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

First off, Patrick, you omitted one key item. Fans are only invested in their team's backup quarterback if the starter sucks. Quick, name Eli Manning's backup on the Giants. No? How about Tom Brady's? Aaron Rodgers's? Ben Roethlisberger's?

They would be David Carr, Brian Hoyer, Matt Flynn, and the aforementioned Charlie Batch, who actually cracked mediocrity for a couple of seasons with the Lions. That's four guys almost no one has mentioned this year and won't give a second thought to unless one of the elite signal-callers they're backing up goes down or stops winning.

Which brings me to my main point: If you're looking for an American cultural foible to explain our love of the backup QB, it's impatience. We as a country have grown increasingly unwilling to slog through hard times and wait patiently for future success. Whether it's angry voters demanding Barack Obama change things NOW (if not YESTERDAY) or fans scoffing at their favorite band exploring a new musical direction, Americans want results now, and if we can't get them from you we will happily look elsewhere right away.

Maybe it's because we have too much choice, as the digitalization of life gives us endless recourses if something doesn't immediately go as planned, all just a click away. Maybe it's too much modern comfort that's caused to forget that success is a process, often an arduous one. Whatever the reason, football is not immune from our never-ending quest for The Next Best Thing or Something Better Than The Thing We Have Now (or as I like to call it, the iPhone phenomenon). And as long as Daniel Snyder is a football owner and the Marino Curse hangs over Miami, there will be fan bases looking for something better at quarterback.

Am I onto something, Emma? Or is our obsession with backup QBs more prosaic than I've made it out to be?

–Jake

I think you're onto something, Jake, but we're missing a key component to the fan psychoanalysis underway here: Committed sports fans are impatient, yes, but they also love the idea that they have tangible control over their teams. There's another layer to the endless hours we spend discussing our lineups, our depth charts, the trades our teams should be making, and of course, the best man to stand under center every Sunday, and it's all about eventually being right.

And while a substantial chunk of that compulsion gets tempered by fantasy leagues, it's not ever enough. We talk, we tweet, we email, and through it all we're convinced that we're the first to say it; that no one has ever thought that Tebow should get a start over Kyle Orton (even if it's literally on a billboard in Denver). So when John Fox finally made the announcement, every casual Broncos fan in Colorado got the satisfaction of saying, "I called it."

Then there's the underdog element. Pro football doesn't always have a viable underdog—especially in seasons like this one, when all of the basement teams in the league are rallying around a cry to " Suck For Luck." Football's classic underdogs are the backups (for reference, please refer to Matt Saracen in Friday Night Lights, Rudy Ruettiger in Rudy, Willie Beamen in Any Given Sunday, the entire cast of The Little Giants, and the inspiration for the train wreck that was The Replacements).

It's hard to remember it now, but even Tom Brady was "the underdog"—a sixth-round draft pick with only one completed pass in his rookie year in the pros—for a season and a half in New England. I wonder if, when Belichick made the switch, which was initially only made to rehab an injured Bledsoe, some kind of mythology was born or at least strengthened for NFL fans. The Pats were 5-11 with Bledsoe in 2000; Brady led them to an 11-5 season and a Super Bowl just a year later. With apologies to Broncos fans, it's not by any means a proven system, but it's enough to make us think, at least for a week, that everything will be different now. And there's nothing wrong with that delusion.

What do you think, Hampton? Do football fans need a reality check?

–Emma

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.

–Hampton

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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