Mac Engel

December 26, 2013

Lesson from ex-Cowboys backup: Orton will need help

The Cowboys can win with their backup QB, if they follow a lesson Jimmy Johnson learned in 1990.

It is not his favorite subject. “Why not let’s just talk about the death of my mother?” Babe Laufenberg asked.

You may have forgotten, or have never known, but there was a day when the CBS 11 sports anchor of many years was in the exact spot Kyle Orton is in today.

In December 1990, the Cowboys were in their second season under coach Jimmy Johnson and had a shot at the playoffs despite their 7-8 record. Starting quarterback Troy Aikman was out with a bad shoulder for the season finale at Atlanta, meaning Babe had his shot.

It was the last time the Cowboys went into a season finale needing a win to make the playoffs with their backup quarterback starting.

In muddy Fulton County Stadium, the Cowboys lost 26-7 to end the season.

“It was probably the most devastating thing that has ever happened to me in a non-personal way,” Laufenberg said. “I carry it with me to this day thinking, ‘I could have done more,’ or, ‘It was my fault.’ ”

It was Babe’s last game. “Bottom line — it was my job to win the game,” he said.

There is a lesson in this, which Jimmy relayed to Babe the next training camp when he told his QB: “I don’t put that game on you. We didn’t give you a chance.”

By that he means Emmitt Smith ran the ball 16 times for 34 yards; as a team, the Cowboys rushed for 47 yards.

Whatever you think of Kyle Orton, or the Cowboys’ chances, the only way they have a shot is if Orton does not turn the ball over, and everybody around him plays better, from Dez Bryant to DeMarco Murray to DeMarcus Ware (yes, he’s still on the team) to Morris Claiborne, et al.

If Orton is just asked to drive a bus, the team has a shot.

“I know Kyle Orton has played [74 NFL games and started 69], but the guy hasn’t played in more than two years,” Babe said. “He’s rusty, OK? He hasn’t played meaningful football in three years. The further you are away from playing meaningful football, the harder it is. This is not like riding a bike.”

This is not 20 years ago when Babe played — and when backup quarterbacks actually got a few reps during the week. Today, backups shut it down once the preseason starts. The bye week would be the perfect time for them to do something with somebody, but now because of the labor agreement between the league and the players union that is strictly vacation time.

There is a near 100 percent chance the Cowboys have play after play in their offense Orton has never even attempted in practice. The advantage, if there is such a thing in this scenario, is that both his head coach and quarterbacks coach have a firm grasp of what this situation is like.

Both Jason Garrett and Wade Wilson can remember from their playing days what it’s like to do this. You strip the playbook down, ask Orton what he is comfortable doing and try to make it as easy as possible.

The perception is that Orton, with his floppy hair and Internet pictures of him partying with pretty blondes, is happier to cash that NFL check than he is to play in an NFL game. That he is living the life as an NFL backup.

Don’t buy it. With the exception of maybe Hall of Fame Clipboard Jockey Don Strock, anyone who plays backup quarterback is not there by choice.

“All you are looking for is playing time,” Babe said. “People say, ‘Hey, it’s the best job in America; you don’t get hit.’ That’s not the way it works. All you want to do is play, and when you are the backup you don’t get to very often. You live for this moment — to play football again. I bet Kyle is as excited as hell about this.”

Babe likens it to the understudy on Broadway who finally gets to play Phantom when the lead is sick.

There is the issue that, even if Romo was fine and scheduled to play, the Cowboys are still the underdog at home. Vegas had the Eagles as one-point favorites before the Romo injury news surfaced. Now the Eagles are favored by a touchdown.

Assuming Orton plays, he will be attempting to do what Babe, and a few others, have been asked to do before — win as the backup surrounded by starters. Strock was good at it; Steve Beuerlein won a playoff game for the Cowboys in the ’91 season. Jeff Hostetler led the Giants to a Super Bowl.

The backups who win don’t go it alone.

It’s Week 17 and while the Cowboys’ defense has been beset by injury, the offense is nearly completely intact from Week 1. DeMarco Murray to Dez Bryant (sort of), Jason Witten, Tyron Smith and Miles Austin (kind of) are all healthy.

The Cowboys of ’13 can’t do to Orton what the Cowboys of ’90 did to Babe — they can’t put it on him.

To have even a shot against the Eagles, they have to do as Jimmy once told Babe and give Orton some help.

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