Backup (QB) Plan

Is Brad Johnson still good enough to be a backup quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys? examines the evidence.

There aren't a lot of Brett Favres. Along with passing yards and touchdown passes, the Green Bay legend also retired with 253 consecutive starts, a record for players at the game's most high-profile position. There aren't many Peyton Mannings, either, and he needs to start every game for more than eight more seasons to catch up to Favre's streak.

This is not a prediction that Tony Romo will get hurt. He's young and healthy. He's strong enough to withstand a lot of hits and fast enough to avoid many more.

Prehaps more than any quarterback in the NFL today, he has the playground-style athletic ability to escape defenders while waiting for a running lane to open or for a receiver to get open downfield.

But it happens. Players get hurt. Specifically, quarterbacks get hurt. Such is life at the league's most glamorous – and usually most dangerous – position. The Cowboys have to assume that even a fantastic athlete like Romo will get hurt.

Of course, all teams have to assume that.

Even the Packers in recent years, or the Colts over the last several years and going forward with Manning. Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell is a little like Chris Canty, but given his position, even Al Davis has to be logical enough to assume that at some point, his quarterback will suffer a few dents in his massive fenders.

But it's a little more important in Dallas than it is in Oakland, or in several other NFL cities. Team executives have surrounded Romo with one of the most talented teams in the entire league. This team is built to win – now. The Dallas lineup could re-stock the NFC team in the Pro Bowl again in 2009, but a lot of key players – Flozell Adams, Terrell Owens (new contract and all), Zach Thomas, etc. – are in the latter stages of their careers. The team has a lot of young talent, of course, but the time to go for it all is now.

The key here is that the common thinking is that every NFL team needs to have two capable quarterbacks – if not three – to succeed. The teams that get lengthy streaks of service from one quarterback, a la Manning or Tom Brady, are a rarity.

The Cowboys are in unusually good shape at the all-important backup quarterback position.

Contrary to urban myth, Brad Johnson did not back up Don Meredith, or even Roger Staubach. But he is entering his 17th NFL season, raising what is now an annual question about whether he still can play.

He can.

The reports last year that his arm strength was completely gone were the result of considerable exaggeration. He no longer has the cannon he had when he came to the NFL from Florida State – when the other George Bush was president – but he still can make throws many NFL quarterbacks can't. More importantly, he's a smart veteran who prepares for every game as if he plans to start, and serves as an invaluable sounding board for Romo. The team doesn't want him starting 16 games, but in a pinch, he can play.

The wild card in the equation is third-stringer Richard Bartel. The second-year passer has dropped nearly 30 pounds from the nearly 260 he carried last year, but he is more nimble and retains the strongest arm on the team. His hope is to go the Romo route: wait patiently for a few years while he learns the professional game, and then take over when he gets his chance. Of course, at 25 years old, he's only three years younger than the Cowboys high-paid starter, so that should be a while.

Backup quarterback is one of those positions that only gets noticed when there's trouble: either the starter gets hurt, or plays horribly and gets pulled from the lineup, which in the case of Romo isn't likely. But it also is a position that must be filled ably, and in the Cowboys' case, it is.

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