‘I died a little every Sunday I didn’t play’: Life as a backup quarterback | Sport

It is often said that quarterback is the most difficult role in any sport. No other position combines athleticism, durability, mental acuity and supreme focus at such high, unrelenting levels. Now imagine having to achieve that while never knowing when you’ll next be called upon to take a snap or even what state you’ll have to move your family to next year.

Here, we speak to three NFL veterans about the uniquely demanding life of the journeyman quarterback.

How does regularly moving teams, cities and states affect your life away from the field?

Josh Johnson (Twelve years in the NFL on 13 different teams, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns and Washington): It’s difficult. I’ve got a great support system, a great family. I try to keep as much stability at home as possible with regards to my kids going to school, trying to keep them in as much of a routine as possible. I bounce around a lot, but I can handle that. I’ve been bouncing around since I was 18. It doesn’t make relationships worse, it just makes me put more focus on how to make it right. I understand that a lot of things are pulling me in different directions. At times, you can feel like you’re spread thin.

JT O’Sullivan: (Ten years in the NFL on 11 teams, including the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers): I was fortunate enough to do it when I didn’t necessarily have a family, so I didn’t have to worry about being away from my kids. The football season is not the longest sports season in the world. After the season, you go home. It’s a job. I was never somewhere long enough to put down roots and live somewhere. During the offseason, I was always going to go back home to California. And I always looked at it as the best temporary job I was ever going to get. I never looked at it as a 40-year career. I was just trying to maximize every opportunity and suck the marrow out of that career.

Trent Dilfer (Dilfer was a starting quarterback in his early career and won Super Bowl XXXV with the Baltimore Ravens. His later career was mainly as a backup at teams such as the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers): As a father and as a husband, the hardest challenge is your kids. It’s the school situations, the friend groups, the play dates. My daughters were in junior high when I was at the 49ers. They had a whole new friend group, a new school. As a father, you’re sensitive to your kids and how they’re assimilating into the new environment.

How do you build a rapport with new teammates when you’re constantly moving?

Johnson: It’s not easy. The number one thing is: reps, reps, reps. That makes it a whole lot smoother. But the reality of being a backup is you don’t get those reps. You’ve got to get rapport in other ways. Whether it is spending time with your guys at lunch, talking football; or spending some extra time after practice, getting on the same page. I try to let the guys know they’re all in the same situation as me: we’re trying to make the team, we’re not going to get the ideal reps, but let’s not focus on what we’re not getting; let’s focus on what we do have, and what we do have is each other. The faster we can learn to think like one another, the better.

O’Sullivan: That’s definitely one of the hardest parts of switching teams often. At that high level of the sport, most of your peers can tell pretty quickly who’s good, who’s going to help the team, who’s going to struggle to make the squad. It’s about timing and opportunity. But you can’t rush that. It doesn’t happen over a weekend. It doesn’t happen over a month. It comes from repetition on the practice field, in-game reps.

Dilfer: I always felt like it was going to college all over again. You had to earn your teammates’ respect, you had to earn your coaches’ respect, you had to earn the right to be heard. You did that through being a hard worker. That’s the common language of sport: if you’re a hard worker, people respect you. You try to encourage other players. That immediately helps develop trust and closeness with your relationships. And then in professional sports you’ve got to play well, you’ve got to practice well. I always took a lot of pride in how I practiced to earn respect that way too.

How does the role of backup quarterback differ from backups in other positions?

Johnson: On gameday, we’re under the same pressure as everybody else, because you’re sitting there, not involved in the game, and then at any moment you’ve got to go in there and are expected to produce at a high level. No excuses, no explanations – go get it done. As a backup quarterback, it’s all mental. Physically, you’re going to cool off. I’ve got little drills that I do to keep myself physically warm. It’s a mental grind, though. You can’t let your mind waver for three hours.

