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

No, ma'am. NFL fans don't need a reality check. The people who run teams sometimes do, though. Here's a secret about the folks who run NFL front offices: they're human, so just as prone to mistakes as the rest of the naked apes. As evidence, consider the most dogged underdog in the history of the game.

Does the name Tony Banks ring a bell? For Kurt Warner, it does. In St. Louis, Banks and Trent Green kept the future Super Bowl MVP on the bench. Warner also backed up the likes of Josh McCown and Matt Leinart in Arizona, before taking the Cards to an NFC title. Injury-time aside, it seems like Kurt Warner spent a big chunk of his career as the best quarterback on the field, yet standing on the sidelines.

Or what of Rich Gannon? He fussed for years with the Vikings and Redskins. He left football for a season, and spent two more riding the pine in KC behind (gulp) Steve Bono and Elvis Grbac. At age 34, Gannon signed with Oakland. At 36, he won league MVP. All of Warner's successes, by the way, came after the old Barnstormer was over 35. Where Carson Palmer, the player that Patrick has already dismissed like (insert pop culture reference here) is still just 31-years-old.

The backup who hits it big, first off, repudiates one of the biggest fallacies in sports—that a performance in high school and college are good indicators of how a player will perform in the pros. That's particularly true for a job like quarterback, where even the best can take years to develop.

Along with badmouthing the American people, Patrick, you seem to be saying that all NFL starting QB's are better than their backups because the best inevitably rise to the top. Poppycock. Thanks for the Hobbes lesson, Herman Cain, but life is much less predictable and fair than you make it out. A football career in particular can be capricious and cruel, and succeeding or failing happens for a thousand different reasons, almost none a player can control. Inter-team front office politics, for instance. Sometimes a guy starts at QB because, like Leinart, the head coach and GM have bet their jobs on him. Or sometimes a guy is benched for youth's sake, as when Warner backed up the "Interception-Face" version of Eli Manning in New York.

Mostly, though, mere chance seems to drive our fate. Suppose that Kurt Warner doesn't hurt his elbow in 1997, and miss a tryout with the Bears. Suppose he gets signed by Chicago. He likely would have languished at windy Solider Field, ending up just another forgotten Bears QB. Warner probably only succeeded because his Arena-honed skills made him such an eerily perfect fit with what Mike Martz and Dick Vermeil were scheming in St. Louis. And as long as we are playing the "What if Eleanor Roosevelt Could Fly?" game, suppose the Patriots hadn't drafted Tom Brady. What if the Browns took him instead of, wait for it, Spergon Wynn. Are we really supposed to think Brady, through sheer force of his Brady-nes, would have brought the Lombardi trophy to Ohio? Puh-lease. Four or five seasons with weak offensive lines, and without having the Hoodie to serve as his Obiwan, and Tom may well have been on his way back to Ann Arbor for a job selling cars.

No, a fan's love for the backup quarterback is far more than impatience born of a digital life, or an excuse to rail against the false wisdom of crowds. The appeal of the underdog, Emma, comes closer, but still isn't quite big enough. There's something even more primal at work here. The backup who makes it big—the grocery store clerk turned Super Bowl MVP—speaks to our national faith in, and our utter obsession with reinventing ourselves. It speaks to the emblematic American faith in comebacks, in second chances, third acts, and sequels. Maybe, at it's most basic and most universal, loving the backup, underdog and understudy speaks to nothing more complicated, or more beautiful, than the fundamental human need to hope.


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Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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