Picking a backup QB is high-risk game

Cowboys backup quarterback Jon Kitna has been a starter and backup on three teams. Kyle Terada/US Presswire

Wide receiver Roy Williams had seen how the Dallas Cowboys' dominant offense had deteriorated when reserves Brad Johnson and Brooks Bollinger replaced injured starter Tony Romo for three games last season. So when Williams met with owner Jerry Jones to discuss offseason goals and regular-season expectations in February, he offered a solution to his boss:

Trade for Detroit Lions quarterback Jon Kitna.

"I just told Jerry that we could win with Jon if anything ever happened to Tony," said Williams, who played three seasons with Kitna in Detroit before being traded to Dallas in October 2008. "I know that because Jon is a competitor and he'll also do everything he can to help Tony be a better player. Jerry thanked me and said he'd look into it. The next thing I knew, Jon was here."

You really can't blame Jones for trading for Kitna. Like every team in the NFL, the Cowboys are well aware of how quickly fortunes can change if you don't have the right man as a backup quarterback. Last season, only 16 of the 32 quarterbacks who started on opening day started all 16 regular-season games. And here's another reality that NFL decision-makers face: One of the riskiest decisions in building a team is deciding who's going to be your second-string option under center.

It's hard enough to find 32 quality starters in this league. Deciding on the next-best 32 candidates is a job that causes sleepless nights for most personnel men. As one AFC personnel director said, "Finding that player sometimes comes down to getting lucky. Because what you're talking about is going through a lot of trash to find a diamond."

Added former NFL head coach Dick Vermeil: "Every team has to invest wisely when it comes to picking a backup quarterback. That's because you can't win without that guy. And you definitely can't keep your job as a head coach if you have the wrong person in that position."

It's not hard to see why Vermeil believes that. First off, a team has to accurately identify a player who can fill its needs as a backup quarterback. Then it has to hope the player has the right personality to accept a role that is both complex and demanding. On top of that, the team has to find a way to prepare the player for emergency responsibility with little practice time. Oh yeah, one other thing: It has to pray the guy actually can produce if he's ever forced into duty.

There has been plenty of recent evidence to show what can happen when a team does find an effective backup. Over the past 10 years, three players who started their seasons as reserves led their respective teams to Super Bowl victories (St. Louis' Kurt Warner, Baltimore's Trent Dilfer and New England's Tom Brady). Last season, we also saw a trio of backups enjoy surprising success as starters. Older veterans such as Tennessee's Kerry Collins and Minnesota's Gus Frerotte helped their teams reach the postseason and New England's Matt Cassel, who hadn't started in a game that counted since high school, led the Patriots to an 11-5 record after Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1.

This season, there will be no shortage of teams with intriguing backup situations. Some are once again relying on unproven players because they have elite quarterbacks as starters. Others will turn to experienced veterans such as Kitna, Mark Brunell (New Orleans) and David Carr (New York Giants) in case something happens to their stars. But the truth is, it doesn't matter if a team goes old or young with a reserve. It only matters if the guy can really deliver.

Warner has been both a starter and backup on three teams -- the Rams, Giants and Cardinals -- and he said most people couldn't comprehend everything that goes into the job.

"People don't realize how hard it is to not get 99 percent of the practice reps in the offseason and the preseason and then go out and be the guy," he said. "You have to go in there and get your teammates to believe in you. You have to perform even though the expectations on [the position] aren't going to go down once you're playing."

Warner is the poster child of backup success stories. When the Rams lost starting quarterback Trent Green to a knee injury during the 1999 preseason, it was Warner who went from unknown reserve to league and Super Bowl MVP in a storybook season. On the flip side, former Buffalo Bills quarterback Billy Joe Hobert is the perfect example of how bad things can get when the wrong guy is on the job. After being forced into action during a loss to New England in 1997, Hobert later admitted he hadn't studied the playbook in the days leading up to the game. (The Bills released him the following week.)

As embarrassing as that moment was for the Bills and Hobert, there is one thing that needs to be remembered here: Something made the Bills choose him as their top reserve that season. And that brings us back to the question that every team must face each year: What makes for a good backup quarterback?

"To be honest, intangibles have a lot to do with it," said Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, a former backup quarterback himself. "The backup needs to be a good teammate who understands his role but he also has to be confident enough to know he can play. He needs to be somebody who can play well without getting a lot of reps. And he also needs to have talent. Because once he gets in there, he's going to have to make some things happen."

Of course, it's easy to list all the qualities a team desires in a backup. It's much harder to identify the player who actually brings all those traits to the table. Every team has some basic philosophy on how it will handle the position. As Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said, "The player you pick to be your backup usually has a lot to do with who you have as a starter."

Teams with elite starters -- such as Peyton Manning in Indianapolis or Brady in New England -- usually are far more comfortable using a younger player as a reserve. The idea is to develop the prospect into a talent who might have trade value later. The Atlanta Falcons took that approach when they selected Matt Schaub in the third round of the 2004 draft, even though they already had Michael Vick cemented as their starter. Schaub eventually played well enough in emergency duty, and Atlanta traded him to Houston in 2007.

Teams with less-experienced starters or some playoff-caliber teams are far more likely to go with an older veteran as a backup. For the teams with younger quarterbacks, the benefits here are twofold. A franchise gets a backup who is capable enough to play in a pinch and also ends up with a mentor for the starter, who's usually a high-round pick. Consider how much Kitna meant to Carson Palmer in 2004, Palmer's first season as a full-time starter. Kitna used to take Palmer out on off-days -- whether to play golf or walk their dogs -- just so Palmer wouldn't stress too much about upcoming games.

