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NFL: Back-up quarterbacks go long on the sidelines

Back-up quarterbacks like Ryan Mallett were once the NFL norm, occupying the cushiest position on the roster, except maybe deep snapper.

Quarterback Matt Cassel moved from Kansas City Chiefs to the Minnesota Vikings.
Quarterback Matt Cassel moved from Kansas City Chiefs to the Minnesota Vikings.

Four attempted passes. Sounds like a quarterback's statistic for a series. Likely not for a game. Certainly not for an NFL season, right?

Alas, it numerically sums up the entirety of 2012 for Ryan Mallett. His negligible workload reflects the facts of life for any understudy of the Patriots' Tom Brady, who is nearly indestructible and whose coach is loathe to yank his starters under the misguided belief that 24-point deficits are erased routinely inside the two-minute warning.

Mallett was once the NFL norm, occupying the cushiest position on the roster, except maybe deep snapper. Whenever television cameras would scan the sidelines, there the backup quarterbacks would be, looking detached from the scene while clutching a clipboard or listening in on a headset.

A post-game shower was optional. An expensive car and fancy house were not, the salaries extended to them being modest.

Nowadays, the second-string quarterback still might observe games from a to-die-for vantage point. But as the pendulum has swung toward full-bore passing attacks, the importance of the starter has far surpassed any other position, and the immediate reinforcements have experienced a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats effect.

If the main man goes down - and he often does, given how vicious the sport has become - the standby guy drops the clipboard, removes the headset and becomes the most significant player on the pitch.

A clue that the choices of first-rate quarterbacks in the upcoming NFL draft are considered lean can be found with the spate of off-season movement by the No 2s. More than a third of league teams will be stitching fresh names onto the jerseys of reserve quarterbacks.

Some relocated throwers are recent starters who must adjust to their reduced status.

Matt Cassel, a washout in Kansas City, landed with Minnesota. Ryan Fitzpatrick, who bombed in Buffalo, has settled with Tennessee. Matt Hasselbeck, an occasional starter with the Titans, is house-hunting in Indianapolis.

Those three must swallow any leftover pride and serve as big brothers to young quarterbacks (Christian Ponder, Jake Locker, Andrew Luck.) That has become an oft-imitated formula: age with beauty. David Garrard, the newest New York Jet, also fits the former-starter-to-backup profile. Of course, with Mark Sanchez straddling the line between boom and bust, Garrard could leapfrog him before autumn's first chill.

Colt McCoy was anything but the real McCoy in Cleveland. After three seasons, partly in a leading gig, he will, barring injury, admire up-close the wondrous Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers. What is your headset size again, Colt?

The reserve role in San Francisco opened when Alex Smith wound up with Kansas City. His backup is Chase Daniel, by way of New Orleans. The Saints replaced Daniel with Luke McCown, a Saint this time a year ago before a one-and-done with Atlanta. McCoy's spot with the Browns was assumed by Jason Campbell, late of the Bears. Drew Stanton will support newly acquired Carson Palmer for the Cardinals, who waived John Skelton, who was signed by Cincinnati, who ...

OK, you get the idea.

Most franchises no longer get by on the cheap with their second-stringers, who command as much as US$3 million (Dh11m) per annum. They have become the most expensive insurance policy since the one that covered motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel.

Resisting the trend, naturally, is the rebel New England, who will pay Mallett barely a half-million bucks to wait in the wings for Brady. Not that Mallett is a bargain. Of those four pass attempts last season, only one was complete. Another was intercepted.

He looks good, though, with a clipboard and headset.

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