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Injuries in the NFL have brought backup quarterbacks into the spotlight

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

When it comes to football, no player is more important than the quarterback. And this NFL season, fans are watching some not-so-familiar faces. A string of quarterback injuries has forced almost half of the league's teams to rely on their backups. So we wanted to understand what makes a great backup quarterback. For that we called Charlie Batch. He's a two-time Super Bowl champion who played 15 seasons in the NFL, including 11 as a backup quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Charlie Batch, thank you for being with us.

CHARLIE BATCH: Hey, not a problem at all.

RASCOE: So let's get right into it. Like, what makes a great backup quarterback?

BATCH: Honestly, being prepared and being ready. And, you know, sometimes the life of a backup quarterback - you just never know when you're going to play. You know, when you're in training camp and getting ready for the regular season, you know, sometimes it's easier because you already have taken starter reps, and you just play games. But ultimately, the longer you sit, the longer you go, you just have no idea when your number is going to be called. And at the end of the day, nobody cares whether or not you got - you received any practice reps. When your number's called, you have to go out there and perform and do it at a high level, and hopefully that contributes in a team win.

RASCOE: So, like, is the prep for being a backup the same as when you're a starter? 'Cause you've done both in your career.

BATCH: Yeah. I mean, knowing how to prepare - because I was a four-year starter in Detroit. So you kind of lean on that expertise when you're - you know, you land in that backup role. So ultimately, you're preparing and understanding the game planning, watching the film, doing everything that a starter would do. Now, the flip side to that is once you actually go out on the practice field, now you're watching the reps from the first team, but then you have to go to the other side of the ball and help the defense prepare. You actually have to run the scout team. So you're actually running the opposing team's plays in addition to learning your assignments. So these are things that, ultimately, you don't have to worry about if you are the starter. And sometime that could be a little bit challenging for some people.

RASCOE: What about the mental part of this? Because you're sitting there. You're not the main guy. And so you can sit there and be like, well, maybe I'm just going to chill today, 'cause, you know, he'll probably be all right.

BATCH: Yeah. You never want anybody to get injury. You know, you never want to wish injury on anybody. But in reality, that's the only way you're actually going into the game - if somebody was to get hurt. So you have to be able to step in and do some of those things that you know you're capable of doing. People always throw that - this term out loosely, like, oh, the backup quarterback job is the best job in America, because you're not playing. You're getting paid not playing. Like, no, sometimes it's the worst job only because if you're not prepared, you get exposed. And then ultimately, your flaws are, you know, starting to be showcased throughout the country when everybody's paying attention to it.

So your number may be called in the middle of the fourth quarter, where it's third and eight. You haven't played the last three hours, but yet there's two minutes and 50 seconds on the clock, and you have to go out there and complete a pass for a first down. Even though you haven't played the entire game, you better go out there and make it happen. So those are things that - you know, that's just the life of a backup quarterback in that particular perspective. So you just have to be ready for any and everything.

RASCOE: So we've seen so many backup quarterbacks playing good football this year. You know, I'm thinking Josh Dobbs dominating his first game as a Viking, Jake Browning of the Bengals last week. What are you thinking, like, as you watch them play and watch them step up and do that job?

BATCH: Well, it just goes to prove that you need a valuable backup quarterback. And some teams - because you have a starter that maybe has played a lot, didn't get injured - they choose to look at that position as a less valuable role. And if you look at just the manner of the NFL and all these teams, you know, you have half the teams in the league only have two quarterbacks. You have half the teams may have three quarterbacks. So it's just a matter of how they value that particular position.

But ultimately, when that guy steps in, you want him to keep the train moving, especially whenever the salaries of starting quarterbacks are, you know, where they are now. But then also this - the backup quarterback salaries are starting to skyrocket a little bit as well. But that just shows that there's value in the backup quarterback because you want to make sure, depending on at what point during the season, that you don't fall or, you know, have any hiccups. Because you want to make sure that you're trying to compete and do so when you're on a playoff run and ultimately, in some cases, trying to keep a No. 1 seed, so to speak.

RASCOE: That's Charlie Batch, former NFL quarterback and two-time Super Bowl champion. Thank you so much for joining us.

BATCH: Hey, I appreciate it. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.