Tim Tebow, Messiah: Why Do NFL Fans Love Backup Quarterbacks So Much?

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Understanding why so many football fans believe that their team would be better if another guy were throwing the passes

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Emma Carmichael (writer, Deadspin), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), talk about the American obsession with second-string QBs.


Hey, guys,

When our Founding Fathers settled on an inefficient, ungainly, checked n' balanced system of semi-representative republican government—as opposed to one-man, one-vote direct democracy and/or the Don't Tax Me, Bro! referendum model favored by California—they did so for one very good reason.

The public—you know, We the People and such—has downright dubious taste.

Consider our cultural obsession with postgame coach handshake etiquette. And zombies. And—yes, I really am going somewhere with this—pro football's answer to an undead daywalker who spends his working hours shambling along the sidelines.

Backup quarterbacks, of thee we sing.

Too much, I think.

In many NFL cities, the most popular player is the dude on the sidelines making hand signals, wearing a pristine jersey and an un-bent ballcap, the guy who has yet to throw a drive-killing, soul-destroying interception, or answer to the formal title "Mr. Grossman," a man who offers more hope and change than a Shepard Fairey presidential campaign poster. Christian Ponder replaces Donovan McNabb; John Beck replaces Rex Grossman; the Oakland Raiders acquire Carson Palmer; Tim Tebow riseth; in each and every case, football fans get as hot and bothered as probable Republican primary voters considering somebody—anybody—who isn't Mitt Romney.

And so, I ask: what gives? Why the irrational exuberance for the opening of Door No. 2?

Look, here's the historical truth about backup quarterbacks: They're not wearing headsets by accident. If your team is super-super-super lucky, Drew Bledsoe begets Tom Brady; if your team is merely super-super lucky, Beldsoe begets Tony Romo. Congrats. You are now in the 1 percent. Most of the time and for mostly everyone else, a quarterback switch means swapping Derek Anderson for Max Hall, a 1980s junk bond for an—ahem—AAA-rated subprime mortgage security. Beck hasn't started in four years. Now he's Sammy Baugh? Palmer's last truly good season corresponded with that of the Real Housewives television franchise. Now he's worth a first-round draft pick?

Please. I know better. I know that Bill Parcells was right—in the NFL, you are what your record is—and that Tebow's slow, awkward, God-forsaken throwing motion is not the signal-calling equivalent of Susan Boyle's frumpy looks.

The grass is not greener. The grass is Charlie Batch.

Jake, am I off base about backups? Can you defend—or at least explain—our ceaseless pining for them?

–Patrick

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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