Why injuries like Aaron Rodgers' make the backup QB essential

ByJenna Laine ESPN logo
Wednesday, September 13, 2023

On Dec. 4, 2022, quarterback Josh Johnson, then a member of the Denver Broncos' practice squad, was traveling home with the team after a road game in Baltimore.

"One of my teammates was sitting next to me and told me Jimmy [Garoppolo] got hurt," Johnson told ESPN. "He was like, 'You about to go to the Niners, bro.' And I'm like, 'Man, hell no.'"

Nearly 2,500 miles away, on the opening drive against the Miami Dolphins, Garoppolo, the San Francisco 49ers' starter at the time, was carted off the field. His team was suddenly razor thin at quarterback while fighting for top seed in the NFC heading into Week 14.

Sure enough, Johnson got a text from his agent, Doug Hendrickson, on that flight.

"Niners wanna sign you," it read.

"It was ironic," Johnson said. "After I landed, the [Baltimore] Ravens tried to sign me, too, because Lamar [Jackson] got hurt."

Sixty-eight quarterbacks started games in 2022, the most in NFL history in a non-strike season, illustrating how vitally important backup quarterbacks are to success in the NFL. Only 11 teams used one quarterback the entire season, and all but two of them made the 14-team playoffs.

The 2023 season could be off to a similar start. Aaron Rodgers, who was traded to the New York Jets last spring, went down after four snaps with a torn left Achilles and is lost for the season. His backup is 2021 first-round pick Zach Wilson.

Last season, the Niners had three starting quarterbacks, with a fourth -- Johnson -- stepping in during the NFC Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles when Brock Purdy tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Johnson would also leave the game after sustaining a concussion in the third quarter. That forced Purdy to return, followed by running back Christian McCaffrey taking over in the fourth quarter.

The Week 1 starter, Trey Lance, was lost for the season after suffering a broken ankle in Week 2.

"How does it feel to lose the NFC Championship Game because I don't have a quarterback?" Niners tight end George Kittle said after the game. "Pretty s---ty, to be honest."

The 49ers situation prompted the NFL to resurrect an emergency quarterback rule this offseason. The new rule allows teams to designate a third quarterback on game days and doesn't count against the 53-man roster.

The Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams both started four quarterbacks in 2022, the most in the NFL, and as Niners coach Kyle Shanahan put it, "There's not just like a store where you just go get quarterbacks at any time."

FOR THE JETS and Rodgers, his connection with Wilson could prove critical.

Rodgers said at the end of the preseason that the most important relationship he has made on the team is with the third-year quarterback out of BYU.

"I love him, I really do," Rodgers said. "I feel like part of my role here is to help get his confidence back."

Rodgers has taken Wilson under his wing and helped prepare him to take the baton, which came sooner than either expected Monday night.

"A lot of emotions," Wilson said. "Week 1, opening day, trying to learn as much as I can from this guy, but I've also got to make sure I'm ready to go. Lot of emotions, you've got to be able to try and stay calm and go out there and try and perform the best you can."

Wilson came away with the overtime win over the Super Bowl-hopeful Buffalo Bills, which could be a testament to Rodgers, who has said Wilson could be the starter after him for the next 10 years or more.

Wilson has been a sponge shadowing the future Hall of Famer, whether it's been on the field or in meetings or classrooms.

"Being around me and seeing how I go about my business, seeing how I lead, how I interact with the guys, I think there are some things he can pick off from that," Rodgers said days after being traded to the Jets in April. "Part of my opportunity here is to be a great mentor to him, and to teach him fundamental stuff, to allow him to be around me and, through osmosis, just pick up some things that can help him in his career. That's what happened to me, being around Brett [Favre]."

It's a far cry from how the Jets handled Wilson's entrance into the NFL. General manager Joe Douglas told Pro Football Talk in the offseason that if he could go back and do things differently, he would have given Wilson the benefit of a veteran backup, saying, "Sometimes you don't take into account the ramifications of playing a young quarterback early in his career."

In 22 games as a starter in 2021 and 2022, Wilson went 8-14 with a total QBR of 35.5 -- 33rd in the league.

The Jets might benefit from having a former No. 2 overall pick as a backup, but Johnson, 37, who entered the season with the Ravens, has essentially become the de facto emergency QB. No other quarterback has signed with more teams (14) than Johnson, despite playing in only 39 regular-season games -- with nine starts -- entering Year 17. That doesn't include stints in the UFL, AAF and XFL between jobs.

He signed with four different teams in 2015, and he has been cut a lot.

"I can't lie and say it hasn't broken me down before," said Johnson, who credits his mother for teaching him to do whatever it takes. "I can never complain about life because look what I'm doing. I'm in the NFL. I get paid to play one or two games, something some people only dream of."

