I did actual research for this post (surprised face) and found out that all 31 NFL teams, and Cleveland, have a backup quarterback. Hell, almost everybody has two backup quarterbacks and a spare squirreled away on the practice squad. NFL Backups come in three flavors: The veteran journeyman that has had his day in the sun and then settled into a second tier job with another team. These grizzled men have a lot of miles on the tires but are wily and scrappy. These leathernecks can shake the rust off in the course of a TV timeout and come in to save a game or a season. Guys like this don’t get shook easily and make great mentors to young, up and coming, future NFL stars. Kurt Warner, Steve DeBurg, Drew Blesdoe, and Charlie Batch are who you want from this list.
The next flavor in the box of backups is the gunslinger in waiting. This is the high draft pick brought in to supplant the starter. Sure, he’s got the raw talent and an amazing skill set but is a year or two away from having all the tools to take over the team. This QB is most often studying at the feet of proven field general who knows his time in the spot light is going to fade, BUT NOT YET. The kid is going to have to earn his shot at starting, or the front office will decide that they can’t pay everyone with a jersey number under 20 ten million clams a season (oh, wow, look who’s ready to start). When these quarterbacks enter into emergency starting duty, the fans will react with excitement at getting a glimpse of the future and more than a little apprehension at whether or not the greenhorn will recognize a blitz or throw late over the middle.
The final category that backup quarterbacks fall into is the “I coulda been a contender” class. These dudes may have come out of college full of promise, with a team or two shoveling bucket loads of cash at them. Their hefty first contract may have handcuffed a team to them only to see the future fall apart rapidly, ala Ryan Leaf and a million other busts, or over time like Rick Mirer, Bubby Brister, Chad Pennington, or 675 zillion others. Maybe it was injury, or a terrible offensive line, or five offensive coordinators in six years, or the inability to read a professional defense, or you’re a head case, or the team feels like they need to start the guy that they just paid seven million bucks a year and you signed for six million a year. These men are the “unknown unknowns” that Donald Rumsfeld was talking about and they are just as dangerous as Rummy feared them to be. These could have, should have players are still looking for their shot to make it. They are skilled, flawed, talented, crazy, depressed, or angry. Bubby Brister ended up being a stellar backup to John Elway. Apparently the Bubster had no problems mopping up for Mr. Horseteeth.
I feel that the Steelers have one backup quarterback from the first grouping and one from the last.
Charlie Batch is the ideal back up for Ben Roethlisberger. He’s calm, immobile, and knows the playbook. In short, he’s the Anti Ben. Ben looks up Charlie between every series and confers with him on what he’s seeing on the field. I’m not saying that Batch is smarter than Ben or that he is a better quarterback. I’m saying that Charlie can digest the game plan and the playbook and then give Roethlisberger the Cliff’s Notes while the defense is on the field. Batch got a raw deal in Detroit yet was still an effective player. He was up against injuries, Barry Sanders retiring on him, a poor offensive line, and Matt Freaking Millen! Batch was probably suffering from PTSD so badly when he got to Pittsburgh that he didn’t even notice that he was third on the depth chart behind Tommy (gun) Maddox and Kordell (I got nothing) Stewart. Charlie has turned in a respectable 5-2 record in spot starts with the Steelers. He is the rarest of quarterbacks; a guy who had high expectations (2nd round pick), got injured, and then let go and yet has been able to assume a successful supporting role (in his hometown of all places).
That brings me to Byron Leftwich. Everything about that guy is unsettling to me but maybe that’s just my natural unease concerning people named Byron (it’s true). Leftwich still thinks he’s a starter although the only place he’s had much starting success is in Jacksonville. Like Batch, He’s no stranger to the raw deal. His career has been plagued by injuries, some of them very serious, and being the quarterback for some teams that were a piece or two removed from past (Tampa) or future (Atlanta) success. That has got to mess with a dude’s mind. I, unlike totally, everyone, I know wasn’t all that excited to hear about Leftwich becoming a Steeler in 2008 (and not just because his name was Byron). If you remember, Ben was beginning to have a little um, public relations problem around that time. My fear was that Leftwich, with something to prove, would arrive in Pittsburgh and get pushed into a temporary starter’s role and then start the mother of all quarterback controversies. He came and went without destroying any team chemistry and was more than helpful to the Home Team. Byron Leftwich can play good backup football (when he’s not injured) but still sees himself as the number one. So, he left the Steelers in the off season and signed with the Buccaneers and ended up being the 2009 starter there, for a while (0-3 will get a guy benched). Then, in a big old ‘wait, what?’ moment, Leftwich and his awkward release get traded to Pittsburgh for a handful of magic beans or something.
Leftwich and Batch have taken turns being injured over their years in Pittsburgh but they are still around. I am fine with Batch as the primary backup but it’s about time for the Steelers to look to that future star to fill that role.
Interesting (or not) six degrees of Joey Harrington: Harrington supplants Batch as Detroit starter, ends up as a starter in Atlanta where he gets bumped in favor of Byron Leftwich.