Block & Tackle is John Teti’s column about pro football.
Program note: We’re trying a little change to B&T. Instead of the one monolithic Friday column, shorter Block & Tackle columns will run occasionally throughout the week (and always on Friday). Officials will still be canonized, and fan forums will still be mocked, in more frequent bursts than before.
Sunday, the day the backups played
The rigid class structure of Caddyshack’s Bushwood Country Club makes one annual concession to its downtrodden proletariat: Caddy Day, a celebration in which caddies are welcome to enjoy the members’ swimming pool from 1:00 to 1:15. Sunday’s NFL action produced a similar giddy inversion of the social order when, thanks to a spate of injuries and blowouts, backup quarterbacks took the field en masse. Big names like Cutler, Locker, and Bridgewater were sidelined while scrubs like Charlie Whitehurst and Mike Glennon played in their pool. Whether they win or lose, it’s fun to see relative unknowns elevated to one of American sports’ biggest stages. As a fan, it brings you one step closer to the fantasy that you, too, could play quarterback if called upon. Which is ridiculous, but so is Charlie Whitehurst as an NFL starter. We were all invited to dream on Sunday, the day the backups played.
Among the fill-ins was Christian Ponder, the Vikings’ third-string quarterback. Ponder’s story is common among backups: He was once the next great hope of a struggling team, and now he’s not, but he’s still around. A few years back, in Ponder’s 2011 debut as the Vikings’ starter, his first pass was a 72-yard completion to Michael Jenkins. Minnesota fans naturally extrapolated from that result and assumed that every future Ponder pass would be completed for at least 72 yards, if not more. (After all, he was just getting started.) Three years later, after erratic play and a series of injuries, Ponder is last on the Vikings depth chart behind veteran Matt Cassel—who’s now out for the season—and rookie draft pick Teddy Bridgewater.
Ponder took the field this week after Bridgewater tweaked his ankle late in the Vikes’ 41-28 win over Atlanta. The announcers tried to counteract the implicit cloud of sadness that hovered over Ponder by remarking that the Vikings coaching staff “hasn’t given up on this kid!” Maybe, but there’s not a whole lot of daylight between “giving up on this kid” and “demoting this kid to emergency backup.” The truth is that Ponder’s moment as the potential savior has passed, unlikely to return. Bridgewater is Minnesota’s new personification of hope. But for a brief stretch late in the fourth quarter, that didn’t matter. The announcers, and perhaps Ponder himself, pretended that there was another chapter to his story, because it was Sunday, the day the backups played. (Ponder on Sunday: 0-0 passing; 1 rush for 1 yard.)
With Titans starter Jake Locker sidelined by a wrist injury, journeyman Charlie Whitehurst lined up behind center for Tennessee. “Journeyman” is one of pro sports’ most romantic euphemisms: It attempts to recast a career spent bouncing between teams as some sort of epic pilgrimage to nowhere, the kind that will be memorialized in country-western ballads someday. In fact, nobody will sing songs of Whitehurst; instead we will call him things like “Clipboard Jesus,” a moniker that pays tribute to Whitehurst’s long career as an understudy and his ability to grow hair. Whitehurst doesn’t like the nickname, but that didn’t stop TV commentators from parroting it throughout the day, because media members are unafraid to pick on a 32-year-old insurance policy. After facing the Colts this week, Whitehurst acknowledged that he has to take his game-day pleasures where he can get them: “There’s 53 guys out here, and only so many starters, but that’s what you play the game for—to go out there and play,” Whitehurst said, at which point he could no longer contain his melancholy and added, “A long time ago, I did it a lot.” He got to do it a little more on Sunday, the day the backups played. (Whitehurst on Sunday: 12-23 for 177 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT; Tennessee loses 41-17.)
