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Introducing The "Relief Quarterback"

How RG III, Jay Cutler, and other fragile or erratic passers could benefit from a paradigm shift in the way we think about the QB. (UPDATE: Now with bonus Tebow/Brady relevance!) posted on

Update - June 10: This article, which suggests that the concept of a “relief” quarterback might be superior to the concept of a “backup” quarterback, ran before the 2013 Super Bowl. With Tim Tebow — who’s proven that he has some high-level NFL skills but probably can’t be a full-time QB — now on the same roster as the brilliant but aging Tom Brady, it seems like an idea worth bringing up again.

Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III rolled right and turned toward the end zone, only a few Seattle Seahawks defenders between him and a 14–nothing lead in the first round of the NFL playoffs. Wearing a black knee brace on his right leg that looked like something out of Dark Knight Rises and running with a herky-jerky hitch, Griffin’s angle to the end zone was easily cut off by a Seattle linebacker, forcing the normally Olympic-fast quarterback to plant his injured right foot and attempt a short pass. The ball bounced weakly out of receiver Pierre Garcon’s hands and joined Griffin in the grassy gumbo that passed for FedExField turf that day. He got up, hobbling his way over to the huddle.

Griffin had injured the knee four weeks earlier in a ghastly collision that sent most of his body going in one direction while 340-pound tackler Haloti Ngata and the lower half of Griffin’s right leg went in the other. Backup Kirk Cousins had come in a few plays later and led the trailing Redskins to a win over the Ravens, and then to another win the following week over Cleveland. This was the playoffs, though, and Redskins coach Mike Shanahan left Griffin in the game to limp around ineffectively until he eventually collapsed with just six minutes left in the game, tearing the LCL and ACL in his right knee as the Skins lost 24–14.

Reactions to the injury broke into two camps: Some supported Shanahan’s decision to leave Griffin in, while others said once RG III tweaked his knee and started playing poorly, he should have been pulled for the rest of the game. But what about an approach that would have split the difference? Cousins had proven himself a capable quarterback in RG III’s absence. Could the backup have shared snaps with Griffin throughout the game to keep him healthy for the biggest moments? Could Griffin perhaps have rested and gotten therapy on his knee for the second and third quarters, then pulled a Willis Reed and come back for the fourth?

After the game, the Redskins’ official Twitter account quoted Shanahan as saying that it wouldn’t have been in RGIII’s “best interest” to leave the game. But exactly what “interest”? Certainly not the best interest of Griffin’s body, and maybe not even in the best interest of the Redskins’ chances against the Sehawks. The nebulous interest Shanahan seemed to be actually talking about is Griffin’s image and reputation as the Redskin’s franchise quarterback — a job fit only for old-school tough guys who rub dirt in their wounds and limp back out onto the gridiron.

It’s the same image Jets coach Rex Ryan spent most of the season trying to reinforce with struggling quarterback Mark Sanchez — reiterating that he was still the Sanchize to anyone with a microphone and underutilizing Tim “The Closer” Tebow for fear of a quarterback controversy. Indeed, despite the many changes going on in the NFL right now — spread offenses that line up four and five receivers, leaping defensive ends who bat down passes like an NBA center, tight ends who catch deep balls like wideouts — quarterbacks are used in essentially the same way that they were when Rex Ryan’s dad Buddy was a Jets assistant in the 1970s. Coaches pick a starter for the first game of the season, then give him every single snap until he’s so injured or ineffective that the coach is forced to bring in a backup. That backup then takes on the same starter role as the guy he replaced. There have been teams that used Wildcat formations for running backs with good arms, and special packages designed to get a few snaps here and there for running QBs like Tebow or Kordell “Slash” Stewart, but otherwise there are virtually no deviations from the single QB model. Griffin’s plight — and that of a few other prominent NFL signal-callers — suggests that maybe it’s time for a new concept of quarterback use.

