The fools in Section 207

The NFL establishment doesn't like quarterback controversies, but in St. Louis and Minnesota, the fans might have a point.


King Kaufman
November 13, 2002 1:51AM (UTC)

If you want someone to call you an idiot, the quickest way to go about it is to suggest that an NFL team's backup quarterback should play. The guardians of right-minded football thinking will lump you in with the mouth-breathing, radio-talk-show-calling set faster than you can say, "We'd have won if the refs didn't have it in for us!"

There are three quarterback controversies brewing in the NFL this week. Two of them represent the two basic versions of these things, which in an effort at ironic retro-hipness I have named after old Disney movies:

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That Darn Starter: The Minnesota Vikings benched struggling Daunte Culpepper Sunday and brought in his backup, Todd Bouman, who played pretty well, though the Vikes still lost to the New York Giants. Just two years ago, Culpepper, a 6-foot-4 260-pounder who can run and throw, was a sensation, the Future of NFL Quarterbacks, as he led Minnesota to a 13-3 record. He's been in a slump for a year and a half, though, and the Vikings, 5-11 last year and 2-7 this year, have gone south right along with him. The fashionable view among the typing classes is that Culpepper needs a change of scenery to get his swerve on again.

Backup Goes Bananas: Injured St. Louis Rams superstar Kurt Warner says he's ready to come back from a broken pinkie after five games on the sideline. Trouble is, Marc Bulger, who started the season as the Rams' third-stringer, has been fabulous in relief. And Warner wasn't so hot before he went down. The Rams went 0-4 as Warner, who has won two of the last three Most Valuable Player awards, threw one touchdown pass and eight interceptions and earned a passer rating of 66.4. Backup Jamie Martin made one start, another loss, but he got hurt too. Bulger then came along and the Rams have won four straight, including Sunday's 28-24 victory over San Diego in which Bulger drove the team for two touchdowns in the final four minutes. His passer rating is 107.4, higher than anyone in the league who has thrown more than two passes.

The third controversy, in which the 2-7 Chicago Bears keep going back and forth between dull journeymen Jim Miller and Chris Chandler, is so dull that I'll comment on it no further than naming it "Last Year at Marienbad," just to give some poor film major out there a chuckle.

An interesting, different case can be made for both Bouman and Bulger. But try making them. Even the words "quarterback controversy" will get you banned from the best NFL parties. Have you noticed how TV announcers will shy away from that phrase? One will say something nice about a backup, the other will say, "Now, you're not trying to start a quarterback controversy, are you?" and the first will back off. "Not me, no way."

Nobody wants to be mistaken for that idiot in Section 207 chanting the backup's name every time a pass gets dropped.

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"It doesn't matter where you are in the NFL," Bouman said after Vikings fans went crazy upon his entry into Sunday's game, "the backup quarterback is always the most-liked guy, for some crazy reason."

That's actually only true if the starter isn't playing well. There aren't a lot of people in Green Bay chanting Doug Pederson's name on Sunday afternoons. But the paying customers do tend to have a pretty loose definition of not playing well. Sometimes three or four bad passes in a game, or even one key interception, are all the fans need to start clamoring for the guy with the clipboard.

The reason for that isn't crazy, it's human nature. The grass is greener and all that. Backup quarterbacks almost never play, so they remain unspoiled in the minds of the fans. As soon as things start turning sour, the face-paint types start yelling for the one guy who hasn't screwed up yet. It's as much a reflex as yelling "Go for it!" on fourth and anything. No thought is required beforehand.

But it's a mistake to assume, as football people seem to, that the only way to arrive at the conclusion that the backup should play is not to think about it. In fact, sometimes the starter benefits from the no-thought crowd.

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During Sunday's Rams-Chargers telecast, CBS play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson gently brought up the idea that maybe, just maybe -- just, really, maybe -- Bulger, who was in the process of completing 36 of 48 passes for 453 yards and four touchdowns, ought to stay in there even when Warner's ready to come back. He wasn't making the argument. He just wanted to kick around the idea. His partner, former player Brent Jones, shot him down. "I'll tell you why not," Jones said, and drew "MVP" over Warner's face with the Telestrator.

Thanks, Brent. That was an enlightening discussion.

What Jones was saying, in his meatheaded way, was that because Warner won the MVP last year and in 1999, he deserves to start. Period. End of conversation. It doesn't matter that Warner played poorly for four games and Bulger has played well for four games. I'm not sure how long Warner's MVP immunity is supposed to last -- eight games? A year? Two years? -- because the conversation was over, and the implication was that Johnson was an idiot for even trying to start it. A perusal of the nation's sports pages finds this argument ("He's the MVP. He should play. Period") being made all over, though Bulger does have his supporters.

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The other part of this argument is the so-called unwritten rule that a player, especially a top quarterback, shouldn't lose his job because of an injury. This is the kind of thinking that would have had the Yankees selling Lou Gehrig to the Cincinnati Reds for $7,500 in 1926, rather than Wally Pipp, the headachy first baseman he'd replaced one day in June of '25. Why can't you lose your job to injury? You can lose it to petulance, budget concerns, age, poor talent evaluation or blatant favoritism. Why is injury the one thing that can make you immune?

There are issues of team chemistry to deal with, especially with the quarterback, who's a leader. A coach doesn't want his players feeling like they risk life and limb every Sunday, and as soon as they get dinged up, they're expendable. But those feelings are easily soothed by winning. Everyone understands that anyone's expendable if someone can come along and do his job better. The Rams might want to remember that they were beaten in the last Super Bowl by a team that kept its starting quarterback on the bench when he returned from an injury.

Nobody was talking Bulger up as a future starter before Week 6. He was a sixth-round draft pick. He's been around for three years, and both the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons cut him before he caught on with the Rams. Now he's come out of nowhere, just as Kurt Warner did three years ago, and he looks like Grade A material.

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Isn't that odd? Two quarterbacks rise from the scrap heap and shine for the same team within a four-year period. Maybe it's the team, not the quarterbacks. Doesn't Bulger's success in the Rams offense call into question some of Warner's success? Isn't it at least a possibility that Warner isn't as good as we've thought, that any accurate thrower with a good head on his shoulders would have thrived in that offense with weapons like Marshall Faulk and the Rams' superb receivers? (I realize accurate throwers with good heads on their shoulders don't exactly fall off trees, but they're around. Heck, Chris Chandler's one.) Considering Bulger is six years younger than Warner, he's healthier, he's playing better and he comes much cheaper, shouldn't he be the guy?

I don't know the answer to these questions. I also don't know whether the very different problem in Minneapolis should be attacked by giving up on the obviously talented Culpepper or letting him try to play through his troubles. The 30-year-old Bouman, who's played in NFL Europe and has hung around with the Vikings since 1997, is not an answer for the long term, but if he can inject some life into a moribund team, is it worth playing him for the rest of the year to try to finish on an upswing?

I think the idiots are the ones who are ignoring these questions, not the ones asking them. After all, a lot of times when the fans yell "Go for it!" on fourth down, they're right.


King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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