NFL's backup QBs are invisible-- until disaster hits THE 'OTHER' GUYS

October 07, 1990|By Susan Reimer

The other football players refer to him as "The Guy," and you can hear the capital "T" and the capital "G" when they speak.

As in, "The Guy who is going to get it done for us. The Guy we can count on to get us into the end zone. The Guy who is going to get us to the Super Bowl."

Montana, Marino, Majik, Everett, Elway. These are The Guys.

But behind these great quarterbacks are "The Other Guys."

The backups.

They may be wizened veterans or marginal talents or heirs apparent. You might catch a glimpse of them during a timeout, eavesdropping on a sideline conversation between The Guy and The Coach. They are easy to spot with their baseball caps, their clean uniforms and their clipboards.

You won't hear much about them unless disaster strikes.

"But they are the second-most important position on the team," said Cleveland Browns vice president Ernie Accorsi.

"You need a franchise quarterback to compete in this league," said Accorsi. "But the other guy can take you out of contention faster than any other player on the field if he can't at least hold his own."

Babe Laufenberg, who has been a backup for six years with the Washington Redskins, San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints and now the Dallas Cowboys, likes to be referred to as a "journeyman."

"The dictionary defines that as someone competent but unspectacular," Laufenberg said. "People think of it as TC derogatory term, but it is not. We are guys who won't go in and lose a game for you."

Untapped competence, if not unexposed excellence, is only one of the traits a backup quarterback must have. He must also have his ego firmly in check.

"My dad asked me once if I could get him an autographed football," said Gary Kubiak, backup to John Elway with the Denver Broncos. "And he asked me especially if I could get John's signature on it.

"I said, 'Dad . . .' "

Only six quarterbacks among the league's 28 teams started all 16 games last season. This season is only four weeks old, and already starters are falling: Washington's Mark Rypien, the Minnesota Vikings' Wade Wilson, the Indianapolis Colts' Jeff George, the New England Patriots' Steve Grogan and the Detroit Lions' Rodney Peete.

And it is clear from their price tags that the National Football League places a premium on the quarterbacks who must hold it together until The Guy returns.

"That's one of the ways you keep them happy," said Accorsi, who pays Mike Pagel $550,000 a year to be ready in case something happens to Bernie Kosar.

"He is worth every penny to us," said Accorsi.

Pagel earned his keep in 1988 when he was 4-2 as a starter for the injured Kosar and Cleveland made it to the playoffs as a wild-card team.

Frank Reich performed as well for the Buffalo Bills last year and was rewarded in May with a five-year deal worth $600,000 a year.

The former Maryland quarterback was nearly cut in training camp, but he came off the bench for an injured Jim Kelly in a nationally televised game against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 6 and moved the team down the field to score the winning touchdown with less than a minute to play.

Reich led the Bills to victories over the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins the next two weeks, and his team, too, made the playoffs.

That three-game stretch earned Reich more than a pay hike.

"The one thing it did for me was give me a little respect among my peers, which is important," said Reich. "As a quarterback, you need that respect when you step out on the field. And those three games gave me that."

Money will not always keep a backup quarterback happy. After all, most of them were The Guy during their college careers. It is not easy to stand and chart plays when once you called them.

"Pagel started 40 games for the Colts," said Accorsi. "He's still young and he's antsy."

Reich is, too. "A little bit," he said. "Especially after having some success . . . it gives you that hunger to get back in there -- just because it is so much fun playing."

"It is difficult to keep everybody happy," said George Young, vice president of the New York Giants. He pays Jeff Hostetler $450,000 to back up 35-year-old Phil Simms. Hostetler is 29 and his biological clock is ticking. He might not have much time left for his career if Simms doesn't retire soon.

"The age thing has to be just right," said Young. "You either have to have a veteran behind a young guy or a real young heir apparent who knows he's going to get his chance some day. Real close together in age and you have a problem."

Consider Tony Eason. The seven-year veteran forfeited a week's pay -- $68,000 -- rather than report to the Jets, who had picked him up on waivers, because he did not want to compete against his contemporary, and best friend, Ken O'Brien. O'Brien eventually persuaded him to report.

A similar age problem between two younger players was resolved in Dallas last month when the Cowboys traded Steve Walsh, on the bench behind Troy Aikman, to New Orleans.

Add resolution -- and a good grip on reality -- to the list of qualities that you look for in your backup.

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