Don Majkowski and the Green Bay Packers were seeking to even their record at 5-5 and start putting things together for a run at the playoffs. Packers fans had every reason to believe because the previous season, Majik led Green Bay to a 10-6 record and missed the playoffs by an eyelash while throwing for 4,318 yards and 27 touchdowns and finishing second to Joe Montana in the NFL MVP voting.
Unfortunately, Cardinals linebacker Freddie Joe Nunn was about to rewrite the script.
On one disastrous play, with Majkowski scrambling out of the pocket toward the sideline, Nunn tackled him from behind, wrapping his arms around Majkowski's upper body and slamming his right shoulder into the ground. A torn rotator cuff spelled the end of Majkowski's season and he never regained strength in his throwing shoulder. He rehabbed and winced through the pain but things were never right for him again. He struggled as a starter in 1991 and eventually was replaced by Mike Tomczak. In 1992, he gave it another shot as a starter but suffered a severe ankle injury against the Bengals and lost his starting job to Brett Favre.
"The hardest thing you have to get over is thinking about when you were the full-time starter, before my major shoulder injury," said Majkowski, who makes his home near Atlanta with wife Kelly, daughter Dani and son Bo. "I was playing at such a high level. In 1989, I was the best I ever was in my career. Then, after having reconstructive shoulder surgery, coming back and just not being the same player physically was tough to deal with mentally, as well. You have to suppress everything you feel and basically keep it inside and tell no one because you don't want anyone in the organization to know that you've lost some confidence or that you're playing with so much pain. You have to really become mentally tough, suck it up and do what you can to survive during the week. Hopefully, you'll still play at a level where they'll keep you around as the starter or, later in my career, I knew I was falling into the backup role because of my physical nature. I'm not sure my shoulder would have held up as a starter. The toughest part about the backup role is adapting to it mentally because you knew what you used to be like and what you could do. Not being able to do things as you once did is a difficult thing to deal with."
Majkowski finished the 1992 season on the bench before moving on to Indianapolis the next season. For the next four years, he would play mostly as a backup with the Colts (1993-94) and Lions (1995-96).
Today, as he follows the fortunes of the Packers, it hasn't been easy for him to watch the team struggle at the quarterback position in the wake of Aaron Rodgers' collarbone injury.
So, what are the attributes that make for a good backup quarterback?
"Ideally, if you're going to be a backup quarterback, it's a lot easier to deal with if you have some proven success in your prior starts in your career," Majkowski explained. "Most really good quarterbacks were starters at one point and have a lot of experience. Later in your career, if you're in the backup role, it's a lot easier than being a young player because you only get minimum reps, really no reps with the starting offense. Game plans change from week to week and usually the offensive coordinator will implement some new passing plays and running plays for this week's game plan. There may be 10 new passing plays and, during practice, the starter wants to make sure he gets a chance to at least run those new passing plays at least 2-3 times. You just don't have enough time to practice those new 10 plays. That's 30 plays and it takes about 45 minutes to practice them. There's not enough time for the backup to get any reps so, if you're the backup, it's much easier if you're an experienced quarterback."
Without the benefit of being able to run through the plays, it becomes almost exclusively a mental game for the backups. That's an especially tall order for the younger players.
"You just have to take mental reps and understand exactly what's going on by observing, asking questions and listening to everything that's going on in practice," said Majkowski. "You've got to be very in tune with what's going on. After practice, you watch the practice film of the starter taking reps and what the coaches are saying about what he did right and what he did wrong. You're reading the coverages and what your progression is and what you're trying to accomplish with each play. It's not ideal but that's just the way it is in the NFL."
Backups that are with a team from the start of the season get their reps in the offseason minicamps, voluntary workouts and the preseason games. All quarterbacks get a relatively equal amount of reps and that's where they learn the offense and the system and get their timing down with the receivers. But once the season starts, it's strictly a mental game.
