fans saying “Tim Who?”

Peyton Manning’s stats against Pittsburgh:

19/26, 253 yards, 2 touchdowns, 129.2 rating

View From The Couch – NRL Playoffs Preview

It’s showtime for the NRL. The gruelling 26 week NRL regular season is now behind us and rugby league fans’ thoughts now turn to the business end of the season – the playoffs. In this blog, I’ll have a look at the opening round of playoffs.

The 2012 season sees the introduction of a new playoff system, copied directly from the AFL. This year’s system is widely regarded as being fairer to the teams that finish in the top four because it gives them all at least two weeks of finals footy. The teams finishing fifth to eighth are playing elimination games from week 1.

Personally, I still prefer the old top five system because you need a good season to make the top five. As Melbourne Storm coach Craig Bellamy has highlighted in the past, I don’t think a team that loses as many games as it wins over the course of a season should have a chance of winning the Premiership. There are one or two teams who have been ordinary over the last six or eight weeks but they have still made the eight. The main argument against the top five system is that it would render too many end of season games meaningless in a sixteen team league. With the NRL expected to expand to 18 teams in the next few years, the top eight playoffs are here to stay.

A quick word on the sides that didn’t make it. The race to make the playoffs this year ended a little disappointingly. There were no cliffhanger endings, no golden point or field goal dramas. A meek defeat for the Wests Tigers on Saturday night handed the final two spots to the Canberra Raiders and the Brisbane Broncos. Perhaps the clearest indictment on the teams in the bottom half is that the Dragons, the worst attacking team in the NRL, managed to finish ninth. If you can’t finish above the team with the worst attack, you really don’t belong in the finals.

Let’s have a look at the matchups for the weekend – the new system has thrown up a couple of corkers.

Canterbury Bulldogs v Manly Sea Eagles – Friday 7 September 7.45pm (9.45pm NZ)

It seems a rather dubious reward that the minor premier Bulldogs have to play one of the form teams of the competition in Manly. There is no inconvenient trip to Queensland or Victoria for Manly – just a short ride across Sydney to the somewhat soulless ANZ Stadium where there will be little in the way of an intimidating atmosphere.

The media will no doubt focus on the clash between the two coaches. Canterbury’s Des Hasler will not want to waste the good work done in finishing top by losing out to his apprentice, Geoff Toovey, who has certainly been learning tricks from his old boss by giving the referees a good old fashioned “spray” after the Sea Eagles’ last two matches. Toovey conveniently overlooked the decisions that went in Manly’s favour over the weekend, one of which led to a try at a crucial point in the game just before half-time. I don’t think the coaches will be too concerned about anything that is said in the press about them – the two sides have already met twice in the regular season (they are nicely poised at one win each) and have moved on. It won’t stop the media trying to make a story where there isn’t one though.

Much more interesting is the clash on the field. The two teams have more in common than you might think. They both have attacking full-backs who can light up the scoreboard (speedsters Ben Barba and Brett Stewart), centres who can produce breaks for their wingers (the skilful Josh Morris and Jamie Lyon), forwards who will prod, poke and slate right up to the boundaries of fair play (everyone’s favourite villains Michael Ennis and Anthony Watmough) and old school barrel shaped characters (Greg Eastwood and George Rose – please George, tie up those shorts this week, we’ve seen enough of the luminous briefs for one year).

Where I think this game will be won and lost is between the big men up front. Canterbury’s props have been outstanding this year with the starters Aiden Tolman and Sam Kasiano boosted twenty minutes into the game by the big pom, James Graham, who has made a roaring start to his NRL career. (All that is missing for Graham is to lose the pasty white look which he will surely do over a summer in Sydney.) Much has been made of how the Bulldogs’ big men can catch and pass effectively to draw in defenders and create room for the quick men outside. Sounds such a simple skill but it’s no coincidence that many teams are trying to copy the Bulldogs’ style of play. Manly’s front men are tough but injury prone. Jason King, Brent Kite and Joe Galuvao might match the Bulldogs up front for 30 or even 40 minutes but I think the Bulldogs will be too strong for the Manly over the full 80.

Should be a cracker though between two teams who have every chance of making it all the way to the Grand Final at the end of the month.

The Couch’s view – Bulldogs by 8

 

Melbourne Storm v South Sydney Rabbitohs – Saturday 8 September 5.45pm (7.45pm NZ)

There is no doubt that the Storm finished in the top two largely because of their form in the first nine weeks of the season when they were unbeaten. In and around the Origin period, they were distinctly average and they arrive at the finals with a bit of a limp rather than their usual confident stride.

The Rabbitohs, on the other hand, will be buzzing at reaching the finals for only the second time since 1989. A quick look at their teamsheet whets the appetite for what could lie ahead for Souths. Greg Inglis, Nathan Merritt, Sam Burgess and David Taylor are all match winners. Adam Reynolds and Andrew Everingham are two of the NRL’s stand out rookies this year. There’s also the enigmatic Issac Luke and, should he suffer a brain explosion and breach club discipline again, Nathan Peats has performed admirably in Luke’s absence.

