Backups in the spotlight

Michael Silver
Yahoo! Sports

Like Gene Autry and Steven Tyler before him, Gus Frerotte is about to get back in the saddle, and the significance of the moment is not lost on the St. Louis Rams' 36-year-old backup quarterback.

Mindful that fellow blasts from the past Trent Dilfer and Kurt Warner will also see action behind center for NFC West teams this Sunday, Frerotte knows a good storyline when he sees it: Call them the NFL's answer to "Golden Girls" only with creakier knees.

"I think you know that the old guys are taking over the league this week," Frerotte said Thursday night from his home in St. Louis. "You always want to end things on a high note, and I think that's why Brett (Favre) keeps doing his thing. Now, because of the way things have shaken out, Trent and Kurt and I have a chance to do ours."

Favre, currently tearing up the league at 38 for the undefeated Green Bay Packers after several years of sharp decline, has had a much different journey than the Three Mature Musketeers. Unlike the Pack's future Hall of Famer, former Pro Bowl participants Frerotte, Dilfer and Warner have had to reinvent themselves as valuable backups, swallowing their pride and ambition in the process.

Together, they have lived a collective 107 years, played for a combined 14 NFL teams (15, if you count the Rams twice), won a pair of MVPs (both by Warner) and played in three Super Bowls, winning two (Warner and Dilfer). All have been "the man" as recently as 2005, when Dilfer and Frerotte began the season as starters for the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins, respectively, and Warner ran the show for the Arizona Cardinals, a role he may soon resume.

"I know it sounds crazy, but I'm playing as well as I ever have, maybe better," Warner, 36, said last Sunday after completing 14 of 21 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown while splitting time with second-year starter Matt Leinart in the Cards' 21-14 upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This Sunday in St. Louis, Warner will again see at least some action off the bench at the Edward Jones Dome, the building in which he served as ringmaster for the Greatest Show on Turf during the Rams' exhilarating run from 1999 to 2001. The combination of Leinart's early-season struggles, Warner's revival behind a suddenly capable Arizona offensive line and first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt's unconventional willingness to quarterback-juggle has given the former Hy-Vee supermarket stock boy another chance to add to his already amazing story, one that I documented in his 2000 autobiography "All Things Possible."

Starting for the 0-4 Rams will be Frerotte, who's been pressed into service because franchise quarterback Marc Bulger has struggled while trying to play with broken ribs and because second-year coach Scott Linehan, who has been with Frerotte for each of the past five seasons, is falling back on his comfort zone with his job possibly in jeopardy.

Dilfer, 35, takes over for third-year San Francisco 49ers starter Alex Smith, who suffered a separated throwing shoulder last weekend. In another one of those convenient scheduling coincidences, Dilfer's first start in two years will come Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, the team which discarded him after he quarterbacked it to its lone Super Bowl championship in franchise history seven seasons ago.

After years of ripping Ravens coach Brian Billick for that decision, Dilfer finally tried this week to let go of his anger, offering a public apology to his former coach. Frerotte, however, fired a shot of his own on Thursday, saying, "For me, personally, I'm still pissed they would let a Super Bowl quarterback go. That next year (with Elvis Grbac at quarterback), they had that same great defense and no Trent, and they didn't do crap."

In theory, all three quarterbacks understand that their stints will be temporary, as their respective teams have made big-money investments in Leinart, Bulger and Smith. But each veteran passer has been around long enough to know that if he gives his team a spark, that moment in the fading afternoon sun may be extended indefinitely.

Here's where life gets interesting: As any of the three players can attest, the psychology of being a valuable veteran backup clashes with the natural bravado that helped propel these cocksure quarterbacks to prominence in the first place. Learning to be a supportive and somewhat submissive mentor was an adjustment for all of them, and now they have to alter the equation again. For each player's immediate role requires that he shelve that persona and get back in touch with his brassy side.

Yet even as he does this, the veteran backup knows he must avoid an outright takeover of the locker room, lest he undermine the relationship he has spent months cultivating behind the scenes. Dilfer, in particular, has turned the latter art into a science beginning with his nurturing of future star Matt Hasselbeck in Seattle.

