Filling in the blank: The tough role of the backup quarterback


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Of all the backup quarterbacks in National Football League, probably none was more effective or performed his job better than Earl Morrall.

It wasn't just enough that he stepped in for Johnny Unitas and led the Baltimore Colts to a 13-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance in 1968. Or that two years later he replaced Unitas again and led the Colts to a Super Bowl V victory against Dallas.

But in 1972, playing for the Miami Dolphins, Morrall replaced injured Bob Griese and started 11 of the 17 games for the only undefeated team in pro football history that went on to win the Super Bowl. He even played in the Dolphins' 21-17 victory against the Steelers in the 1972 AFC championship at Three Rivers Stadium.

Morrall isn't alone.

Jeff Hostetler, a former West Virginia quarterback, came off the bench for an injured Phil Simms midway through the 1990 season and went on to quarterback the New York Giants to a Super Bowl championship.

Jim Plunkett is the only player to win the Super Bowl twice as a backup quarterback, replacing Dan Pastorini in 1980 and Marc Wilson in 1983 and leading the Oakland Raiders to Super Bowl victories each time.

Tom Brady was in his second season and had never started a game with the New England Patriots when he replaced injured starter Drew Bledsoe in Week 3 of the 2001 season. After a shaky start, he led the Patriots to the first of his three Super Bowl victories.

And then there was Kurt Warner, a former Arena League quarterback who became the starter for the St. Louis Rams in 1999 when Trent Green tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason. All Warner did was pass for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns during the regular season and lead the Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV, a game in which he won MVP for a record 414 yards passing and two touchdowns.

"I remember a guy like Don Strock, what he did when he was always coming in and rescuing the Dolphins and bringing them from behind," said former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, who knows a little something about being a backup quarterback. "They were always grooming someone else, whether it was David Woodley or [Dan] Marino, but he was always ready.

"That's the toughest thing about being the backup. You're helping the first-team quarterback, you're running the scout team, then producing when you're opportunity comes up."

Quality backups scarce

Injuries to high-profile quarterbacks are the topic of the week, and they involve several of the top teams in the league, including the Steelers.

Ben Roethlisberger will not play tonight against the Baltimore Ravens (7-2) at Heinz Field, and it's very possible he will not play when the teams meet again two weeks later in Baltimore after sustaining injuries to his throwing shoulder and ribs. The Steelers have never beaten the Ravens without Roethlisberger (0-4).

Byron Leftwich, who has 24 career victories but hasn't started a game since September 2009, will replace Roethlisberger. Behind him is Charlie Batch, who has 24 career victories but is 5-2 for the Steelers during his tenure as a backup. Compared to most of the other backup quarterbacks in the league, they look like Morrall and Plunkett.

"The Steelers really are fortunate to have Charlie and Byron there," said Dungy, a former Steelers defensive back and a studio analyst for NBC's Sunday Night Football. "It doesn't happen very much on contending teams. They've massaged their salary cap in other places so they're able to keep these older veteran backups."

The Steelers aren't the only contending teams with quarterback injuries.

The Chicago Bears (7-2) and the San Francisco 49ers (6-2-1) meet Monday night, and both teams lost their starting quarterbacks to concussions last week -- Jay Cutler and Alex Smith. That means the game could come down to a battle of backups -- Jason Campbell of the Bears and Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers.

Michael Vick, who has taken a beating all year, took another against the Dallas Cowboys when he, too, sustained what was termed a "pretty significant" concussion. He will be replaced by Nick Foles, who will make his first career start.

Last year, two teams had their seasons derailed because of bad backup quarterbacks. The Bears fell apart when Caleb Hanie had to replace Cutler, and the Colts went from a perennial playoff team to 2-14 once they lost Peyton Manning and the player who was signed out of retirement to replace him, Kerry Collins.

"Most teams who do lose their starters are like the Bears -- they go from playoff contenders to not. There are very few teams who can handle it."

Why are there so few quality backup quarterbacks in the league? Why are there no more like Morrall, Strock, Billy Kilmer, even George Blanda, who in 1970, at age 43, electrified the NFL by replacing Daryle Lamonica in five different games for the Raiders and throwing seven late-game touchdowns?

"It was easier then," Dungy said. "There weren't that many teams and there were more quarterbacks. And, also, there was no salary cap, so you could say, 'OK, Earl Morrall, you're a good guy, we might not need you, but we're going to pay you what other guys make and keep you.'

"Nowadays, you can't do that. The quarterbacks get frustrated and, instead of saying this is a good situation, they either go where they can start or make big money."

Dungy was once thrust into position of being a backup quarterback when he was in his rookie season with the Steelers.

In 1977, the Steelers lost Terry Bradshaw and backup Mike Kruczek during a game in Houston, forcing coach Chuck Noll to approach Dungy, a former college quarterback, to step in as the emergency backup in the fourth quarter. Dungy was a safety, but he played wide receiver briefly in training camp and said he remembered several of the plays.

"Go run those," Noll said to Dungy.

Dungy threw a couple interceptions in his limited appearance and the Steelers lost to the Oilers, 27-10. But Dungy has always remembered the experience.

