- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2008

At 36 years old, Washington Redskins quarterback Todd Collins isn’t one of those whippersnappers whose sense of pro football history begins and ends with a replay of last year’s Super Bowl on the NFL Network.

Collins knows who Earl Morrall is. And Doug Williams, Jeff Hostetler, Frank Reich and Trent Dilfer, among the few backup quarterbacks who, usually because of injury to an incumbent, put their clipboards aside to lead their teams into the postseason — sometimes to a championship.

It’s a small, select club. But given how Collins and the Redskins are playing now, there might be room for one more.

“I don’t know any of those guys personally,” said Collins, whose performance in relief of injured starter Jason Campbell has fueled four straight victories and a trip to Seattle for a wild card playoff game tomorrow. “I’ve heard about them. I think those are great stories.”

Collins is a great story because he’s in a league of his own. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, he is the only quarterback to go 10 years between starts. But the other backups, like Collins, still had to shake off rust and produce against unreasonable odds.

“People don’t realize how tough it is for a nonstarter to have to be ready and pull the trigger whenever you’re called upon,” said Hostetler, who replaced the injured Phil Simms as the New York Giants’ starting quarterback late in the 1990 season and led the team to a Super Bowl XXV victory.

“You don’t get the [repetitions] in practice, you don’t get to work with the receivers. You almost want to use the backup receivers, because those are the guys you’re familiar with. There are a lot of adjustments. With Todd, it shows people he did all the preparation work. Then there’s the matter of physically getting the job done. That part comes as a team. Everyone’s got to do their job.”

The Giants drafted Hostetler in 1985, and he didn’t throw a pass in his first two seasons. He started one game each in 1988 and 1989 and saw mop-up duty in 1990 before coach Bill Parcells summoned him.

“Parcells was a tough cookie,” said Hostetler, whose 12-year career ended with the Redskins in 1997. “He was a heck of a coach. But he didn’t like me and I didn’t like him. There were a lot of things going on at that time that made it difficult for me. Phil was his guy. He made that known.”

Hostetler said he and Parcells have patched things up, and he has the utmost respect for his former coach. Collins, on the other hand, has the full support of Redskins coach Joe Gibbs and the players. And that, Hostetler said, is the key.

“Coaches are a different breed, but the guys that are surrounding you, you’ve got to know that they have confidence in you,” he said. “We had lost three out of four [in 1990] and everybody jumped off the bandwagon. Phil went down, and it was like, ‘OK, these guys are done.’ That was outside. Inside, the players were excited. They knew I could do it.”

Hostetler played well as the Giants won their last two regular-season games and defeated Chicago and defending champion San Francisco in the playoffs. In Super Bowl XXV, he completed 20 of 32 passes for 222 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.

“You just had to be ready,” Hostetler said. “The only thing you wanted to be concerned about was, physically, can I get it down because of the lack of reps? That’s the big thing, the timing. Not working with those guys.

“If there was anything you wanted to worry about, it was that. Not the mental end of it. That’s the thing with most backups. Everybody has to battle the rustiness. But you’d better not battle the mental part of it.”

Reich, a former Maryland star, frequently bailed out the Buffalo Bills when starter Jim Kelly was sidelined. He contributed to several big victories and helped the Bills reach a couple of Super Bowls. But he never started in one. No matter how well Reich performed, Kelly, a Hall of Famer, always reclaimed his job when he got healthy.

Reich’s moment in the sun, or rather, the freezing cold of Buffalo’s Rich Stadium, came in a wild card game after the 1992 season when he orchestrated the greatest comeback in NFL history. Trailing the Houston Oilers 35-3 midway through the third quarter, Reich and the Bills rallied to win 41-38.

Dilfer started the 2000 season in Baltimore as Tony Banks’ backup and became the quarterback of record when the Ravens trounced the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. But Banks’ ineffectiveness (69.3 passer rating) provided the opportunity. Coaches asked little of Dilfer — except not to mess up — and he was up to the job. The Ravens’ strengths were defense and running the ball.

Morrall was the ultimate backup. He stepped in at the start of the 1968 season, replacing the injured Johnny Unitas and guiding the Baltimore Colts to a 13-1 record and a berth in Super Bowl III, where they lost to the New York Jets.

In true backup tradition, Morrall returned to the bench. After the 1970 season, he again replaced Unitas, who got hurt in Super Bowl V. The Colts beat Dallas 16-13 and Morrall was credited with at least a save. In 1972, Morrall took over for Miami quarterback Bob Griese, who broke his ankle in the fifth game of the year, and helped the Dolphins go unbeaten during the regular season before Griese returned in the second half of the AFC title game against Pittsburgh.

The key to being a successful backup, Morall said, is to “Play within yourself. Take the short ones and keep drives going. Read the defense and go to where it’s one-on-one. I just remember thinking, ‘Stay steady and win the game.’ ”

Because of the Washington connection, it is tempting to find a distinct parallel between Collins and Williams in 1987. But while Collins had his decade on the bench, Williams had started for Tampa Bay from 1979 through the middle of the 1982 season. He also had playoff experience, including an NFC Championship game. On the other hand, Williams threw just one pass in 1986.

Jay Schroeder, the Redskins’ starter in ‘87, suffered from various injuries and erratic stretches. Also, his teammates couldn’t stand him. Williams darted in and out of the lineup, mostly out. He lost both his starts but proved effective in relief. In the last game of the regular season, he came in for Schroeder for the last time, leading the Redskins to an overtime win over Minnesota.

Although he owned an 0-2 record as a starter, Williams had the job and Washington beat Chicago and Minnesota in the playoffs. In Super Bowl XXII, he passed for 340 yards and four touchdowns, all in the second quarter, and earned the game’s most valuable player honors in the Redskins’ 42-10 demolition of Denver.

Williams, who now scouts for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, declined through a team spokesman to be interviewed. Said Gibbs, “Doug stepped in the gap and played for several games and did a good job, and that’s what Todd’s done. Of course, we haven’t gone that far yet, but in the last four games, you couldn’t ask more from a quarterback.

“Todd right now, it would be hard to put four games like that,” Gibbs added. “Anybody. Doug was very much a leader. He would actually talk to guys like he was the boss. There’s some differences in their personalities, but the experience we’re going through now is similar.”

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