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The Pro Game

Backup QB options: 1992 vs. 2012

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Tom Danyluk
Contributing writer

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Posted Nov. 29, 2012 @ 12:08 p.m. ET
By Tom Danyluk

Backup quarterbacks just can’t stay out of the way these days, can they? Seems they’ll do anything for attention. They want to be out front. They want their own reserved parking near the stadium doorway. Don’t they know their place?

They want personal appearance fees and cucumber-infused water between huddles. Don’t they know they’re supposed to make their living by flashing signals and sporting cool ball caps and providing emotional support? Now they’re demanding their own headlines. It’s been nearly an all-out revolt.

In San Francisco the coach telling us he’ll go with the “hot hand” — either the staid veteran Alex Smith or the heavily graffitied No. 2, Colin Kaepernick, who won his second straight start last Sunday in New Orleans. Doesn’t Jim Harbaugh know that rotating QBs is bad voodoo that only leads to bruised feelings?

In New York, Tim Tebow is being called a bust and a defect because he’s thrown only seven passes and has organized zero fourth-quarter comebacks for the Jets. How can a guy who doesn’t play be a bust?

The Steelers handed the ball to Byron “Eggshell” Leftwich and he cracked up. He used to be “Egg Sandwich” Leftwich until he dropped some weight and got even slower. Then they gave it to Charlie “Imhotep” Batch, who remembers when they capped off the Giza pyramids. The Steelers prayed Batch could hit just one deep one to seal off the Browns and he couldn’t do it. Hey, whaddaya want from a guy who’s been wrapped in bandages for 3,000 years?

Last year, Jay Cutler went down and the top Chicago backup was Caleb Hanie, and Hanie stunk so bad it cost the GM his job. This year, Cutler goes down and it’s Hanie again, this time dressed in a Jason Campbell throwback.

Chad Henne, a solid Miami reject, comes off the skids for Jacksonville and gets 615 yards and six TDs in the two short weeks. John Skelton takes over for Kevin Kolb in Arizona then gets jerked for Ryan Lindley, who has already mastered the pick-six in his brief career. I mean, these backup quarterbacks — can’t they make up their mind up on what they want to be? Can’t they behave? Why does it always have to be so stressful and schizophrenic?

Where are all the steady hands? Where is Don Strock these days? Or Frank Reich? Probably golfing. What’s Earl Morrall’s number? Or George Blanda’s? Can Steve Bono still get in there and wing it?

Where are the straight shooters, the guys who come off the bench and go 14-for-21 with a TD and pull out the game then head to back to their seat on the bench? The real pros, guys who knew their place? Am I being nostalgic here? Were the backup QBs better in the old times, or has this whole Campbell-Tebow-Batch maelstrom just driven me mad? Maelstrom? Kaepernick? What’s the rule again, A before E except after Lindley?

I have to find out. I need closure. Let’s go through it, the backups from 20 years ago versus today. 1992 versus 2012. I’ll only compare teams that existed back then, so no Ravens, Texans, Jaguars or Panthers in this exercise. Sorry if this seems frantic, but I can’t take any more flightiness coming off the bench. So here we go:


Patriots — Scott Zolak/Tommy Hodson vs. Ryan Mallett — Already we’re off to a bad start. Zolak, one of four QBs names in history to start with Z. Hodson came and went. Mallett has three career attempts and can’t throw on the run. But, sigh, he wins on the intrigue factor and a much meaner arm.

Dolphins — Scott Mitchell vs. Matt Moore. Mitchell broke out in 1993 when Marino went down, then bombed as the Lions' free-agent starter, save for a career year in '95. Moore couldn’t win the job in Carolina and won’t ever again in Miami. A vote for Mitchell.

Bills — Frank Reich vs. Tyler Thigpen. Reich is one of the top firemen of all time. Thigpen’s career is year-to-year. Reich by a mile.

Jets — Ken O’Brien vs. Tim Tebow. O’Brien, an old pro on his way out. Tebow, a tractor trailer, a thunderball whose coach in Denver wouldn’t let him throw when he was down by 20. Bad sign. O’Brien is the winner.

Steelers — Bubby Brister vs. Leftwich/Batch. Brister got kicked out of town when he told Chuck Noll, “I’m nobody’s backup.” Then he subbed for Randall Cunningham in Philly and Elway in Denver and discovered his life’s work. Batch and Lefty won’t be in football next year. We’ll take Bubby.

Browns — Mike Tomczak vs. Colt McCoy. Tomczak, a real overachiever, did it ugly for 15 years. McCoy just seems so fragile out there, like a little Dennis the Menace running around. Tomczak has the stronger resume.

Bengals — David Klingler vs. Bruce Gradkowski. Klingler was the sixth pick of the ’92 draft and couldn’t cut it. Grad-k is a sixth-rounder still hacking away. Mirror careers. A tie.

Colts — Jack Trudeau vs. Drew Stanton. Trudeau was functional when he saw time. Stanton started four games in Detroit and honest-to-God I don’t remember any of them. Functional over forgettable.

Titans (formerly Oilers) — Cody Carlson vs. Matt Hasselbeck. Carlson made his name by bombing Pittsburgh on the last night of the ’90 season and getting Houston into the playoffs. Hasselbeck, once upon a time, took a team all the way to the Super Bowl. Hasselbeck is the choice.

