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No guarantees with insurance

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / October 21, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - Last night's game against the Broncos marked the Patriots' sixth with backup-turned-starter Matt Cassel at quarterback, and with that, they were hoping to avoid getting sucked into the strong current that often overtakes teams with a No. 2 thrust into the top spot.

As this season has once again proven, teams turning to backups - because of injury or performance - usually have trouble staying afloat.

The Patriots, who were 2-2 with Cassel as a starter (3-2 if you count his relief effort against the Chiefs), are one of 12 teams this season that have called on the insurance policy to either start a game or enter in the first half with the score tied.

Of those teams, four have a .500 record or better with the second-stringer in the driver's seat, a group that includes the Titans (5-0), Buccaneers (3-0), Vikings (3-2), and Patriots.

Overall, teams are 15-20 with backup quarterbacks this season.

The reason, various coaches and personnel men have repeated behind the scenes in recent years, is that there simply aren't enough good quarterbacks to fill 32 starting spots, let alone 32 backup spots.

The rarity is what is happening in Tennessee, where 15-year veteran Kerry Collins - who struggled as a starter in Oakland and started a total of four games in Tennessee between 2006 and 2007 - has found new life. A combination of an excellent defense and an explosive running game has helped the 35-year-old Collins ease into the top spot in place of the injured Vince Young. The Titans say they're sticking with Collins, even though Young, who was hurt in the second half of the team's first game, is now healthy.

Tampa Bay had success with Brian Griese for a three-game stretch, enduring some of his turnover problems, before turning back to Jeff Garcia Sunday night. Minnesota, with Gus Frerotte replacing an ineffective Tarvaris Jackson, has also stayed on the plus side of the ledger. Then there are the Patriots, who like the Vikings have balanced themselves on the seesaw that often results from a quarterback change.

The Titans, Buccaneers, Vikings, and Patriots should feel fortunate about where they stand when they look at their Brothers in Backups.

Among those with losing records with backups starting or entering a tie game in the first half are the Bengals (0-3), Bills (0-1), Chiefs (1-5), Cowboys (0-1), Lions (0-2), Rams (0-1), Seahawks (0-2), and Texans (0-1),

The Cowboys just found out how hard life can be without a starter, as 40-year-old Brad Johnson struggled in Sunday's blowout loss to the Rams. Later that night, Seneca Wallace looked overmatched in the Seahawks' loss to the Buccaneers.

If teams are fortunate, a backup quarterback is a reliable insurance policy.

That's why the Redskins paid $3 million per season for Todd Collins, who rallied them to the playoffs late last season. Yet he, and the Titans' Collins, are clearly the exceptions.

The Rams thought they insured themselves with Trent Green this offseason, paying nearly $3 million per season for him, but he hardly inspired confidence in his lone start this season - a 31-14 loss to the Bills.

The Jaguars even opened the vault for Cleo Lemon, paying him $8.1 million over three seasons. He barely cut it as a starter in Miami last season. So when it comes to veteran backups, it's not always a you-get-what-you-pay-for scenario.

With that in mind, it's surprising that more teams don't annually draft quarterbacks with the idea of developing them into those backup roles, the way Ron Wolf did in his time as Packers general manager. While the Packers had Brett Favre, they groomed the likes of Aaron Brooks, Mark Brunell, and Matt Hasselbeck, all of whom went on to become starters elsewhere.

The problem, it seems, is that the college game isn't producing many quarterbacks to groom.

As for the Patriots, coach Bill Belichick has strongly backed Cassel, saying he gives the team the best chance to win. Adding to the challenge for Cassel is the quarterback he's replacing, Tom Brady.

Just ask Mike Shanahan.

The Broncos coach shared his thoughts in the days leading up to kickoff regarding Cassel dealing with the comparisons to a franchise icon like Brady. Shanahan knows a thing or two about quarterbacks stepping into that role from the post-John Elway years in Denver.

"It's impossible to do," he said. "Especially with the three Super Bowls and how [Brady] has played and how many games New England won in a row. Any time you play behind a legend, it is almost possible.

"At least with the interviews I have seen with Matt, he seems like he handles it really well. Tom has helped him. You have to understand you have to forget about the critics and just concentrate on the job at hand and that is what he is doing."

Can Cassel be the Patriots' Kerry Collins?

The odds appear to be stacked against it, but last night provided another chance to find out.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com

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