MINNEAPOLIS – In many respects, Super Bowl LII is about backup quarterbacks.
Of course, this begins with Tom Brady, the ultimate backup QB success story, whose ascension from sixth-round draft pick and fourth-stringer to Greatest of All Time in search of his sixth title is unparalleled. And certainly, the specter of Jimmy Garoppolo lurks, little more than three months after he was dealt to San Francisco. Were something disastrous to happen to Brady Sunday night, New England's fate would rest not in Garoppolo's hands, but Brian Hoyer's.
From a Philadelphia perspective, this championship game and the Eagles' hopes of their first title center largely on three former backup quarterbacks: head coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich, both longtime NFL backups, and current starter Nick Foles, erstwhile backup to potential league MVP candidate Carson Wentz, who's been sidelined by a knee injury since mid-December.
While Foles has substantial NFL starts from which to draw, his backup now is far less experienced. Yet, not only would Nate Sudfeld be called on to replace Foles in an emergency this Sunday, the second-year passer has starred in the role of Brady on Philly's scout team in Eagles practices the past two weeks.
"Obviously I try to emulate somewhat the concepts, some of their read and checks. As far as the actual [Brady] mechanics," Sudfeld explained, "like how he does his left foot up a majority of the time, some of those things I haven't really changed, just because I also need to get ready to play [for the Eagles, if necessary] with my mechanics and fundamentals.
"But [defensive coordinator Jim] Schwartz does a good job of telling you where Tom would go on this [play] or making little gyrations or quirks or whatever to give the defense a good look. [I] work the cadence a little bit, but nothing too over-the-top."
When Sudfeld's older brother, Zach, played briefly for New England as a tight end in 2013, the young QB would quiz him about Brady to learn as much as he could from afar. Sudfeld then incorporated some of what he learned into his own personal style of play today.
"I always really liked watching Tom play," he continued. "His preparation, just how he practices, how he's a leader, how he interacts with teammates, how he's one of the guys but also holds people to a high standard and keeps them accountable and demands a lot out of his teammates. All that stuff has been great."
Apparently, Sudfeld's Brady recall has been manifesting itself on the Philly practice field.
"He does a good job for us… he likes to think he does a lot better job than he does," a grinning Schwartz playfully jabbed.
"That's part of being a scout team quarterback. There are a lot of things we try to put through his eyes. We have a certain scheme, and right after the play, I'll say, 'Hey, tell me what you were thinking here, whether it was the disguise, the blitz, and Nate, even though he's a young player, is pretty smart. He's able to give us great feedback, as was Nick Foles early in the year when he was the backup.
"Part of being the backup quarterback is helping the defense prepare. Nate has stepped into that role and been competitive in practice and has had a little swagger out there. That helps get our players on defense competitive also."
As noted earlier, the other part of being a backup is being prepared to step in for your own team's offense if the starter goes down. In this regard, Reich employed a grocery analogy to declare his confidence in Sudfeld should something incapacitate Foles this Sunday night in Minneapolis.
"Outside of football, my wife and I have three daughters, and cooking is very big in our home," he began. "The way to make a great meal is to start with great ingredients. Buy good ingredients at the store and you have a much better chance of putting together a recipe that's pleasing to eat.
"Same way when you're putting a team together. That's what we do as coaches. We think we've got a guy like that in Nate. You evaluate it and you say, 'He's got the qualities.' Now, do they need to grow? Yeah, but that's part of the process.
"I think it takes a lot of confidence and a lot of humility. You have to have that combination," Reich added about playing understudy in the NFL. "You need the confidence to know that when you're called upon, you can step in there and not only manage the game, but you can play to win. But it also takes humility to know that your primary role is to support the starting quarterback."
Sudfeld believes he is in a perfect place to develop in his role, because Pederson, Reich, and Foles have all been in his position before and can use their experience to benefit him today.
"Yeah, it definitely has helped. More than their being backups, it's their having played and seeing the game from a quarterback's perspective. Not every team has quarterbacks as head coaches and coordinators having those perspectives – they've been there, they know how to play, they understand the challenges, the difficulties. That's been really helpful."
In last year's Super Bowl, Brady guided the Patriots back from a 25-point deficit, the largest ever overcome in the NFL title game. Many years prior, in the 1992 Wild Card round, Reich famously came off the bench for Buffalo to lead the Bills to a 32-point comeback win over the then-Houston Oilers.
While Brady owns five Super Bowl rings and seeks a sixth, Reich is 0-5 in the big game. He lost four consecutive as Hall of Famer Jim Kelly's backup in Buffalo and one as Colts QB coach in 2009. Today, Reich admits he's getting bombarded with messages from many of his old Bills teammates who are hoping he finally enjoys the feeling of winning a Super Bowl.
One way or another, there will be drama unfolding this weekend in Minnesota, and Sudfeld can't help envisioning himself in that spotlight.
"I know I'm one play away, so, it definitely has crossed my mind and I'm ready to play. I'm glad I've had some experience this season getting in games, but at the same time, I'm not trying to blow it out of proportion and make it bigger than it needs to be. Obviously, it's a big deal, the biggest game you can play in this sport, but we're playing on a 100-yard field, same rules, I mean, I know how to play football.
"Once I get past the hoopla and take a deep breath, I've just got to do my job if I'm ever called upon," he finished with a smile, "and not do anything crazy."