A few thoughts about backup quarterbacks

by Gary Shelton on May 25, 2017 · 2 comments

in general, Tampa Bay Bucs

Glenn didn't win a lot of games, but he got rich./ANDREW KRAMER

Glenn didn't win a lot of games, but he got rich./ANDREW KRAMER

Thursday, 4 a.m.

In the beginning, it started with a guy with the unlikely nickname of Paydirt.

What more could you ever ask of a backup quarterback?

This is where jobs are won. This is where legends are made. This is where one quarterback tags in another, and just like that, all the energy changes. It was that way for George Blanda. It was that way for Earl Morrall.

Parnell? Not so much.

In the Bucs' first-ever game, Parnell Dickerson came charging off the bench, determined to make something happen. He hit one of five passes for 15 yards. He ran once for four yards. Like starter Steve Spurrier, Dickerson didn't lead his team to the end zone in a 20-9 loss.

Yeah, a fan might have thought.

That's our backup.

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A few weeks later, in his first start, Parnell was on fire. For six weeks, he had watched Steve Spurrier lose. Spurrier would end up losing 12 that season, initiating a bad history of starting quarterbacks.

Dickerson, meanwhile, was torrid. He hit his first four passes, leading the Bucs to a touchdown and a 7-3 lead over the Miami Dolphins. Who knows what might have happened if he hadn't injured a knee that would bother him the rest of the season?

As it was, Dickerson's legacy is one of struggling. He ended his NFL career the next season, and his final rating was only 25.5.

And he started a lineage that is perfectly awful.

Backup quarterback. You know, the awful subs who couldn't support the awful starters.

This is timely again, of course, because the Bucs have just signed a brand new insurance policy by the name of Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had the lowest quarterback rating of any starter in the league last year. Feel free to shudder if you wish. The good news is that Fitzpatrick has started 116 games in the NFL; the bad news is that he's won only 46 of them.

Still, if it it gets to short-term relief, well, Fitzpatrick should know better than to line up underneath a tackle. On this team, that's not a good thing. Through its history, the backup quarterbacks have been simply dreadful. Through the years, the Bucs have started a backup quarterback in 105 games; they've lost 80 of them.

"I have to be prepared," Fitzpatrick said Wednesday. "I've got two roles and one is really to get myself ready to play if I have to go in there and do the best I can to keep the ship headed in the right direction. Also, as we talked about earlier, just being another set of eyes for Jameis, another voice in that room, a guy that has played and been in different situations. I think that I've shown throughout my career, when not being the starter, if my number's called I can go in there and get the job done.

"I've had to do that a number of times and I'm pretty decent at that role."

Decent would be an improvement. Look back over the past Bucs' backup quarterbacks, and it's a horror show.

How about Randy Hedberg, in the Bucs' second season? Hedberg – the kid who had Tampa Bay asking Why Not Minot? — was one of the worst quarterbacks in the history of the game. In four starts, his quarterback rating was 0.0. Think about that. He had no rating, as if he did not exist. Even for a guy who played at Minot State, that's a pretty good reason why not.

Compare Hedberg with Jeb Blount, who also went 0-4 for the Bucs in 1977, throwing no touchdowns and seven interceptions. But Blount had a rating of 28.4, which was kind of running up the score on Hedberg.

How about Mike Boryla, who started one game in 1978 and threw only five passes in a loss?

How about Steve Young? The Bucs had decided to draft Vinny Testaverde, which would have left them with Young and Steve DeBerg as backups. So Tampa Bay traded Young to San Francisco for second- and fourth-round draft choices. Young went on to reach the Hall of Fame with San Francisco.

How about Casey Weldon? Weldon -- who got into a fight with starter Trent Dilfer on the golf course -- almost came off the bench for a win in 1995. Sam Wyche inexplicably pulled Dilfer with the scored tied. The score was still tied, and the Bucs were at the Lions 28, when Weldon fumbled the ball.

How about Brian Griese? He's living proof that a Bucs' backup can win off the bench. In 2004, Chris Simms started against the Saints, but he was injured. Griese came in and and threw for 194 yards and a touchdown, and the Bucs win. Yay backups.