Think about Michael Vick, a phenomenal talent who’s prone to both injuries and turnovers. Or Jay Cutler, a very good quarterback who, for three straight years, has gone down with late-season injuries that cost his team a playoff game or chance to make the playoffs. Or Tony Romo, an often fantastic QB who occasionally loses his head and throws interceptions by the bushel.

If these quarterbacks played different sports, their liabilities could be minimized. A basketball version of Vick would play limited minutes to keep his injuries down and efficiency up, perhaps as an instant-offense sixth man like Clippers guard Jamal Crawford. If he was a pitcher, Cutler would likely get some extra rest early in the year to keep him healthy for the end of it, like when the Red Sox used to put starter Josh Beckett on the DL for minor early-season ailments like blisters. Like Romo, Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo is sometimes brilliant and sometimes a Swiss cheese headcase. But unlike the Cowboys, who will either keep Romo and give him every snap next year or trade him away for cents on the dollar, the Canucks have subbed in promising young goalie Corey Schneider when Luongo loses it, preparing Schneider for the future but taking advantage of the still-effective Luongo when he’s hot.

There are a few reasons cited for NFL coaches’ extreme reluctance to take their starting QBs out of games, even temporarily. Quarterback egos are supposedly so large that they won’t stand for the possibility of sharing some of the spotlight and so fragile that any hint of competition will send them into a tailspin (exactly what Rex Ryan tried to prevent in New York, only for Sanchez to go into a tailspin anyway, even without any looming Tebow brilliance). The rest of the team is believed to need a single leader to rally around. The public is so used to having one starter taking all the snaps that any second QB who plays and doesn’t immediately fall on his face inevitably creates a “quarterback controversy” that the press turns into a constant annoyance for the team. Coaches would rather play a beat-up quarterback and risk further injury than rest him occasionally and risk the ire of sports radio callers. Better to be conventionally wrong than radically right.

These are all at least plausible impediments to the idea of quarterbacks sharing snaps. But they are problems of a particular kind: They’re the result of tradition and culture, superficialities of ego and optics. And as any good ad man will tell you, the best way to deal with silly, superficial PR problems is with the silly, superficial step of rebranding the product. Perhaps it’s time to say good-bye to the era of overworked franchise QBs and desperation backups, and say hello to the “relief quarterback.”

An avoidable moment? Richard Lipski / AP

In 1923, Washington Senators player-manager Donie Bush ushered in one of the great tactical innovations in modern sport. To that point, a starting pitcher generally stayed in until the game was over or his arm fell off. The previous season, the New York Giants’ Jesse Barnes and Yankees’ James Shawkey threw all 10 innings of a World Series tie at the Polo Grounds. The year before that, fatigued Yanks starter Carl Mays had blown an eighth-inning World Series lead against the Giants by giving up four runs in the final two frames for the loss.

Realizing that starters like Mays were often too exhausted to pitch well at the end of games, Senators player-manager Bush started using Allan “Rubber Arm” Russell as a regular in-game replacement for tired and ineffective starters. Russell was an instant success, setting records for appearances and innings pitched in relief. The following season the Senators replaced Bush with player-manager Bucky Harris, but Harris relied even more on substitute pitching, using both Russell and Firpo Mayberry as relievers on the way to a 1924 World Series win. Despite his nickname, Rubber Arm Russell was out of the league two years later (even relievers can be overworked), but Mayberry went on to have a successful career as a sub, considered by many to be baseball’s first significant relief-pitching specialist.

