Tony Romo broke his collarbone and will miss about half of the NFL season. That means Brandon Weeden is, for now, the Dallas Cowboys' starting quarterback. Brandon Weeden said this in August:
We know what Weeden meant. He's friends with Romo and Romo is the Cowboys' clear No. 1 quarterback. So, for Weeden to play, Romo would have to be hurt. Weeden wanted to make it clear that he doesn't want that to happen, because it's rude to wish injury on somebody.
At every NFL training camp, a reporter asks a backup quarterback about their role on the team, and they give the same answers: "I'm trying my best to compete," "I know I'm not the starter, but I'm doing my best to make sure I'm prepared to be the next man up," "I'm trying to show and prove I'm worth a shot in the NFL."
Here's my experience with the phrase "God Forbid:" I'm a kid, and say, like, an ad for life insurance pops on the TV, and I ask what that is. My mom says "well, say something happened to me or your dad -- GOD FORBID." This is what makes us invoke the highest power in the universe in hopes something does not happen: hypothetical deaths of loved ones, natural disasters, the worst-case scenario.
For Weeden, this worst-case scenario was the possibility of having to do his job.
Weeden has had one of the strangest careers of an NFL quarterback, and had finally settled into a comfortable backup quarterback reverie. And now Romo's injury has shattered it.
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For a significant amount of time, Weeden played minor league baseball. Look, here he is in New York Yankees gear on a baseball card with his name misspelled. Here he is in Los Angeles Dodgers gear holding a sign with his name on it to fully ensure his name would not be misspelled again.
But his once-promising baseball career petered out. He was the Yankees' first-round pick in the 2002 draft, but four years later he was still in Single-A ball -- and pitching horribly, with a six-plus ERA and giving up broken bat dingers.
So he went to Oklahoma State. I'm pretty sure he didn't have any scholarship offers from anywhere -- Rivals actually doesn't go back to his high school days, so we can't quite check that. But he had enough cash from baseball to have a BMW and MLB teams are often contractually obligated to pay for post-career college education, so I guess he was fine walking on.
He entered college with Dez Bryant, but by the time Weeden had earned the Cowboys' starting gig, Bryant had already left school to be drafted by the NFL Cowboys. But in 2010 and 2011, Weeden established a near-unstoppable connection with Justin Blackmon, and each put up preposterous stats and got drafted in the first round.
The NFL draft is about finding upside, players who can develop and prosper and lead a team for many, many years. With Weeden, this was not really a possibility. On draft night, he was already 28 years old. The best-case scenario for Weeden was that he'd be ahead of his peers due to his age -- never mind the fact that he spent half a decade not playing football -- and would be NFL-competent quickly, allowing for several good years of quarterback play before his age caused a decline.
Aaron Rodgers is two months younger than Weeden. When Weeden got drafted, Rodgers had already spent years on the bench behind Brett Favre, developed into a superstar, won an MVP trophy, won a Super Bowl and had a national ad campaign about his signature celebratory move. Weeden still had yet to carry his teammates' bags at training camp and learn what NFL defenses look like.
The Cleveland Browns took him 22nd overall anyway, knowing he'd never have a normal career arc.
Weeden proved not to be NFL-ready. He threw 17 picks and 14 touchdowns his rookie year, with only 6.5 yards per attempt. His second year, he got injured in Week 2, and was outperformed by backups Brian Hoyer -- two years younger than Weeden -- and Jason Campbell, an NFL has-been, but only two years older than Weeden. Most first-round draft picks don't get cut after two seasons, but Weeden was 30 and not good enough to start. They cut him and drafted Johnny Manziel, who still has many years to be good at football.
Looking back on it, that Weeden and Blackmon were first-round draft picks three years ago is almost unfathomable. Blackmon's weird NFL career is probably over after struggles both on and off the field. And Weeden is, well ... Weeden. And it's not like their college success was an example of a system that's produced grossly inflated stats, regardless of actual player talent: Oklahoma State has cycled through oodles of quarterbacks, none able to replicate the success Weeden had. That Weeden-Blackmon connection was an inexplicable, miraculous moment in time and their first-round selections are a monument proclaiming something great once stood here.
After the Browns axed him, Weeden signed with the Cowboys, but he was expected to be the team's third-string quarterback. He only became elevated to backup after Kyle Orton pulled one of the NFL's all-time great slick moves, convincing the Cowboys he was retiring, letting them cut him, taking their $3 million signing bonus and quickly signing with the Buffalo Bills. Last year when Weeden was pressed into play it didn't go so well. In his lone start, he posted a 7.4 QB rating in a 28-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
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It's often said the most popular guy on the team is the backup quarterback: 21 of the 22 football positions regularly cycle in backups. Backup linemen provide rest opportunities. Backup running backs come in on third down. Backup corners are nickelbacks. Backup quarterbacks sit on the sideline while the starter goes out and makes mistakes, leaving fans wondering whether they could do better.
But on NFL teams with legit star quarterbacks like Romo, the backup is not the most popular guy on the team. Yes, Romo makes mistakes. He has his flaws. But more importantly, Romo is an incredibly talented quarterback. He leads the NFL in game-winning drives since 2006. Whatever downs he brings, the Cowboys have realized that his talents and positives are more than worth putting up with his flaws. Romo will always be the most popular guy on the team, and in an ideal world, the backup quarterback sits on the sideline.
After Weeden's strange career, backup was a pretty sweet gig. Once upon a time, he took 18-hour bus rides in the minors, and failed there. He was put in a weird situation with the Browns, and failed there. But after starting his career too late to be a star, Weeden found a team willing to pay him to not be a star. They just needed him to be there, just in case.
That's why his worst-case scenario was actually having to play. If Weeden performs well, it probably will not be enough to become an NFL starter somewhere: other teams have stars or players to develop. If he performs badly, the Cowboys (and other teams in the future) might realize it's not worth letting Weeden hang around.
For Brandon's sake, God forbid it be the latter.
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