When the curtain falls on Super Bowl 41 in early February 2007, we will look back at the themes and trends of the past season. It is clear that 2006 -even though not complete yet- was the Year of the Backup Quarterback. At this time, week 12, fully half (16) of the teams in the National Football League have played or are playing their reserve signalcallers.
The reasons are myraid. High profile starters Trent Green, Byron Leftwich, Matt Hasselbeck, Chris Simms and Donovan McNabb were lost due to season-ending or multi-week injury. But that is only six, what -we will ask later on- happened to the other ten?
Pine (as in the kind for the bench) was in high demand in 2006. In the AFC alone, I present the evidence:
-Daunte Culpepper clearly wasn't his old self for the Miami Dolphins and got to take a seat in favor of Joey "Why-Don't-You-Kick-Me-Some-More-While-I'm-Down" Harrington.
-Vince Young was an obvious choice over Billy Volek and Kerry Collins, but it still took the Tennessee Titans a bunch of weeks to figure that out.
-The Pittsburgh Steelers SHOULD bench Ben Rethlisberger and start capable Charlie Batch, but they don't. Batch has seen action and produced when called upon.
-Damon Huard played at an All-Pro level for the Kansas City Chiefs while Trent Green got his head together (literally) for the entire first half and more of the season.
-Andrew Walter captained the near-mutiny Oakland Raiders for 10 weeks, taking over for the truly horrible Aaron Brooks.
-Philip Rivers stepped into the potential bloodbath of the Drew Brees release in San Diego and is now probably headed to the Pro Bowl for the once again super-Chargers.
-Rookie stallion with the cannon arm Jay Cutler now steps up for the Snake in Denver. An inevitable move as Shanahan can't trust (or can't get) Jake Plummer to manage games anymore.
- Honorable mention for seeing SOME meaningful snaps in the regular season: Kyle Boller of the Baltimore Ravens, relieving a concussed Steve McNair in the fistfight of a game against the Carolina Panthers. Sage Rosenfels of the Houston Texans stepped up for a benched David Carr.
-Jacksonville Jaguars' David Gerrard took over for Byron Leftwich and has kept the Jags in playoff contention.
In the NFC, the picture is somewhat rosier. Three of the six backup quartebacks are or were playing because of legitimate injury to the starter. Seneca Wallace , in place of Matt Hasselbeck, has kept the Seattle Seahawks playoff chances alive, and WITHOUT 2005 NFL MVP running back Shaun Alexander. Rookie QB Bruce "Don't-Call-Me-Vin-Diesel" Gradkowski is doing the best he can with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after taking over for the now spleen-less Chris Simms. And now begins the Jeff Garcia-AJ Feely roulette for the Philadelphia Eagles in the quest to replace nearly their entire offense, e.g. Donovan McNabb tore his Achillies.
The leash for underachieving starting quarterbacks was significantly longer for the NFC though. I guess that's what happens when your conference arrives in a short bus for the Super Bowl every year. Only an NFC team would start gray-bearded, butterfingered Kurt Warner over USC demi-god first-round draft pick movie star Matt Leinart. He lost two games in his four year college playing career. Two! And (who else?) the woeful Arizona Cardinals were that team. Now that Leinart is starting, my source in Phoenix tells me, they actually pull their heads OUT of their asses to see what the home field applause is all about. That peculiar din is a roaring crowd fellas, use your next first three draft picks on offensive lineman and it would happen much more often.
Tony Romo was handed the reigns of the Dallas Cowboys by a flinching and fearful Bill Parcells. Drew Bledsoe was pulled for impersonating Michelangelo's 'David' during the Monday Night game against the New York Giants. Parcells would rather pass a gall stone during a playoff game (and he actually did, Giants vs. Vikings 1990) than change starting quarterbacks mid-season. He did it with the 1990 Giants, inserting the untested (and beloved) but more mobile Jeff Hostetler for a slightly injured Phil Simms. It worked out pretty well then, too.
Jason Campbell now quarterbacks the Washington Redskins, Mark Brunell surrendering his starting position only when it appeared that the 'Skins were out of the playoff chase. But they have won a few with Campbell and are playing the spoiler role. Setting back a playoff-bound team, tastes ALMOST as good as the playoffs themselves.
So, there will be many images and themes and stories form the 2006 season; Martyball in San Diego alive and well, the resurgent New Orleans Saints, the 'second-half-of-the-season-only-please' AFC East beating the crap out of everybody. But no thematic thread will stretch further than that of the Backup Quarterback, a once overlooked and considered inconsequential position has now gravitated to the life-and-death core of nearly half the teams in these last bone-crunching weeks of the 2006 regular season.