Backup quarterbacks became the rage of the NFL in Week 9. Two starters were knocked out by injury, one by the flu, and one reigning superstar was unceremoniously benched.
Then there was Washington, where Redskins fans loudly voiced their displeasure with Mark Rypien during a desultory 24-7 loss to the New York Giants. Some fans -- on postgame call-in radio shows -- were even ready to switch to the unproven Cary Conklin.
Backup quarterbacks are usually the most popular players in the city where they work. Until they become the regulars, that is. Then they are fair game like everyone else.
This week, 10 backups played -- six in mop-up roles, four in meaningful circumstances. Only one of the four, Atlanta's Billy Joe Tolliver, produced a victory for his team. After Chris Miller went down with a season-ending knee injury, Tolliver led the Falcons to a 30-28 victory over the Los Angeles Rams with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass. He is now the man.
The other three relievers came up short. Steve Bono passed for 222 yards after the flu got the better of Steve Young, but Bono couldn't save the San Francisco 49ers from an embarrassing 24-14 loss to the Phoenix Cardinals. Cody Carlson helped Houston build a 20-7 lead after Warren Moon suffered a concussion, but the Oilers blew it in a 21-20 loss at Pittsburgh. Finally, the Philadelphia Eagles replaced slumping superstar Randall Cunningham with creaking veteran Jim McMahon in the second half against the Dallas Cowboys. McMahon generated points, but no victory, in a 20-10 loss.
Eagles coach Rich Kotite originally said Cunningham would start against the Los Angeles Raiders on Sunday. Then he changed his mind and said Cunningham would start in two weeks against the Green Bay Packers. Speculation is that if McMahon beats the Raiders impressively, though, the job is his.
Repercussions are certain to be felt if players takes sides. At the least, Cunningham's fragile psyche has been wounded. Pouting, Cunningham said, "Richie told me at the beginning of the season, 'If we're going to go to the Super Bowl, you're the only one to take us there.' Well, I'm not in the starting lineup, so what does that tell you?"
Cunningham is considerably more talented than McMahon, but can't match the latter's track record. McMahon, coupled with a great defense, won a Super Bowl in Chicago. Cunningham, despite great defense, is 0-3 in the playoffs. Still, nobody really expects McMahon to be the last quarterback standing in this potentially damaging duel.
Odd man out
Unaffected by the clamor for backup quarterbacks is Ken O'Brien of the New York Jets. Subbing for injured Browning Nagle, O'Brien threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns to upset the Miami Dolphins, 26-14, Sunday. It was not enough.
On Monday, Jets coach Bruce Coslet said Nagle, 1-5 as the starter, will reclaim his job against the Denver Broncos. In a season when Coslet is force-feeding Nagle at the expense of a losing season, it was not a surprising decision.
In his 10 NFL seasons, O'Brien has been little more than a .500 quarterback -- except when he plays the Dolphins. He has thrown for more career touchdown passes (46) and more yards (5,247) against Miami than any other team. And he is 8-7 in head-to-head battles with Miami's Dan Marino.
Dungy's stingy 'D'
Frank Gilliam, Minnesota's director of player personnel, says Dennis Green's success with the Vikings this season should open the head-coaching door for other blacks -- such as Vikings defensive coordinator Tony Dungy and Kansas City assistant Jimmy Raye.
"People shouldn't look to Denny for how a black coach is going to do," said Gilliam, who once recruited Green to play at Iowa. "That's not right. But his success can't help but make it more encouraging for other blacks. It dispels a lot of myths."
Under Dungy's direction, the Vikings have allowed just one offensive touchdown the past two weeks and have shown a punishing pass rush.
"You don't know how cerebral Tony Dungy is," Gilliam said. "He has sold the players on his scheme, just like Denny has. He's paid attention to the little things that make a difference in tight games."
The Oilers suffered another dreadful road loss in Pittsburgh when coach Jack Pardee mismanaged the clock at the end, sitting on the ball and settling for a 39-yard field goal try by Al Del Greco that was wide left. Houston has not had a winning record on the road since 1980. . . . Latest chapter in Joe Montana's long comeback: Although he said he's not under contract beyond the 1992 season, the 49ers insist he is. Club president Carmen Policy met with Montana Monday to straighten out the situation.