"My loyalty is probably deeper to Alex Smith than it is to the 49ers," Dilfer told me during a gluttonous sushi lunch in San Jose, Calif., over the summer. "People think you just go someplace and mentor, but in order to mentor somebody you have to earn his trust. He also has to respect you as a player, so you have to compete with him on the field. But when he's vulnerable, you have to show loyalty."

When Frerotte got to the Rams in 2006 after a refreshingly productive season as the Dolphins' starter in '05, Bulger, St. Louis's starter the previous three seasons, was predictably distant. But after Frerotte convinced Bulger he wasn't gunning for the starting job, the two Pittsburgh-area natives became good friends, which is one reason Bulger doesn't seem overly stressed about Linehan's decision to sit him.

"Maybe if it would have happened last year, it would've been different," Frerotte said. "But I think Marc understands where I'm coming from and where Scott's coming from, and obviously the Rams have made quite an investment in him (a six-year, $65 million contract extension this past July)."

Though Bulger, 30, is more like a contemporary, Frerotte understands both ends of the veteran backup/young franchise QB equation. "Earlier in my career," he recalled, "when I was a starter, an older quarterback came in and said, 'Look, I'm not here to baby you around. I'm not gonna be your mentor. I'm here to take your job.' So when I got into that situation, I tried to do things differently. In Minnesota (from 2003 to '04), I was basically like a quarterbacks coach for Daunte Culpepper, and I tried to help him any way I could."

Warner took that notion to a touching visual extreme last Sunday in the home locker room at University of Phoenix Stadium, as he and Leinart stood side by side at their lockers and did their best to describe an awkward situation. As Leinart spoke, he asked to borrow some deodorant from Warner; he then began buttoning a white dress shirt before holding out the sleeves. On cue, Warner took a pair of cufflinks from Leinart's locker and inserted them through the appropriate holes.

"This is what he does for me," Leinart said. "He's like my dad."

Warner, who has seven children, smiled proudly. It is not inconsequential that, in addition to being terrific teammates, each of the three O.G.'s (that's "old guys" or "original gangstas," depending upon your musical orientation) is an even better father and husband.

"I expect to play well, and my teammates expect it, too," Dilfer said on Tuesday. "There's so much that goes into being a good backup, and this is part of it. I'm ready to rock and roll."

Like Steven Tyler, with smaller lips and creakier knees.


It's Upset Week II in the NFL: The Chicago Bears will rise up and beat the Packers in Green Bay, with Brian Urlacher leading the way. … The New York Jets will beat the New York Giants in the Battle of Jersey, providing more evidence that the AFC is the superior conference. … The St. Louis Rams – yep, that's right – will get a boost from Frerotte and end the 0-16 talk with a win over the Cardinals.


Nashville, Tenn., because I'm in the mood to check out the very legit Tennessee Titans in person – and because I also miss Joe Horn (now with the Atlanta Falcons) and am waiting for him to have his first big game in a new uniform.


1. If Ricky Williams is reinstated, there's no way he'll survive in the Miami Dolphins' locker room, because an exalted presence like kicker Jay (Touchy) Feely vocally disapproves of his presence.

2) ESPN is the worldwide leader in accurately reporting the severity of NFL quarterbacks' shoulder injuries.

3. If you're an intoxicated NFL player who gets into a single-car accident, fleeing the scene and resurfacing after the alcohol is out of your system is the least prudent thing you can do.


Last week was like stealing: We all saw the Cowboys' 35-7 victory over the Rams coming like an Osi Umenyiora sack against Winston Justice, and now Dallas joins Houston, Chicago and Pittsburgh as off-limits as we move forward. Mindful of the one-and-done proviso, we're resisting the urge to take the New England Patriots (at home vs. the resurgent Cleveland Browns) or Tennessee and instead betting it all on the 0-3 New Orleans Saints to get it together and win a home game against David Carr and the heartless (Kris Jenkins's depiction, not mine) Carolina Panthers. Sometimes, you have to live a bit dangerously.