The Senators weren’t some team of isolated geniuses, pulling relief-pitching revelations out of a hat; they were just the first team to adjust to the drastic changes the game was already undergoing. Outfield walls, some as far as 500 and 600 feet from the plate, were being moved in, to the benefit of power hitters and the detriment of pitchers. The extremely effective spitball was banned in 1920 for all but a few aging pitchers (including the aforementioned Rubber Arm Russell) who were grandfathered in. Instead of reusing battered, lopsided balls until they unraveled, the league started replacing them regularly with new balls that were easier to hit. Offenses became supercharged, sluggers like Babe Ruth took over the league, pitchers threw more and more pitches, and the old “nine innings or bust” strategy wasn’t physically sustainable anymore. The Senators were just the first to see the writing on the wall. The idea quickly spread through baseball. In the 1910s, the average league leader in innings pitched threw 370.1 innings, a number which fell to 328.9 innings in the 1920s. (It’s about 100 innings less than that today.)

Donie Bush, captured at the very moment he came up with the idea of relief pitchers. “Whoa,” he’s saying. “Dude.” Via motownsports.com

The same kind of offensive explosion that happened to baseball in the 1920s is happening to football today. Passing has come to dominate the league in recent years for a variety of structural reasons, so quarterbacks are throwing more and working harder than ever before. When Joe Namath led the Jets to a Super Bowl III victory, he averaged just over 27 passes per game that season. This season, Matt Stafford averaged more than 45 passes per game. At the same time, many QBs are running more than they used to, putting them at even greater risk for injuries from open-field hits. And it’s not just runners like RG III or the 49ers Colin Kapernick. Even big pocket passers are now phenomenal athletes, like 6-foot-4-inch Colts rookie Andrew Luck, who ran for 255 yards and five touchdowns this season.

NFL teams are so wary of using tandem quarterbacks, they almost never do so unless all the QBs on the roster are terrible — not a good scenario for finding sucessful case studies. But the more freewheeling college game has seen a few examples. Arizona State used a QB tandem this past season to win nine games, including a victory in the famed Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Michigan went 10–2 in 1999, notching wins over Ohio State and Alabama, as hot prospect Drew Henson split time with a guy named Tom Brady. Most notably, Tim Tebow spent his freshman year at Florida spelling better-passing senior Chris Leak and won a national title. With college-spawned concepts like the 49ers’ Pistol formation finding success in the pros, the two-QB model’s success in the amateur game might provide cover for an NFL coach trying the idea of rotating in a second quarterback.

And any coach who tried it would do well to think carefully about how he introduced the concept. The concept of spreading out the quarterbacking burden will never catch on as long as we’re locked into the old starter/backup terminology. Backups are only for emergencies — backup generators, backup hard drives — not for regular usage. It’s a question of semantics, perhaps, but words can play an enormous role in upholding outdated traditions — and in undoing them. For advice on how one might roll out the concept of the relief QB, I called Larry Tye, the author of The Father of Spin, a biography of Edward Bernays, the public relations legend who helped popularize — among other things — World War I, the notion that women could smoke cigarettes, the work of his uncle Sigmund Freud, the abbreviation “MS” for multiple sclerosis, and the term “public relations” itself.

What might Bernays do to promote the idea of subbing quarterbacks in and out of a football game, to keep them rested and reduce injury risk? For one, Tye suggests, he’d take the offensive and suggest that any coach who didn’t use a relief quarterback was stuck in the past: “He would say that the way we use quarterbacks now is ‘the Neanderthal way.’” He might point to the evolution of NFL running back use to bolster that notion: Traditionally, football teams had one dominant running back who got the vast majority of the carries. But a rash of career-ending injuries and rapid dropoffs from star backs like Terell Davis, Jamal Anderson, and Priest Holmes led statisticians like Football Outsiders founder Aaron Schatz to find a correlation between overuse and precipitous career declines that’s come to be known as “The Curse of 370 Carries.” In 2005, Shaun Alexander carried the ball 370 times. In 2006, Larry Johnson had a record 416 carries. Neither ever played a full season again. Since then, only one player has had more than 370 carries in a season (Michael Turner in 2008 — the next year he missed five games and his production was cut in half), with most teams giving more carries to their secondary running back or using a dispersed “running back by committee” scheme that annoys fantasy football geeks but works well in the real world.

