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The cult backup QB isn’t always wrong

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If it is generally true that the backup quarterback on every NFL team tends to be one of its most popular players, then it is not necessarily true for very long, or true in the same way for every backup. The backup whose job it is mostly to sit in meetings alongside some solid All-Pro type and stand in a hat on game days is popular in a different way than the backup with even the faintest sparkle of promise stuck behind a faltering rookie.

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The first is an abstraction—a bowed figure when people applaud at the end of a lopsided game against Texas, or just someone whose face you probably can’t recognize but who you also think of, vaguely and not a little awkwardly, like Tom Brady’s Buddy Blaine, who always wears a hat. This kind of backup is popular in the same vague way as the local newscasters, or popular in the way the ponytailed vegetable bearer guy in my neighborhood who wears Amon Dül II shirts is famous. He’s a notable person mostly known because he somehow made it to your personal rankings of notable people. There are many worse jobs.

The other type of backup quarterback is also an abstraction, to be clear, but much more immediate. In the relatively recent history of the NFL there are plenty of stories in which backups lead their teams down a very long road; Doug Williams, Jeff Hostler, Trent Dilfer and Nick Foles have all started seasons as backups and finished them brandishing the Vince Lombardi Trophy. But it’s more than most fans dream of when they dream of a backup quarterback who may or may not be better than the one out there. It’s hopeful, but fundamentally negative: Whatever that backup might be, good or bad, the most important thing is who they aren’t. That PJ Walker, for example, is probably not much better than Baker Mayfield isn’t as important as the fact that he’s not Baker Mayfield.

What made Ryan Fitzpatrick the greatest quarterback of my life was that he was generally more attractive to daydreaming about his quarterback play than anyone he was outwardly supporting. That amount of competence ultimately put him in an odd place, job-wise, because the team that brought Fitzpatrick on as backup sent, through that deal, a very clear signal that they were at least enjoying a similar daydream. By the back half of his career, Fitzpatrick was often less of a backup than an unrecognized, plausibly deniable rookie, and once the Duke herding above him on the depth chart showed everyone enough, Fitzpatrick would get his chance. And then he was playing like Ryan Fitzpatrick, every single time.

In his final NFL stop, with the Washington Football Team in 2021, Fitzpatrick was the starter in Week 1. Then Fitzpatrick got hit, and actually backed up—a glimmer of possibility, albeit from the corridor school of highly productive, undersized utilitarian colleges. From the backups No Longer Young – Taylor Hynecke took over. And on Monday, Heinicke led his same Washington-based soccer team to victory over the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles. Heinicke made a few excellent pitches and let loose some less outstanding pitching, played with power and confidence, and celebrated a suspicious passerby call as if he had just won the damn Powerball. This was the game he was meant to be playing, although it wasn’t quite as linear as all that, unsurprisingly.

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Heinicke ended up going 7-8 as a starter in relief of Fitzpatrick in 2021, and was exactly the same as Fitzpatrickian doing it. He ran a little and crossed a lot, reliably giving the team a chance to win and only occasionally taking that chance off the table by trying to do things he couldn’t. His teammates clearly enjoyed playing him, even as no one really reveled in the possibility that Heinicke — six-foot-tall but maybe not, who started one NFL game before he turned 28 — could be a solution Long term in this position. What he looked like was, more than anything else, a solid backup player. It wasn’t until Washington brought in Carson Wentz prior to this season that I really enjoyed the prospect that Hennicke would embark on his own Fitzpatrick-style journey.

But once Wentz was brought in, it became hard to see how things could have gone any other way. Wentz isn’t the quarterback he might have been, and looks poised to become, before smashing his ACL and LCL late in the 2017 season. He’s been up and down since then, but mostly he’s been the NFL’s version of Baxter, the romantic-comedy trope of the odd runner-up boyfriend who’s going to usurp fate Actual romantic. The Eagles won the Super Bowl behind Wentz’s backup, Nick Foles, in 2017, and it gave fans plenty of reason to anticipate Foles before the team finally pitched him to the Colts before 2021. While Wentz never gave up on supporting Jacob Eason during his only year in Indianapolis, he broke down. So scandalously that the team had no real choice but to get rid of him. He arrived in Washington as the most famous quarterback in the sport – as a writer and broadcaster Note Charles Starr, is now absolutely the main narrative of Wentz’s career – and as the ultimate platinum-plated Baxter. There he was, blue-thin, ostentatiously religious and of a slightly prickly reputation, occasionally dressed Like a young artist inexplicably observing the NFL’s Salute To Service Week And most importantly, he repeatedly put himself in his proper position He is brutally removed. Since the career-altering injury, Wentz has been irritating him in ways that make fans daydream about backups; In Heinicke, a former member of the XFL’s St. Louis Battlehawks who’s five inches shorter and can’t throw the ball as far or far, Wentz found his destiny.

And Heinicke may have found his own. Washington isn’t saying who will take over the team when Wentz returns yet. “You have to look at the momentum and the mood of the team,” said head coach Ron Rivera On Tuesdays, a calorie-free coach talk and a bit of a tip. The momentum is there and the mood of the team is amazingly good. “[Heinicke] brings juice,” Chase Young told The Athletic’s Ben Standig After the team’s Week 7 victory over the Packers. “He’s the damn guy. Chase Young said it.” This indicates that Heinicke certainly looks like he’s been given a chance to continue doing his work. The thing of note is that he’s not just superior to Wentz in a narrative sense; Heinicke’s strengths, in terms of getting away with the ball decisively and rarely trying to be a hero, are exactly Wentz’s weaknesses, and he really does give the team a better chance of winning as a result. Maybe not a chance to win a Super Bowl, a playoff game, or even many other games this year, but at least a chance to get out from under Baxter’s boring inevitability. This is the chance every great quarterback gives their team – to dream a little more freedom, or at least a little more exotic.

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