Are third-string QBs going extinct?

Being a backup QB can be frustrating at times, but the job pays well and has many built-in benefits, writes Matt Mosley.

Updated: March 9, 2007, 2:13 PM ET
By Matt Mosley | ESPN.com

One of the best ways to drive up your price as a backup quarterback in the NFL is to make sure you never take the field. I mean, if Matt Schaub can just keep this up, he'll be remembered as the man Michael Vick prevented from leading the Falcons to the Super Bowl.

Never before has so much money gone to men whom teams are praying they won't have to use.

Even though the league has gone to great lengths to protect quarterbacks, teams still pay a premium for reliable backups. Guys such as free agent Anthony Wright celebrated Jeff Garcia's success in Philadelphia because it makes their inactivity more marketable than ever.

Wright, 31, was in Denver on Wednesday interviewing to be Jay Cutler's backup, but by the time he arrived home Thursday, the Broncos had won a dubious bidding war for the services of former Redskins first-round pick Patrick Ramsey, who commanded $1.5 million in guaranteed money.

Wright, who spent last season backing up Carson Palmer in Cincinnati, has noticed a disturbing trend in the clipboard community: the disappearance of the third-string quarterback.

Anthony Wright
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesVeteran backup Anthony Wright threw only three passes last season in Cincinnati.

"If you have a pocket quarterback, there's not as much reason to carry three," he said. "It's the guys who run around all the time who get hurt."

Teams such as the Super Bowl champion Colts have eliminated the third wheel, in part, because coaches would rather obsess about deploying a fourth tight end or an eighth defensive back.

I counted at least 10 teams that began last season with only two quarterbacks on their 53-man rosters, and six of those teams made the playoffs. Because of the copycat nature of this league, don't be shocked if more of your favorite third-stringers go missing. It's easier -- and less expensive -- to simply keep a young quarterback on the practice squad. But it does eliminate one of the greatest gigs in all of sports.

A third-string quarterback for the Cowboys once told me he played golf three times a week. And that was during the season. Most career backups don't completely embrace their status until they wake up one day and realize they have functioning knees and pension plans. Backups are usually among the most popular players on the team because they represent change and a false hope for tomorrow.

Wright said the best backups are the ones who have a clear understanding of their roles.

"First, you have to provide assistance to the starter during the game," he said. "And second, you have to be mentally disciplined enough to prepare like you're going to start every week. When I hear some guys say they weren't ready, it just kills me."

Does the name Billy Joe Hobert ring a bell?

Wright, an undrafted player out of South Carolina, said Ravens coach Brian Billick told him he was the club's best quarterback heading into the 2003 season, but that Kyle Boller (first round) and Chris Redman (third round) would be first- and second-string.

"He told me I probably wasn't going to get a fair chance," Wright said. "And I wasn't happy about it."

Wright ended up replacing an injured Boller and led the Ravens to a 5-2 record over the final seven games. Last year, he had a great relationship with Palmer, who often asked for his input during games.

It's not easy to be friends with a man who covets your job, and that's why some teams try to pair young quarterbacks with veterans. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo worshipped Vinny Testaverde when the two were together in 2004, and Bill Parcells gave his former Jets quarterback a lot of credit for Romo's development.

On the other hand, Romo and Drew Bledsoe never connected, making the veteran's demotion last season even more awkward. To keep their edge, backup quarterbacks often compete in other sports during the offseason. Romo used to spend part of his offseason playing basketball and flag football.

"I had to either play basketball or rush home and play a video game," Wright said. "Or I might really come hard in seven-on-seven drills. You have to find a way to keep the edge."

Matt Mosley covers the NFL for espn.com. He can be reached at matt.mosley@sbcglobal.net.