Before last Sunday, backup quarterbacks Tyler Huntley and Brock Purdy were mostly known by their nicknames. Huntley’s Ravens teammates nicknamed him “Snoop” because of his resemblance to rapper Snoop Dogg. Purdy, drafted with the 262nd pick in April, said, “Unrelated Mr.”
Hundley replaced Lamar Jackson, who suffered a knee injury, and led Baltimore to a 10-9 victory over Denver, scoring the victory with a 2-yard touchdown run on the final drive of the game.
Purdy replaced Jimmy Garoppolo, who broke his leg on the 49ers’ opening drive, and led San Francisco to a 33-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins.
Both unlikely heroes are now vital to their playoff-bound teams, joining a wave of backup passers who have kept their teams afloat after starters went down. So far this season, according to Pro Football Reference, 22 quarterbacks who weren’t first-string passers on Opening Day have started NFL games. The same number of backups started in the first 13 weeks of a season since 2007.
In Dallas, Cooper Rush was 4-1 as a starter after Doug Prescott broke his thumb in Week 1. In Washington, Taylor Heinicke was 5-1-1 after Carson Wentz suffered a finger injury. The emergence of such second-teamers confirmed what Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibb once said: “The second most important person on the team is the backup quarterback.”
Backup quarterbacks have begun to function in the era of the advanced pass rush, and starting quarterbacks are increasingly called upon to leave the pocket to make plays. A football team’s most important player is the most vulnerable, especially during a 17-game season.
In an instant, a backup goes from a helmetless sideline to the focal point of an offense. What attributes prepare a player for that type of hurricane? 17 Improvable skills such as the ability to analyze opposing teams’ defensive tendencies, intangibles that cannot be taught, poise to motivate teammates, and leadership. Perhaps most importantly, backups must keep their egos in check for weeks, seasons or years, and suddenly turn on confidence in a moment.
Jets coach Robert Saleh called on Mike White and Joe Flacco to keep the team in playoff contention this season, saying the talent gap between 98 percent of the NFL’s players is minimal. Aaron Donalds and Aaron Rodgers – the world’s best players – and the “difference between player A and player Z” on his list is their chance to take the field.
“You’re looking for guys who are good at stepping on the field and not flinching when the time comes.”
There’s little in the season to back up those moments. Before Sunday, Purdy said he spent most of the week in the film room or running the 49ers’ scout team — reflecting on the offense of the team’s next opponent. Repeats with the starting offense are not often.
Instead, after every practice, Purdy met with quarterbacks coach Brian Greiss and walked through every play held in practice.
“I didn’t make those plays 11-of-11 live,” Purdy said. But in a game, “I imagine what I’ve been doing in practice and rolling, it’s live, I’m going to hit, contact is going to happen, but I have to go out and be like that. Efficient and do my job.”
As the value to their teams rises, so do the backups’ salaries. Huntley, who went undrafted out of Utah in 2020, is playing for the Ravens on a 1-year deal for $895,000. He replaced Jackson, who was injured four games into last season. (Jackson, with a sprained posterior cruciate ligament, is expected to return this year, but Huntley will start Sunday against the Steelers.)
Purdy is in the first year of a four-year rookie deal worth $3.7 million, or about $934,000 a year.
Both are near the bottom of the pay scale for backups, which Chris Cabot, Rush and Heinig’s agent, said is growing. “As more of these quarterbacks get opportunities and the salary cap continues to grow, we’re closer, maybe months away from an eight-figure salary for some backups,” Cabot said.
Besides Garoppolo, who signed a $6.5 million base contract before the season to play behind Trey Lance, the three highest-paid backups in the league are Miami’s Teddy Bridgewater ($6.5 million annually), Buffalo’s Case Keenum ($6 million) and the Giants. Tyrod Taylor ($5.5 million). And for good reason: The trio has combined to win 88 games as starters in nearly 30 years in the league.
Bridgewater led Minnesota to the playoffs in 2015 and made the Pro Bowl. In 2017, Keenum led the Vikings to the NFC title game. Taylor made the Pro Bowl in 2015 and led the Bills to their first playoff berth in 18 years in 2017.
Other backups have similarly stood out this year. Without Rush’s consistent early-season play, the Cowboys wouldn’t be 9-3, nor would Washington (7-5-1) still be in playoff contention without Heinicke. Commanders coach Ron Rivera said Heinicke will be the starter after Wentz is cleared to play.
Backup quarterbacks have their patrons in Geno Smith of the Seahawks. Smith started his first two seasons in the league for the Jets; After an injury, he was relegated to the Jets’ bench for two seasons. Smith spent the next four years as a well-traveled second baseman. He backed up Eli Manning for the Giants, Philip Rivers for the Chargers and Russell Wilson for the Seahawks.
When Seattle traded Wilson to Denver this off-season, Smith got a shot to show it was time well spent.
“All three of them are Hall of Fame quarterbacks in my opinion,” Smith said. “And being in the room with those guys and learning football, being in different football systems, being around different coordinators, I was able to gain a ton of knowledge.”
It has paid off. Smith leads the way in completion percentage (72.7), and his passer rating of 108.7 is second only to the Dolphins’ Dua Tagovailoa. He has thrown 22 touchdowns and has led the Seahawks (7-5) to first place in the NFC West behind the 49ers.
As a result, Smith’s $3.5 million salary will increase when his contract expires at the end of the season.
“I understand there’s a gap, but I’ve never lost faith in my ability or what I can do on the field,” he said. “I didn’t become a star or anything with this opportunity. I’ve been working my butt off.
Chris Rim Contributed report.
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