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A Backup's Age-Old Story

By Mike Wise
Saturday, August 22, 2009

Each August, without sufficient reason, we go cuckoo for Colt. For two years running, some of us have gone absolutely bananas over a third-string quarterback who has but two qualities in his corner: gaudy college numbers and raw gumption.

Why? Because Colt Brennan represents youth, daring, change.

Jason Campbell represents same ol', same ol'.

Todd Collins, bless his heart, represents an archeological dig.

(Chase Daniel represents youth, daring and change, too. But unfortunately, not enough to circumvent an old unwritten NFL rule: one Doug Flutie clone per 53-man roster).

But almighty Colt, who will be Campbell's backup Saturday night against the world champion Steelers in a preseason game that means nothing for his team and everything for him, stands for something entirely different, something that can't be quantified but is instead felt. Immensely.

Brennan is a window into a fan's seductive nature of pulling for every backup quarterback buried behind the starter.

And depending on whether or not he has the goods, he is either Babe Laufenberg or Mark Rypien -- the next generation.

Remember? From 1983 to 1985, Laufenberg was the strapping, affable gunslinger who tore up the Redskins' preseason -- making Joe Theismann seem old and Jay Schroeder look very fallible. Of course Joe Gibbs never saw fit to play Laufenberg in a regular season game because, well, he was Babe Laufenberg.

"Babe was that guy who never became the backup, but he had such a great personality and was such a fan favorite, people would still be calling for him -- even when he was dressed like a coach on the sideline," said Rypien, who knows of such things.

Rypien, beyond being the last quarterback to lead Washington to a Super Bowl, was also once a backup pining for his moment.

"I was Doug's backup," he said, alluding to Doug Williams. "Jay was Theismann's backup. Doug was Jay's. Stan [Humphries] was my backup -- boy, they loved Stan for a while.

"Every one of us sounded like a starter when the main guy was having a tough go of things. What happened with Colt last year and now, especially if he puts up numbers again in the preseason, is just the code of the fan. When things aren't going well with the main guy, you call for the other one no matter what logic says."

Indeed, it matters little that a recent Sports Illustrated poll rated Collins, not Brennan, the sixth-best backup quarterback in the NFL, a year after he was ranked No. 1. (Michael Vick was No. 2, poor Sage Rosenfels is No. 4 and, yes, Mark Brunell checks in at No. 28). Or that Brennan has never been activated for a regular season game. Or, a year after he put up numbers and highlights in his rookie preseason, he was running for cover while throwing incomplete passes and an interception last week against Baltimore.

This is about a Colt of personality.

This is about why a snazzy preseason showing or two can make the masses go ga-ga over a go-for-broke quarterback from Hawaii. Brennan is the exotic candidate from abroad, the new, mysterious kid in homeroom who makes the homecoming king look vanilla and so junior year.

He wants to prove Mel Kiper Jr. and the draftniks wrong, just as other quarterbacks who fell to the draft's sixth round (Marc Bulger, Matt Hasselbeck, Tom Brady and, yes, Rypien) proved them wrong. He wants to be what Trent Green was behind Gus Frerotte and Heath Shuler in Washington, a pro bowler waiting to blossom. Or what Tony Romo was behind Drew Bledsoe: the guy Bill Parcells kept on the roster because he saw something in him.

A year ago in preseason, Brennan stood outside a locker room and vented his frustration after being drafted five rounds behind Joe Flacco.

"This isn't a dis' on Joe Flacco, but he went to a [division I-AA] school, played weaker competition, didn't have as successful a year as I did, yet he still went in the first round because he's 6-5 and can throw the ball 70 yards," he said to me.

"You always used to hear Bill Walsh say accuracy and toughness are what makes a quarterback great, and that's like what I am, accurate and tough. To see me fall, to see so many people say, 'He'll never make it in the NFL; he's a worthless pick,' I couldn't believe it."

A year later, as Flacco sprinted onto the M&T Bank Stadium field to a throaty ovation after guiding the Ravens into the AFC championship game last January, Brennan trotted out the way he did a year ago: as the entrenched backup behind a backup.

Barring an injury to Campbell, the realistic preseason goal for Brennan is to unseat Collins by looking much more impressive than a steady, reliable pro of 15 seasons. He acknowledged he has mentally circled the preseason dates on the calendar because he knows this is his shot. He also realizes Flacco wasn't that bad after all.

"I give major props to Joe -- and for that matter Matt Ryan," Brennan says now. "Those are two guys who proved right away they could lead and win. I'd love to be in a position to do that, to show that I belong in that way. I also understand whose team this is at that position and that I'm going to have to wait. That's just the way it is."

Here's hoping he gets his deserved opportunity at some point to see game action when it matters. But it's Campbell's job this season. Unless he goes down to injury or things go so abysmally south Jim Zorn has to make a change, Campbell is not going to relinquish the position. And Collins is the unquestioned No. 2 quarterback.

Well, for now.

"If Colt lights it up, you'll have all these people saying it's the preseason and it means nothing," Rypien said. "Publicly they will say that, but in their heads, Colt's play can make them change their minds. Of course that leads to more speculation and more controversy. But that's what the preseason is for, right?"

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