The faded hopeful, the aging utility man—these characters are staples among the ranks of NFL second-stringers. Another is the “mop-up” guy, the human surrender flag who takes the field in a lost cause, thus fulfilling a team’s obligation to play the full 60 minutes. Chicago’s Jimmy Clausen carried out this duty after the Bears’ starter, Jay Cutler, threw two picks that helped put the team in an impossible hole against Green Bay. (On Monday night against the Chiefs, Patriots rookie Jimmy Garoppolo also mopped up in relief of Tom Brady, who did not appear to be in attendance.) Clausen, benched by the Panthers three years ago to make way for rising star Cam Newton, hadn’t played in a game that counted since the 2010 season. Given that the Packers had essentially ended the game by the time Clausen showed up, you could say that he still hasn’t. But why would you say a thing like that after Sunday, the day the backups played? (Clausen on Sunday: 1-1 for 9 yards; Chicago loses 38-17.)
Mike Glennon might well have been the Buccaneers’ starter this year under a different head coach, but Tampa Bay honcho Lovie Smith relegated Glennon to a fill-in role at the beginning of the season, giving the starter slot instead to quarterback-like substance Josh McCown. In McCown’s most memorable moment this season, he managed to fumble the ball and throw an interception in the space of three seconds, although that description fails to capture McCown’s spectacular oafishness on the play. It was like he had forgotten how an arm works.
Still, justly or not, McCown is first on the Tampa Bay depth chart for now, so his thumb injury set the stage for Glennon to start this week and fulfill the ultimate backup-QB narrative: surprise hero. In the wake of a humiliating blowout loss 10 days ago at Atlanta, Tampa Bay was not expected to be competitive on the road against Pittsburgh. Defying those expectations, Glennon played a smart, steady game, but it still appeared to be for naught when Tampa Bay got the ball near midfield down 4, with 40 seconds left and no timeouts—a tough spot with no room for error and little expectation of victory. Yet on the second play from scrimmage in that desperation drive, Glennon threw a football deep to Louis Murphy for a 41-yard gain, and then with 0:07 on the clock, he threw another football to Vincent Jackson for a touchdown. What follows is an unedited copy-and-paste of my notes following this play, with apologies for foul language:
TB-PIT 4Q 0:12 — Mike FUCKING GLennon wins the goddamn game. HE WINS IT!!!!!!!! HE WINS THE GODDAMN GAME FOR THE TAMPA BAY BUCKEROOS. HE RESTORES THE GODDAMN PRIDE OF THE TAMPA BAY BUCCANEEROS.
My profane euphoria was reinforced when Glennon came to the podium after the game, reminding us that the game was won not just by a backup, but by a pencil-necked man-child (although I don’t mean to suggest that Mike Glennon’s resemblance to a pencil ends at the neck). Glennon’s mere presence in the ranks of the NFL certifies him as a world-class athlete; he just doesn’t look like it. And those optics burnish his everyman aura, bringing us back to the ever-present fantasy that one of us could save the day, too. We didn’t, but Mike Glennon did, and that feels close enough, and this is the beauty of watching sports. Especially on a day like Sunday, the day the backups played.
Official highlight reel
Which stadium horns it best?
San Francisco and Minnesota both blast loud horns when the home team scores or makes a big play. Here’s San Francisco’s foghorn:
And Minnesota’s Viking horn:
So which stadium horns it best? Feel free to debate it in the comments; the correct answer is Minnesota.
Really, Bob, no need to apologize
In Friday’s Block & Tackle, I wrote that Stephen Tulloch’s sack dance, during which Tulloch tore his ACL, was “the first season-ending football dance since the tangled-limbs epidemic of 1926, when the NFL briefly instituted a rule that players had to perform the Charleston before every third down.” In response, and with admirable indifference to the fabricated nature of the factoid, reader cdick133 wrote:
Well, there’s one for next week’s corrections department. The last season-ending celebration was actually [Arizona Cardinals kicker] Bill Gramatica’s 2001 celebration. It happened in December, so it wasn’t actually that much of the season, but I think a torn ACL deserves its due respect.
Although Gramatica’s post-field-goal celebration wasn’t really a dance, neither was Tulloch’s stomp thing, so the correction stands. Here’s video of the ignominy:
And Wad VanDerTurf added:
He also forgot Gus Frerotte’s self-inflicted neck injury from headbutting a wall (or the goalpost, I forget which).
That wasn’t quite a season-ender—Frerotte was back on the field the next week—but the important thing is, it looked very silly. So we’ll end the column by reliving that bonehead moment more vividly than ever through the lens of a five-year-old YouTube clip: