The Mystique of the Backup

The allure of the backup quarterback is one of the most unusual phenomenon in all of professional sports. If the team used a premium draft pick, they expect the kid to grab the job right away. When your team signs a free agent, you hope he can provide depth and competition for a poor starter. In the most optimistic light you look for the positives of the late-round flyer to make the team and grow into a viable option for the next Kurt Warner or Tom Brady. The New England Patriots drafted Danny Etling with the first pick of the seventh round out of LSU. He had all the usual buzzwords of the project quarterback. Big arm, garbage pocket presence, inconsistent mechanics, high upside and development prospect were the most common.

Yet, the New England faithful grasped those brittle straws with a desperation that bordered on mania. The fans of the Patriots had received a 1-2 combo gut punch of former qb news. A swap of Jacoby Brissett for near bust wideout in Phillip Dorsett was not well-received, especially after Brissett went on to perform admirably for a flawed Colts team.

Just when the people resigned themselves to a quarterback controversy in the upcoming offseason New England did the unthinkable. Shipping uber-dreamy backup Jimmy G to the west coast for a perceived discount struck fans the wrong way. The jolt he provided the 49ers gave them the energy to run off a 5 game win streak to close out the season. Could Danny Etling be that guy to make us forget all our woes? He must be; why else would Bill Belichick make those moves and take those risks at the game’s most important position?


The Patriots Plan

I get it. Brian Hoyer is not the sexiest option for fans to think about as a backup to Tom Brady. For every positive that you can point out in his career you can point out an equally devastating negative. Still, he is one of the better candidates for helping the Patriots maintain their AFC East domination in the event of the unthinkable. He posted a 61.3 completion percentage with 288 yards in a preseason that started very poorly for him. High throws, lack of rhythm, and uneven chemistry with the offensive personnel. Hoyer saw most of his action against starters and backups that will comprise NFL rosters when the season starts.

Did Etling show enough promise that the Patriots brass might forgo that security of the knowable for the risk of mystique?

The Positives

“Ran his way into the practice squad of my heart!”

-Mark Schofield gushing over Danny Etling’s 86 yard TD run on the Locked on Patriots podcast.


Then came the week 4 preseason game. After an uneven performance in the first half. Danny Etling was seeing his most extensive action of the preseason. On a zone read play that fooled the entire, and I mean, ENTIRE NY Giants defense, Etling kept the ball and ran. He streaked, fully clothed, down the sidelines for a touchdown to secure the lead and the game. This encapsulated a good/bad performance from the young kid trying to scratch out the beginnings of a career in the NFL.

The Negatives

“Seven guys just got cut on that one play!”

-Broadcast announcer during the game.


As feel good and uplifting as that play was, it was mostly the result of some very poor defense. The play came against young players facing long odds for a roster spot. The final stat line by Etling’s preseason shows the guy that most people scouted prior to the draft. On 36 attempts he connected for 19 passes and 175 yards through the air. His accuracy on short passes was particularly alarming. His running ability did provide a nice contrast to the normally elephantine pace of the New England Patriots quarterbacks. I mean, fleet-footed, gazelle-like speed. He rushed for 4 first downs throughout the preseason. Could that be enough for him to possibly find himself on the roster?

The 2018 Outcome

Unfortunately, no. In the harsh economics of the NFL he simply didn’t show enough this preseason to warrant one of the coveted 53 man roster spot. Every spot is valuable and reserving a single spot for a developmental quarterback that will not be active on game day is a very high cost. Several factors could work in his favor if they were present. If Hoyer had a disastrous preseason. Or if his production did not warrant his cost.

If the Patriots had invested a higher round pick in Etling it would have made them more inclined to keep him. I would like him to be able to grab a practice squad spot. His experience in the system is enough to be an asset for practice and an emergency option. The rest of the NFL will get an option to grab him first for their team if the Patriots go this route. 

The NFL is a tough place filled with fleeting success and long memories. Bill Belichick has mastered the more obscure paths of team management, so I’ll refer any questions to him and I’m absolutely sure he will respond to your inquiry with the respect and depth that he is known for.


All photos courtesy of Getty images unless noted otherwise.

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