In Today’s N.F.L., Good Backups Pay Off (and Are Getting Paid)

Before last Sunday, backup quarterbacks Tyler Huntley and Brock Purdy were mostly known by their nicknames, if they were known at all. Huntley’s Ravens teammates called him “Snoop” because of his resemblance to the rapper Snoop Dogg. Purdy, drafted with the 262nd pick in April, was “Mr. Irrelevant.”

No more.

Huntley replaced Lamar Jackson, who injured his knee, and led Baltimore to a come-from-behind 10-9 victory against Denver, securing the win with a 2-yard touchdown run on the game’s final drive.

Purdy replaced Jimmy Garoppolo, who broke his foot on the 49ers’ opening drive, and powered San Francisco to a 33-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins.

Both unlikely heroes are now essential to their playoff-bound teams, joining the ranks of a wave of backup passers who have kept their teams afloat after the starters went down. So far this season, 22 quarterbacks who were not first-string passers on opening day have started N.F.L. games, according to Pro Football Reference. That’s the most through the first 13 weeks of a season since 2007, which saw the same number of backups starting.

In Dallas, Cooper Rush was 4-1 as a starter after Dak Prescott fractured his thumb in Week 1. In Washington, Taylor Heinicke is 5-1-1 since Carson Wentz injured a finger. 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 been thrust into action in an era of enhanced pass rush and as starting quarterbacks are increasingly called upon to leave the pocket to make plays. The most important player on a football team is also the most vulnerable, especially in a 17-game season.

In an instant, a backup goes from a helmetless sideline bystander to the focal point of an offense. What attributes prepare a player for that kind of whirlwind? Skills that can be improved, such as the ability to analyze the defensive tendencies of 17 opposing teams, along with intangibles that cannot be taught, like the poise and leadership to inspire teammates. Perhaps most importantly, backups need to keep their egos in check for weeks, seasons or even years and suddenly turn on the confidence to take over at a moment’s notice.

Jets Coach Robert Saleh, who has called on backups Mike White and Joe Flacco this season to keep the team in playoff contention, said the difference in talent among 98 percent of the N.F.L.’s players is negligible. Eliminate the elite tier of players — the Aaron Donalds and Aaron Rodgerses of the world — and “the difference between player A and player Z” on his roster is the opportunity they get to take the field.

“You’re looking for guys who feel great about stepping on the field and not skipping a beat when their time comes.”

There’s little in the course of a season that prepares a backup for those moments. Before Sunday, Purdy said he spent most of a given week in the film room or running the 49ers’ scout team — mimicking the offense of the team’s next opponent. Repetitions with the starting offense were mostly nonexistent.

Instead, after each practice, Purdy met with the quarterbacks coach Brian Griese and walked through every play that was run at practice.

“I’m not running those plays live, 11-on-11,” Purdy said. But in a game, “I just visualize what I’ve been doing at practice and rolling, it’s live, I’m going to get hit, there’s going to be contact going on, but I just get to go out there and just be efficient and do my job.”

As their value to their teams rises, so too do 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 earned it by replacing an injured Jackson for four games last season. (Jackson, who has a sprained posterior cruciate ligament, is expected to return this year, but Huntley will likely start Sunday against the Steelers.)

Purdy is in the first year of a four-year rookie contract worth $3.7 million, or about $934,000 annually.

Both are near the bottom of the pay scale for backups, a market that Chris Cabott, the agent for Rush and Heinicke, said is growing. “As more of these quarterbacks are getting opportunities, and the salary cap continues to grow, we are close, maybe months away from an eight-figure salary for some backups,” Cabott said.

Aside from Garoppolo, who signed a base deal of $6.5 million before the season to play behind Trey Lance, the three best-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 three have spent nearly 30 years combined in the league and have won 88 total games as starters.

Bridgewater took Minnesota to the playoffs in 2015 and made the Pro Bowl. In 2017, Keenum led the Vikings to the N.F.C. title game. Taylor made the Pro Bowl in 2015 and in 2017 led the Bills to their first playoff berth in 18 years.

Other backups have similarly stood out this year. Without Rush’s early-season steady play, the Cowboys would not be 9-3, nor would Washington (7-5-1) still be in playoff contention without Heinicke. Commanders Coach Ron Rivera said Heinicke would remain the starter ever after Wentz was cleared to play.

In the Seahawks’ Geno Smith, backup quarterbacks have their patron saint. 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 then spent the next four years as a well-traveled second-teamer. 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 that 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 just 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 league in completion percentage (72.7), and his passer rating of 108.7 is second only to Tua Tagovailoa of the Dolphins. He has thrown 22 touchdowns and has the Seahawks (7-5) a game behind the 49ers for first place in the N.F.C. West.

As a result, Smith’s $3.5 million salary is likely to grow when his contract is up at the end of the season.

“I understand that there has been a gap, but I’ve never lost confidence in my ability or the things that I can do on the field,” he said. “I’m not star-struck or anything by this opportunity. I’ve been working my butt off.”

Kris Rhim contributed reporting.

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