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Babe Laufenberg knows why he was so popular in Washington.

“Why? Because I was the backup quarterback,” Laufenberg says. “It’s that simple.”

Second-string running backs, receivers, and linemen are irrelevant around here. But Skins fans have always had a love affair with their backup QBs.

The last time the Redskins played at home, on Nov. 14 against Cincinnati, the crowd kept chanting the name of Patrick Ramsey, who was riding the pine while Mark Brunell continued his embarrassing seasonlong horribleness. The biggest cheers from the home crowd came when Joe Gibbs sent in Ramsey to try to mop up Brunell’s mess.

Ramsey won’t hear any ovation so loving and loud when the Skins host the Giants this weekend. He’s the starter now.

“Y.A. Tittle said there are four stages to being an NFL quarterback,” says Laufenberg, who now works as a sportscaster in Dallas. “First, you’re young and promising. Then you’re the backup and everybody knows you’re better than the guy who’s playing. Then you’re the starter and nobody can understand how somebody so bad has the job. Stage 4, they throw you dinners and tell you how great you were.”

Laufenberg, the most beloved of all the Redskins backups, never made it as far as Stage 3 in his four seasons as a Redskin. He never threw an interception or an incompletion when it mattered. He never got the chance to screw up his relationship with Skins fans.

For the most part, Laufenberg took his back-burner status with a smile. He’d been groomed for the understudy role as an underclassman at Stanford, where he lost a bid for the starting QB job to a kid named John Elway.

Laufenberg ultimately transferred to Indiana University, where he broke several school passing records as a senior. He was drafted by the Redskins in 1983, alongside Darrell Green and Charles Mann. He played at a time when NFL teams had 45-man rosters—they’re now set at 53—and generally carried only two quarterbacks. It seems crazy after all these years, but Laufenberg was as popular as either Green or Mann during his Skins tenure, despite never being burdened with a starting position.

“I had a great time in Washington,” says Laufenberg. “It was great to hear so many people say, ‘God, I want to see this guy play!’”

Alas, all of his playing time in burgundy and gold came during exhibition games, and against defenses made up of backup players fighting for a roster spot. But regardless of the circumstances, his personality and preseason play captured fans’ fancy.

Before the 1985 season, when talk around town was that Laufenberg wouldn’t make the final cut, “Save the Babe” signs showed up at RFK during the exhibition games. All the love finally went to Laufenberg’s head.

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“We had a game against New England, beat them in overtime or on the last play, and I had a good game and led us from behind to get the win,” he says. “And at the end of the game, all these people inside RFK are chanting my name, so I walk right over to Joe Gibbs and say, ‘Go ahead and cut me now!’ And that’s exactly what he did. I don’t know what got into me. With everybody yelling, I should have said, ‘Joe, why don’t you keep me?’”

Laufenberg went on an extended vacation to dwell on a life without football after the Skins cut him. He was in a bar in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, watching the Redskins play the New York Giants in a Monday Night Football game when Lawrence Taylor snapped Joe Theismann’s leg. Laufenberg figured he’d be back on the sidelines soon. He was right.

“This was before the Internet or cell phones, and before Cabo was built up at all,” he says. “There wasn’t even a phone in my entire hotel. I had to wait until the next day and go to the local post office to wire my brother. He wired me back: ‘Yeah, the Redskins called.’”

So Laufenberg came back to D.C. to spend the rest of the season backing up Jay Schroeder. He told the Washington Post in an interview that year that his pregame ritual included slipping in the mud to get his uniform dirty, just so fans at the game would figure he saw playing time on special teams and to save him the embarrassment of being just a spectator. When Doug Williams was brought in the next year, Laufenberg’s run as the Redskins’ top backup ended.

Laufenberg ultimately got to find out for himself just how hard the job of being an NFL quarterback really was, during short stints with the New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers, and Dallas Cowboys (career stats: 16 games, 93 completions in 211 passing attempts, five TDs, and 11 interceptions).

His experience has paid off professionally. Laufenberg now commentates on the Cowboys’ game-day radio broadcasts and hosts a weekly TV show with head coach Bill Parcells.

Loving the second-stringer is no longer just a Washington pastime. Laufenberg has watched with wisdom and amusement as Dallas fans have shown Drew Henson, backup to an aged Vinny Testaverde this season, the same sort of affection Skins fans showed him when he backed up an aging Joe Theismann.

Laufenberg also knows from experience that fans aren’t the only ones who believe the backup is better than the starter.

“Drew Henson is about to find out something that applies to all the backups,” Laufenberg said on the day before the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game with Chicago, Henson’s first NFL start. “The backups all sit there on the sidelines and see the plays that the starting QB makes, and they say, ‘I would have made that throw.’ And they also see the plays the starter doesn’t make, and they say, ‘I would have made all those throws that the guy in front of me didn’t make, too.’ That’s what I did with Joe [Theismann] or whoever was the starter. It’s just human nature. Then you get out there, and you’ve actually got to make all those throws that the starter didn’t make. It’s not as easy as it looks.”

Dallas fans brought various pro-Henson sentiments and signage—among the placards: “Out w/ the Old, In w/the Drew”—to Texas Stadium for the Bears game. But, just as Laufenberg predicted, the going got tough for Henson early in his pro starting debut, and by halftime the home crowd had stopped cheering for him. Testaverde was reinserted by Parcells for the third quarter. —Dave McKenna