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NFL

The Cult Of The Backup QB Isn’t Always Wrong

Washington Commanders QB Taylor Heinicke exulting during his team's Monday Night Football win against the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles.
John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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

The former is an abstraction—a shape that kneels down as people applaud at the end of a lopsided game against the Texans, or just someone whose face you probably wouldn’t recognize but whom you also think of, vaguely and not a little embarrassingly, as Tom Brady’s Buddy Blaine, who always wears the hat. This type of backup is popular in the same vague way that local newscasters are popular, or famous in the way that the ponytailed vegetable stand guy in my neighborhood who wears Amon Düül II t-shirts is famous, to me. It’s a notable person who is notable mostly for somehow having made it into your personal rankings of notable people. There are many worse jobs.

The other kind of backup quarterback is also an abstraction, to be clear, but a more urgently felt one. There are in relatively recent NFL history plenty of stories in which backups lead their teams a very long way; Doug Williams and Jeff Hostetler and Trent Dilfer and Nick Foles have all started seasons as backups and finished them brandishing the Vince Lombardi Trophy. But that’s more than most fans are dreaming about when they dream on a backup quarterback who might or might not be better than the player who is currently out there. It’s a hopeful thing, but it is fundamentally negative: Whatever that backup might be, good or bad, the most meaningful thing is who they are not. That P.J. Walker, for instance, probably isn’t a lot better than Baker Mayfield is not nearly as important as the fact that he is literally Not Baker Mayfield.

What made Ryan Fitzpatrick the greatest backup quarterback of my lifetime was that it was generally more appealing to daydream about him playing quarterback than whoever he was ostensibly backing up. That quantum of competence eventually put him in a strange spot, job-wise, because a team that brought in Fitzpatrick as a backup sent, through that transaction, a very clear signal that they were at the very least entertaining similar daydreams. By the back half of his career, Fitzpatrick was often less a backup than an unacknowledged, plausibly deniable starter-in-waiting, and once the pedigreed doofus above him on the depth chart had shown everyone enough, Fitzpatrick would get his chance. And then he’d play like Ryan Fitzpatrick, every time.

At his last NFL stop, with the Washington Football Team in 2021, Fitzpatrick was the starter in Week 1. And then Fitzpatrick got hurt, and actual backup—the glimmer-of-possibility kind, albeit from the utilitarian Highly Productive Undersized College Passer school of no-longer-young backups—Taylor Heinicke took over. And on Monday, Heinicke led that very same Washington-based football team to a victory over the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles. Heinicke made a few excellent throws and got away with some less excellent ones, played with energy and confidence, and celebrated a dubious roughing-the-passer call as if he had just won the damn Powerball. It was the game he was meant to play, although it was also not quite as linear as all that, unsurprisingly.

Heinicke wound up going 7-8 as a starter in relief of Fitzpatrick in 2021, and was himself perfectly Fitzpatrickian in doing so. He ran around a little bit and emoted a lot, he reliably gave the team a chance to win and only occasionally pulled that opportunity off the table by trying to do things he couldn’t do. His teammates plainly enjoyed playing with him, even as no one really entertained the possibility that Heinicke—who is maybe six feet tall but also maybe not, and who started one NFL game before he turned 28—was a long-term solution at the position. What he looked like, more than anything, was a good backup quarterback. It wasn’t until Washington brought in Carson Wentz before this season that I really entertained the possibility that Heinicke might be embarking on his own Fitzpatrick-style journey.

But once they brought in Wentz, it became difficult to see how things could go any other way. Wentz is not the quarterback he might have been, and seemed ready to become, before his ACL and LCL were wrecked late in the 2017 season. He has been up and down since, but mostly he has been the NFL version of a Baxter, the romantic comedy trope of the drippy runner-up boyfriend whose destiny it is to be usurped by the actual romantic lead. The Eagles won the Super Bowl behind Wentz’s backup, Nick Foles, in 2017, and he gave fans plenty of reason to pine for Foles before the team finally dealt him away to the Colts before 2021. While Wentz never did yield to backup Jacob Eason during his sole year in Indianapolis, he collapsed so egregiously down the stretch that that the team had effectively no choice but to get rid of him. He arrived in Washington as the most famously usurpable quarterback in the sport—as the writer and podcaster Charles Star observed, it is now absolutely the master narrative of Wentz’s career—and as an absolute platinum-plated Baxter. Here he was, blue-chippy and ostentatiously devout and by reputation a little prickly, sometimes dressed like a pickup artist who is inexplicably observing the NFL’s Salute To Service week and, more saliently, repeatedly putting himself in position to get brutally sacked. Since the injury that changed the trajectory of his career, Wentz has been infuriating in ways that make fans daydream about their backups; in Heinicke, a former member of the XFL’s St. Louis Battlehawks who is five inches shorter and cannot throw the ball nearly as hard or as far, Wentz found his destiny.

And maybe Heinicke has found his. Washington isn’t saying who will quarterback the team when Wentz returns just yet. “You have to look at the momentum and what the mood of the team is,” head coach Ron Rivera said on Tuesday, which is both zero-calorie coachspeak and something of a hint. The momentum exists and the mood of the team, astonishingly, is good. “[Heinicke] brings the juice,” Chase Young told The Athletic’s Ben Standig after the team’s Week 7 win over the Packers. “He’s the fucking man. Chase Young said it.” This suggests that Heinicke certainly seems to have earned the chance to keep doing his thing. His thing, it’s worth noting, isn’t just superior to Wentz’s in a narrative sense; Heinicke’s strengths, in terms of getting rid of the ball decisively and seldom trying to be a hero, are precisely Wentz’s weaknesses, and he really does give the team a better chance to win as a result. Maybe not a chance to win a Super Bowl, or a playoff game, or even that many more games this year, but at the very least a chance to get out from under the Baxter’s humdrum inevitability. This is the chance that every great backup quarterback gives their team—to dream a little more freely, or at least a little more strangely.