Assuming that you ever have to actually get into a game, and be prepared to do so, the job of a backup quarterback can be quite a taxing one in the NFL. Like a long relief pitcher in baseball, you can never be quite sure when you will be needed, or for how long (in a backup quarterback’s case, though, it could be an entire season). You have to be ready to come in cold off the bench, with a short warm up, and take over the game trying not to miss a beat.
With the Pittsburgh Steelers having a pair—really a trio—of young quarterbacks behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, none of them having more than two seasons of NFL experience, and with a total of just a handful of NFL passes thrown between them, the team is trying to simulate in some way to uncertainty that comes into play with the job, as Joshua Dobbs explained to the team’s website.
“They don’t want us to get the same looks we had in OTAs, so every day you’re going to have something different to make sure you’re getting different plays, so you’re understanding the entire offense”, he said. “A lot of times they don’t tell us, because in a game you don’t know when you’re going in or which play you have. They like you to go in and just read, react and play football”.
Last season, Dobbs went from being stuck on the bench in street clothes behind Landry Jones all year to functioning as Roethlisberger’s backup. Mason Rudolph in 2018 was where Dobbs found himself as a rookie, but is now trying to take over the role of backup for himself. Then there is rookie college free agent Devlin Hodges, trying to get any reps he can, wherever they can fit him in.
The best backup quarterback is the one who never has to throw a pass. But if you do have a situation in which your backup had to enter the game and throw the ball to try to win, then you obviously want him to be as prepared for that scenario as possible, so throwing in that uncertainty in practice is just one small way of paying homage to that, as Mike Tomlin would say.
As Dobbs explained, the coach will just call out a name to go out onto the field to work a drill, and that is how they know—and when they find out—that they will be the one under center for that time being. We’ve seen the Steelers mix and match who works when and where all throughout training camp so far.
With the first preseason game looming, there is no clear way to predict, for example, who will start the game, how much he might play, and things of that nature. Dobbs may be the incumbent, and he does get the first crack a little more frequently, but they have tried to keep things as even as possible while retaining that element of unpredictability.