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Miller: No. 2 quarterbacks a No. 1 concern league-wide

No one gets more attention around an NFL team than the starting quarterback, and that's as it should be.But too often we miss a point that is almost equally important, that the second most important player on an NFL roster, by far, is the backup ...

No one gets more attention around an NFL team than the starting quarterback, and that's as it should be.
But too often we miss a point that is almost equally important, that the second most important player on an NFL roster, by far, is the backup quarterback.
So much ink has been spilled around the on-again, off-again suspension saga surrounding Tom Brady in New England, but how much do we know about his backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, who has completed 20 passes in a two-year career?
Likewise, we hear a lot about the Jets contract snit with Ryan Fitzpatrick or about how the Rams, back in Los Angeles, chose Jared Goff with the first pick in the draft. But at least in the short term (and, for the Jets, perhaps the long term) the bigger issue is what are the alternatives?
Do the Jets rush rookie Christian Hackenberg into the lineup? Can the Rams try to win over the blase fans of southern California with a non-entity like Nick Foles?
The Denver Broncos might not have won the last Super Bowl if Brock Osweiler had not kept them from going into the tank the second half of the season when Peyton Manning couldn't play, but with Manning's retirement, the Broncos nonetheless allowed Osweiler to leave as a free agent. To say the Broncos' QB situation is in flux would be an understatement, with Mark Sanchez undergoing thumb surgery and first round pick Paxton Lynch waiting in the wings.
We are still left to wonder what's going on in Dallas, which proved again last season it could not survive without Tony Romo at quarterback and yet seemed in no rush to find an alternative in the recent draft, waiting until the fourth round to call Dak Prescott's name.
A year ago, 18 of the 32 teams required just a single starting quarterback for the entire season, including eight of the 12 playoff teams. Two of the four playoff teams who changed quarterbacks during the season, Denver and Houston, ranked among the league's top three teams on defense. In other words, if you are going to lose your quarterback, you'd better be pretty darn good someplace else to compensate.
Of course, we already knew that because of Baltimore (2000) and Tampa Bay (2002), Super Bowl champions with, to be charitable, sub-par quarterbacking but defenses that ranked among the best of all time.
Those Ravens were among a handful of teams that changed quarterbacks during the season and survived to win the championship. Last season's Broncos, of course, are the most recent team to win the Super Bowl after a quarterback change, but they changed back to their original No. 1 for the playoff run.
The most interesting name among the current backups is Colin Kaepernick, who led the 49ers to the Super Bowl three and a half years ago and is trying to revive his career under San Francisco's third coach since then. The roll call of other backups this year includes the once highly-regarded Robert Griffin III in Cleveland, Brian Hoyer in Chicago and Matt Schaub in Atlanta. Maybe someone in that group can breathe new life into a stalled career.
Of course, sometimes, like Baltimore's Trent Dilfer in 2000, a backup quarterback can save a season but provides only a temporary reprieve for a team looking for a longer-term fix at the position. Dilfer was gone from the Ravens before the 2001 season.
And sometimes, a backup quarterback not only salvages a team's season but launches a career or even a dynasty.
That is, of course, what happened when Tom Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe after Bledsoe suffered a concussion in the second game of the 2001 season. As it turned out, Bledsoe had to relieve an injured Brady to help the Patriots beat the Steelers in the AFC championship game after that season but with speculation Bill Belichick would start Bledsoe in the Super Bowl, he instead went back to Brady. The rest, as they say, is history.
Perhaps less well remembered is that, in 1974, Terry Bradshaw lost the Steelers' starting quarterback job to Joe Gilliam for the start of the season. Bradshaw, however, reclaimed it during the year and began Pittsburgh's run of four championships in six years.
Just two years earlier, backup quarterback Earl Morrall was the starter for most of the Miami Dolphins' perfect season until starter Bob Griese overcame an injury and moved back in during the playoffs.
Until 1980, Jim Plunkett's NFL career as a former No. 1 overall draft pick had not amounted to much with New England and San Francisco. But the Oakland Raiders brought him off the bench during the season to replace Dan Pastorini, and Plunkett went on to win two of the next four Super Bowls.
Kurt Warner, now on the precipice of election to the Hall of Fame, was a total afterthought for the Rams in 1999 but when Trent Green was injured in preseason, Warner became the starter and launched his brilliant career after years of struggle.
One little-noticed backup who became a Super Bowl champ was Jeff Hostetler for the Giants in 1990, replacing an injured Phil Simms. Hostetler spent most of Super Bowl Sunday handing the ball off to Ottis Anderson and relying on the Giants' defense, but with the Giants controlling the ball more than 40 of the game's 60 minutes, he won.
Maybe these things run in cycles.
Dilfer and Brady won Super Bowls in succession after starting the season as a backup, and you can add Warner before them to make three QBs in a row who went to training camp as a non-starter and wound up winning the championship.
Not since Brady in the 2001 season, however, has a team won the Super Bowl with anyone other than its opening-day starting quarterback. Kinda makes you think we might be about due for another backup to break through. Learning who it will be is part of the fun of the season.

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