4 After 4: Billy Volek, The Backup
It’s an NFL cliche: the most popular guy in town is always the backup quarterback. Whoever came up with that saying might have been thinking about Billy Volek.
The 6-2, 214 pound quarterback had joined the Tennessee Titans after a very successful senior season at Fresno State. He threw 30 touchdowns against just three interceptions that year, and figured to grow exponentially under NFL coaching.
Grow he did, finding significant success in Tennessee.
When he finally got an extended run as a starter, he made NFL history. During an eight game stretch as a starter in 2004, Volek became just the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 400 yards in consecutive games. Both were losses, but Volek still ran up an impressive 918 yards and eight touchdowns in those games.
If Mike Sherman called, should you answer?
Perhaps that’s what Packers general manager Mike Sherman saw when he tried to sign Volek before the 2004 season.
Then again, Mike Sherman may not have been the best talent evaluator.
It’s true, he drafted Nick Barnett and Javon Walker as his first two first round picks. They each turned out to be solid players.
But he’s also the general manager responsible for Ahmad Carroll, a pick so bad it was decried as a reach from the get-go and only grew worse as time went on. That’s to say nothing of the rest of the 2004 class, which also featured such luminaries as Joey Thomas, Donnell Washington… and B.J. Sander.
Mike Sherman was perhaps even less effective in free agency, where he offered a major contract to then-29-year-old Joe Johnson in March of 2002.
On March 29, Sherman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel “I think (Johnson’s) someone who can stop the run and rush the quarterback. Rushing the quarterback is not just on third down. To be able to rush the quarterback on a play-pass or attack the quarterback on a keep, rushing a quarterback is an every-down situation. So he gives us that. He’s also a great run defender.”
Johnson played eleven games with the Packers. He recorded two sacks. Released after the 2003 season, he never played professional football again.
So, again, perhaps talent evaluation wasn’t a strength of Mike Sherman.
With that in mind, consider Sherman’s pitch to Volek: come to Green Bay and be the successor to Brett Favre.
Generously evaluated, the idea was not completely crazy.
In 2003, Steve McNair was winding up his time in Tennessee and some of the wear and tear was beginning to show. The 2003 season saw McNair battle injuries throughout the year, and Volek had to come in for extended relief appearances twice.
On November 23, 2003, Volek stepped in for an injured McNair. He completed nine of 16 passes for 117 yards and what would prove to be the winning touchdown.
Volek also started for the Titans in Week 14 and completed 26 passes for 295 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for another touchdown in the 28-26 win over the Buffalo Bills.
Volek visits with Green Bay
Packers quarterbacks coach Darrell Bevell cited Volek’s performance in the Buffalo game as a primary reason for Green Bay’s interest.
“He’s very poised and manages situations well,” said Bevell in the Shawano Leader on March 9, 2004. “He’s athletic and could make a few plays out there.”
Bevell’s evaluation was far different from what scouts said of Volek as he entered the league as a rookie. In a report compiled by Sports Forecaster, Volek was said to have had “success in brief appearances” but was just an “average athlete” who “doesn’t get great zip on his throws.”
The Packers, however, were interested in Volek’s “strong arm and quick feet” as quoted in a report from March 2004. They got a first hand look at Volek during a visit to Lambeau Field, during which Mike Sherman gave Volek one of the oddest free agent sales pitches on record.
“When Sherman spoke with Volek, he was up-front about the reality that Volek won’t get a chance to play until [Brett] Favre calls it quits, whenever that might be,” reported Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal.
Favre was 34 at the time and although there were consistent rumors about his retirement, nothing seemed imminent.
“I think honesty is always the best sales pitch,” Sherman said of his attempted sales job. “(Volek) knows our situation, and he knows Brett’s situation. Brett could play for one more year or three years or five years. Who knows? And he understands all that.”
Volek heard what the Packers had to say, took a few other visits, and ultimately re-signed with the Titans.
He started eight games the next season, winning just two. He started one more game for Tennessee in 2005 before he was traded to San Diego during the 2006 season.
Volek didn’t leave Tennessee on the best of terms. He was miffed by the team’s signing of Kerry Collins late in training camp and made his feelings known.
Head coach Jeff Fisher, in turn, took issue with Volek’s airing of grievances and had him dealt to the Chargers, but not before firing off a few parting shots.
“Billy threw this organization under the bus, along with a number of his teammates,” Fisher said, also implying that Volek had lied to him.
Volek's career defining moment
He threw just 44 passes over five years with the Chargers, but did have one shining moment.
San Diego was giving the defending champion Indianapolis Colts everything they could handle in the Divisional Round of the 2007 playoffs. The Chargers vaulted to a 21-17 lead on the last play of the third quarter on a 56-yard touchdown reception by Darren Sproles.
However, starting quarterback Philip Rivers partially tore his MCL on the play. With LaDainian Tomlinson already on the bench with a bruised knee, things suddenly looked bleak for the Chargers.
Volek warmed up on the sideline while he watched Peyton Manning lead the Colts on a furious comeback drive. His 55-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Gonzalez gave Indianapolis a 24-21 lead with ten minutes remaining.
Volek took the field facing tall odds. No backup quarterback had ever led their team to a come from behind victory in the playoffs, let alone against the defending Super Bowl champion.
But Volek did just that, driving the Chargers down the field and scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a quarterback sneak, propelling San Diego to a 28-24 victory.
It would be Volek’s last meaningful game appearance.
The Chargers fell the next week as Rivers battled through a gimpy knee. Volek wouldn’t play significant time again until Week 17 of the 2009 season.
He led a come from behind win against the Washington Redskins that day, but it’s hardly as glamorous as it may seem. The Chargers had already locked up their playoff spot and Volek was only in the game to save Rivers for the games that really counted.
Maybe it’s those efforts that Mike Sherman was hoping for when he tried to sell Volek on being Favre’s understudy. Maybe, given time and tutelage, Volek would have become something more than a glorified long reliever. Maybe his presence on the roster would have steered the Packers away from Aaron Rodgers. Maybe Sherman’s lukewarm sales pitch actually saved Green Bay from a quarterback conundrum.
The 2004 offseason was Sherman’s last as general manager. Ted Thompson drafted Rodgers in the spring of 2005.
Green Bay had concluded its search for Brett Favre’s replacement.