The Backup Plan
Would you spend approximately $2 million per year to pay someone to do practically nothing? Of course not. Would you accept approximately $2 million per year to do practically nothing? Of course you would.
Then being backup quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys is the job for you.
Granted, it would help if you were currently an NFL quarterback. But Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is willing to pay. Ask Kyle Orton. Jones is paying Orton $10.5 million for the next three years in the hope that Orton is never used, unless the game is a blowout or starter Tony Romo gets hurt.
Orton’s signing is the latest in Jones’ trend of spending to keep his franchise quarterbacks backed up properly. During the 16-year period in which either Romo or Troy Aikman has been the Cowboys’ starter, Jones has committed more than $32 million to nine quarterbacks with a combined starting record in Dallas of 17-13. That may seem like a lousy return on investment to you. Jones would probably disagree.
Jones doesn’t spent money on run-of-the mill backups. The vast majority signed by Jones are former or future Pro Bowl quarterbacks with at least a season’s worth of NFL starts under their belts. Orton has a career record of 35-34 as a starter.
During the 16-year period in which either Tony Romo or Troy Aikman has been the Cowboys’ starter, Jones has committed more than $32 million to nine quarterbacks.
Jones started this practice in 1991 with Steve Beuerlein. At the time, Beuerlein had 15 career NFL starts. The Cowboys traded for Beuerlein before the 1991 season. Jones saw the value in this approach when Beuerlein won four games in place of an injured Aikman in 1991, the Cowboys’ first playoff season with Jones as owner and general manager. Beuerlein made a total of $1 million in two years and won a Super Bowl ring.
In 1993, Jones signed Bernie Kosar midway through the 1993 season for $1 million. Kosar started one game. Jones paid Rodney Peete more than $500,000 in 1994 to back up Aikman. He started one game. In 1995, Jones went long term, signing former Vikings part-time starter Wade Wilson to a three-year, $1.4 million deal. Wilson made 69 NFL starts in his career. He made one start in Dallas.
In 2000, Jones signed Randall Cunningham to a three-year deal worth $6 million. The Cowboys released Cunningham after the 2000 season, but he walked away with $1 million and a 1-2 record as a starter.
Since Romo took over in 2006, the Cowboys have signed Brad Johnson (three years, $7.5 million), traded for Jon Kitna (three years, $8.8 million) and signed Orton.
As always, there’s an exception. Jason Garrett logged time as the no. 3 quarterback behind Aikman and made two memorable starts in 1993 and 1994 when the Cowboys were desperate. Garrett spent 1998 and 1999 as the primary backup, making about $300,000 each year, and going 4-3 in Aikman’s place. His work helped keep four playoff seasons alive.
If this seems strange to you, to spend all of this money on guys who rarely play, then a history lesson is required. Consider what happened to the Cowboys in 1990.
In 1990, Babe Laufenberg’s inexperience cost Dallas a playoff berth. Jones hasn’t taken any chances since. He appears willing to pay to have peace of mind.
In 1990 a likable, journeyman veteran named Babe Laufenberg was Aikman’s primary backup. Dallas entered the final game of that season with a chance to claim a playoff berth, as long as it beat 4-11 Atlanta. But Aikman was hurt. Laufenberg, with his six career NFL starts, had to play. Laufenberg went just 10-of-24 for 129 yards. He threw a touchdown — but also two interceptions — in the 27-6 loss. It was never close.
Laufenberg’s inexperience cost Dallas a playoff berth. Jones hasn’t taken any chances since.
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and an accomplished backup can help keep a season alive. Jones appears willing to pay to have that peace of mind.
The Indianapolis Colts learned this lesson last year. They lost Peyton Manning for the entire season. Their backup was Curtis Painter, who had never started an NFL game. Painter was terrible, as were the other starters, Kerry Collins and Dan Orlovsky.
The Colts went 2-14. Of course, the Colts were lucky enough to replace their once-in-a-generation quarterback with another potential once-in-a-generation quarterback: Andrew Luck. But few NFL teams are that lucky.
Jones learned his lesson. It appears the Colts haven’t. Luck’s backup is Drew Stanton. Stanton has made four NFL starts and hasn’t played since 2010.
Good luck with that.