It's meant taking cross-country red-eye flights for workouts the next morning, signing and living in a city indefinitely until the gig is up, not knowing when the next one might come.

"I couldn't do that," Hendrickson told ESPN when talking about his client. "And he does this over and over and over again. It's a testament to how adaptable he is -- just living in a hotel out of a suitcase, dealing with the family life at home. I mean, not many guys can do that."

CAROLINA PANTHERS QUARTERBACKS coach Josh McCown knows Johnson's role all too well, having played for 12 teams in 17 seasons before retiring after the 2020 season.

It's reflected on a wall of 15 framed jerseys his wife, Natalie, gifted him for Christmas in 2019 at their home in Texas.

"I joke to people [that] that's like my wall of mediocrity," McCown said. "Depending on how you look at it, it's kind of cool, but also, I guess, makes you kind of laugh a little bit and in some instances cry.

"You want to be a franchise quarterback and play forever and set records and be a Hall of Famer. I did not accomplish that. ... But at the same time to look at the longevity of my career. ... There's some things I'm very proud of."

It can bring about a complicated set of emotions.

J.T. O'Sullivan, who played for 12 different NFL teams, plus two stints with NFL Europe and one with the CFL from 2002 to 2012, said, "It's not necessarily easy for a lot of guys who come in as the alpha their whole lives to then [to be a backup]. The transition to not playing is tough. ... I died a little every Sunday I didn't play."

"You can see the end as soon as you're in the league. ... Your window is closing every single week," O'Sullivan said, adding that preparing each week like you're the starter without starting makes that more difficult. "What do you do with that energy? How do you make sense of it? It wears on you eventually."

A.J. McCarron, who won three national championships at Alabama and was a backup in the NFL for eight seasons, opted to play in the XFL in 2023.

"I missed playing, not always just being a backup," said McCarron, who took a pay cut from $4 million to $60,000. "And that's a great living, it really is, and I absolutely love it. But I love playing."

BEING A BACKUP quarterback requires a varied skill set or a "renaissance man," as Bucs quarterbacks coach Thad Lewis put it. He played for eight different teams from 2010 to 2017.

No question, there has to be talent, especially if a team is trying to make it to the postseason. And a backup has to be ready to go in on a moment's notice without a lot of reps during the week.

"One of the hardest things to do is going in cold," said John Wolford, who was released by the Bucs before being signed to their practice squad before the season. "They are flying full speed and you get out in the third quarter and it takes a second for your mind to speed up and your body to speed up. ... It's the fastest human beings alive. ... But usually by one completion, I feel good."

Stepping in during a game is always tough. As agent Mike McCartney said, "The game plan will not be built for their skill set in any way, shape or form."

A backup quarterback needs to be a fast learner.

Johnson played Madden to learn his new teammates' names in Washington in 2018 after Alex Smith and Colt McCoy suffered season-ending leg injuries and Mark Sanchez was benched. How quickly has he been able to learn a new playbook?

"He's done it in a day," Hendrickson said. "I think literally [he] needs like 24-48 hours."

A backup quarterback needs strong teaching skills as well to serve as an extension of the coaching staff, which is how Brad Johnson ended up with the Dallas Cowboys from 2007 to 2008. Because of his relationship with then-offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, he tutored first-year starter Tony Romo and communicated to Garrett what Romo could handle.

Years later, Romo sought him out when he fractured two transverse process vertebrae in his back, the same injury Johnson had.

"Drink a lot of alcohol -- it'll take away the pain," Johnson joked before telling Romo the realities of the situation. "After like a two-week period, you're going to feel like you can play and you can play through it, but it's going to be painful."

A BACKUP'S JOB also requires the right personality and temperament. It demands a high degree of confidence and leadership but can't interfere with the team dynamic or give credence to outside noise if the starter struggles.

Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Pederson, who spent most of his 13-year career as a backup to Pro Football Hall of Famer Brett Favre, said, "It's a demeanor where you want to get better as a quarterback, you want to play, but at the same time, you're not threatening to the starter."

There's an understanding that the entire quarterback room is vital to the franchise.

"The quarterback room is the most precious room in the building," McCartney said. "If the backup quarterback understands his role -- he's the backup quarterback -- he sets the tempo for that room."

Game preparation is a collaborative effort each week with the backup charged with the task of helping the starter get ready. The backup not only contributes ideas but can also help ensure the room works well together and provides a supportive environment.

"Does everyone get along? Can you laugh? Can you tell jokes in the meetings? Can you articulate plays and trust each other?" Brad Johnson said. "That's a big deal. You could get some confrontational stuff in there and then just guys are pulling against each other and that's not good."

Lewis' greatest victories in the NFL didn't necessarily happen when he was playing. It was teaching E.J. Manuel how to watch film as a rookie first-round pick with the Bills. It was supporting Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco when he took a knee. It was providing encouragement to Sam Bradford when he was coming off his second knee surgery.

"Just getting him going because I know how he ticks," Lewis said of Bradford. "Like 'Sam, man, let's go, you gotta forget about the knee. Like the knee is going to do what it's going to do.'"

When preparing for the New York Giants on "Monday Night Football" in 2015, Lewis noticed a particular tendency from Eli Manning, tipped cornerback Nolan Carroll off to it and Carroll got a pick-six in the win.

"They come to the sideline and the guys dap you up and say, 'Hey, man. You got us ready for that play. Like you got us ready. ... We knew that was coming because of you,'" Lewis said. "That was one of the highlights of my career."

THE LIFE OF the backup can be financially lucrative, especially considering how little game action some might see.

Chase Daniel, who announced via social media last week that he has started his media career, spent 14 seasons in the NFL, starting only five games, and according to Spotrac, made $41,828,471 -- the most of any primary backup quarterback.

Drew Stanton spent 14 seasons in the NFL and earned $31,951,719. He started 17 games and played in 38.

In terms of pay on a per-pass basis, Lance, now a backup for the Cowboys, has made $245,432, the most per pass attempt since 2009. Daniel is second with $133,333 per pass attempt.

Heading into the season, Josh Johnson had made $8,569,250 since entering the league in 2008.

Money can't make up for the lack of stability backups face. It can take a toll on a player's personal life, including family and relationships. Josh Johnson's wife, Zina, and their three children have remained in his hometown of Oakland, California.

"Every year we sit down and talk about what's ahead and the hope is always, 'Hey, God, how great would it be if we get a multiyear contract with some security?' And unfortunately it hasn't transpired that way," Hendrickson said of Johnson. "Unfortunately it's this kind of the nomad lifestyle."

McCown's family celebrated Christmas in a different city for 10 consecutive years. His daughter Bridget, now 24, attended two different schools for kindergarten, two for first grade, two for second, two for third and two for fourth.

For her school's "Spirit Day" in 2016, she texted her father, who was with the Cleveland Browns at the time: "Hey, my friends -- can we wear some of your jerseys?"

He joked, "Hope you got enough friends."

She wound up being two short.

"It was kind of funny," McCown said.

BEING A BACKUP can be a springboard to coaching as well. Pederson, Frank Reich, Jason Garrett, Matt Nagy and Gary Kubiak were all backup quarterbacks before becoming head coaches in the NFL. The most recent backup to rise to head coach is Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell, 38, who rose to the top within 10 years of retiring as a player.

There's also McCown, 44, who is in his first year on Reich's staff. He interviewed for theHouston Texans' head-coaching vacancy while he was on their roster in 2020. Then there are Kellen Moore (34) and Mike Kafka (35), who attained the title of offensive coordinator within two and seven years, respectively, of their playing careers ending.

In 2014, McCown got an early taste of coaching when then-Bucs offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford missed the entire season after having heart surgery. So "Coach McCown," as then-coach Lovie Smith called him, assisted quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo -- who had never called plays in the NFL -- with game-planning. He also led passing drills with Mike Glennon and Kafka when he broke his hand and missed three games.

McCown believes his exposure to so many different systems benefits him as a coach. He also has played for innovators whose imprints are all over today's playbooks.

"The negative is not really ever existing in one system," McCown said. "Like, 'It's worked three different ways, but what's the one way that I've seen it work year in year out for five years?'"

McCown said he wouldn't change his experience, even if the dream he lived is a lot different from what he originally drew up.

"Just staying with it, and believing and no matter what the situation was each time and no matter how dark it felt, or, 'This really feels like the end,' just continuing to prepare, continuing to trust the process and work at it. I'm really proud of that," McCown said. "That won't be expressed in a gold jacket or anything like that. But I think for me as a human, it's made me better. And I wouldn't trade that for anything."

Johnson feels the same, which is why he continues to answer each call.

"Every year I get closer to something. Like, last year, I was in the NFC championship. Just unfortunately, I ended up getting hurt," Johnson, who started three preseason games for the Ravens, told ESPN last month. "I've been able to show a lot of growth as a quarterback. So, to me, even though it might not seem like a lot to a lot of people, I see myself still doing this. I'm going to keep at it."

NFL Nation reporters David Newton, Rich Cimini and Mike DiRocco contributed to this report.

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