It is ever so important to have a reliable #2.

The Backup Plan

Quick trivia question: Who exactly is Hannibal Hamlin?

a)    The cannibalistic serial killer in Silence of the Lambs.
b)    The star of the hit ‘80s legal/inappropriate-office-sex drama L.A. Law.
c)    The Kansas City Chiefs’ all-time leader in punts inside the 20-yard line.
d)    The Vice President under Abraham Lincoln from 1861-65.

Well, as anyone with either a passion for 19th-Century American political history or access to Google already knows, the answer is not a), or b), or even c). Hamlin, a U.S. Senator from Maine, was the other half of Lincoln’s ticket. He was later appointed ambassador to Spain, and was considered, I’m sure, an all-around great guy by his friends as well as the staff at his favorite diner in Bangor.

What does this fact have to do with the Kansas City Chiefs? Well, in and of itself, absolutely nothing. So why do I bother mentioning it (other than as a bit of minutiae I picked up in eager anticipation of last night’s premiere of Ridley Scott’s new docu-thriller Gettysburg on the History Channel*)?

*Seriously. It was AWE-some. You should check it out on rerun.

Consider: Passed over for a second term in favor of Andrew Johnson, Hannibal Hamlin’s tenure as #2 expired in March 1865, mere weeks before Lincoln’s career-and-life-ending-injury at Ford’s Theater forced Johnson to enter the presidency with little more than a few practice speeches under his belt. Indeed, he was not up to the task, and the country spent the rest of the decade mired in a long, painful rebuilding process known as Reconstruction. Congress even tried to cut Johnson before his contract was up.

I think you know where I’m going with this: Whether in the White House or the National Football League, a good backup is essential, particularly at the leadership position.

While we await (or try to ignore) the ultimate decision on the NFL lockout and, with it, the 2011 NFL season, we forge ahead and envision how our 2011 Chiefs will take shape. There has been a lot of good talk on here about depth charts, who will start, and just as importantly, who will fill in. And while there isn’t much debate—at least among the coaching staff—as to who will start behind center, the Chiefs need a lot of work on their backup plan.

Remember, some of the greatest quarterbacking performances in NFL history were the work of guys who were each his team’s second choice for the job:

Earl Morrall, in for the injured Johnny Unitas on the 1968 Baltimore Colts, lead them to an NFL Championship (before losing to Joe Namath’s Jets) and an NFL MVP Award for himself

– Morrall, again, this time replacing Bob Griese, directed the 1972 Miami Dolphins to what is still the only undefeated season in league history.*

*Morrall would go on to play 21 seasons in the NFL, during which he also occasionally punted. Showoff.

Jeff Hostetler took over for Phil Simms and then took the New York Giants through the playoffs and on to a Super Bowl XXV victory.

Frank Reich, in the role usually played by Jim Kelly, orchestrated the greatest comeback in NFL history, and in a playoff game no less: the Buffalo Bills’ 41-38 overtime Wildcard win against the Houston Oilers, who had led 35-3 in the third quarter.

Tom Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe for…well, for the entire past decade, including four Super Bowls for the New England Patriots.

– Honorable Mention: Matt Cassel stepped in for Brady during Week One of the 2008 season, after having previously thrown only a couple dozen passes in mop-up duty, and lead the Patriots through all 16 games to a playoff-worthy (if not playoff-securing) record of 11-5.

And despite recent history, it’s also worth remembering that there were times when the Chiefs had leadership in reserve that they could rely on:

Rich Gannon may not just be one of the best backup quarterbacks in Chiefs history, but one of the best quarterbacks ever relegated (for so long) to a backup role. His true chance to shine with the Chiefs came in 1997, when he replaced Elvis Grbac and lead a season-ending surge to wrap up the top seed in the AFC. Of course, he got to watch Grbac take over just in time for the divisional matchup with John Elway’s Denver Broncos. Elvis (and the rest of the team and its fans) left the building as 14-10 losers. Five years later, Gannon lead the Oakland Raiders to the Super Bowl.

Mike Livingston started six games for an injured Len Dawson during the Chiefs’ 1969 run to their first (and, sigh, only) Super Bowl win. The Chiefs won all six of those games.

Damon Huard took over for Trent Green after Green was pile-driven into the turf only moments into the 2006 season. While Green spent the next eight weeks slowly regaining consciousness, Huard went 5-3, keeping alive the team’s improbable run* to the playoffs that year. Alas, Huard didn’t exactly shine as a starter. The next season, he barely beat out Brodie Croyle for the job and…well, that last sentence tells you all you need to know.

*More like a stumble, really.

– Sure, Warren Moon was already collecting Social Security by the time he got his first paycheck from the Kansas City Chiefs, but the fact is there was a time when the team had a guaranteed future Hall-of-Famer coming off the bench. Moon played—and started—his last-ever NFL game with the Chiefs late in the 2000 season, making him, at 44 years and 8 days, the second-oldest player ever to start at quarterback (the oldest being Steve DeBerg, though not with the Chiefs at the time).

– Speaking of DeBerg…Ron Jaworski, another All-Pro, spent the 1989 season on the Chiefs’ bench as his backup, and even started a couple of games. Who knew?

Okay, so all in all, it’s not the most illustrious history—but enough to leave a hint of hope. Perhaps fifth-round draftee (and real American her0) Ricky Stanzi will be the immediate answer (albeit to a question—“Who’s going in, now that Matt Cassel is out?”—that we hope not to ask anytime soon). Perhaps not. That’s the most nerve-wracking and potentially exciting aspect of any backup plan: You can never really be sure of anything.

Except for this: Hannibal Hamlin would have been a great name for a quarterback.

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