How about Bruce Gradkowski, who went 3-8 as a rookie backup? In one of the losses, 20-3 to Pittsburgh, coach Jon Gruden kicked a late field. "I wanted our quarterback to leave with something," he said. Yeah. A 17-point loss.

How about Jerry Goldsteyn? Technicallly, you could argue that Goldsteyn – who opened the 1983 season – was the starter and Jack Thompson (who played in 13 games) was the backup, but everyone knew Thompson would take over eventually. “Jerry's a nice kid,” said coach John McKay, “but so is my wife, and she's no quarterback, either.”

There was Terry Hanratty (0-1) and Steve Young (1-6). Josh Freeman won three games off the bench in 2009 … the only three games the team won.

How about Chris Chandler? The Bucs wanted him to succeed – it's still staggering how badly Ray Perkins overpaid for him. But Chandler would keep coming off the bench in favor of Vinny Testaverde, and soon or later, he would return without a win. In all, he was 0-6 with the Bucs.

There hasn't been a lot of glory for the Bucs' backups. Oh, there was Shaun King, who went 4-1 in 1999 and led the Bucs to the NFL title game. Chris Simms won six games in 2005 off the bench. Mike Glennon won four in the season when Freeman went crazy.

All of which bring us back to Fitzgerald.

"I mean, it's tough (not being the starter), but I've been through that before," Fitzpatrick said. "When I got cut in Buffalo in 2012, I signed on in Tennessee as a backup. The year after that I signed on in Houston as sort of a quarterback competition, and then got traded to the Jets as a backup. I started that 2015 campaign as the backup to Geno [Smith]. It was a new team, new environment for me and I had to step up when my number was called. It's the harsh reality of the NFL: There are [only] so many jobs that are available. I can't complain about it. Last year I was the starter, and if you play well as the starter you continue to play. I didn't play well and so I lost the game of musical chairs. They pulled my chair out from under me. But I'm happy to be here, and I do just enjoy football. I enjoy the Xs and Os and just the day-to-day interaction. I'm really happy to be in this role and to be here."

And so it goes. Josh Johnson was 0-5 when he started games. Joe Ferguson was 0-3. Trent Dilfer came off the bench to start twice; he lost both. Vinny's first four starts when he was backup ended in losses.

Throughout the history of the league, there have been sensational backup quarterbacks. Frank Reich. George Blanda. Steve  Young when he was with the 49ers. Earl Morrall. Jim Plunkett.

But moments like those?

They don't happen around here.

The best Bucs' winning percentage was by Rob Johnson, who was at quarterback as the defense dragged him along to win two games in 2002.

In 2014, backup Mike Glennon won as often as starter Josh McCown. They won one game each.

In other words, the biggest problem that Fitzpatrick might have will be living down to expectations. I mean, those are tiny shoes to fit into. The Bucs don't win much, and they don't score much, and they don't expect much when backups are in the game.

The good thing for Tampa Bay, of course, is that Jameis Winston hasn't need much backing up since he became a pro. Glennon, before he signed his $15 million a year contract, threw 11 passes in two years as Winston's backup. He didn't get close to a start.

Keep this in mind if Fitzpatrick ever starts a game. The comparison shouldn't be to the NFL's elite quarterbacks. It should be to the sad sack lot of backup quarterbacks.

Stay healthy, Jameis.

Sleep in bubble wrap, won't you?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Cecil DeBald May 25, 2017 at 1:35 pm

Seems to me there are only a few “great” QBs in the game, and a few more “really good” QBs, and then a fair number of “pretty good” and then some that are “good” starting in the NFL in any season – hard to see how a team could have a backup QB much better than “fair” without having a QB controversy or having to massively overpay for him. Guess the exception would be if you drafted a “great” and made him a backup as some teams do, but then you don’t really know if he’s “great” during his time as a backup…
Cecil

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Gary Shelton May 25, 2017 at 2:56 pm

It seems to me there used to be a few very good backups. Earl Morrall and George Blanda come to mind. I think we’ve officially run out of quarterbacks. And we’re far more critical than we once were. If Blanda played today, we’d talk about his interceptions. (He was horrible at it).

A story. I was a Colt fan as a kid, because of Unitas. The first time I met Earl Morrall, it was all I could do not to scream “Jimmy Orr was wide open in the end zone!”

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