TGS NFL SPECIAL REPORT...GLORY DAYS NO MORE FOR BACKUP QBS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
Before his passing in 2002, former great Baltimore Colts QB Johnny Unitas would often attend Baltimore Ravens games, occasionally mingling with the press corps. Unitas was not one to draw attention to himself, but being Johnny U, would invariably draw a crowd around him at a football game. And we recall our contacts in Baltimore relaying such Unitas sightings, when Johnny U would often be asked to evaluate the QBs of the modern game, compared to his playing days several decades earlier.
"The game has become overcoached," was a favorite Unitas lament of modern-day pro football, but he made sure to make another point to his listeners when talking about the new-era QBs. "And most of these quarterbacks today have never had to call a game."
Johnny U usually wouldn't go much further in his observations, but he didn't have to, really. The Master had spoken, his point conveyed.
We are often reminded of Unitas' commentary when watching some of the modern-day teams and their quarterbacks...especially backup QBs when called into duty. And often during those moments, we begin to understand why the league has become so protective of its signal-callers. For many teams, the drop-off between first and second-string QBs is steep.
And when watching many of these backups struggle, we recall the Unitas quotes even more. Indeed, some of these relief pitchers have little or no business being in the game, and called upon to step into the most-important position on the field. Watching the likes of Kansas City's Brodie Croyle, Green Bay's Matt Flynn, and Minnesota's Tarvaris Jackson all look incompetent in relief last week, as did Miami's Tyler Thigpen a few weeks ago, must have made Unitas roll over in his grave. These were prime examples of his observations regarding modern-day QBs, performers whose entire careers behind center have been scripted by assistant coaches and offensive coordinators who call all of the plays. Those relievers without a lot of playing time under their belts often lack the experience or confidence to improvise. How could they, with their respective coordinators doing all of the thinking for them, and without the on-field presence of some of the league's starters who at least have played enough to be comfy exercising a bit more leeway with instructions from the sidelines?
But it wasn't always that way when backup QBs were forced into action. We recall our earliest memories of pro football in the 1960s, and how most teams could turn to backup QBs with confidence. Of course, the NFL and AFL of the '60s was a different time and era than pro football today. There were fewer teams; from 1961-65, there were 14 NFL franchises, and just 8 in the old AFL. The leagues began to expand in the middle of the 60s, but there were fewer teams in those days, and thus fewer QB jobs. It would figure that a higher-caliber performer would be backing up the starter in those days, especially in the 14-team NFL. Compared to the modern-day 32-team league, one could rationalize that all of the starting QBs and their backups in the early '60s would be starters in a 32-team league. The equation is altered slightly when adding the-then 8-team AFL into the equation, but that is not the point of our discussion.
Still, we're convinced the backup QBs of the '60s were several cuts above their counterparts of today. And despite all of the upgrades and innovations we see in the modern-day NFL, none of that seems to help the product when an overmatched QB is called from the bench to relieve an injured, or sometimes ineffective, starter.
Backup QBs just ain't what they used to be.
Before rating the current crop of backup QBs, we thought it might be interesting to recall what we believe was a "glory day" for backup QBs in the 1960s. Many backup QBs in that era had spent several seasons in starting roles earlier in their careers. And often, the dropoff between first and second-string was not nearly as pronounced as it is today.
We are firm believers, however, in not comparing statistics from different eras. Some of the most-profound changes of the game have come on the offensive side of the football, the aerial game in particular. Highly-evolved ball-control passing games, which became en vogue during Bill Walsh's days running the West Coast offense in San Francisco and further refined in the quarter-century since, serve to inflate completion percentages. Thus, comparing QBs from different eras based upon completion percentages and various other stats would be missing the mark. Respective W-L marks when forced into a starting role, however, might be an appropriate gauge.
Following are some cases in point as we review a lineup of various and distinguished second-string QBs from the 1960s.
