Commentary

Mental toughness sets these ex-backup QBs apart

Expect longtime backup quarterbacks Damon Huard, Matt Schaub and David Garrard to succeed this season, Jeffri Chadiha writes.

Updated: September 7, 2007, 2:00 PM ET
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Damon Huard had to acknowledge the obvious during his Thursday news conference: It felt pretty good to be in his shoes. After opening his previous 10 NFL seasons as a backup for three different teams, he will be the Chiefs' starter when they open Sunday against Houston.

Huard actually had waited so long for this moment that he offered some perspective when asked about his comfort level with his new job.

Damon Huard
G. Newman Lowrance/Getty ImagesDamon Huard passed for 1,878 yards and 11 touchdowns for Kansas City last season.

"I don't know if you're ever really comfortable," he said. "You always realize this league is about results and if you don't produce, they replace you. So while I'm excited, I also know you're never really comfortable [in this job] until the season is over."

Huard clearly understands the same things that every backup-turned-starting quarterback must know: The key to survival is never taking anything for granted. It's a lesson that two other players in Huard's position will apply this season -- Houston's Matt Schaub and Jacksonville's David Garrard are both becoming full-time starters after spending multiple seasons as backups. Expect all three to succeed. They've held clipboards for years. They've waited patiently for opportunities that were never certain to come. And when they've had chances to play in the past, they've all proved they have enough talent to handle the job.

Huard beat out second-year player Brodie Croyle during training camp because he has been steady enough to make head coach Herm Edwards feel comfortable about his offense. Garrard won the full-time job over Byron Leftwich, the Jags' starter the past four years, because Garrard's mobility and strong arm gave Jacksonville more playmaking possibilities. And, of course, we all know how Schaub impressed people as Michael Vick's backup in Atlanta the past three years. Now, the Texans believe he is ready for bigger things in a city starving for a consistent quarterback and a winning season.

This trio joins a group of signal-callers who already know a little bit about paying dues and then capitalizing on opportunities. This year 10 starting quarterbacks can say they began their careers without many people believing in their chances for winding up where they are today. The list ranges from Pro Bowlers (New England's Tom Brady and St. Louis' Marc Bulger) to journeymen (Detroit's Jon Kitna), but these men constitute more than just an interesting trend. They represent ample evidence of the best way for a quarterback to develop in the NFL.

We're all familiar with the argument about what helps a young quarterback more: playing immediately or sitting for a year on the sideline. But that's a debate that centers on a certain type of QB, the supposed can't-miss first-round pick. Nobody said much about Huard, Schaub and Garrard as rookies because they were unheralded and considered unlikely starters. Rarely do we take the time to see what commonalities might have helped them all attain their current success. And believe me, there are plenty of important factors here.

For one thing, some backup quarterbacks can be productive starters because many know how to prepare themselves mentally for the position. Because they receive so little practice time during the regular season, they learn the game by studying it instead of relying on their physical gifts to carry them in tough times. That attention to detail often pays off.

"One of the best things I learned as a backup was how to prepare," Schaub said. "I had to know all the checks, and I had to determine how I would respond to certain situations that I saw Michael Vick in. Even though I wasn't playing, I knew approaching things that way would help me be on top of my game mentally. After that, the physical part would come."

Huard did the same thing in Kansas City. Many people scoffed at the Chiefs' chances for a winning season when Huard's predecessor, Trent Green, suffered a severe concussion that sidelined him for eight weeks last season. By the time Green was healthy, Huard had played well enough (11 touchdowns, one interception and five wins) that a heated public debate ensued over whether Green should get his job back. The key to Huard's success: He didn't play as if he thought he was merely a backup.

Schaub was no different in Atlanta -- where his inspired play during only two career starts turned many heads around the league -- while Garrard posted a 10-8 record as a starter during his five previous years in Jacksonville. That's the next thing backup quarterbacks have going for them: their mental toughness.

Backups to big time
Former unheralded backup quarterbacks who worked their way into starting jobs:
Tom Brady, New England
Matt Schaub, Houston (backup in Atlanta)
Damon Huard, Kansas City (backup in Kansas City, New England and Miami)
Trent Green, Miami (backup in Washington, San Diego and St. Louis)
David Garrard, Jacksonville
Jake Delhomme, Carolina (backup in New Orleans)
Jon Kitna, Detroit (backup in Seattle and Cincinnati)
Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle (backup in Green Bay)
Marc Bulger, St. Louis
Tony Romo, Dallas

"A lot of these guys have a great deal of resilience because of their experiences," Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Al Saunders said. "When they get a chance to play, they often have an obvious ability to handle their emotions and deal with disappointment. It's not that they feel less pressure. It's that they've learned how to handle it better than some of the higher-drafted players."

This ability to persevere is crucial because as Huard, Garrard and Schaub likely know, the good vibes will eventually end at some point. Most scouts say that it generally takes a few weeks before defensive coordinators start discovering ways to attack new starters. That's when you really see the capabilities of certain players. Teams will throw different looks at them and they'll test their ability to adjust. But something tells me these three players won't fade when they struggle. They've endured too much to reach this point in the first place.

If anything, they'll serve as valuable examples to the other current backups who might be longing for their own opportunities. Some of those players may never be good enough to start somewhere, but history has shown us that a fair amount will. And what they should know is that riding the bench is going to be the most important thing they do to prepare themselves to play. It may not be fun, but it's the best way to learn how to last as a quarterback in the NFL.

Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.