GREEN BAY – In some cities they cross their fingers and root like hell for the backup….in jaded places like Cleveland and Oakland and Jacksonville and other notorious revolving-QB towns.
But that’s not been the deal in Chicago. Backup passers are things of evil there. Backups have torpedoed two straight Chicago seasons and gotten a stable coach and GM fired in the process.
When Jay Cutler went down in 2011 it was Caleb Hanie dealing flutter balls and eating sacks and putting zippo on the scoreboard, and his 0-4 record killed an otherwise 8-4 Chicago season and a very solid Bears club missed the playoffs while GM Jerry Angelo swept out his office.
In 2012 they dumped Hanie for Jason Campbell – a purported upgrade – and were rewarded with a field goal drive against Houston and a lone TD drive at San Fran, and had Campbell pulled out either of those games it would have been another playoff season for Chicago. He didn’t. After the season they axed Campbell and then they axed the coach, Lovie Smith. You now understand why they’ve learned to hate backup quarterbacks in Chicago.
But on Monday night at Lambeau a Bear second-stringer finally got it right. 11-year veteran Josh McCown did enough with his feet and downfield flings to open up a big Bear running game, and he beat the Packers 27-20 to set up sweaty, three-way scrum atop the NFC Northern division – i.e., Bears, Packers, Lions.
In the postgame the media let McCown revel for a minute before dumping the vinegar on him, reminding him that he didn’t have to deal with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers out there, who left the game after the first drive with a damaged collarbone. He never returned. The grinning McCown was cautious and polite in his eulogy.
“I am a quarterback fan so anytime you see a guy get hurt there is just something about it that hurts you,” he said. “When [Rodgers] isn't on the field your odds of winning probably increase so from that standpoint you are glad…but you never want to see anybody go down."
And what the McCown was really thinking was that he was thrilled Rogers was out of there, that the injury wasn’t severe, and that his only job was to outscore little Seneca Wallace, Green Bay’s rust-bound backup who was completely out of football in 2012. Wallace’s night amounted to 11-for-19 in his passing and a long connection of 17 yards, and yes, Josh McCown was right – the Packer attack just ain’t the same without ol’ Rodgers gunning and getting his 30 points per game.
Regardless, McCown’s teammates appreciated his effort.
“We feel comfortable with him,” said Jermon Bushrod, the left-side tackle. “He’s been doing this a long time. You don’t stay in this league for as long as he has and not be able to command the offense the way he does.”
“He’s got a lot of energy in the huddle,” said center Roberto Garza. “We have to calm him down once in a while because he’ll start screaming a little bit and we don’t want the defense to hear the play call.”
I remember Dan Reeves, the old Denver coach, once saying that the toughest job in football was the second-string quarterback. I guess he was right, at least from a psychological standpoint. Third-stringer QBs are the pure emergency guys and they exist in relative peace during the season. A lot has to happen for them to see action. Their stress period comes during training camp, when they’re slugging it out with two or three other emergency-grade quarterbacks for a roster slot. But once they’ve made it the stress level falls way off and for a few months it’s not a bad life.
But the second-string man lives on the very strange border between monotony and knowing he’s one separated shoulder way from the presidency. It plays with your head, the constant Ready-Set-Stop mentality. Jim Sorgi was Peyton Manning’s backup for six years in Indy, where he threw 156 passes and procured zero starts. During Super Bowl week in 2007 he opened up to reporters about his drab pro existence, backing up a guy who had missed only one play due to injury in his entire career.
“I do feel kind of anonymous,” Sorgi said. “I’m the man no one wants to see play – especially in Indianapolis. I should be the Maytag repairman, the guy bored out of my mind waiting for something to do.
“Everybody says it’s the greatest job in the world, right? Yeah, it’s the greatest job in the world until Peyton comes off the field and you think his thumb might be broken, and there’s three minutes left in the AFC Championship game and you’re down by three to New England and you haven’t taken a snap all year. No pressure there. No big deal.”
One guy who really thought the job was no big deal was Billy Joe Hobert, a big redhead who backed up Todd Collins on the 1997 Buffalo Bills. The Bills were still in an anxious state of QB flux since the retirement of Jim Kelly and were pressing for some kind of stability at the position. Against New England Collins went down after a heavy shot to the shoulder and exited the game. Hobert stepped in and promptly dished up two interceptions and the Bills lost 33-6, and afterward he openly confessed to blowing off the gameplan.
“This is the first week I can remember where I only looked at the passing plays one or two times,” he told The Associated Press. “I’m probably going to get in trouble for this, but I just didn’t study hard enough.”
Hobert did get in trouble for that, when the Bills released him two days later, and head coach Marv Levy reminding the world that “unprepared was unacceptable.”
Well, McCown looked prepared last Monday night. Wallace looked overmatched. Watching those two backups go at it, I thought of an old baseball quote from Dan Quisenberry, on how “A manager uses a relief pitcher like a six shooter; he fires it until its empty then takes the gun and throws it at the villain.”
Bear relievers have fired blanks in recent seasons. For once a guy showed up with live rounds in the chamber.
Columnist Tom Danyluk joins FootballNation after nine years with Pro Football Weekly. He is an award-winning freelance writer and author of “The Super ‘70s,” which you can find on Amazon.com. Questions or comments? Please contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.