Earl Morrall...The all-time backup QB, who took over for an injured Johnny Unitas two weeks into the Baltimore Colts' 1968 season and led Don Shula's team to the Super Bowl. Not even Unitas could wrest the job from Morrall when he became well enough to return later in a season in which Morrall would earn MVP honors. By this stage of his career, however, Morrall was a grizzled veteran, in his thirteenth season, having started games in ten of his twelve previous campaigns for a variety of other teams (San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and the Giants, where he was first-string in 1965 and '66 until KO'd by injury). Morrall was at it again four years later in 1972 with the Dolphins when Bob Griese went down in week five; it was Morrall who completed the Dolphins' 14-0 regular season and stayed in the lineup until the AFC championship game at Pittsburgh, when Griese returned. Morrall stuck around a few more years, playing infrequently, but could still influence games, relieving Don Strock at the end of the 1975 season against Denver in a 14-13 win that kept the Dolphins' playoff hopes alive in the final week, and also getting one more start in 1976, his final year. Morrall's record as a starting QB (all in relief of injured starters) from 1968-76 was an astounding 33-4-1!
Jim Ninowski...A Michigan State product like Morrall, Ninowski was a serviceable journeyman backup through much of the 1960s. Originally signed by Cleveland, Ninowski was a first-stringer for much of 1960-62 with the Lions and then Browns once more, started 24 games over a three-season span, before settling in as Frank Ryan's backup in the mid 60s, including the Browns' championship year in 1964. Ninowski earned a few starts when Ryan was nicked up, including, incredibly, a rainy game I attended as a youth at the L.A. Coliseum in December of 1965 against the Rams. The Browns (who lost that day to the hot Rams, 42-7) split Ninowski's two starts in '65, and moving on to the Redskins later in the decade, split two more starts in 1968 after Sonny Jurgensen went down. One of those was a near-memorable upset on Thanksgiving night in Dallas, when the Redskins entered the Cotton Bowl a 3-TD underdogs but forged a 20-19 lead behind Ninowski deep into the 4th Q, only to eventually succumb 29-20. Ninowski's 15-15-1 career record as a starter was an indicator that he could function effectively if called upon.
Gary Cuozzo...Cuozzo was highly-regarded when drafted by the Colts out of the University of Virginia in 1963, but didn't get a lot of opportunity to play behind Johnny Unitas. When given the chance, however, Cuozzo usually shined, and was relatively effective when starting three times for an injured Johnny U in 1965 & '66. Cuozzo himself was KO's in a late December '65 game against Green Bay that paved the way for Tom Matte's memorable 2-game stint as emergency QB for Shula at the end of '65, but over '65-66 Cuozzo tossed 11 TDP and only 6 picks, which in those days was an impressive positive TDP/int. ratio. Left unprotected in the 1967 expansion draft, he was the first pick of the New Orleans Saints and performed decently for the new expansion team, leading it to what at the time was an expansion record 3 wins. Cuozzo became a backup again the next season when traded to Minnesota, ably relieving Joe Kapp when needed, then taking over as the starter in 1970 when Kapp refused to report and was eventually traded to the Patriots. Cuozzo was mostly a starter for the last three years of his career at Minnesota and St. Louis before retiring to become a dentist. His career record as a starter was 21-19, and his teams never had to worry if he was called in from the bench in relief.
King Hill...The NFL's top draft choice by the Chicago Cardinals out of Rice in 1958, Hill never quite lived up to his reputation although he did carve out a workmanlike career before moving into the coaching ranks for a decorated run as an NFL assistant. Hill played little as a rookie but started much of the 1959 season for the Cardinals before they moved to St. Louis, where he backup up Sam Etcheverry before being traded to the Eagles, where he was the relief pitcher behind Sonny Jurgensen, then Norm Snead, for much of '60s. After Snead went down late in the '66 season, Hill led the Birds to a pair of clutch wins at San Francisco (in which he threw 3 TD passes) and in the finale against Cleveland to secure second place in the old Eastern Conference, which in those days qualified the Eagles for what was called the "Playoff Bowl" against West runner-up Baltimore.
