Successful teams maintain reserve tank

Nov 26, 2002 2:34 AM

   Football is a violent, physical game. It’s no secret that injuries are far more numerous on the gridiron than any of the other major sports.

   College football programs like Nebraska, Florida and Miami place a strong emphasis on stockpiling players not only because of graduation, but injuries as well. It’s essential to be able to plug in quality backups to keep the offense and defense running at full speed.

   In pro football this is just as important. Quarterback depth is one area that doesn’t get a lot of attention but is extremely important. Franchises don’t build teams around two or three star quarterbacks. A QB often requires a substantial chunk of payroll, so a team can’t pay 40% of its budget, for example, on two quarterbacks.

   Smart franchises recognize that quarterback is such a pivotal position and injuries are so commonplace, it’s important to have one star QB and another very capable QB on the bench.

   Two weeks ago, Pittsburgh’s Tommy Maddox was knocked out of a game (and perhaps the season) with a serious back injury. On the same Sunday, Eagles star Donovan McNabb broke his ankle and Denver’s Brian Griese (knee) was knocked out of action for several weeks. Those incidences hit home the value of the position and the importance of having a quality backup.

   McNabb is a remarkable field general, who accounts for an enormous amount of his team’s offense. The 25-year old McNabb had 25 TDs/12 INTs, over 3,000 yards passing and 489 rushing yards last season, helping the Eagles to the NFC Championship game. He was having an MVP season with 17 TDs/6 INTs when the injury put him on the shelf, likely for the season.

   What do the Eagles do now? When McNabb went down, backup QB Koy Detmer had one pass completion this season and hadn’t thrown a TD pass since 1999. This was the worst nightmare for any Eagles fan. Not only did Philadelphia lose its most important player, they have nothing comparable to replace him. Since 1999 under McNabb, the Eagles are 38-22-3 against the spread.

   Pittsburgh is in a little different situation. Maddox began the year as a backup to Kordell Stewart, who helped lead the team to the AFC Championship game last season. Plugging Stewart back into the starting lineup is much less detrimental to the Steelers offense than Detmer replacing McNabb.

   After all, Stewart passed for over 3,000 yards last year with 14 TDs and 11 INTs. And Pittsburgh doesn’t rely on the quarterback to carry the team, as they led pro football in rushing last season and are loaded at wide receiver this year with Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle-El.

   Last year the Patriots had a devastating injury to All-Pro quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Backup QB Tom Brady stepped in and helped get the team to the AFC Championship game. In the second quarter of that game against Pittsburgh, Brady twisted his ankle and never returned. The Patriots were fortunate to have an All-Pro QB on the bench (a now-healthy Bledsoe).

   The Patriots are in a different situation this season, having traded Bledsoe to Buffalo. Brady has been very productive and has New England fighting for a playoff berth. But, but what if Brady goes down with an injury again? Instead of an All-Pro backup, his replacement this season is rookie Rohan Davey out of LSU.

   New England ended last season with a 13-3-1 ATS run with the Brady/Bledsoe tandem, but a similar streak is less likely, especially if Brady gets banged up.

   The Rams underscore the value of QB depth. When Kurt Warner struggled and went down with a broken finger, backup QB Marc Bulger was terrific, helping the Rams get back in the race. Miami got off to a sizzling 5-1 SU/ATS start and looked like the best team in football, but starting QB Jay Fiedler went down. Miami went on an 0-3 SU/0-2-1 ATS run, struggling badly on offense with backup Ray Lucas.

   Denver might be in the best shape of all. Coach Mike Shanahan prepared for the possibility of an injury to Brian Griese by Steve Beuerlein as a backup in the offseason. Beuerlein, a savvy, team-oriented veteran, passed for over 3,700 yards in both 1999 and 2000 for Carolina, an average season of 27 TDs and 16 INTs.

   The Broncos have a ton of offensive weapons to compliment Beuerlein (Rod Smith, Ed McCaffery, Shannon Sharpe, rookie Ashley Lelie, Clinton Portis, Mike Anderson), so he won’t be asked to carry the ”˜O’.

   The bottom line: A smart organization will have a tested, capable backup quarterback available in the event the starter goes down. Tom Landry and the Cowboys had Roger Staubach and Danny White, while Joe Gibbs and Don Shula were famous for having a string of good backup QBs, such as Earl Morrall and Don Strock.

   Of course, if you’re unlucky enough to have your starter and backup get hurt, then you become the Chicago Bears, and your season is over.