- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2003

Sunday would have produced several worthy candidates for the NFL’s Earl Morrall Award if such a thing existed. It was a big day for backup quarterbacks.

The long-retired Morrall, perhaps the best backup QB in league history, should be proud of Tennessee’s Billy Volek, Baltimore’s Anthony Wright and the Redskins’ Tim Hasselbeck, all of whom defied odds and expectations and played with distinction.

Also noteworthy was the performance of Chicago’s Kordell Stewart, who came off the bench and orchestrated a stunning upset of Denver. But Stewart gets an asterisk. The veteran was the Bears’ No.1 quarterback earlier in the season. The others are youngsters with limited experience. Very limited.

For those too young to remember, Morrall was a savvy pro and former starter by the time he was relegated to backup status. But that does not diminish his achievement of leading not one but two teams — the 1968 Baltimore Colts and the 1972 Miami Dolphins — to league championships while filling the giant, future Hall of Fame-enshrined cleats of Johnny Unitas and Bob Griese.

Volek and Hasselbeck, whose combined career NFL action consisted of zero starts and 19 passes, had to come in cold and grab the flag when their leaders fell. Wright, cast off by Pittsburgh and Dallas, started against Seattle after having the benefit of starting the previous week against Miami. Actually, it benefited the Dolphins the most. Wright completed 14 of 25 passes for 112 yards and two interceptions, failing to generate a touchdown as the Ravens lost 9-6.

Sunday brought more of the same. Wright started poorly, missing on six of his first nine passes. Then he somehow became … Earl Morrall. Wright, who began the season third on the depth chart behind Kyle Boller and Chris Redman, was 17-for-28 for 282 yards in the second half for four touchdowns, all to former South Carolina teammate Marcus Robinson.

Helped by an officials’ blunder that gave them extra time, the Ravens rallied from a 41-24 fourth-quarter deficit to win 44-41 in overtime. After that, Wright went to the hospital to join his wife, who, after a failed attempt to induce labor, rallied to deliver a girl Monday night.

Volek came in for NFL MVP contender Steve McNair with the Titans trailing Atlanta 21-14. A four-year veteran, Volek might as well be a rookie. He had thrown 16 passes in his career caddying for McNair, who might mean more to his team than any quarterback in the league. He still might, but Volek provided a viable alternative.

How anonymous was Volek? “I didn’t even know the guy’s name,” Atlanta linebacker Keith Brooking said after Volek went 9-for-15 for 117 yards, one touchdown and no turnovers in Tennessee’s 38-31 victory.

But Volek’s NFL tenure, such as it were, dwarfed Hasselbeck’s experience, which covered three passes thrown in relief of Patrick Ramsey against Dallas three weeks ago. Hasselbeck, who played in NFL Europe and saw no action in brief stints with Baltimore, Buffalo, Carolina and Philadelphia, took most of the snaps in practice last week while Ramsey nursed his sore right foot. That helped. But hardly anyone expected the type of first half Hasselbeck put together against Miami after Ramsey was knocked silly early in the first quarter.

Hasselbeck was 10-for-14 for 106 yards before halftime. He threw a perfect 37-yard touchdown strike to Laveranues Coles and no interceptions, displaying such poise and promise that even veteran NFL watchers like the ESPN broadcasters were shocked. “Tim Hasselbeck right now is living a dream,” play-by-play man Mike Patrick said while the Redskins were building a 23-10 lead.

But the dream became a nightmare as Miami came back to win 24-23. The Dolphins adjusted on defense, and Hasselbeck wasn’t nearly as good in the second half.

Even without the storybook ending, it remains a pretty good story nevertheless.

“I’m really proud of Tim Hasselbeck,” Redskins coach Steve Spurrier said afterward. “He went in the game, competed his heart out and showed a lot of moxie.”

Moxie apparently is what it takes to play the part. If quarterback is the hardest position to play in the NFL, maybe in all of sports, then it must be even harder to be the guy who holds the clipboard one minute and tries to hold a lead the next. Regardless of the mental preparation and state of readiness that must be maintained, the old line that the backup quarterback is the most popular player on a team is valid only until he takes his first snap. Not only is the backup presumably not as good as the starter, it’s hard to get better because he doesn’t play until needed.

Asked about Volek, Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said, “People have asked me all along, ‘Can Billy do it?’ Arm-wise, yes. Feet-wise, yes. Brain-wise, yes. The thing you worry about is the speed of the game.”

And yet, Volek succeeded, and so did Hasselbeck, at least for awhile.

“I was just seeing things right,” Hasselbeck said. “I was seeing it true. Sometimes you see ghosts, and sometimes you anticipate someone being somewhere they’re not. But I feel like I was seeing it really well.”

This year Doug Flutie and a pair of ex-Redskins, Gus Frerotte and Tony Banks, are among the backups who have ridden to the rescue of their teams. It is no coincidence they are veterans. Among others, Morrall, George Blanda, Don Strock and Frank Reich made careers out of being veteran backups. Older is usually better. But not always. One of the dark days in Redskins history occurred 29 years ago on Thanksgiving when Clint Longley, a young, unknown Dallas quarterback, rallied the Cowboys in relief of injured Roger Staubach.

Young, unproven Jay Schroeder saved the Redskins in 1985 after Lawrence Taylor ended Joe Theismann’s career, and last season Ramsey came in for Danny Wuerffel as a rookie and was brilliant in a victory over Tennessee. But youth is unpredictable, especially after opponents figure out who the new fellow is. It happened to Hasselbeck after halftime and to Ramsey after the Titans game.

Not all backups become starters (most don’t), but virtually all starters were backups. Warner, Trent Dilfer and Tom Brady not only quarterbacked three of the last four Super Bowl winners, each started training camp as No.2. Backup Jeff Hostetler replaced Phil Simms during the 1991 season and led the New York Giants to a Super Bowl victory. All were surrounded by able teammates. After the Titans’ victory, receiver Derrick Mason said, “We have a lot of confidence in Billy [Volek], plus we have people around him who are able to make plays.”

Hasselbeck said he didn’t do “anything crazy” in the first half, “It’s just that guys around me were making big plays, and we had good plays called.”

Still, the backup quarterback needs to convince himself and his teammates that he is no longer the backup, that he is, in fact, No.1.

“When the first guy gets hurt, then there’s maybe a little nervousness of playing if you’ve not played much before,” said Spurrier, a backup with San Francisco in the 1960s and ‘70s. “But Tim was ready. He really prepared himself very well, studied the game plan. He’s a sharp young man.”


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