After three weeks of unlikely dominance, Beat the Gypsy suffered its first defeat, absorbing a 15-point drubbing at the hands of The Big Show – and Malibu, the GM on the losing end, was utterly thrilled about the outcome. "I was rooting against myself," he said, explaining that he wanted his son, Big Show GM A-Man, to join him at 3-1 (tied for first in the 12-team league) by winning this intra-household showdown. "By the way, nice call on Anthony Gonzalez." I expected that, but it didn't stop me from advising Malibu to pick up another No. 3 wideout for this week. "Go with Drew Bennett," I told him. "He and Gus Frerotte hang out, and Gus will get the ball to the big target." I'm not sure if he'll listen, but I do know this: With stars Adrian Peterson and Carson Palmer facing bye weeks, Beat the Gypsy will have a tough time hanging with the Los Angeles Colts (Peyton Manning, Ronnie Brown, Marshawn Lynch, Darrell Jackson) even if L.A.'s star receiver, Marvin Harrison, can't play. Malibu is banking on Matt Schaub ("I drafted him just for this week") and Clinton Portis to carry the load. Bravely, the distraught Chargers fan is also trotting out his beloved Michael Turner, who actually accrued negative points last week.


While Michael Vick has emerged as the poster boy for animal abuse, another prominent NFL quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, has nobly staked out his turf as man's best friend's best friend. Last week, Roethlisberger announced the second in a series of grants that his foundation will distribute during the NFL season – to Arizona Search Dog Inc. Lest you think this is a savvy PR move designed to capitalize on the furor over Vick's dog-fighting atrocities, Roethlisberger was down with this cause long before the scandal broke. In 2006, he gave a grant to the police department in his hometown of Findlay, Ohio, to help replace a service dog that had been shot and killed in the line of duty, purchasing a K-9 ballistic vest for the new pooch. I'm not saying there should be adoring rallies outside of Heinz Field, but shouldn't PETA throw Big Ben some public love?


Kyle Turley, who, for the second consecutive year, grilled Gene Upshaw during the NFLPA executive director's annual team visit at the Kansas City Chiefs' facility, this time with backup from some of his teammates. Turley scolded Upshaw for (among other things) his failure to appear at the Congressional hearings in June to address the complaints of retired players about the union's disability and pension systems. According to one witness, Upshaw said he had been notified that the hearings would take place six days earlier than they actually did and had already made plans to leave the country before the revised starting date. (Upshaw did attend the most recent meeting before Congress last month.) Later, when talking about player contributions to the pension fund, Turley brought up Upshaw's reported $6.7 million in annual income (from the NFLPA and Players Inc., its marketing arm). The witness said Upshaw denied that he earns that much. Last year, a source says, veteran guard Ruben Brown challenged Upshaw in a similar meeting at the Chicago Bears' facility, and there are many players on numerous teams who have expressed similar concerns about Upshaw's leadership in private conversations. We lift our shot glass for Turley for raising issues that deserve to be addressed by the membership at large in an open, propaganda-free setting.


"Julie Foudy Brandi Chastain video"


OK, so thanks to that heart-stopping, 31-24 victory at Oregon by the No. 3 Golden Bears – wait, hold on: I need to stare at those previous four words for awhile longer – Cal rugby coach Jack Clark will have to forego his Aston-VSG Double Coronas until New Year's. (On a similar note, former All-America softball pitcher Kristina Thorson sent a text on Thursday that read, "I want beer so bad.") The Bears are off this week, so I'll close by throwing some love to new Cal women's soccer coach Neil McGuire and longtime assistant Jennifer (J.T.) Thomas for their team's 2-0 upset of then-No. 1 Santa Clara last Sunday.


To Jeff Tedford, putting his stamp on Steely Dan's "Don't Take Me Alive" after a fabulous Saturday in Eugene.

"Can you hear the hostile crowd
The booze and the insults
I hear my headset
The mechanized hum of another world
Where no sun is shining
No yellow flags flying
Here in this darkness
I know what I've done
I know all at once who I am

I'm a California son
I don't want to shoot no one
Well I punked my old boss up in Oregon
Don't take me alive
Got 500 sweet plays
I could toy with him all day
Yes I punked my old boss up in Oregon
Don't take me alive"


"Regarding your latest Morning Rush, I have to say Matt Leinart has made a terrible mistake he may come to regret. By saying 'I just want them to ride or die with me' he basically said he'd rather play and see his team lose than sit and see his team win. Even if he has every right to be mad, even if he takes it back a couple minutes later, he can't help his situation by being selfish. He has to suck it up, smile, and say the right things. Look at Brett Favre: The man has collected every personal accolade possible, yet he always downplays them and focuses on what the team has accomplished. Last Sunday he celebrated like a kid when he passed Dan Marino, but what did he say? 'Everyone said, 'I hope you get the record,' and I thought to myself, I would much rather win this game, but I think in order for us to win, I'm going to have to throw a touchdown pass.' That's the right thing to say. Put your team first, and your personal numbers second. Otherwise, if you put your numbers first, it will never be your team; it will only be the team you play on, and you'll never earn your teammates trust. And besides, it could be worse for Leinart. Look at Green Bay again, and look at Aaron Rodgers."


