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eXcess and O's

A Good Backup Is a Must-Have

November 24, 2002|MIKE PENNER

How do you separate the Super Bowl contenders from the pretenders in the NFL, now that traditional means such as win-loss records and winning streaks and form charts have been rendered useless?

Put away the darts and the coins, the rocks, paper and scissors, and take a look at the backup quarterbacks.

You can't win a Super Bowl without a good one anymore. Since John Elway retired, the only quarterbacks who've won the Super Bowl -- Kurt Warner, Trent Dilfer and Tom Brady -- were backups during the exhibition season of their team's championship runs.

At the same time, backup quarterbacks can keep you out of a Super Bowl.

Shaun King was Dilfer's backup for Tampa Bay in 1999. (This was before the coaching cognoscenti arrived at its landmark ruling that Dilfer was indeed an adequate backup trapped inside the body of a floundering first-stringer.) Pressed into the lineup after Dilfer was hurt in Week 12, King rode the Buccaneers' defense as far as the NFC final against St. Louis. There, King completed only 13 of 29 passes, threw two interceptions and Tampa Bay lost, 11-6.

The next season, Oakland hosted the AFC final, armed with a Pro Bowl quarterback in Rich Gannon but not much behind him. Unprepared for Baltimore's unorthodox defensive strategy -- Goose! You go sit on Gannon! -- the Raiders suddenly found themselves relying on Bobby Hoying to rally them from a 10-point halftime deficit. Which meant the Raiders went on to lose, 16-3.

Already this season, 16 teams have gone to their backups to bail out injured or ineffective starters -- unless you include the Washington Redskins, who have gotten carried away with the concept.

Coach Steve Spurrier fashions himself as a connoisseur of backup NFL quarterbacks; he once was a very ordinary one himself. Preparing for his first season with the Redskins, Spurrier was so intent on stockpiling backup quarterbacks -- can't win a thing without one, he'd heard -- that he forgot to find a starter and now rotates three backups in and out of the lineup.

A closer look at how the 16 backups have fared in their relief stints this season -- subtitled, "The Packers Better Keep a Close Eye on Brett Favre's Left Knee:"

Saved the Season

Chad Pennington, Jets: The Jets were 1-3 when they finally gave up on beating an old warhorse and replaced Vinny Testaverde with Pennington. In six starts, Pennington is 4-2, the Jets are one game out of first place in the AFC East and Pennington's completion mark of 75.3% is better than Kenny Anderson's single-season NFL record of 70.5%

Marc Bulger, Rams: Inherited an 0-5 underachieving Super Bowl favorite, handed them back 5-5. Can't do any better than that. Which is why St. Louis is so worried as Warner flexes his little finger again today against Washington.

Tommy Maddox, Steelers: Came off the bench to lead the Steelers to their belated first victory in Week 3, then stayed in the lineup, going 4-1-1 in his next six starts, setting the club single-game passing record in the process. The head and spinal cord injuries that knocked Maddox out of last week's loss to Tennessee could cause pain in Pittsburgh for weeks to come.

Improved the Situation

Joey Harrington, Lions: Wasn't ready for the Sports Illustrated cover, but that's not his fault. Has led the Lions to three victories this season, which is one more than anyone did in 16 games last season.

Jeff Blake, Ravens: Who is Travis Taylor? No one knew, not even his teammates, while no-risk Chris Redman was directing the Baltimore offense. Taylor is a speedy wide receiver with big-play potential, as the rest of the league discovered once Redman got hurt and Blake came in to restore the long-forgotten vertical pass to the Raven playbook.

Jon Kitna, Bengals: Hard to believe, but Kitna has a quarterback rating of 108.4 in his last three starts. In Cincinnati, that and four quarters will get you a 27-20 defeat on Sunday.

Held the Fort

Kelly Holcomb, Browns: With Tim Couch hurt, he passed for three touchdowns in the opener, which should have been enough for victory. And then Dwayne Rudd spiked his helmet. Passed for two more touchdowns the next week in a 20-7 win over Cincinnati, stirring a who-should-start debate in Cleveland that Couch has barely been able to quell since his return.

Doug Johnson, Falcons: Won the only start he had to make -- and it wasn't an easy one, against the Giants in New Jersey. Highly encouraging news for the Falcons. Given Michael Vick's roller-coaster-without-a-seat-belt approach to the quarterback position, there will be more starts for Johnson.

Rob Johnson, Buccaneers: He's no long-term starter, as the Buffalo Bills painfully discovered. But coming off the bench after Brad Johnson cracked some ribs, he proved that in Tampa Bay, two Johnsons are better than one.

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