Luke McCown isn’t exactly what he seems to be. The New Orleans Saints’ veteran backup is so affable that it’s easy to mistake his easygoing personality for contentment, a man at ease with a career that has produced just nine starts in 12 seasons in the NFL.
Fans and media alike are forever musing that being a backup quarterack is the best job in the NFL: few hits, nice paycheck, a backward baseball cap and a clipboard instead of the bruises and tears and scrutiny of a starter. Play the role long enough, as McCown has, and it’s easy to assume a backup sees his role the same way.
But underneath McCown’s dry sense of self-deprecating humor, captured so perfectly in the Verizon commercials that have temporarily granted him celebrity status, lies a competitive drive that still burns 12 years into his career.
Forced into action by Drew Brees’ bruised rotator cuff this week, McCown will take the field against Carolina on Sunday dead-set on coming away with a win.
“I never got into football hoping to be a backup,” McCown said. “I started and played 45 straight games in college. I never missed a game there. You don’t approach it going, ‘Well, I hope I don’t play today,’ you know what I mean? It’s an opportunity I’m excited about. I’m excited about having a chance to help the team win.”
McCown has developed a fast friendship with Brees in his three seasons in New Orleans, another part of his personality that’s easy to oversimplify.
Both men are a little bit past the average age of their teammates. Both are doting fathers of large families. Both profess deep faith in Christianity.
But their connection is much more than merely demographic.
At a more primal level, the core of their longevity in a difficult league, McCown and Brees share the same type of competitive streak. Brees is known for the daily barrage of quarterback competitions during training camp; his desperate will to win is part of his legend.
What most fans don’t realize is McCown can be every bit as competitive. When the Saints got back from The Greenbrier in August, McCown had a one-game lead, and he wasn’t afraid to mention it.
McCown has survived as long as he has in the NFL because of that competitive streak.
The veteran beat out Ryan Griffin for the backup job in training camp by aiming his sights at the sky.
McCown didn’t enter training camp with his eye on Griffin. He spends his time on the practice field chasing Brees.
“What keeps you around in the league for a long time is that you care,” McCown said at the end of training camp in late August. “It still matters to me. I still want to be good. I still want to be a starter. I still want to beat Drew Brees out. It’s got to matter to you, because if it doesn’t, it’s time to go.”
McCown wasn’t saying, in any way, that he thinks he deserves a starting role over the best player in franchise history. He’s smart enough to know the difference between his career and that of the Hall of Famer taking the field in front of him.
What he was saying is a backup has to have that mentality to be ready when his number’s called. The way McCown’s number has been called this week.
“Whether you’re playing, whether you’re not playing, your approach has to be to prepare like you’re going to play,” McCown said. “That’s the way it’s been this week. That’s the way it was last week. That’s the way it’s been the last two years.”
McCown’s drive is part of the reason the Saints stuck with him.
The life of a backup is no easy task. Working with limited reps in practice, a backup has to find a way to be as game-ready as the starter, and he has to carry that intensity week in, week out for years.
McCown spends most weeks mirroring Brees in practice, making the same identifications and checks, visibly moving and going through the reads he would have to make in the game. And he rarely lets his motivation slip.
“One of the challenges of being in that position, as the No. 2 quarterback, is you might go two and a half years of preparing every week like you’re getting ready to play, then all of a sudden here it comes,” coach Sean Payton said. “There is a mental challenge to that, and a mental discipline that I think is a strength of his.”
A competitive edge isn’t enough to make an elite quarterback. McCown has shortcomings, weaknesses that have kept him from shedding his backup status and earning the right to be a full-time starter for an entire season. This will be only the 10th start of his career.
But McCown won’t falter because of any erosion of his motivation during a career spent on the sideline.
“You have to put yourself in that position mentally so you’re not surprised,” he said. “So I was trying to put myself there mentally on Tuesday, on Wednesday, on Thursday, so that whatever the news was that came down from upstairs, I was ready for it.”
He tries to be ready for this every week.
Now it simply happens to be reality.