Backup QB derby not a snap


John Skelton

The backup derby for Andy Dalton officially began this week in the first week of OTAs and since we're talking about a No. 2 quarterback, the numbers don't necessarily compute.

Since each of the three candidates is getting about a mere 10 percent of the snaps, that means the guy with the least amount of NFL experience—Zac Robinson—has a slight edge as this things gets off the ground.

And since Dalton is just one of 11 NFL quarterbacks to start every game the past two seasons and the Bengals have the fourth-longest streak in the league with 64 consecutive starts by their No. 1 quarterback, the law of averages demands at some point the backup figures to play a prominent role.

"We're going to have to see the efficiency of it and the ability to handle the football team," head coach Marvin Lewis said of his wants and needs at that spot. "To play unnerved and to play where we have confidence."

That's not so easy when the snaps are handed out like Oliver Twist's gruel. Welcome to the art of backup quarterbacking in the NFL.

"That's the quality that a backup quarterback has to have," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "Being able to know what you're doing despite not getting many reps. The great backups are able to do that."

Maybe even tougher than that is choosing from among the three in a preseason that may not yield as many snaps as they're getting now in the OTAs. Gruden figures Dalton is getting about 70 percent of the work, 60 at the least.

"They all need the work. Right now we need Andy to get ready and he needs a lot (of snaps), obviously," Gruden said. "For us to properly evaluate the three, it's tough. That's why with the few reps they're getting, they have to take advantage of them."

Robinson, who has been on the Bengals practice squad for the past two seasons in Gruden's system, leads a field that represents virtually every demographic of the pro quarterback.

Robinson, 26, a seventh-round draft pick of the Patriots in 2010, has worked under a Hall of Famer in New England with Tom Brady, a No. 1 overall pick in Detroit with Matthew Stafford, been plucked off a practice squad and been a No. 2 for a couple of weeks. And he's still looking to play in his first NFL game.

Josh Johnson, who turned 27 last week and was drafted by Gruden and his brother Jon in 2008 during their last year in Tampa Bay, has breathtaking athleticism and a sizzling but inconsistent arm that can fire a rocket on one throw and a flare on the next. He's made five NFL starts, but has thrown just 50 passes in the last three years and none in 2012.

John Skelton, 25, a fifth-round pick of the Cardinals in 2010, has a big arm and the most experience in the derby with 17 starts, six last year for an Arizona team strapped on the offensive line. At 6-5, 244 pounds, Skelton has true pocket presence but the knock on him is that he can't move out of there quickly enough.

"Zac does a great job. He calls the plays, he gets the protections right, he knows what he's doing in the offense," Gruden said. "Josh isn't far behind. John is brand new. He's got a little more catching up to do, but hopefully as it goes on he'll be more comfortable."

If Robinson and Johnson have the running ability to make Gruden toy with a read option package, Skelton has the kind of arm Gruden also wouldn't mind seeing in his West Coast offense.

"That's by far the biggest thing right now. It's a completely new offense for me, the first time I've been in any West Coast system," Skelton said of his biggest obstacle. "The terminology is a little different, but the freedom that the quarterback gets to play with is enormous in this offense. Once you learn everything and learn the ins-and-outs of the offense, it's very user-friendly for a quarterback and for the offense as a whole."

If Robinson is looking for a shot and Johnson is looking for a reunion with the playbook, Skelton is looking for some rejuvenation.

"Things kind of got a little stale in Arizona," Skelton said. "I think change was good for me. It was time to move on. I think I'm fortunate. I get to come with an organization like the Bengals, the reputation they've had the last couple of years of getting into the playoffs."

Robinson feels like he's fortunate to get a shot in an offense that he has worked in for the three years Gruden and Dalton have been here. When Robinson  arrived here after Detroit cut him following the 2001 training camp, it was his fourth team in a year.

"I've been able to sit back and learn a lot from Jay, Andy and Bruce (Gradkowski)," Robinson said of Dalton's backup the past two years. "I feel as comfortable as anybody's been here in this offense."

Robinson also feels fortunate he was able to break in under Brady and has been sure to apply his biggest lessons.

"Coming out of college, he was the smartest guy I had ever met when it came to talking about football. Sometimes it was over my head," Robinson said. "There was a lot of technical stuff. A lot of mechanics about throwing the ball.

"Just seeing how he owned that offense and how he knew every inch of it and what all of his guys were doing. His accuracy is already spoken for. He's very accurate. He demands the most out of his guys every single day. I've never seen a guy so hard on himself about the little things."

The problem for Robinson and Co., is doing not only the little things, but the big things in the time allotted.

"The biggest thing is just taking advantage of whatever opportunities you get; your reps are going to be limited," Skelton said. "We know here that Andy is going to get the majority of the reps, as he should. Between the three of us behind Andy, you've got to take advantage. You might get one rep in one period, and that's going to be your one rep to put on film. These 10 practices are kind of a résumé you're building and you're not going to get as many opportunities as you'd like, so you've got to take advantage of the one you do."


135 - Eli Manning, Giants
112 - Philip Rivers, Chargers
80 - Joe Flacco, Ravens
64 - Tom Brady, Patriots
51 - Matt Ryan, Falcons
48 - Drew Brees,Saints
32 - Andy Dalton Bengals
32 - Matthew Stafford, Lions
32 - Tony Romo, Cowboys
32 - Cam Newton, Panthers   
32 - Ryan Fitzpatrick, Titans

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