Jack Concannon...The pride of Boston College was known as a "poor man's Fran Tarkenton" during the '60s, in which he began as one of the backup QBs along with King Hill in Philadelphia before moving to the Bears in 1967, where he was an off-and-on starter the next five years before wrapping up his career with Green Bay and Detroit. Concannon, like Hill, also won his two starts with the '66 Eagles in relief of the injured Snead. Concannon completed over 50% of his passes during his career, a nice accomplishment in those days, while recording a 20-24 record as a starter. Concannon also scrambled for 1026 rushing yards and 12 rush TDs throughout his career. Another QB whom coaches could rely upon to produce a serviceable effort if called upon.
Rudy Bukich...Drafted by the Rams out of nearby Southern Cal in 1953, Bukich hung around the league for many years as a little-used backup, bouncing between L.A., Washington, Chicago, and Pittsburgh before resurfacing in Chicago in 1962 as vet Billy Wade's backup. Bukich did win four of seven starts with the Steelers in 1961 after Bobby Layne went down with a bad shoulder, then was dealt to the Bears in '62. Bukich was effective in a handful of relief performance during the Bears' '63 title season, and filled in even more admirably for Wade in '64. By 1965, Bukich had become the Bears' starter and posted the best numbers of his career, including 20 TDP and only 9 picks. A rookie RB named Gale Sayers provided assistance. In 1964-65, Bukich posted a 12-4 mark as a starter along with completing nearly 60% of his passes (and not much short stuff), with 32 TDP and only 16 picks...impressive numbers in that era, and in his 12th and 13th years in the league. Overall Bukich was 21-14-3 as a starter.
Zeke Bratkowski...Well-known as Bart Starr's backup during the Packers' championship years, Bratkowski was already a seasoned veteran by that time, having started a handful of games for George Halas' Bears in the late '50s and mostly full-time duty as the starter for wretched Rams teams in 1961-63 before Vince Lombardi brought him to Green Bay as Starr's reliever early in the '63 season. Between 1964-68 Bratkowski was called upon to start at least one and as many as five games each season in relief of the oft-injured Starr, defining "serviceable" in the process, and went almost all of the way after Starr was KO'd early in the dramatic 1965 Western Conference playoff win over Tom Matte and the Colts. Bratkowski completed 53% of his passes for the Pack, from which he retired after '68 but returned again briefly in 1971.
Bill Nelsen...The QB of Southern Cal's 1962 national title team, Nelsen spent the early portion of his career in Pittsburgh playing on a succession of brutal (bad brutal) Steelers teams. But Nelsen was usually effective when called upon by coaches Buddy Parker, Mike Nixon, or Bill Austin (those were the days in which the Steelers coaches didn't have a long shelf life), as starters Ed Brown, Ron Smith, and Kent Nix all were in and out of the lineup. When Austin opted for Nix as his man in 1968, Cleveland HC Blanton Collier shrewdly move in and picked up Nelsen to relieve an aging and battered Frank Ryan, and Nelsen promptly led the Browns to back-to-back NFL title games in 1968 & '69.
Criag Morton...Much ballyhooed when drafted out of Cal after the 1964 season, Morton was a highly-regarded "QB of the future" for most of the late '60s in Dallas and occasionally the source of debate in Big D when fans wondered if Don Meredith shouldn't be benched. Tom Landry picked spots carefully for Morton, including the regular-season finale in 1966 vs. the lowly Giants when Landry wanted to make sure some key performers wouldn't be hurt for the upcoming NFL title game vs. the Packers. Morton usally performed well in his stints, and when Meredith retired after the 1968 season, Morton assumed the starting job. It was also in 1969 that Roger Staubach's tour of duty with the Navy ended and he joined the Cowboys, although it was a few years before "Roger the Dodger" would officially take over in Dallas. Morton, who lost the job to Staubach midway through 1971's Dallas Super Bowl year, was an effective reliever in '72 when Staubach went out with a shoulder separation in preseason, and Morton QB'd the Cowboys to a playoff berth before Staubach returned. Morton was subsequently traded to the Giants and then to Denver, where he earned his greatest honors when leading the Broncos to their first Super Bowl in the magic year of 1977. Morton played all of the way until 1982 and eventually had his name placed in the Broncos' "Ring of Fame" at Mile High Stadium (and later Invesco Field).