"I can always say I took snaps from Mike Webster, handed off to Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris, and completed passes to Lynn Swann and John Stallworth," Dungy said.

Memorable understudies

The Steelers, though, have had a number of occasions when backup quarterbacks stepped in and produced victories in critical situations during their playoff or Super Bowl seasons. Here is a look at some of the top performances in franchise history:

• Nov. 17, 1974

Steelers 26

Cleveland Browns 6

In a season in which Noll kept switching his starting quarterbacks, Terry Hanratty was appointed the surprise starter in Cleveland over Bradshaw and Joe Gilliam.

"I'll be OK as soon as I learn where to put my hands for the snap," joked the seldom-used Hanratty.

Hanratty's start lasted only one game because he completed just 2 of 15 passes and threw three interceptions against the Browns. But he got enough help from the defense to allow the Steelers to post their first victory in Cleveland since 1964 and improve to 7-2-1.

• Oct. 17, 1976

Steelers 23

Cincinnati Bengals 6

After winning back-to-back Super Bowls, the Steelers started the season 1-4 and lost Terry Bradshaw in Week 5 in Cleveland when he was body-slammed to the turf by Browns defensive end Joe "Turkey" Jones.

That forced the Steelers to turn their offense over to rookie Mike Kruczek, a second-round draft choice from Boston College. Relying on one of the greatest defenses in NFL history and a running game that would feature two 1,000-yard rushers, Kruczek won all six games that Bradshaw missed. It would stand as an NFL record for best start for a rookie quarterback until 2004, when Roethlisberger went 13-0 as a starter his rookie season.

The streak began with a victory against the Bengals in which Kruczek was a very modest 5 of 12 for 58 yards with one interception. Kruczek's performance allowed the Steelers to make it to the AFC championship, where injuries to Harris and Bleier derailed their chance to become the first team in history to win three consecutive Super Bowls.

"Going 6-0 as a starter was the single biggest personal accomplishment of my career," Kruczek said.

• Oct. 15, 1989

Steelers 17

Cleveland Browns 7

The Steelers opened the season with a 51-0 loss to the Browns and a 41-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals and had dropped to 2-3 with another loss to the Bengals in Week 5.

But they bounced back the following week in Cleveland to avenge their lopsided loss to the Browns and begin a run that would eventually land them in the postseason.

And they did it with Todd Blackledge replacing an injured Bubby Brister and passing for 143 yards and one touchdown against the Browns.

• Nov. 6, 2005

Steelers 20

Green Bay Packers 10

Batch made his first start since Dec. 2, 2001, when he was with the Detroit Lions and led the Steelers to victory in a game in which Roethlisberger (knee) and Jerome Bettis (thigh) did not play and running back Willie Parke was injured in the second half.

The victory was significant for several reasons.

The Steelers (6-2) became the first team since the 1989-90 San Francisco 49ers and the fourth team overall to win 11 consecutive road games. And it helped the Steelers sneak into the postseason as the No. 6 seed en route to winning the Super Bowl.

Batch completed 9 of 16 passes for 65 yards and one interception, and the Steelers defense forced three turnovers that resulted in 17 points, including a 77-yard fumble return by Troy Polamalu.

• Sept. 26, 2010

Steelers 38

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 13

With Roethlisberger serving a league-mandated four-game suspension to start the season, Batch made his first start in three years and improved the Steelers to 3-0 for the first time since 2007.

Batch overcame an interception on his very first attempt to throw for 186 yards and three touchdowns, including two of 46 and 41 yards to Mike Wallace.

Dennis Dixon started the previous two games but was lost to a knee injury a week earlier that opened the door for Batch.

"Everybody knows Ben's the starter," Batch added.

"One thing I didn't want to do was be that weak link, to go out there and not be able to provide a spark or put this team in the end zone."

Without Big Ben

Since Ben Roethlisberger became the starting quarterback in Game 3 of the 2004 season, he has missed 12 games. The Steelers have gone 7-5 in those games, but 0-4 against the Ravens.

Replacement Opponent Year Result Att Cmp Yards TDs INTs

Tommy Maddox Jaguars 2005 L, 23-17• 28 11 154 1 3

Charlie Batch Packers 2005 W, 20-10 16 9 65 0 1

Charlie Batch Browns 2005 W, 34-21 19 13 150 0 0 Tommy Maddox 7 4 22 0 0

Tommy Maddox Ravens 2005 L, 16-13• 36 19 230 1 1

Charlie Batch Dolphins 2006 W, 28-17 25 15 209 3 0

Charlie Batch Ravens 2007 L, 27-21 31 16 218 2 2

Dennis Dixon Ravens 2009 L, 20-17• 26 12 145 1 1

Dennis Dixon Falcons 2010 W, 15-9• 26 18 236 0 1

Dennis Dixon Titans 2010 W, 19-11 6 4 18 0 0 Charlie Batch 11 5 25 0 0

Charlie Batch Buccaneers 2010 W, 38-13 17 12 186 3 2

Charlie Batch Ravens 2010 L, 17-14 21 12 141 0 1

• -overtime

Steelers - mobilehome

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com; Twitter: @gerrydulac. First Published November 18, 2012 5:00 AM


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