The love of backup quarterbacks is as old as the game itself.
The romantic notion of the unheralded understudy persists: He comes off the bench to save the day, then turns out to be the gridiron equivalent of Lou Gehrig replacing Wally Pipp. There have been just enough instances of it actually happening to provide encouragement to dreamers. The Pittsburgh Steelers once cut Johnny Unitas. Fellow Hall of Famer Len Dawson languished five years on the sidelines before getting a chance in the AFL. Ken Stabler was a third-string quarterback his first two years in the pros. Kurt Warner, famously, was bagging groceries before he got his chance in St. Louis.
Backups are revered for what they might be, but they're also the devil you don't know. Fans haven't seen backups foolishly throw into double-coverage, or burn a timeout because they didn't get the play called in time, or overthrow an open receiver on third-and-long. It's the all-too-human starters who commit those mistakes over the course of a season.
More often than not, backups will repeat all of those mistakes -- and more -- when given the opportunity to play. That's why they were backups in the first place.
But sometimes, it's different. Sometimes backups provide a spark, and their talents merge with their teammates in new and dramatic ways, breathing life into struggling organizations. Three former Michigan State quarterbacks -- Kirk Cousins (Washington Redskins), Drew Stanton (Arizona Cardinals) and Brian Hoyer (Cleveland Browns) -- are all present or one-time backups trying to parlay their efforts into full-time ownership of a starting job, if not for their current team, then for another team that will be looking for new leadership next offseason.
Cousins, emerging from the shadow of the injured Robert Griffin III, is coming off an impressive start against the Philadelphia Eagles in which he was 30 of 48 for 427 yards and three touchdowns (against one interception). Stanton, subbing for the injured Carson Palmer for the second consecutive week, led the Cardinals to an impressive win over the San Francisco 49ers. While Stanton was helped largely by a standout defensive performance, he also chipped in a solid effort, completing 18 of his 33 pass attempts for 244 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Hoyer is not technically the backup, but he still has that mentality, especially with the hysteria that has surrounded his current backup, Johnny Manziel, since the moment Cleveland traded up to select Manziel in May. Once again, Hoyer played well enough to win this past Sunday. Although the Baltimore Ravens ultimately prevailed, 23-21, Hoyer went 19 for 25 with 290 yards and a touchdown. He has yet to throw an interception this season.
Based on their performances this year, all three of these guys might merit a starting job somewhere. But let the buyer beware. Pursuing standout backup quarterbacks, who usually have a limited body of work by which they can be judged, is often a futile pursuit.
When I was an assistant with the Minnesota Vikings, we acquired Warren Moon in a 1994 trade with Houston, because the Oilers had given up on the veteran in favor of their younger backup, Cody Carlson, who had gone 10-4 while making spot starts in prior seasons. Moon, on his way to Canton, would continue his pro career into the 21st century, while Carlson lasted just five games as Houston's starter (going 1-4 before suffering an injury) and was out of the NFL by 1995.
When highly regarded first-rounder Heath Shuler (the third overall pick in the 1994 NFL Draft) disappointed in Washington, there was a clamor for obscure seventh-rounder Gus Frerotte. But once he was given the job, Frerotte completed just over 50 percent of his passes and threw nearly as many interceptions as touchdowns. He did last 15 years in the NFL and experienced moderate success as a fill-in, but any time a team thought he could be the full-time starter, things didn't work out.
In 1997, Rob Johnson started one game for the Jacksonville Jaguars in place of the injured Mark Brunell. His performance -- 20-of-24 passing for 294 yards and two touchdowns in a win over the Baltimore Ravens -- impressed the Buffalo Bills enough that they traded for him the following offseason, hoping he could be the last in a litany of quarterbacks they'd auditioned to replace Hall of Famer Jim Kelly. But he could never hold the job for a full season, barely throwing more touchdowns than picks. Roughly a decade later, Kevin Kolb showed enough promise as a Philadelphia Eagles backup for the Arizona Cardinals to trade for him and hand out a fat contract. Kolb went 6-8 over the next two years before getting released.
Late in 2011, I worked the telecast of the game where the Green Bay Packers hosted the Detroit Lions, with Aaron Rodgers sitting out because the Pack had already clinched the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Matt Flynn had the single best day I have ever seen a quarterback have in person, throwing for 480 yards and six touchdowns. On the strength of that one performance, Flynn received $10 million guaranteed from the Seattle Seahawks. He was gone in a year and has since returned to the Packers to be Rodgers' backup.
I am not saying the current crop of quarterbacks will all suffer the same fate as those guys. Cousins, in particular, looks like he could be the real deal. Hoyer has shown true moxie in Cleveland (while playing without the Browns' best receiver, Josh Gordon, to boot), and Stanton has proved a capable backup in Arizona.
But you can't read too much into a few games, and there are fewer hidden gems these days. There aren't a lot of Unitases or Dawsons on NFL benches right now. For one thing, there are fewer biases and blind spots in player evaluation than there were earlier in the league's history.
More often than not, the backup that fans are yelling for now will become the disappointing starter that the crowd is booing in the future.
Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.