Babe Laufenberg once stood in Kyle Orton’s cleats. He served as Troy Aikman’s backup in 1990 when the Dallas Cowboys’ franchise quarterback separated his shoulder in the next-to-last game of the season.
Laufenberg started a win-or-go-home game the next week, and the Cowboys lost 26-7 to the Atlanta Falcons as he completed only 10 of 24 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown.
“If you could say, ‘Hey, here was the last game of the season, and I led my team to the playoffs,’ a lot of stuff could happen after that,” said Laufenberg, now an analyst on the Cowboys Radio Network. “You’d say, ‘Hey, if nothing else ...’ But I didn’t get that feeling. To this day, I hate it. I hate the feeling, and when I talk about it, the feeling comes back.”
Tony Romo’s absence doesn’t change the importance of Sunday’s game. The stakes remain; only the name of the Cowboys’ starting quarterback has changed, with Orton making his 70th career start.
“It’s the same offense, just plugging that guy in for another one,” Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley said.
The Cowboys have had mixed results with backup quarterbacks starting meaningful late-season games:
• Glenn Carano replaced Danny White, who was nursing sore ribs, in a Dec. 6, 1981, game and led the Cowboys to a 37-13 victory over the Baltimore Colts despite completing only 7 of 18 passes for 51 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
• Third-stringer Jason Garrett, subbing for Troy Aikman and Rodney Peete, both of whom were nursing thumb injuries, led the Cowboys to a 42-31 victory over the Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving Day in 1994. He went 15 for 26 for 311 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
• Steve Beuerlein started the final four games of the 1991 season with Troy Aikman out with a knee injury. The Cowboys won all four and then the first playoff game against the Chicago Bears, as coach Jimmy Johnson continued to ride the “hot hand” even with Aikman healthy again. The magic ended with a 38-6 loss to the Detroit Lions in the divisional round.
“Certainly, quarterback is a very important position in the National Football League,” said Garrett, in his third full season as Cowboys’ head coach. “There’s no question about that. The teams that have the best quarterbacks are typically the teams that play the best and are around for playoff time. There’s no question about the magnitude of that position.
“But you try to, as best you can as an organization, make sure you have contingency plans, you have the right kind of players behind these guys to step in and play if a guy can’t play for you.”
Orton becomes the 50th quarterback to start an NFL game this season. Matt Flynn and Josh Freeman started for two teams each.
Green Bay plays a win-or-go-home game despite starting three backups, including Flynn, and going 2-4-1 with Aaron Rodgers out seven games with a broken collarbone. The Packers, with Rodgers back in the lineup, play the Bears, who stayed alive without starter Jay Cutler for five games as Josh McCown went 3-2 as a starter.
The Packers’ four starting quarterbacks are an NFL high, but Minnesota, Buffalo, Cleveland and Oakland have started three each. Only 18 teams started the same quarterback all season, and 14 of those teams remain in playoff contention in Week 17.
“Every day that goes by, the quarterback becomes a more important part of the game,” said Gil Brandt, the Cowboys’ former player personnel director who now is an analyst for the NFL. “You better have one, and you better have a decent backup.”
The Eagles have started two quarterbacks, going from Michael Vick to Nick Foles after Vick was injured, back to Vick after Foles was injured, and back to Foles when Vick was injured. Foles now has won the job with a league-leading 118.7 passer rating.
So it will be Orton vs. Foles for the NFC East title, a quarterback matchup no one envisioned in September.
Yet, one of them will be fondly remembered by their team’s fans forever. The other will stand in Laufenberg’s cleats.
“It’s a big game,” Foles said. “With quarterbacks, you can do the stats and whatever, but wins and losses is probably the biggest thing that they look at, especially games like this. People do look at these games a little heavier, and there are legacies made in big games.”