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How some overlooked members of NFL rosters have had a huge impact in 2021

Ross Tucker discusses the up-and-down life of an NFL backup quarterback.

They are the least important member of the gameday roster until something happens and they immediately become the most important person in the entire organization.

If things are going well for the team, you typically never even hear their name. If things are going poorly, they are often the most popular guy in town.

They are backup quarterbacks in the NFL, and they have already been a huge storyline this season.

The funny thing is, they really come in all different forms.

There’s the young rookie waiting in the wings for his turn, like the Bears’ Justin Fields earlier in the season and the Niners’ Trey Lance now. At this point, Lance is really just waiting for a bad game or even a bad half from starter Jimmy Garoppolo before it will be his time. Talk about mixed emotions while you’re standing on the sideline.

Then there’s the experienced pro who has been around a while, has started a bunch of games earlier in their career and now just stays ready for a second chance that they thought might never come, like the Seahawks’ Geno Smith and the Saints’ Trevor Siemian.

After a couple of mediocre at best performances by Smith, he played at a really high level to help the Seahawks get a much-needed victory over the Jaguars in Week 8. His reward? Likely going back to the bench as starter Russell Wilson appears poised to take back the reins in Week 10 after the bye.

As for Siemian, he’s basically in a similar position to Garoppolo now that starter Jameis Winston is done for the year with a torn ACL. He played well enough to help the Saints beat Tom Brady and the Bucs in Week 8, earning another start in Week 9 as a result. That said, with Taysom Hill coming back from IR, Siemian will have to continue playing well to keep the job. If he, or even just the Saints’ offense, struggles, it’ll be Taysom Time.

Then there’s my favorite kind of backup quarterback — the unknown journeyman.

Week 8 in the NFL saw not one but two career-long journeymen from Group of 5 schools who have bounced around the NFL for a few years, scratching and clawing to stay in the league somehow, someway.

That’s why I was so excited for Cooper Rush of the Cowboys and Mike White of the Jets before, during and especially after their performances against the Vikings and Bengals, respectively. As an analyst, I don’t really care who wins any of these games. Sure, I’d like to have my bets on the “Even Money” podcast be right for my listeners, but ultimately the outcome of most games doesn’t really matter to me. It’s a cliché but I really just want to see a good game and have some cool storylines to discuss on Monday’s “Ross Tucker Football Podcast.”

As a human and former player, however, I was rooting for Rush and White like you wouldn’t believe, for so many reasons.

For one, I was a journeyman, so I know what these young men have been through. White has been released five times already, including once by the team that drafted him, ironically the Dallas Cowboys, and four times by the team he has started the last two games for in the Jets. That means five different times he got a call telling him that the organization didn’t value him enough to keep him on the roster to make sure no other team could get him. Not exactly a great way to make a guy feel wanted.

Rush, meanwhile, has been fired a couple of times as well. In fact, Rush was let go by both the Cowboys and the New York Giants just last year in 2020. Now he’s won a critical game as the starting quarterback of the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football.

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You see, for guys like White and Rush, there was no guarantee that they’d ever get to start an NFL game and be able to show that they belong. Plus, as nice as it is to get an NFL paycheck and be on a roster, there is just something so special about starting your first game.

I still remember being in the tunnel at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis while playing for the Cowboys in November 2002 and hearing them say over the loudspeaker “At left guard, from Princeton University, No. 69, Ross Tucker.” Man, I get chills just typing that. I did it! I started an NFL game. That was the culmination of years of dreams while lying in my bed at night, thousands of hours of work and the help of literally dozens of people including my coaches from Pop Warner all the way through to the NFL.

But then I still needed to play well otherwise it would be my last start in the NFL.

That’s the situation White and Rush found themselves in, which is why I was ecstatic that they were each able to make the most of it.

Rush threw for 325 yards and a couple of touchdowns, including the game-winner to Amari Cooper. He showed the Cowboys, and the rest of the NFL, that he could be more than competent if called upon and, in the process, likely bought himself several more years in professional football. That’s how it works as a backup quarterback.

White was arguably even more impressive against the Bengals in Week 8, going 37-of-45 for 405 yards and three touchdowns in a stunning win. He may have changed his life with that performance, although an injury suffered on Thursday night in Indianapolis after leading the Jets on another touchdown drive denied him the ability to show he could do it two weeks in a row.

Frankly, it makes you wonder how many other guys could get the job done like Rush and White but never get that opportunity?

We’ll never know the answer to that. Instead, we’ll just have to root for the guys that do get those potentially life-altering opportunities. Goodness knows they’ve earned them.

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