It’s never going to be easy to overturn a side like Melbourne, especially on their own patch. The Storm will be preparing for the playoffs under the watchful eye of Craig Bellamy but away from the media scrutiny that the Sydney sides contend with. Can the Rabbitohs cope with the expectation that has been building in recent weeks? There is a lot of history at Souths and there will be pressure on them to bring back the glory days. An away playoff in Melbourne would have been as tough as it gets in recent seasons. Perhaps the biggest encouragement for the Rabbitohs is that the Storm have looked vulnerable several times this year. If Souths get on top early, the Storm will need the very best that the big three of Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith have to offer – and, this year, I don’t think it will be enough.

The Couch’s view – Rabbitohs by 6

North Queensland Cowboys v Brisbane Broncos – Saturday 8 September 7.45pm (9.45pm NZ)

Bug swatters and mosquito cream at the ready – it’s a Saturday night Queensland derby up in Townsville. Under the new playoff system, it’s sudden death for the Cowboys and Broncos.

Looking at the form of the two sides over the season, this game should be a comfortable win for the home side. The Cowboys have had a fine season with Johnathan Thurston and Matty Bowen marshalling the team on the back of the good work done up front by the likes of Matt Scott, James Tamou and one of the most underrated players in this year’s NRL, Gavin Cooper. The Cowboys are usually strong at home but they have been beaten at Dairy Farmers Stadium four times this season although three of those were in the opening six rounds. On paper, it should be comfortable for the Cowboys but the beauty of playoff footy is that it is not played on paper. When you add into the mix that this game is a derby, it should spice proceedings up and make matters a little closer. The Cowboys have to remember that they have beaten the Broncos twice already this season. Three times would be a charm.

The Broncos are one of the teams that can probably count themselves lucky that there weren’t too many strong challengers from the bottom half of the NRL ladder as the regular season ended. After a promising start to the season, the Broncos rested players during the Origin period and many observers thought they would benefit from that at the business end of the season. The problem was that the Broncos’ form took a huge nosedive mid-season and they stuttered into the playoffs with an unconvincing win over lowly Penrith. In past seasons, the odd dip in form was not such a worry for the Broncos because match winners like Darren Lockyer would come to the fore in the playoffs. Now Lockyer has retired to combine with Wally Lewis on Channel Nine’s commentary team (will they be able to remain impartial for this one?), the pressure is on the Broncos’ youngsters in two key positions – Corey Norman at five-eighth and Josh Hoffman at full-back. Sadly for the Broncos, I think these good young players are not quite ready to lead a charge to the Premiership. Experience counts for a lot in the playoffs. Maybe the baby Broncos will be ready for a Premiership charge in a couple of seasons but they are not quite there yet.

The Couch’s view – Cowboys by 10

Canberra Raiders v Cronulla Sharks – Sunday 9 September 4.00pm (6.00pm NZ)

A few weeks ago, not many were predicting this as a playoff game, particularly not to take place in Canberra. The Sharks were challenging for a place in the top four and some columnists were questioning David Furner’s position as the Raiders’ coach. Fortunes can change quickly in the NRL and these two sides know this more than any other.

The outcome of this game could depend upon which Raiders turn up. If the one that ended the Bulldogs’ twelve match winning run in round 25 shows up, the Raiders will be cracking on to next week. If the Raiders who lost by 30 points at Newcastle in round 21 show their faces, their post-season will not last long. A lot will depend on the man with crackerbread limbs, Josh Dugan. He has struggled with injuries throughout his NRL career and will need to put in four appearances in four weeks if the Raiders are to win the Premiership. The Raiders have other gamebreakers but the likes of Josh McCrone and Reece Robinson are likely to need Dugan’s help.

The Sharks have built their success this season on a tough pack of forwards who are prepared to put their bodies on the line and get dirty when the need arises. They surprised many with their early season form and briefly threatened a really special season when they were the first team to put the Storm in the gutter in round 10 and briefly headed the competition a couple of weeks later. The promising start faded at the end of the season and the Sharks have suffered without key man Paul Gallen, winning only two of their last nine. Gallen seems to have put so much effort into his New South Wales Origin campaign that he has not had enough left in the tank to lead the Sharks effectively at the business end of the season. If I was a Sharks fan, I would be cursing Origin as it has definitely hindered their NRL campaign this year. Add in the propensity of Todd Carney to disappear in the big games, it will take a big turnaround in recent fortunes for the Sharks to prosper in Canberra.

A tough one to predict but I am going with home advantage to prove crucial for the Raiders.

The Couch’s view – Raiders by 4

Wherever you’re watching, enjoy your NRL this week.