What exactly does it take for a starting quarterback to be benched? No one, be it the star or a role player, wants to be pulled because they are playing bad. They don’t want to get pulled from a game for any reason. But sometimes getting pulled is okay and expected.
In baseball, the starting pitcher is usually going to be pulled at some point, whether he is pitching a good game or not. In basketball, the star players will be playing at the end of the game if the score is tight. However, it is not uncommon for a coach to pull his best player to get a rest. Even Phil Jackson was known to sit some of the greatest ever—Michael, Shaq, and Kobe—from time to time.
In football, the positions are substituted almost every other play. This approach applies to all positions but one: the quarterback. Quarterback is a position that you rarely see pulled due to a bad game or season. Why is that? There are few ideas that could be at play here:
1. The Fans are Irrational/The Media Needs a Story
Most calls to insert the backup player come from the fans of a particular team. The word “fans” could almost be a synonym for “irrational,” so I understand I’m stating the obvious a bit here. But with quarterbacks, the unreasonable expectations of the fans increases tenfold. They demand absolute perfection every single play. Or else they don’t understand why the backup isn’t getting a chance to prove he’s better.
Take a look at this current Oklahoma Sooners team. They are QB’d by Landry Jones, a fifth-year senior who holds every passing record in the school’s history. Jones could throw four touchdowns in a game with a completion rate of 75%, and yet the fans would say he needs to be benched because he threw that one interception near the goal line. But as Coach Bob Stoops likes to say “That’s what fans are for. To over-criticize.”
With the media, they know that in order to sell their stories, they need to have a controversy. If everything is hunky-dory with the team, no one reads their column or watches their show. But if you create a problem with the starting quarterback, people will tune in to see why. Thus, causing the fans to be irrational.
2. The Backup Simply Isn’t Any Better
With other positions on the team, there are generally at least ten players per unit. So the options the coach has to choose from are plentiful. However, with the quarterback spot, there’s only three guys. Clearly, the team’s options at QB are limited.
We could be seeing this scenario unfold with the current situation of the New York Jets. Tim Tebow (polarizing figure that he is) has caused a firestorm of debate since he was traded to the team last spring. Coach Rex Ryan firmly maintained that Mark Sanchez is, and would remain, the starting quarterback. Flash forward to the middle of the season, and the Jets are 3-6 with Mark Sanchez being the worst quarterback in the league (statistically speaking). Still, Ryan refuses to bench Sanchez in favor of Tebow.
With the release of the New York Daily News article, where anonymous teammates of the Jets described Tebow as a “terrible” quarterback, it’s easy to assume this is a solid theory, and that Ryan is making the right decision. However, when your starter is the worst in the league, it makes you wonder what the coach has to lose. It’s a common cliché that the backup quarterback is the most popular guy on the team. And unfortunately for the Jets, they are dealing with quite possibly the most-popular backup QB with the public of all time.
3. The Coach Doesn’t Want to Hurt Anyone’s Feelings
Speculation abounds that the reason Landry Jones and Mark Sanchez aren’t coming out of the games is because the coaches don’t want to hurt their feelings.. Coaches aren’t robots, they’re human beings with real human feelings. And they’re also coaching humans with human feelings.
While it’s easy for fans and the press—who only know these players by watching them a few hours every weekend—to think they understand the dynamics, quite frankly they don’t. Coaches are with these players every day for several hours. They know their weaknesses, both in the physical play and their mental makeup. And they know what will help them or not help them.
For instance, if Ryan were to bench Sanchez, it’s not far-fetched to believe it would completely destroy Sanchez’s psyche. Sooner fans have speculated the same about Jones and Stoops. It’s interesting to note how both players are backed up by similar QB’s—Tebow and OU’s Blake Bell—who are both known more for than running attack than passing.
The Quarterback is the leader and face of the team, whether he wants to be or not. Saying your QB isn’t good enough could be interpreted as saying your team isn’t good enough. Coaches, especially on the college level, must deal with these perceptions. And to ignore this dynamic in questioning coaches’ decision is the ultimate Monday Morning Quarterbacking.
An interesting variation on this theme is Notre Dame. Several times this season, Coach Brian Kelly has sat his starting quarterback Everett Golston on the bench. Maybe he’s trying to motivate Golston. If the backup Tommy Rees was a better player, then logically he would be the starter, but when Golston is struggling, in comes Rees for a few series, only to let the starter come back in and finish the game.
Now, when Rees comes in, the offense tends to become anemic, so this may not seem like the best approach. But if you look at Notre Dame’s undefeated record, you have to wonder if this strategy isn’t helping, at least somewhat.
The reasoning behind any decision a football coach makes is usually shrouded in mystery, as rarely are they candid when asked about it. And yes, I’m well aware there are countless examples of quarterbacks being benched for poor play, but it is rare, and usually it takes the coach a while to make the firm decision. There are some strange, unrevealable dynamics with the coach/quarterback relationship, but I doubt the whole truth will ever be known. But that’s just part of the fun of the game.