Commentary

Backup QBs: Learn to rewire or retire

The former starter who accepts being an understudy gets hired more often

Originally Published: April 6, 2009
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

People wonder why Byron Leftwich doesn't have a job. They point to his solid résumé: a 24-22 starting record, terrific play last season for the Pittsburgh Steelers in relief of Ben Roethlisberger and the raw talent that made him the NFL draft's seventh overall pick in 2003.

The free-agent quarterback says money isn't an issue and all he wants is "a chance to compete," which is reasonable. So why can't former Jacksonville Jaguars starter Leftwich find work, especially when teams sign or trade for C-listers like Bruce Gradkowski and Chris Simms and Dan Orlovsky?

It's easy, really: Leftwich sees himself as a starter. And as long as that's the case, he'll be a terrible backup.

Contrary to popular belief, it doesn't always help a team if it has multiple Type A-personality QBs. And so Leftwich -- and to a lesser extent the delusional Jeff George, who at age 43 thinks he can still play -- is hurting himself when he says he wants a chance to compete. After all, that's not what a good backup would say.

There's an art to backup quarterbacking. Those who have mastered it have found steady employment for years, earning millions. A good backup has to perform several roles. But most of all, he has to know and accept that for the foreseeable future he's not starting. "You don't want guys who come in with a chip on their shoulder that they get screwed," says ESPN's Trent Dilfer, a former starter-turned-backup. "It can divide a team."

That mental rewiring can be foreign and brutal. But successful backups do it. Take Washington's Todd Collins. A second-round pick by the Bills in 1995, Collins was a one-time successor to Jim Kelly. He played 14 games in 1997, and when he hit free agency, considered himself a starter, like Dilfer did after leaving the Ravens in 2001, like Leftwich does now. "I thought I was ready," Collins says.

The market said otherwise. Collins signed with the Chiefs and backed up Elvis Grbac. Then he backed up Rich Gannon. Then Trent Green. Then in Washington Mark Brunell, and now Jason Campbell. Along the way, Collins learned that a good No. 2 holds much more than a clipboard.

First, he says, a backup has to be pure in his motives so that he earns the starter's trust. Only then does the No. 1 guy not feel threatened. For instance, last season Campbell, playing in his seventh offensive system in eight seasons going back to college, had a few questions about a pass-protection scheme, questions he was too embarrassed to ask. So Collins, being a friend first and a position rival second, asked the coaches for him. "It works much better when guys are working together on the same team," Collins says.

Sometimes, backups are a bridge to the coaches. Charlie Weis has often singled out Damon Huard as a major key to the New England Patriots winning it all in 2001, keeping the awkwardness between Drew Bledsoe and Tom Brady to a minimum. In 2007, Dilfer served as a go-between for starter Alex Smith and the San Francisco 49ers' coaches. Smith was playing with an injured right shoulder that was worse than he let on. Dilfer understood how important it is for a young quarterback, eager to prove his toughness, to not complain about an injury. So Dilfer did it for him. "That's one of the hats you have to wear," he says.

Of course, it's not easy. Quarterbacks by nature are dominant personalities, and a team only has room for two: the passer and the coach. But good backups learn to be systematically subservient. That trait is always in demand, which is why the good ones always find work, and eventually get a chance to start. It happened in December 2007, when Campbell was lost for the season with a knee injury. Collins had gone 10 years between starts, an NFL record (since the 1970 merger). But he led the Redskins to four straight victories and got them into the playoffs. That earned him a three-year, $9 million contract. "Just because you're a backup doesn't mean you won't have a chance to play," he says. "The best way to show you can play is to prepare, have a positive attitude and play well when you have a chance."

Collins knows he hasn't had a Hall of Fame career. But he's 37 and rich and still in the league, as more talented QBs have come and gone. And now Leftwich might be one of those guys.

The problem, of course, is that Leftwich thinks he's already been a good backup. He was behind Joey Harrington in Atlanta in 2007, and last year was Big Ben's understudy, for the veteran-minimum salary, no less. But even Leftwich admits that the market has been slow for his services. If he wants a job, he's got to adopt that mentality permanently. That means not asking for a chance to compete, but instead asking for a chance to earn his stripes … again.

I know; it's not fair. And it sounds miserable. But last January I was in the New York Giants' locker room, talking to David Carr. A year earlier, he'd been cut by the Houston Texans and signed by the Carolina Panthers, hoping to beat out Jake Delhomme. The Carolina experience flopped, and he eventually ended up behind Eli Manning. As I chatted with Carr, I expected the former No. 1 overall pick to be itching for a chance to be a starter again. Instead, he was all smiles. "It's been great, even though I'm not playing," he said.

Guess what? In February, he re-signed.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.

Seth Wickersham

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs. Email him and follow him on Twitter at @sethwickersham.