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Understudies in Futility

Salary cap has made the gifted No. 2 quarterback an unaffordable luxury

October 26, 2003|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

The Washington Redskins once had Mark Rypien as a backup quarterback. Now, they have Tim Hasselbeck, who has never thrown a pass in an NFL game.

The New York Giants had Jeff Hostetler. Now, they have Jesse Palmer, who has thrown four passes in his pro career.

The San Francisco 49ers had Steve Young. Now, they have Tim Rattay, whose pro dossier includes three touchdown passes.

Not so long ago, the player of second-most importance on any NFL roster was the No. 2 quarterback. Those days are gone.

Three of the league's 32 backup quarterbacks have never thrown a pass in an NFL game, and four more have never thrown a touchdown pass. Since the inception of the salary cap in 1993, no position has eroded as severely as the No. 2 quarterback.

Gone are the heady days of the 1980s when the Giants could afford Phil Simms as the starter, Hostetler as his backup and Jeff Rutledge as the No. 3. Shortly thereafter, the 49ers had Joe Montana, backed up by Young, backed up by Steve Bono.

Today, provided he's over his case of flu, Danny Kanell will be starting for Denver at Baltimore, and he will be backed up by Jarious Jackson, signed in a rush this week by the scrambling Broncos.

Kanell had been out of the league for two seasons, having played minor league baseball in 2001 and arena football in 2002, and had to cold-call NFL teams this spring just to get a tryout. (The Vikings didn't even know he was still playing, and sent him back a letter saying their coaching staff was complete.) Jackson, who lost the No. 3 job to Kanell last summer, threw only 13 passes in the last three seasons as a Bronco.

"In the age of the salary cap, so much money is invested in other positions, a lot of teams just decide to go light when it comes to backup quarterbacks," said Terry Donahue, general manager of the 49ers.

"You can gamble and go short until you need it. But when you need it, boy, you wish you had one."

The Broncos didn't think they were gambling when they started the season with Jake Plummer backed up by veteran Steve Beuerlein. It was a reach to think Kanell would even set foot on the field. But Plummer suffered a broken foot, and Beuerlein was lost in the third quarter last Sunday to a broken pinkie on his throwing hand. If Kanell had gotten hurt, Denver would have had to use receiver Rod Smith at quarterback.

Agent Leigh Steinberg, who has represented more than 50 NFL quarterbacks over the years, said it was "ludicrous" that some teams had only two on their roster and seemingly pay so little heed to a position that has the longest and steepest learning curve and requires meticulous coordination with receivers, running backs and offensive linemen.

"The salary cap cut the heart out of the second-quarterback position and in some cases totally eliminated the third-quarterback position," Steinberg said.

"In an age of highly complex offensive schemes, it is impossible to bring a player in who was teaching school or selling cars and ask him to throw into double coverage."

But teams do. Not only is the talent pool more shallow, now that the league has expanded to 32 teams, but there is a great deal of pressure on coaches to get young players on the field right away. Cincinnati Coach Marvin Lewis looks incredibly patient because he has yet to play No. 1 pick Carson Palmer, the rookie Heisman Trophy winner from USC. But, seven weeks into the season, Palmer already has advanced from No. 3 to No. 2 on the depth chart. The Bengals probably won't keep him off the field if they fall out of contention.

Because a player becomes an unrestricted free agent after five NFL seasons, allowing him to shop around for the best deal, teams want to know that player's potential right away. After all, why invest all that money and time in a player if you're simply training him to play for a competitor? And even if you don't have a spot for him on your roster, you can trade him, as Jacksonville traded Mark Brunell's backup, Rob Johnson.

"Backup quarterback is an inexact science," Tampa Bay General Manager Rich McKay said. "Some teams see it as a developmental position to bring along a guy you think might be your No. 1 one day. Other teams want a veteran there, someone who's ready to go on one play's notice."

There is no simple solution. Veteran backups can be extremely expensive, and there's often no way to make salary-cap space for them once the season has started. Vested veterans who make an opening-day roster are paid for the entire season, even if they are released later. That makes for precious little financial wiggle room.

Ernie Accorsi, general manager of the Giants, was an executive with the Baltimore Colts when Johnny Unitas was backed up by one of the most famous understudies in league history, Earl Morrall. Years later, Accorsi was the general manager in Cleveland, where in 1988 the Browns made the playoffs, despite six quarterback changes among four quarterbacks -- Bernie Kosar, Gary Danielson, Mike Pagel and Don Strock.

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