After sharing time with Jim Harbaugh as a starter and backup with the Colts, Majkowski spent his two final seasons in Detroit, where he backed up Scott Mitchell. Majkowski understood his role in running the scout team in practice and he made sure his teammates, especially the younger ones, understood the importance of the scout team opportunity.
"That's running the opposing team's offense for your starting defense so they can see what the upcoming offense will look like, what are their favorite pass plays and running plays," said Majkowski. "Basically, a coach will go into the huddle and hold up a card with a diagram of the pass play to show the defense. The quarterback will have a primary receiver, a secondary receiver and a third receiver. A veteran understands the concept of the passing play. Running that part of the practice, it's very important for the quarterback to not get lazy and pre-determine who you will throw it to. As you go back to pass, you have to read the coverages of what your defense is actually doing and try to complete the pass to the best of your ability.
"I remember that I ran that very effectively and sometimes I was able to carve up the defense week after week. The coaches would tell the defense not to feel too badly, ‘because the guy running the scout team is a proven veteran quarterback who knows what he's doing.' This also gives the coaches a chance to see you perform in a gamelike situation. You can gain their confidence and earn their respect. If you're called upon in a game situation as a backup, they know that you have the ability to lead them. Many times, an unproven backup comes in and there's big question marks. Teammates in the huddle are unsure if you can handle it."
Being on the scout team can be a springboard for players at the other positions.
"That's exactly right and I would emphasize to the guys in the huddle, especially the younger players, that, ‘We're not just running the scout team. This is an opportunity for you guys to really raise some eyebrows with the whole coaching staff because they're only an injury away from being a full-time starter, as well.' Just like we're seeing in Green Bay. When Randall Cobb went down, guys like Jarrett Boykin move up to the starting lineup."
"I think all of those backup quarterbacks were in a pretty difficult role," said Majkowski. "First of all, none of them were in Green Bay during minicamps or the offseason voluntary workouts. They were all in a position where they really didn't get a lot of time to learn the system or get much playing experience as a backup with the Packers going into this season. They didn't have any starts or recent playing time in real games. Wallace understood the West Coast system because he played in Seattle but he didn't have the luxury of getting to know his players. McCarthy has quite a few different wrinkles that he runs in the offense for Aaron Rodgers. What Rodgers does as a quarterback just can't be replicated by other quarterbacks. There are plays and schemes he executes that not many other guys can. What's put on his shoulders is a tremendous amount of pressure because he is so good. He's probably the best throwing quarterback in the NFL to date.
"When Rodgers went down, all of these guys did their best. Wallace got hurt right away and I understand from one of McCarthy's press conferences that Tolzein was running plays in that first game (vs. Philadelphia) for the first time ever. That's a lot to ask of a backup, especially a young guy. They had a very difficult task being successful, especially after Packer fans have seen what Aaron Rodgers can do. McCarthy's had to design game plans more around the running game and around these quarterbacks' strong suits. They've been getting better but it's tough."
Second-guessing Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy on the backup quarterback issue has become a big sport across Wisconsin. Were the Packers prepared at backup heading into the season?
"Ideally, I think you'd like to have a backup quarterback that has had a lot more recent playing success and is a veteran quarterback," said Majkowski. "I know Seneca is a veteran guy who's been around but he just hasn't played in a long time. That's tough for a guy to come in at this point in his career and be really successful. Unfortunately, he had a very short time to start getting into his groove before his groin injury and his opportunity was shut down pretty quickly.
"For Tolzein, it's so difficult for a young guy to come in and be successful. It would have been ideal if the Packers had a guy who was more seasoned like the Bears' quarterback, Josh McCown. He came in and has played extremely well and really, the Bears haven't missed a beat as far as the passing game. Is he as good as Jay Cutler, the full-time starter? No. But he's pretty darned good and he's a proven starter in the league with some prior success. To have a guy like that would be ideal. The Packers didn't, for whatever reason. I don't know how many guys were on the market this year. I'm not that close to the team and I'm not in the scouting department so I don't know who was available but it's probably something that next season will be more of a priority."