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.
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’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