Hey Cris: I really don't think Leinart is being selfish. What he's being is a quarterback – at least, the kind of quarterback you'd want playing for your team – and I can almost guarantee that Favre would be exactly the same way in the same situation. Leinart's not worrying about his numbers, and he believes (as all good quarterbacks do) that the team would be better with him behind center, period. I wish he hadn't taken back the comments, because in my opinion all he was doing was displaying the fiery competitiveness he did in leading his college team to a pair of national championships (and very nearly winning a third before Vince Young intervened).

"Tell Leinart to stay away from franchised 'trendy steakhouses,' sipping on syrup and learn to play the franchised position like ole' Kurt (Warner) and he wouldn't lose his jobby-job. … I gots no love for the poor chap! Pregnant women, Hollywood lights and good looks all have one thing in common … they have nothing to do with football!"

Cheyenne Price
Hendersonville, Tenn.

The pregnant-woman dig is a low blow, and I'm pretty sure you're not going after Tom Brady in the same breath. As for Leinart's post-game dining sensibilities, I'm afraid I have some bad news for you: About 85 percent of NFL players and coaches treat themselves (and family members and friends) to a nice dinner out after a hard-fought game.

"Lots of questions about your 'Leinart's Limbo' story in the Cards' forum. So how about clearing some of them up. Were you having dinner with Matt on Sunday evening (Sept. 30)? Did he really say the things you attributed to him, or is that literary license?"

Ann Wong
Location unknown

Yes, I had dinner with Matt on Sunday evening, and yes, he really said those things. I pride myself on accuracy.

"From the Leinart article, talking about Warner: 'the gloves he began wearing on both passing hands late last season … ' Doesn't he only have one passing hand?"

David Fauber
Birmingham, Ala.

That would be accurate; so much for my pride. For what it's worth, I have two hands, each of which is currently being used to slap myself upside the head for having written something so ridiculous.

"Thanks a lot, man. Mark (the scrawny Owen Wilson lookalike who warbled through a cover of Sugar Ray's 'Fly' a few feet away while Scottsdale's beautiful people mingled around him …)."

Cave Creek, Calif.

OK, no jokes for a moment: You're right. That was a punk move on my part. It takes guts to perform in public, and my cheap-shot description of your gig was unfounded. I've been apologizing a lot lately, and in all sincerity, I'm sorry for having used you as a prop.

"It's funny that the Bills' question in Oct. 3rd's '32 Questions' was 'How many people outside of western New York realize that Aaron Schoebel is one of the league's best defensive players?' Perhaps it should have been 'How many journalists outside of Western New York can actually spell Aaron Schobel's name correctly?' "

Rochester, N.Y.

Wow, that's awful. I messed that one up with both of my passing hands.

"You were asking about Jay Cutler's parents and their heated exchange. A friend of mine went to the game and sat directly in front of Cutler's parents. She said that they were extremely nice and sociable throughout the game. Unfortunately, and embarrassing to me, is the fact that the cameras caught his parents in this exchange that was initiated by some intoxicated Colts fans."


Thanks for clearing that up, and here's some long-awaited video evidence thanks to our friends at AOL.

"I believe the retractable roof was open and that was the reason for (Mike Tomlin's) shades! Do a little research on the stadium before trying your comedy routine on the public!"

Jim Hall Jr.
Conover, N.C.

OK, how's this for research? I was there. The roof was closed. As is this case, Sherlock.

"I am a young Chargers fan still in high school. But I can still figure out what needs to be done for the Chargers to succeed. Wait until the bye week, if Norv (Turner) wins both games than he has a chance. But if he loses at least one of them, then you fire him and Ted Cottrell over the bye week, promote Ron Rivera to be head coach and D-Coordinator, ala Brian Billick last year. Right now the Chargers should be 3-1 not the other way around. If only you were the GM of the Chargers."