A term like “relief quarterback” might work similarly to Bernays’ renaming of multiple sclerosis — the “MS” moniker was very useful for public health experts who’d struggled to spread awareness using the longer technical name — or the new associations of empowered modernity he created for female smoking. “You’re taking something with a negative connotation, a backup,” says Tye, “and replacing it with a concept that people are familiar with and think of as positive, the relief pitcher.”

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Before Edward Bernays, many women would have found this bowl of cigarettes unappealing.

A team selling the relief QB might also point to analogies in the corporate world. In the modern, passing-dominated game, Super Bowl contenders need elite quarterback play more than ever — there are no more Trent Dilfers staying out of the way while a team’s dominant running game and defense wins a title. That means going from “ace starter” to “untested backup” is even more crippling to a team’s chances than it used to be. Trying to reach the Super Bowl with a traditional second-stringer would be like trying to run Apple in 1996 without Steve Jobs. In the business world, that kind of dependence is called Key-Man Risk, and it’s not a good thing. The best way to combat it, says Renee Howdeshell, a financial analyst with Fulcrum Inquiry who studies the subject, is finding a number two who can work prominently alongside the current boss. That doesn’t mean just figuring out who’ll fill in for the head honcho after he’s gone, it means giving the replacement real responsibilities right away, which helps remove some of the burden on the Key Man and lowers his risk of an early burnout.

“A high-profile organization,” says Howdeshell, “would also strive to increase this person’s visibility,” perhaps by giving them a new title, or an increased role in dealing with the press. Apple’s transition to a post–Steve Jobs world hasn’t been perfect, but Jobs’ replacement, Tim Cook, was well-prepared for the job. He served as acting CEO when Jobs was sick in 2004, took over as COO of the company in 2007, and filled in again for Jobs in 2009 and early 2011. He was named permanent CEO in August 2011, two months before Jobs died. Similarly, when George Soros began to focus more on philanthropy during the 1990s, he gradually put the responsibility for his Quantum Fund into the hands of protégé Stanley Druckenmiller. Jack Welch squeezed Jack Donaghy’s mind grapes to help him prepare to take over GE. If even someone like Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett needs help at the top, a coach might ask the press, can’t Tony Romo take a few snaps off now and then?

Actual MRI scan of Jim Harbaugh’s head. Via movingtofreedom.org

Not all relief quarterback scenarios would be the same. A coach would handle a Michael Vick platoon differently than a reliever for someone like Tom Brady or Eli Manning, who hasn’t missed a start since 2004. But wouldn’t even the ultra-reliable Manning still be better off if he were taken out for a few snaps after a hard sack, instead of being left in to be a man and maybe throw an interception on the next play because he can’t remember what route his receiver is running? Wouldn’t an elite quarterback with a nagging injury recover faster and ultimately play better in the season’s stretch run by skipping, say, the second quarter of a game against the Jaguars? Might an Aaron Rodgers–Brett Favre combo have extended the latter’s career and helped the Packers win another title?

There are a few NFL situations where a relief QB could help immediately next season. When RG III returns from a knee injury, he could play a quarter or two at a time until he’s back to full strength, with Cousins taking the rest of the snaps. New Bears coach Marc Trestman has one of the best backups in the league in Jason Campbell, who could take some of the burden off Cutler. Recently hired Eagles coach Chip Kelly ran a famously inventive offense at Oregon — a tandem of Michael Vick and Nick Foles, who looked decent when he replaced Vick at the end of last season, could be just what Philly needs to move past the Andy Reid era.

Then again, it seems almost as likely that new coaches like Kelly and Trestman will be afraid of appearing too unorthodox or gimmicky to fans and the media, and overcompensate by using their QBs the same way every other coach in the league does. Even if that happens, though, it’s still only a matter of time before the NFL profits by finding its latter-day Donie Bush. Their fans — and their quarterbacks’ knees — will thank them.

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