Broncos — Tommy Maddox vs. Brock Osweiler. Sounds like an MMA headliner. Maddox left UCLA way early and never fully blossomed. Osweiler is an Arizona State rookie deeply lodged behind Peyton Manning. We may not see him for years, so we’ll lean toward Maddox based on experience and his XFL battle scars.

Raiders — Todd Marinovich vs. Matt Leinart. A pair of USC products. Al Davis bought into the Robo-QB hype and nabbed Marinovich in the first round. Bill Walsh called Leinart “polished and pro-ready.” Both were wrong. Oh, well, happens to the brightest of ‘em. Tie.

Chargers — Bob Gagliano vs. Charlie Whitehurst. Twin sons of different mothers. Not much to canvass here. Tie.

Chiefs — Mark Vlasic vs. Brady Quinn. Iowa coach Haden Fry said Vlasic’s arm was stronger than another famous Hawkeyes QB, Chuck Long. “He proves it every day by overthrowing his receivers.” Quinn’s greatest day in college was a home loss to USC. Their pro stories aren’t nearly as interesting. Tie.

AFC tally: 1992 wins, 7-2 with four ties


Giants — Phil Simms vs. David Carr. Aging Simms had been shoved aside for the younger, more mobile Jeff Hostetler. Carr was brutalized during the expansion days of the Houston Tex … Oh, good lord, why am I even explaining this? Simms in a landslide.

Eagles — Jim McMahon vs. Nick Foles. McMahon’s body was breaking down after years of punishment in Chicago. In his brief, three-game career, Foles passer rating is around 65. Easy vote for McMahon.

Cowboys — Steve Beuerlein vs. Kyle Orton. Best pairing we have on the board. Beurelein wasn’t supposed to be much out of college but lasted 14 years. Orton is on his fourth team but has never embarrassed himself. Tie.

Redskins — Cary Conklin vs. Kirk Cousins. Conklin saw a little action in ’93 and that was it. Cousins is young and can move around but Rex Grossman, the 'Skins’ current third-stringer, has the better gun. A draw here.

Bears — Peter Tom Willis vs. Jason Campbell. As for Willis, can someone explain why Florida State QBs never pan out in the bigs? Veteran Campbell was supposed to be a firm upgrade over last year’s Hanie disaster, but he’s been a disgrace in five appearances so far. Ho-hum … another tie.

Packers — Don Majkowski vs. Graham Harrell. Majik man was a rising star until he ripped up a knee. Harrell was a machine gunner at Texas Tech but nobody drafted him. Take Majik, on what could have been.

Lions — Erik Kramer vs. Shaun Hill. Kramer was responsible for Detroit’s finest moment in the last 60 years, blowing away Dallas in the ’91 playoffs. Then Rodney Peete stole his job in the ’92 training camp. Shaun Hill is a favorite of mine, his backyard delivery and sportswriters’ belly. A modern Billy Kilmer who finds the endzone. Hill wins, on blatant personal bias. 

Vikings — Sean Salisbury vs. Joe Webb. Salisbury used to rip QBs new earholes with his ESPN commentary but was an NFL lemon himself. Like Oprah telling Chris Christie to ease off the gravy bucket. Webb is an action guy who hasn’t gotten an honest chance. Take Webb, on upside.

Buccaneers — Steve DeBerg vs. Dan Orlovsky. DeBerg hung around for years, and even won the starting job in KC when he was 36. “Why couldn’t this have happened when I was good?” he cried. I remember Orlovsky beating Toledo in the Motor City Bowl one year, but only because I was forced to be there. DeBerg’s the pick.

Falcons — Wade Wilson/Billy Joe Tolliver vs. Luke McCown. Wilson had some honorable days in Minnesota, while Tolliver trolled around the league. But McCown, now on his fourth franchise, has been terrible. 1992 wins.

Saints — Mike Buck vs. Chase Daniel. I have no memory of Mike Buck, sorry. Find somebody who does. The pick is Daniel, sadly, on name recognition alone.

49ers — Joe Montana vs. Colin Kaepernick. Hall of Famer versus an athletic whirlwind emerging from the shadows. The Hall wins every time.

Seahawks — Stan Gelbaugh vs. Matt Flynn. Flynn just signed a plump free-agent deal then was beaten out by a 5-foot-9 rookie. Gelbaugh is remembered as part of the great Maryland comeback against Miami in 1984 (led by Reich); he was ripped from the game with the Terps down 31-0. No distinction between Gelbaugh and Flynn means a tie.

Rams — Mike Pagel vs. Kellen Clemens. Pagel hung around for 12 years but by ’92 was clutching the end of the rope. An honest, Mike Tomczak-like career. Clemens played a bunch in ’07 but has only 127 attempts since. Can rip it at times but slow afoot, among other issues. A win for Pagel.

Cardinals — Timm Rosenbach vs. Skelton/Lindley. In literary terms, this would be Fanny Burney versus the icy duo of Thomas Dermody and Pierce Egan. Who? Exactly. And thus, this game ends with a tie.

NFC tally: 7-3 with five ties, in favor of 1992

Grand total: The old timers rule — 14 wins, 5 losses and 9 sordid ties.

Now with that stretch of tedium behind us, let’s get on to more serious issues. You know, I believe there’s a real problem with today’s third-string long-snappers, and …

Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at You can contact Tom at

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