When Kansas City backup quarterback Chad Henne came into Sunday’s NFL Divisional Round game to replace injured Patrick Mahomes, named Wednesday NFL MVP by the Professional Football Writers Association, I thought the same thing as you.
“Chad Henne’s still in the league?”
Luke McCown, who started 10 games at quarterback during his 13-year NFL career from 2004-2016, those last four seasons backing up Drew Brees in New Orleans, was watching too. His thoughts were more along the lines of, “Lord, have mercy.”
The Chiefs led Jacksonville, 10-7, at the time. But Mahomes was headed to the locker room to get an X-ray of his ankle and Henne was taking a first-down snap from his own end zone.
On first down, Henne threw his first completion. Of the season.
The 37-year-old Henne and the Chiefs put together the longest touchdown drive in the team’s postseason history — 98 yards — increased the lead to 17-7 with 3:54 to go in the half, and ultimately won the game, 27-20.
Mahomes played the second half, hobbling a bit, and is expected to play when the Chiefs host Cincinnati Sunday night at 5:30; the winner plays the winner of Sunday’s 2 p.m. San Francisco at Philadelphia game in Glendale, Arizona in Super Bowl LVII Feb. 12.
Mahomes finished 22-of-30 for 195 yards and two TDs. Henne, who starred for Michigan in 2007 (seems like 1987, I swear) and has four starts in the past seven seasons, was 5-of-7 for 23 yards and a touchdown.
But it’s timing, man. If you ain’t got timing — and a really good tight end like Travis Kelce — you ain’t got nothing.
Henne, in a pinch, was gold when it counted under circumstances only guys like McCown and others in the fraternity can fully appreciate.
“You ARE the insurance in case something happens,” McCown said about the backup’s role. “You understand that. Now, can you handle the horse when it’s time to climb on?”
McCown never had to finish a game “at a moment’s notice” when the starter went down, but with Tampa Bay he did have to sub for the injured Jeff Garcia in 2007 in New Orleans and, in a game that decided the division title, threw for 313 yards and two touchdowns, the last one in the final minute, in a 27-23 win.
“That was early in my career,” he said, “so I was dumb enough not to know how much pressure I was under. Like they say, ignorance is bliss.”
And in 2015 he found out on a Friday he’d start for an injured Brees Sunday against Carolina, the league’s best defense that year, when the Saints were already 0-2. McCown finished an efficient 31-of-38 for 310 yards, but it was in a 27-22 loss; too much Cam Newton and Greg Olsen that day, if memory serves.
So McCown knows about being No. 1 and about being No. 2.
“What (Henne) did is extraordinarily hard for a couple of reasons,” he said Wednesday afternoon while picking up kids after school in his hometown of Jacksonville, Tex., where he and wife Katy, former Shreveporter and Louisiana Tech cheerleader, are raising six children. It takes a minute to round all those young ones up, so the Tech Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2017 inductee had plenty of time to talk — and about one of his favorite subjects.
“First, you’re not getting any reps,” he said of backups. “Henne might have gotten a series with the starters Friday. But mostly you’re running scout team, so you’re running the other team’s plays, not even your own. And if they’re developing a guy — if you’re the old guy like Chad or like I was in New Orleans — that young guy might get the extra practice series with the starters.
“The second thing’s not the reads: you know that. You’ve played for years, you’ve watched film, you’ve done all that,” he said. “It’s the unknown, the emotion of the game at that moment. You can’t be shaken when they say, ‘OK, go get your helmet.’ The crowd is coming to see Mahomes or Joe Burrow, not the backup. So you want to live up to that standard. And to the standard you’ve set for yourself.”
Sunday, McCown was rooting for Henne and for backup QBs everywhere, for guys who McCown says are “worth every penny” when the football gods and fate conspire and suddenly … It’s Time.
“Maybe I’m saying it because now I’m an old backup, but the disparity in pay between the starters and backups in football, or the starting pitchers and the bullpen in baseball, it’s hard to believe,” he said. “You’ve got to have those guys. In moments like Sunday’s, what Henne did proves why you should pay to keep a good, experienced backup.”
Because once the moment is gone, you can’t get it back. You’ve got to make it happen. Right then. Henne, the latest Banner Waver and bellcow for the Backup QB Fraternity, did.
“It’s fun to see him get his due, to see anytime a backup gets his due,” McCown said. “Take any backup playing today: any one of them can out-throw any guy in college. There are what, four billion guys in the world?, and only about 64 of them can throw a goofy brown oblong ball like those guys. You’ve got to remember that these are the best football players in the world.”
The Chiefs had the right one at the right time against the hot Jags. And while he doesn’t have the paychecks Mahomes does, Henne was money Sunday.
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