Meanwhile, many of the AFL teams featured capable backup QBs as well. The mid '60s AFL version of Cuozzo was Buffalo's Daryle Lamonica, who spent time backing up Jack Kemp but showed so much promise that Oakland's Al Davis sent his longtime starter Tom Flores as well as All-AFL WR Art Powell to the Bills to get Lamonica for 1967, and the rest is history. Of course, along with Lamonica, Davis lured vet George Blanda, who had started most of the previous seven seasons for the Oilers but became a trusted and valued backup (and a historic one) for Oakland into the mid '70s. Pete Beathard was an exciting backup QB to Len Dawson in Kansas City through the mid '60s until Houston HC Wally Lemm picked him up early in the '67 campaign, promptly leading the Oilers to the AFL title game and competitive showings the next few years. Illinois' Mike Taliaferro performed well in Joe Namath's place in the mid '60s before being traded to the Boston Patriots, where he became a starter in 1968 and '69. And, a few years earlier, Sid Gillman's San Diego Chargers had quite a QB combo, with vet Tobin Rote and young John Hadl, while Cotton Davidson was a lively and experienced backup to Flores in Oakland before the Lamonica trade. When Pete Liske arrived in Denver to back up Steve Tensi in 1969, he had several years of experience as a CFL QB (and a Grey Cup at Calgary) under his belt, and was rather effective for Lou Saban the next two years (even outperforming the injury-prone Tensi). Of course, many remember the excitement the Broncos' Marlin Briscoe, the first black QB of the modern era, generated in relief of Tensi in 1968.
Which brings us to the present, and the current lineup of backup QBs. It's our opinion that teams which go cheap on their backup QBs often pay the price, although in truth there might not be a lot of good ones out there today. Former starters, such as Dallas' Jon Kitna, are traditionally well-suited to relief roles, but some former first-stringers have been known to price themselves out of the market, and out of a job. In the 60s, teams thought nothing of paying two quality QBs. Nowadays, vets such as Kitna have to be prepared to take significant pay cuts if they want to stick around the league.
Following is our team-by-team look at the current backup QB situations in the league, with an accompanying letter grade (the traditional A to F). The grades apply to their capabilities as a backup, and relation to other second-string QBs.
Arizona-Derek Anderson (B-). Atlanta-Chris Redman (B). Baltimore-Marc Bulger (A-). Buffalo-Brian Brohm (C-). Carolina-Brian St. Pierre (D). Chicago-Todd Collins (C+). Cincinnati-Jordan Palmer (D). Cleveland-Seneca Wallace (B+).
Dallas*-Stephen McGee (D-). *-Normal backup Jon Kitna is now starting, and would rate an A-. Denver-Brady Quinn (C-). Detroit*-Zac Robinson (D). *-Normal backup would be Shaun Hill (A) and current starter Drew Stanton (B-). Green Bay-Matt Flynn (D+). Houston-Dan Orlovsky (C-). Indianapolis-Curtis Painter (D-). Jacksonville-Trent Edwards (B-). Kansas City-Brodie Croyle (D).
Miami-Tyler Thigpen (C-). Minnesota-Tarvaris Jackson (B). New England-Brian Hoyer (B-). New Orleans-Chase Daniel (D+). NY Giants- Sage Rosenfels (B). NY Jets-Mark Brunell (B-). Oakland-Kyle Boller (B-, but wife Carrie Prejean an A++). Philadelphia-Kevin Kolb (A).
Pittsburgh-Charlie Batch (A-). St. Louis-A.J. Feeley (B-). San Diego-Billy Volek (A). San Francisco-Troy Smith (B-). Seattle-Charlie Whitehurst (D-). Tampa Bay-Josh Johnson (D). Tennessee-Rusty Smith (F). Washington-Rex Grossman (C-).
Not many Earl Morralls or George Blandas in that bunch!
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