But it takes more than having a sensible philosophy to acquire the right player. The Rams had signed Warner in 1998 and assigned him to Amsterdam in NFL Europe. Even then there was no buzz about the guy. He was just a player who'd once been through a training camp in Green Bay and a stint in the Arena Football League.

But when Warner returned from Europe, he needed only one practice to show the Rams that there was something to him. After not being around the Rams for an entire offseason, he stepped into an 11-on-11 drill, read the defense and completed a touchdown pass against the Rams' first-string defense.

"That was the kind of play that caught your attention," said Vermeil, who kept Warner as a third quarterback in 1998 and elevated him to No. 2 the following year. "Kurt Warner hadn't practiced with us all spring and all he had was the playbook information we'd been sending him. But when he made that play, he told us that he'd been studying. And those are the things you have to look for when you're evaluating a backup quarterback."

While Warner obviously had talent, he also had the perfect personality for being a reserve. He loved to soak up information. And despite being beaten down and overlooked for years, Warner never stopped thinking of himself as a player who could one day compete at a high level. Other top backups have displayed the same quality early in their careers.

Brady was so sure of himself during his second season -- before an injury to Drew Bledsoe elevated him to the starting job -- that he would advise receivers on how to run routes during his free time in the weight room. His future understudy in New England, Cassel, had a similar swagger. Even when he was an unknown seventh-round pick with no shot at playing, Cassel would sit in quarterback meetings with Brady and Doug Flutie and offer as many ideas on the offense as possible.

Cassel said that kind of confidence came naturally to him -- "You have to have a chip on your shoulder to play this position because the finger will always get pointed at you when something goes bad," he said -- but it's also a perfect trait for a backup.

"If you think of yourself as just a backup quarterback, you'll never be any good," Kitna said. "It's not that you're trying to threaten anybody or undermine the starter. But as soon as you start thinking that you're not good enough to be a starter in this league, you're done. You always have to be ready to go."

Kitna added that he spends plenty of time telling younger players how important it is to maintain the proper focus when it comes to preparing as a reserve. Because he has been a starter and backup on three teams (Seattle, Cincinnati and Detroit), he understands the constant pressure that is part of playing quarterback in the NFL. That's why he's always asking questions in position meetings and chatting up Romo about plays. He knows he can't cruise through the mental part of the game.

Washington Redskins backup Todd Collins -- who hadn't started a game since 1997 but ultimately helped lead the Redskins to four late-season wins and a playoff appearance in 2007 -- had a similar mentality.

"He was the best I've ever seen at preparing for a game without getting many practice reps," Vermeil said. "Every time a play was called in practice, he could go through it in his mind, visualize how it would play out and what might change and keep that on file. He was like a pilot who learned to fly by being in a flight simulator. He had the intelligence and the discipline to learn like that. Not a lot of guys are made that way."

The Patriots actually ensured that Cassel remained focused through a different method: trial under fire. Every so often, during the middle of a game week, Patriots coach Bill Belichick abruptly would pull Brady out of a team drill and insert Cassel into the lineup. The idea was to see how Cassel would react to being thrown into a surprising situation with all eyes on him. Cassel never embarrassed himself in those moments, but the impact of those tactics weren't lost on him, either.

Even today, as the starter for the Chiefs, he acknowledges that his focus is stronger because of those drills. "There were a lot days when I'd go home and think that I needed to study a little more for the next time coach put me in one of those situations," said Cassel, who reportedly could miss the opener with a knee injury.

Added Denver Broncos coach and former New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels: "It would piss Tom off every time we did it, but Bill would just say we have to get Matt ready. When you put that kind of pressure on a guy, it only takes one time for him to go into a huddle and humiliate himself by not knowing what he's supposed to do. I've been there when it's happened and the players don't forget it. The last thing you want is for your team to be looking at the backup and thinking, 'We can't win with this guy.' That's why it's vital to keep those players focused."

Still, there are no guarantees that picking a confident player who does all the right things in practice will lead to actual results in an emergency situation. The reality is that no team knows what it's going to get until the player steps into a regular-season game. In fact, Warner still remembers how suspiciously his St. Louis teammates eyed him when he played his first preseason game after becoming the starter in 1999. Nothing was said in the locker room or the huddle, but Warner could sense the collective mood before he started making some plays. "It was the old 'here we go' attitude," he said. "Everybody was waiting to see what they had in me."

Like most quarterbacks who've thrived in going from backup roles to starting positions, Warner said the key to not wilting under that pressure is accepting one obvious truth: You won't be around long if you screw up that opportunity. That sense of urgency is a common trait in players such as Warner, Brady and Cassel, for they all recognized that second chances weren't in the stars for unheralded players like themselves. They had to make believers of those around them just so they could continue receiving opportunities.

In fact, Cassel said the best advice Brady ever gave him still resonates with him today. "Tom told me that before I could ever be vocal with my teammates, I had to be able to go on the field and not make mistakes myself," Cassel said. "He said you always have to be striving to be perfect."

Establishing a relationship with teammates is also key. You could sense the Cowboys players were feeling good about Kitna already just by the way he carried himself in the locker room recently. After finishing a position meeting during the team's lunch period, he sat down for a quick game of cards with three teammates. These are things that help backups win support. Kitna knows he needs to learn plenty about the men he might some day be asked to lead.

But as confident and comfortable as Kitna is in his new role, he understands there aren't any secrets to succeeding at the position. It comes down to confidence, focus and understanding that the players around you have to raise their games as well. If every player does his job as well as possible, Kitna certainly will be ready to do his.

As he said, "Anybody can be a backup in this league. But not everybody can be a good one."

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.