O’Sullivan: I used to tell people that I died a little bit each Sunday that I didn’t play, because you prepare so hard, you do everything you need to do to be successful and then you don’t get the opportunity. There are benefits to not getting hit, but it hurts your soul when you don’t get the opportunity to go out and compete.

Dilfer: You’ve got to be a bit of a therapist and an assistant coordinator to the starter. You want to be his No 1 fan. You want to be advocating on his behalf to the play-caller to get the stuff called that he likes the most. You’ve got to be that – I don’t want to say cheerleader – energy-bringer on the sideline. It’s a very complex job gameday.

Josh Johnson in action for Washington: ‘I understand that a lot of things are pulling me in different directions. At times, you can feel like you’re spread thin’. Photograph: Phelan M Ebenhack/AP

Is it difficult to maintain physical and mental sharpness without regular games?

Johnson: Madden is a big thing for me to mentally train myself, to be quick at the line of scrimmage and seeing what I need to see. I watch games. I break down the schemes of what teams are doing. I make sure I update myself on the way the game is being played. You’ve got to be creative in the things you do to train yourself and try to stay in shape. I work out with a lot of younger kids because that’s really who is available. They’re not physically ready for what I would expect of the pros, but I’ve got to make do.

O’Sullivan: It’s impossible to keep the mental game-speed and game-execution element without getting game reps. The flipside of it is the physical element. You should be in the best physical shape of anyone on the team. You don’t have to recover every week. But when most people feel like they’re getting into the groove of the season, you might not have taken one single snap in a game.

Dilfer: The hardest part is the visuals. You’re not getting the same visuals the starter gets playing against the defensive looks that you’re going to play that week. You kind of have to play games with yourself, mentally and visually, to recreate those looks in your smaller games in practice. To me, that was always the biggest challenge. In 2001, I went in for [Matt] Hasselbeck couple of times early in the season in the middle of the game. It would take me a series or two to adjust my eyes and get the visuals right. But then it was like riding a bike.

Is it difficult is to learn a new playbook every time you join a new team?

Trent Dilfer  played 13 years in the NFL for a host of teams

Trent Dilfer played 13 years in the NFL for a host of teams. Photograph: Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Johnson: I always look at it like learning a new subject in school. When it’s not familiar to you, it can seem a bit overwhelming. But the more reps you get, you begin to conceptualize things and pick up patterns. That’s when it starts to slow down for you.

O’Sullivan: Every time that you learn a new offense, it’s a little bit easier. It’s like learning multiple languages: it’s easier to learn the third and the fourth than it is to learn the second. Using index cards was my little thing, like using vocab cards if you’re learning a language. It doesn’t matter what you call it, if you learn the core plays, you can go to any offense and find those same plays. You can call it “Strawberry Milkshake” but at the end of the day, everyone is just running and turning around at 10 yards.

Dilfer: If you’re on one team long enough, you learn a bunch of different stuff from one playbook that helps you learn your next playbook because you have enough of a baseline conceptual understanding of what other people do. It’s really just putting a language to what the other teams are doing. You’re familiar with the what they’re running and what they’re trying to accomplish. You just have to get the nomenclature down and understand how to communicate it.

Do things get easier with experience?

Johnson: Oh, hell yeah. Experience is everything. Even though I’ve been playing 12 years and I’ve bounced around so much, the amount of experience I’ve had – actually physically playing football – amounts to about one full season of games. Where I’m at mentally – how much the game has slowed down and how I’m able to walk the walk and talk the talk, understand schemes – there’s nothing overwhelming. That’s all from experience.

O’Sullivan: I think that there are elements that get easier with experience. There are elements that get harder with experience. Learning the offense certainly gets easier. But leaving relationships, leaving cities that you loved, those type of things get harder as you get older. But when you’re ‘old’ in the NFL, you’re in your early 30s.

Dilfer: Yeah, it does. You take pride in it later in your career. I got excited about new opportunities, new people to meet, new coaches to learn from, new teammates to mentor.

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