Benchwarmers: The life of a backup QB


Tennessee Titans v Atlanta Falcons

Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

In case you missed it, Sunday’s NFL-action included something rarer than Halley’s Comet: a Charlie Whitehurst appearance.

The career backup was forced into the game after starting quarterback Cody Kessler suffered a rib injury. In the brief cameo, he completed 14 of 24 passes for 182 yards, with an interception and a touchdown.

That 17-yard strike to tight end Connor Hamlett was Whitehurst first scoring toss since 2014 – and just the 11th in a career that began in 2006. By comparison, Philip Rivers (whom Whitehurst once backed up in San Diego) has 11 touchdown passes this season.

Few jobs have a higher potential for cushiness than that of backup NFL quarterback. They are paid six-figure (and sometimes more) salaries, for duties that consist of holding the clipboard, wearing a visor and giving a few words of encouragement to the starter, between series.

Theoretically, they are one big hit, one interception away from taking the field. In practice, they rarely do, thus allowing them to toil away in “on-call” purgatory for most of their careers.

Whitehurst, whose nickname is “Clipboard Jesus,” has become a poster child for the career backup. The moniker pays homage to his flowing locks (Whitehurst was named on Nashville Lifestyle’s most beautiful people list) as well as his second-stringer status.

The former Clemson quarterback’s career includes stops in San Diego, Seattle, San Diego (again), Tennessee, Indianapolis and, now, Cleveland. Out of a possible 165 games, he’s taken the field in just 25 (15%).

From 2007-2009, he failed to appear in a single game. During that span, you could have replaced him on the sidelines with Jim Caviezel and no one would have noticed.

When he has played, Whitehurst has performed like, well, a backup. His career 74.9 quarterback rating places him below  luminaries like Chad Henne and Tim Couch. He’s been inaccurate (55.3 completion percentage) and ineffective (6.22 yard average distance on completed passes).

How have those stats translated, financially? For these services, Whitehurst has made a staggering $18 million dollars – more money than most Americans will see, several lifetimes over.

Still just 34, it is conceivable the journeyman can enjoy a few more years on the sideline and push that figure over the $20 million threshold.

As ridiculous as that sounds, compare that figure to star quarterbacks, who make twenty-mil a year. Compared to that, Whitehurst’s $869,117 ($529,411 cap hit) salary is a rounding error to the rich pockets of NFL franchises.

The gap between the stars and scrubs is immense, but the gap between an average starter and his backup is much tighter. Under the right circumstances, the better backups graduate and become starters (see Schaub, Matt or Hoyer, Brian).

What’s left is an island of misfit toys smorgasbord of players, whose star ambitions are held in check by one or two glaring flaws (too interception-prone, lacking arm strength). These flaws would be exposed if they played everyday but seem far less important, when their users are sitting on the bench.

The drawback to Whitehurst is that he simply isn’t very good. But, with his size (6’5”, 225) and rock star hairdo, he looks like an NFL quarterback. That has been his best skill, as a pro.

Sometimes, that’s all you need.

Whitehurst is not alone. In fact, his earnings pale to some of his contemporaries. Here is a list of his fellow backups (to qualify, players must have appeared in less than 50% of total possible games).

Name Career $ GP % TD-INT Rating
Derek Anderson $30,765,553 43% 60-57 71.6
Shaun Hill $25,779,225 28% 49-30 85
Matt Moore $23,323,000 30% 33-28 79.3
Drew Stanton $22,846,469 23% 14-18 67.1
Matt Flynn $19,222,800 41% 17-11 85.9
Charlie Whitehurst $18,242,117 15% 11-8 74.9

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