Encinatas, Calif.

If I were, I wouldn't wait until the bye week. And, for what it's worth, I'd pass out free tickets at your high school.

"In response to 'Denise, Unkown location'(s) take on the Women's World Cup … anyone who has ever played team sports knows … Go with what got you there! There was obviously a reason why (Hope) Solo was playing ahead of (Briana) Scurry. She is a better goaltender! I don't see how you can defend the coach on making such a careless mistake. And you can't blame Solo for speaking up when she felt something was wrong. She spoke the truth and spoke from the heart … how many athletes do that? It's not like Terrell Owens and Randy Moss throwing their coaches under the bus because they didn't get things they felt they deserved. This was a blatant mistake and 'coach' Ryan needs to be held accountable for his actions. I am not a soccer fan, but was becoming interested in the U.S. team. If he remains the coach for Beijing, I won't support it."

Savannah, Ga.

I hear you, but I think you mean goalkeeper. Solo might also be a fantastic goaltender, but it would be a shame if she wore a mask.

"While commentary on the subject has already died down, I think a vital observation has been missed with regard to New England's (Bill) Belichick 'cheating' scandal. Maybe I missed it but no one stated the obvious that Bill was just working under the Bush administration's relaxed laws with regard to allowing unrestricted surveillance for the 'safety' of "all Americans' under the 'Patriot Act.' I think he should be cleared just like the rest of the 'Bush Leaguers.' (That's not just because I'm from New England, either.) By the way, nice calls on (Daunte) Culpepper and San Diego and who woulda thunk (Brian) Griese's performance would be overshadowed by an unexpected record quarter(come) back'!"

Oakland, Calif.

These are terrific insights, the sort of which we should be discussing over pints at Ben and Nicks.

"Do you think its time to admit you were wrong about Randy Moss being washed up?"

Monte Branson
McMinnville, Ore.

No, because I never said he was washed up – rather, I said he was a gutless quitter who doesn't suck it up and play hurt; that he'd mess with the Pats' locker room chemistry and wouldn't be worth the trouble. The jury is still out on whether I need to admit I was wrong about those statements, but let's just say I'm starting to explore the possibility that trading for him was a good move.

"Remember me? I'm (one of) the one(s) that sent you that scathing e-mail about your video criticizing (Tom) Brady for wanting Moss. Looks like you finally have seen the light. You must have trimmed those eyebrows back a little. I'm still a Pats hater, but they look so good that it's scary. After Moss catches 20-plus touchdowns and Brady breaks the single-season touchdown record and throws for over 5,000 yards, do me a favor and record a video of you kissing Moss's ass on a huge poster of his infamous Lambeau Mooning. That might be a video worth watching."

Los Angeles

I don't remember you, but that's a reasonably funny email, so perhaps I will from here on out.

"Are you going to man up and admit that the Pack is real? In the next three weeks they will play three challenging teams: Chicago at home (anything can happen in the NFC North, kinda like the Cowboys and Redskins) a resurgent Washington, and at Denver, always a hard place to win. Later, the Pack plays Dallas, and that will be a gut-check for both teams. But taken all in all, it is not impossible to imagine the Pack going 14-2 or better, barring injuries, because their schedule is fairly weak. … As a rabid Packers fan I have little doubt that we will meet our match against Indianapolis or, more likely, New England, but c'mon, man, step up and admit that your placement of my cheesy team at No. 22 at the beginning of the season was not so good, ok?"

Sonoma, Calif.

I admit that No. 22 was a miscalculation, but remember, if Brett Favre suddenly reverts to his wildly inconsistent form of the previous several years, it is not impossible to imagine the Pack going 7-9 or worse. For what it's worth, I hope he keeps it going. He's incredibly fun to cover and interview. We go way back (I wrote the story that ended up as his first Sports Illustrated cover, and I'll never forget how excited he was at the time), and it would be a hell of a story.

"I'm an avid reader of your column and you are my favorite journalist that covers the NFL. Your columns are always full of great insight. Using your incredible insight, can you please explain why on Earth Brad Childress is still starting Chester Taylor over Adrian Peterson? Peterson had only 12 carries against the Packers. I realize that Taylor is a better blocker, but the Vikings can't pass anyway. What gives?"

Andy Sinesio
I wish I could help you, bro. But some mysteries are impossible to solve.

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