Monday, October 11, 2010

On the Backup Quarterback

My first intimate experience with the allure of the backup quarterback came in the Fall of 1979. The starter for Penn State that year was Dayle Tate, a promising prospect who stepped into the role at the worst possible moment--the season before, Penn State had lost the national championship game to Alabama, 14-7, on New Year's Day, on a goal-line stand that would hang over the program for several years afterward. Tate's predecessor at the position was Chuck Fusina, whose merits have previously been documented on this very blog; his successor, after a year of torment and mediocrity, would be Todd Blackledge. In the 1979 Penn State football press guide, Dayle Tate is wearing a plaid sportjacket; while I'm sure this jacket was perfectly fashionable during the Carter Administration, I now subconsciously connote plaid sportjackets with failure, and I associate Dayle Tate with the first shower of boos I ever witnessed in person at a sporting event.

None of that season was particularly the fault of Dayle Tate. In 1979, Penn State went 8-4, which is a considerably better record than what they will likely finish with this season. They finished their season with a 9-6 victory over Tulane in the Liberty Bowl.* And it's true Dayle Tate's numbers are not particularly great--he completed 52 percent of his passes and threw eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions--and it's true Tate's backup was a freshman named Jeff Hostetler, who would wind up transferring to West Virginia and then winning a Super Bowl, but really, most of this wasn't Dayle Tate's fault. Penn State lost to four teams that Fall, and gave up an average of 31 points in those four games; when Hostetler did step in during the final regular season game against Pittsburgh, he went 6-for-16 with 72 yards and an interception.**

But this is not about rationality. This is about the essentially irrationality of sports fans, and nothing epitomizes this notion quite like the obsession with the backup quarterback. It happens every year, in cities and towns across America. It's happening now at Penn State, where a true freshman named Rob Bolden--clearly Penn State's best option at a quarterback position where none of the candidates have any real experience--has been tasked with holding together a team with an injury-riddled defense and an offensive line that would have trouble run blocking against a tigerless Siegfried and Roy.***It's happening perpetually in Philadelphia, where Kevin Kolb supplanted Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick supplanted Kevin Kolb who supplanted Michael Vick, and now Eagles fans are so confused they no longer know who to boo. And it happened most startlingly last night in San Francisco, where Alex Smith, the designated scapegoat for a team that's managed to lose games in every possible way, was booed so loudly that I half-expected to see him wear a plaid sportcoat to the postgame press conference. And who did San Francisco fans want to replace him with? David Carr, who, in his final year as a starter, four years ago, threw 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.****

Over at Deadspin, Barry Petchesky called it "The Single Saddest Moment of the NFL Season." And yet, at some level, it was also entirely predictable. Because the backup quarterback is a channel for all the fury and irrationality and egotism and certitude of the American sports fan. Because the backup quarterback represents hope when all hope is lost, an altered future when the future promises nothing but bleakness. Even if he's not as good, he's still better. It's a story that will never change, even when it doesn't make much sense.

*Which, with the exception of an option pass by an Afro'ed halfback named Joel Coles, was one of the more atrocious football games I have ever seen. 
**Pitt's quarterback was 17-of-32 for 279 yards. His name was Moreno. Or Marino. Or something. I believe he now spends his Sundays in a well-lit room laughing at unfunny jokes.
***I'm not sure if that metaphor makes any sense, but it's Monday, and this is my blog. So just go with me.

****On a side note, I think the implosion of the 49ers is one of the more intriguing stories in what's become a truly weird NFL season. Mike Singletary berating Smith on the sideline last night kind of felt like a Ditka v. McMahon moment.


Peter said...

But Michael, did you see that fumble? Alex Smith seems to show enough flashes of brilliance to keep your hopes up, and then blows it every time he needs to come up big for the Niners.

Michael Weinreb said...

I'm not saying Smith is particularly good (though at this point, he's really more star-crossed than terrible). But David Carr would just get sacked on fourteen straight plays and then leave with a concussion.

WarningTrack said...

Agree on all counts; the backup QB is absolutely a vessel into which frustrated sports fans pour both their rage and their hope, which makes for a pretty insane combination.

I'm a Pittsburgh guy, and I have a friend who's a Redskins fan, if you can believe that. He still follows the Steelers, though, and was constantly suggest that we bring in Charlie Batch. This is AFTER Roethlisberger won his first Super Bowl, mind you. It will never go away.

Part of this is for the reasons you've suggested, but the other part is simply this: sometimes, it works really brilliantly. Sometimes, you get Tom Brady, or Drew Brees, both of whom were overshadowed at the position early in their career. People get excited at the prospect of a backup QB for the same reason they play the lottery: they've seen it work out really well now and then and they block out the 1,596 times it ends in disaster.

Toss in the fact that the entire NFL season itself constitutes a small sample size, and it's a recipe for misplaced hope and overreaction.

EPorvaznik said...

Not all backups can be as successful as Frank Reich. How's that for reaching back in Bills history, a time when being a fan of theirs really taught someone how to deal with frustration?

Plaid, failure, Jimmy Carter ... yeah, those all fit together perfectly.