Jim Sorgi left his apartment on the Sunday of the NFL draft in 2004 and went to his parents’ house, hoping to celebrate his eventual selection with a host of family members.
It was a deep quarterback class that year, headlined by the selection of Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger the day before, and on day two, Sorgi remained patient, waiting for his phone to ring and a team to make his day.
That phone call finally arrived in the mid-afternoon, and when he answered, Sorgi was greeted by someone in the Indianapolis Colts’ front office. They asked him if he would like to join the Colts, he said yes, and then thousands of emotions pulsed through his mind and the elation of the moment spread around the house.
“There was no, ‘Who’s there? What am I doing?’” Sorgi recalled. “I knew who was there. I was going to a winning program, a program on the rise, and that’s how I looked at it — ‘How can I help this team win?’”
Who was there, of course, was Peyton Manning, a player who had quickly blossomed into one of the best quarterbacks in the league in his six short years in Indianapolis. The league’s reigning co-MVP, Manning had been invited to four of the last five Pro Bowls, and in that stretch had never missed a game.
Life as a backup quarterback fluctuates wildly from team to team, from situation to circumstance. On Sunday, Kirk Cousins will make his fifth start in place of Robert Griffin III, who dislocated his left ankle in the Redskins’ victory over Jacksonville on Sunday and will miss an indeterminate amount of time as he recovers.
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Entering his third season, Cousins has already played in more games in his career than a significant number of backup quarterbacks ever have — including Sorgi, who never started a game in six years and attempted only 156 passes, 109 of which came in regular-season finales as the juggernaut Colts prepared for the playoffs.
“The pressure, the expectations, whatever you want to call it, it’s nothing new,” Cousins said. “I think every opportunity in the NFL is big. You’re being evaluated by so many people — your own team, your own coaches, your own front office, other teams, the media, friends and family back home are evaluating you. So every opportunity you get, you’re under a microscope.”
For every Sorgi, there’s a quarterback who used an opportunity to take his career to greater heights. Kurt Warner replaced Trent Green in the Rams’ 1999 preseason, and Tom Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe with the Patriots two weeks into the 2001 season, and each helped his team to a Super Bowl victory despite injuries to their starters.
Recently, Matt Cassel used a year as Brady’s injury replacement to launch his own professional career, first as a starter in Kansas City and now in Minnesota. And, Colin Kaepernick played well in Alex Smith’s absence from the 49ers in 2012 — so well, in fact, the team shipped Smith to the Chiefs in the offseason.
“It is tough to take, and I’m not saying I wasn’t salty about it,” said Green, who returned in 2000 as Warner’s backup but was traded to the Chiefs before the 2001 season. “I just understood it. As a competitor, you want to be the one playing, but you also have to understand your role and what’s in the best interests of the team. You know, if that’s the decision being made, whether it’s being made by management or it’s being made by the coaches, you’ve got to go with that.”
Doug Williams had been a starter for his whole career before he joined the Redskins prior to the 1986 season, when coach Joe Gibbs made it clear to him that he would be the backup to starter Jay Schroeder.
But the job yo-yoed between Schroeder and Williams for parts of the next two seasons, and Gibbs eventually tabbed Williams to quarterback the Redskins for the playoffs. Williams, who termed the move a “coach’s decision,” helped Washington dispatch Chicago and Minnesota before crushing Denver in Super Bowl XXII.
“I came in here with the fact that I was backup with the mentality that I’m a starter, and I think anybody who’s a backup needs to think like that,” Williams said. “If you go out there and you have the idea that, ‘I’m just a backup,’ there’s going to be something with your confidence or your mentality that might be missing. You’ve got to have a starter’s mentality as a backup.”
As a backup quarterback, a player’s responsibilities are burdensome yet limited. Under coach Jay Gruden, Griffin received 65 percent of snaps with the first-team offense early in training camp — a number that steadily increased to 80 percent by the time the regular season began. Cousins was taking the other 20 percent; the Redskins’ third quarterback, Colt McCoy, has not taken a single snap with the starters in any practice since joining the team in April.
“You go through the entire process all week long and you’re ready to play, and then you don’t play, and you do it again the next week and the next week and the next week,” said McCoy, who started 21 games in his first two seasons in Cleveland but was a backup the last two. “It doesn’t matter if you play or not, but when you do go out there, that’s when it has to happen. It could be this week. It could be Week 10. You have to be prepared no matter what, and that can be tough.”
Cousins has prepared, and he’s had the better part of the last two seasons, when he’d played in a total of eight games before entering in relief on Sunday, to get ready.
Sorgi, meanwhile, never got a chance. He last played with the New York Giants in training camp in 2010, with his dream of being the next Steve Young — who waited in the wings behind Joe Montana for six years and eventually won three Super Bowls — dying a slow death.
“You’re sitting back, you’re going to take over and you’re going to do great things and become a Hall of Famer and win Super Bowls and all that stuff,” Sorgi said. “Obviously, it didn’t happen for me. … Hopefully, it happens to some of the rest of them.”