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Backups more important than ever

4/4/2008

Normally, you don't pay much attention to them during the game. The only time you generally see them in action is if they're holding for place kicks. Otherwise, the only time you see them on the field is during pregame warm-ups and postgame handshakes. And during the game, if you care enough to look, you see them on the bench holding a clipboard and maybe wearing a headset.

During a normal AFL game, these guys are more anonymous than the kickers. But they have become the most important people on the field so far this year. When people look back at the first month of the season, I think that March 2008 will go down as the Month of the Backup Quarterback.

Of course, it helps that backup quarterbacks around the league got more opportunities than normal to show their stuff. Entering Week 4 of the season, eight teams had already shuffled starting quarterbacks, whether due to injury or inefficiency. The results were mixed in Arizona and New York, with Jeff Smoker and Rohan Davey each losing games for their teams.

Things stayed the same in Kansas City, where an ineffective John Fitzgerald gave way to Matt Kohn, who got hurt and gave way to Fitzgerald again. No matter who the QB in KC has been, the Brigade have yet to finish a game with a win and now they've handed the starting reigns to D. Bryant.

But other places have seen success despite losing their opening night starter. Dallas and Philadelphia are the only two undefeated teams left in the league. As usual, quarterback play has been a big reason for their success, but Clint Dolezel and Tony Graziani haven't been there every step of the way.

Many of you remember Matt D'Orazio leading the Chicago Rush to the playoffs as their starting quarterback last year. You probably also remember watching D'Orazio tough it out through a painful back injury that left him stumbling, squatting, and staggering his way through much of the season.

That injury forced D'Orazio to have back surgery, and when he didn't recover as quickly as the Rush liked, they released him. When Philadelphia signed D'Orazio as an insurance policy for Tony Graziani, D'Orazio immediately became the best backup quarterback in the AFL.

Even though his role and his uniform have changed, everything else is still the same for D'Orazio.

"I'm approaching every day as I approached it in Chicago," D'Orazio said in a phone interview with ESPN.com last week. "Obviously this is Tony's team, but for right now I'm just trying to keep the team on course. I work hard at trying to get better everyday, learning our offense, trying to see what the other team's defense is doing, and just trying to have fun. So I'm not changing too much."

D'Orazio's approach is exactly why the Soul didn't necessarily panic after a borderline late hit leveled Graziani and knocked him out of action. D'Orazio's play is largely why Philadelphia is still undefeated.

With D'Orazio in the fold, most people thought the Soul would be fine without Tony Graziani. But Dallas without Clint Dolezel? That scenario was unthinkable until Dolezel separated his throwing shoulder during an opening week win at Georgia.

Enter Chris Sanders, the fifth-year signal caller who has done more than just steady the ship for the Desperados. He's thrown 18 touchdowns versus just three picks in four-and-a-half games of relief duty. And most importantly, he's kept Dallas out of the "loss" column.

His finest hour came in San Jose, where he threw six touchdowns and led Dallas to an eye-opening win over San Jose. That feat is impressive in itself, but the fact that Sanders led the team to a road win on a short week against the defending champs makes it even more remarkable. Sanders wasn't as impressive this past week in a grinding win over New York, and Clint Dolezel is poised to return to the field this week against Cleveland. Still, Sanders did not lose a game as the Desperados' temporary starter.

Two other backups have come from out of nowhere and made names for themselves. Danny Wimprine relieved an injured Steve Bellisari during an opening-night loss to Los Angeles, and he has led the suddenly dangerous New Orleans VooDoo to four straight wins. And in Grand Rapids, James MacPherson has stepped in for Adrian McPherson and helped the Rampage to an AFL-record 176 points in their past two games. At this rate, those two backups-turned-starters may become two of the season's bigger stories.

When the AFL announced its Players of the Month this week, not one backup quarterback was recognized. Guys like Sanders, D'Orazio, MacPherson, and Wimprine might not be getting a whole lot of recognition just yet, but their teammates know how valuable those guys are to their respective teams.

It's no secret that the hottest teams in the league right now are getting the best play from their quarterbacks. But what is surprising is that all of these hot quarterbacks were on ice back in Week 1.

Troy Clardy hosts "Inside the AFL", ESPN's official arena football podcast, posted Thursdays on ESPN's PodCenter. You can drop him a line at troy.clardy@espn.com.