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Fans often make the backup quarterback the most popular player on a team — until he has to play. Then they see the warts and wobbly passes and wonky decisions that made him a backup in the first place.
On Sunday, though, three reserves, including a third-stringer, got their teams wins.
There won't likely be immediate calls for Drew Stanton to take over for Carson Palmer in Arizona even after a comeback victory at the Giants.
The Rams' Austin Davis was nothing more than an afterthought and possibly headed for the practice squad this summer until Sam Bradford tore up his knee again. Davis' opportunities figure to blossom more than the chances Stanton will have once Palmer recovers from his shoulder problem.
Cousins, however, is one of those guys in reserve who will get a long look while Robert Griffin III is out.
"He is a darn good quarterback and he can do a lot of good things," first-year coach Jay Gruden said of Cousins, who went 22 for 33 for 250 yards and two TDs in relief against the Jaguars. "He is good on the run and throws in the pocket. We just have to give him the reps."
Those reps are key. Gruden acknowledged that for nearly a month, RG3 took most of the practice snaps. The plays he was running weren't necessarily what fit Cousins, who isn't as fast or as creative outside of the pocket as Griffin.
"We will cater to his strengths," Gruden promised.
Where problems often surface is when backups become starters for a lengthy period of time. For one game — or particularly just a part of it — opponents don't have a true read on what the No. 2 QB is comfortable doing. They're too busy game-planning for the Redskins' RG3, the Cardinals' Palmer and, even though he is a career backup, the Rams' Shaun Hill.
That, in part, can explain why a Stanton or a Davis has some immediate success. The Giants expected a strict pocket passer who sometimes forces throws in the stationary Palmer. They got a guy with some maneuverability in Stanton, whose passing stats were moderate, but who didn't make mistakes.
"It's different when you're not getting all those reps," said Stanton, who had not played since 2010 and has appeared in 13 games in eight seasons. "You have to be mentally tuned in to every little thing. Sometimes, you're almost eavesdropping on (coach Bruce Arians) and what he's saying to Carson and what's going on with the O-line."
His opportunities figure to disappear once Palmer is ready; the Cardinals went 10-6 behind him last year.
Coincidentally, Stanton's mentor as a backup QB is none other than Hill, who is in his ninth season in the role. Stanton and Hill were together for two seasons with the Lions, and Hill showed the youngster the reserve ropes.
"As soon as I found out I was playing, I texted him," Stanton said of Hill, who is battling a thigh injury that sidelined him for Sunday's victory at Tampa Bay. "He's somebody that I've learned from how to prepare yourself throughout the course of the week as a backup. There's an art to it."
Now it is Davis who is getting the benefit of Hill's wisdom as a teammate. And Davis, who'd never thrown an NFL pass before this year, must be a fast learner.
He went 22 for 29 for 235 yards — first-stringer Bradford would take such numbers every week — with no interceptions and plenty of poise down the stretch. Davis guided a 71-yard drive to the winning field goal one week after St. Louis was routed at home by Minnesota.
"I felt a peace out there," said Davis, who was undrafted out of Southern Mississippi in 2012. "I felt at home, and it had a lot to do with the guys I was around and how well we played."
Next week and beyond come bigger challenges for Davis and Stanton, should they even play, and for Cousins, who certainly will be behind center. Opponents will scheme for them, aided by regular-season video they didn't previously have. The surprise element will be gone.
But Stanton also can recall the case of journeyman QB Josh McCown, who turned a successful stint in Chicago last year into a starting job and big contract with the Bucs.
The younger guys, meanwhile, also can remember someone who came into the league destined for a bench role. A guy named Tom Brady.
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