Clearly, this is the year of the third-string quarterback.
Usually, nobody knows who these guys are and, apart from their immediate families, agents, and alumni associations, nobody cares. They're rookies who didn't get drafted with glamor picks, coming out of school without the sheen of Mel Kiper Jr.'s slightly unsettling approval to grease their way into reps with the first team. They're journeymen who never made it big, bouncing from clipboard to clipboard around the NFL because they're known quantities.
These are the guys whom you never want to see on the field, but if they get out there they won't fumble every snap or throw every pass into the middle of the cheerleaders. They're safe, and nothing more; they're Tony Pike and Koy Detmer and Scott Tolzien and Tyler Bray. And year in and year out they get flipped and swapped and cut and picked up, and only the most obsessive fans and fantasy players ever really bother to learn their names.
Until this year.
In New England, Tim Tebow. In New York, the Simms-McElroy-Smith-Sanchez debacle. Two major media markets, two major media magnets, and suddenly the identities of the Patriots and Jets' third stringers became national news.
Tebow's gone, of course. The news about him has rarely been about what he actually did on the field; every story comes with mandatory disclaimer about how much his teammates love having him around and delicate tap-dancing around the fact that his performance was at sub-A.J. Feeley levels. Anyone who saw him play knew that there was no chance that utter pragmatist Bill Belichick would keep him around, but the media kept poking the embers of the bonfire Skip Bayless started, hoping for a spark or two. And now he's off, to the CFL or the broadcast booth or, most likely, to the evangelical rubber chicken circuit. Even then there are trailing clouds of coverage, with Bob Kraft making inane statements about how he'd hoped the team had kept the kid. A couple of wounded-duck throws on third and long probably would have cured Kraft of that delusion, but that's always been Tebow's story: something to dream on, not the cold hard facts.
As for the Jets, well, the only reason anyone knew Matt Simms' name was because he was collateral damage in Shouldergate, but once the New York media spots you, you're marked for life. And so, with nothing but gristle left to chew on the Sanchez/Smith story (largely because Sanchez currently has the same range of motion in his shoulder as Han Solo at the end of Empire Strikes Back), the media dove into Simms vs. the gimpy Greg McElroy, and infused Simms' exhibition performance with the sort of angelic glow generally reserved for attractive women washing cars in Michael Bay movies. And so the Jets' vaguely sensible decision to dump McElroy for Simms became front-page news, because, well, hey, there it was, all ripe for the taking.
In about two weeks, all of this should be forgotten. Sanchez will be back, which means Simms' chances of seeing the field are largely dependent on a meteor strike hitting the Jets' practice facility. Tebow's not going to get another NFL gig, not unless Jacksonville is desperate enough to pull him in for a publicity stunt, and the army of "Why don't they let Timmy play!" fanatics will start to find other causes.
But for now, as the timer ticks down to the games that count and all the worthy storylines have been exhausted, it's the year of the third stringer.