SUPER BOWL XXII : THE BACKUPS : One Thinks He Should Start; Other Doesn't

Times Staff Writer

Perfect. All week long we put a football game under a microscope.

The findings about Super Bowl XXII got more bizarre by the day. Dexter this. Amigos that. Ali Haji-Sheikh. Ollie North. Spies. Tummyaches. Et al. Ad nauseam. Ad infinitum.

It became obvious by the end of the week that Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway is to dental floss what Laker Coach Pat Riley is to hair spray.

And now this news flash from the benches: The hardest thing about being a backup quarterback is playing. Not sitting. Playing.

It's like this: If either Elway or Washington Redskins starter Doug Williams exits Sunday's game, it will probably be because he is injured. But it might be because his team is behind.

Whatever the case, Bronco backup Gary Kubiak or Redskin counterpart Jay Schroeder will find himself waist-deep in alligators before he has a chance to pull on his hip boots.

"You have to know ahead of time what's going on," Schroeder said.

And you have to expect the defense is going to test you immediately with every blitz, red-dog, stunt, trick, twist, front, look and scheme it can think of.

"If you go into the game thinking you're going to light it up right away, that's a little far-fetched," Kubiak said. "What I try to do is not do too much too quick. I try to get into the flow. If there's a short pass I take it."

Sort of like grabbing a life preserver. Getting into the flow is a nice concept to visit. But backup quarterbacks rarely get a chance to live there.

They stand around practice most of the week before the game, waiting for a few precious "reps"--repetitions with the first team. The rest of the time they imitate the opposing quarterback for their starting defense.

They have a lot of time to think. Which can be dangerous.

Schroeder played in the Pro Bowl last season and made $800,000 in base salary this season. He started most of the Redskins' games and is still looked upon by team officials as Washington's quarterback of the future, even though Giant linebacker Lawrence Taylor said he was "shell-shocked" in last season's National Football Conference championship game.

He lost his job to Williams near the end of this season when he developed control problems with his short passes. Shortly after that, Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs closed practices to reporters, making it impossible for anybody outside the team to monitor Schroeder's recovery.

"I know I can still play the game of football," he says bravely. "It's just a matter of going out and doing it as soon as I get the opportunity."

In five National Football League seasons, Kubiak has never started regularly. He makes nowhere near $800,000 a year. And nobody has ever mistaken him for anybody's quarterback of the future.

But that doesn't keep him from spending his free time wondering about his future. He came to the Broncos as an eighth-round draft choice from Texas A&M; in 1983, the same year Elway arrived.

Mark Herrmann was already there. So were Craig Morton and Steve DeBerg. Kubiak survived when Morton retired and Denver sent Herrmann to the Chargers. Every year since, the Broncos have brought a bright-eyed young quarterback to training camp to replace him. He has run off every last one of them.

But it's getting old. He looks at Schroeder and he sees the height and arm strength he doesn't have. He sees the same thing when he looks at the New England Patriots' Steve Grogan and the Miami Dolphins' Don Strock. If they ever start a Hall of Fame for backup quarterbacks, Strock's statue will be at the front of the rotunda.

"I've had to compete every year," said Kubiak, who is only 6 feet tall. "It makes me wonder if I'm headed in the right direction. I don't think I can last 10 or 12 years like those guys. Not with my skills."

There's another thing about backup quarterbacks--they get even less sympathy than respect. Redskin starter Doug Williams was a model of politeness all week long. But when someone asked him if he felt sorry for Schroeder's fall from grace, he was blunt.

"I don't have any sympathy," Williams said. "I think everybody feels like they should get in the ballgame sometimes. If that's his opinion, that's his opinion."

Schroeder was equally cold when Williams' name came up in conversation. "He's going to start the game, and we'll go from there," Schroeder said. "Other than that, nobody knows what's going to happen."

Kubiak has never been of the opinion that he should be playing ahead of Elway. Elway took care of that when they showed up for their first rookie camp shortly after the 1983 draft.

"It was devastating, intimidating" Kubiak says. "You have to remember it was my first impression of pro football. I looked at him and I thought about my chances and I said, 'Hell, no way.' "

What kept Kubiak alive in the NFL was a mental alertness that ran ahead of his physical limitations. He has two more years left on his contract. But, he said: "That doesn't mean all that much. You can get cut just like that."

And then there's this matter of belonging. Kubiak doesn't always feel like celebrating when his teammates do. When the Broncos beat the Browns in the American Football Conference championship game, Kubiak held for the extra points. That was it.

"Sometimes you just don't feel like part of the guys," he said. "But you just have to deal with it. That's the nature of the job."

The nature of Kubiak's job is different from the nature of Schroeder's. One is saddled with the knowledge that he isn't good enough to play first string. That burden is tempered by the fact that nobody--probably not even Miami's Dan Marino--is good enough to play first string ahead of Elway.

Schroeder's problem is the knowledge that he was the starter once. He is only 26 years old. "He was the heart and soul of that team a year ago," Kubiak said. "That's a lot tougher."

Maybe there is sympathy for these poor devils after all--the sympathy they have for one another.

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