Training camp competitions are underway. Injuries, or sometimes ineffectiveness of the starter, though, can often provide opportunities for those who were not originally slated as starters. Nowhere are those stories more compelling than at quarterback, a position that demands attention, but also usually allows for only one top dog.
Here’s a ranking of the best seasons turned in by a backup quarterback in modern NFL history (i.e., the Super Bowl era), among those who were not starters when the preseason talk was underway. Statistics, regular season impact, postseason performance, and historical impact when appropriate were all factors considered. The lesson? there have been a lot of great performances off the bench.
Editor’s note: a version of these rankings was published in 2015, and has been updated with recent seasons.
1. Kurt Warner, 1999, St. Louis Rams
When Trent Green went down with a knee injury in the third preseason game, kurt warner got his chance. It was simply one of the most amazing seasons in NFL history. He won league MVP and led the league with 41 touchdown passes, the Rams became the Greatest Show on Turf a year after going 4-12, and it ended with a game-winning throw to Isaac Bruce in the Super Bowl.
2. Roger Staubach, 1971, Dallas Cowboys
Staubach had joined the Cowboys in 1969 after his U.S. Naval service. By 1971, he was platooning with Craig Morton at quarterback for Tom Landry’s squad. Morton started the season opener, and the two bounced back and forth splitting time early in the year. In week 7, Staubach and Morton famously rotated on each play, and the Cowboys turned the ball over 7 times in a loss to the Bears to fall to 4-3. Landry made Staubach the full-time starter after that, and the Cowboys never lost again, going 7-0 and then winning the first Super Bowl for Dallas. Staubach led the league in yards per attempt and passer rating, won the Bert Ball Player of the Year Award, and was selected Super Bowl MVP.
3. Randall Cunningham, 1998, Minnesota Vikings
Brad Johnson began the year as the starter in Minnesota, and after he suffered an injury in week 2, Randall Cunningham came in and never looked back. Cunningham had suffered numerous injuries that robbed his running ability in the previous decade. He had only thrown 209 passes in the previous three years combined. With rookie Randy Moss joining Cris Carter, the Vikings finished the year as the highest scoring team in league history and with a 15-1 record, and Cunningham was first team all pro.
4. Dak Prescott, 2017, Dallas Cowboys
Tony Romo went down with yet another injury in the preseason, and rookie Dak Prescott was pressed into action. He responded by going over 150 passes into his career before throwing an interception, and Dallas went 13-2 in games where he started and played through the game (he only played a short time in the season finale, with playoff position determined). Prescott finished the year with 23 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, and 8 yards per attempt, one of the best rookie seasons of all-time.
5. Jim Harbaugh, 1995, Indianapolis Colts
Here’s an underrated one, because you might not remember that it was Craig Erickson who started the season opener after being acquired in a trade by the Colts in the 1995 offseason. After the trade, Bill Tobin said, “I am not in love with Jim Harbaugh. I am in love with my wife. I am in love with my family. I am in love with my children. I respect and admire Jim Harbaugh. … The only people who make the decisions about who starts and who sits out are the coaches. Not me.”
By week 3, Harbaugh regained his starter role from the previous year, and led the Colts to the postseason as a wildcard. Harbaugh had the highest passer rating, best yards per attempt, and best interception rate (throwing only 5). Once in the playoffs, the Colts won against San Diego and at Kansas City, and were within one Harbaugh heave to the end zone against the Steelers from reaching the Super Bowl.
6. Ben Roethlisberger, 2004, Pittsburgh Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger was the 11th overall pick but started the season behind veteran Tommy Maddox. He took over in week 4, and the Steelers went 13-0 from that point, and claimed the #1 seed. Roethlisberger finished with a dazzling 8.9 yards per attempt as a rookie, and a 98.6 passer rating. He also had five 4th quarter comebacks as part of that run to a 15-1 record.
7. Doug Williams, 1987, Washington Redskins
When the 1987 season began, Doug Williams had not started a NFL game since 1982. He left for the USFL in 1983, and had thrown only one pass as the backup in Washington the year before, behind Jay Schroeder. When it ended, he had made history as the first African-American quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl game.
Williams got his first opportunity early in the season. Four minutes into the season opener against the Eagles, Schroeder injured his shoulder, and Williams threw for 272 yards in a win. Williams got one more start, then the 1987 NFL lockout happened, which lasted four weeks and featured three games with replacement players. Schroeder was re-inserted as starter when it ended. Williams would get only one more start after another Schroeder injury, but put up much better numbers than Schroeder when they played (Williams’ 94.0 passer rating would have been 3rd behind only Montana and Kosar if he had enough attempts to qualify). Joe Gibbs opted to make the change for the postseason, inserting Williams as the starter. The rest, as they say, is history …
8. Vinny Testaverde, 1998, New York Jets
Testaverde signed with Parcells’ Jets, but started the year as the backup to Glenn Foley. The Jets began the year 0-3, and in week 4, the switch was made. Vinny–who I’ve written about before as having an underrated career–had the best statistical season of a long career, throwing 29 TDs to only 7 Ints, as the Jets went 12-1 to close the season with Testaverde at starter, and reach the AFC Championship Game.
9. Earl Morrall, 1968, Baltimore Colts
Earl Morrall was the definition of a savvy veteran journeyman backup when he joined the Baltimore Colts in 1968 at age 34. He had last started regularly three years earlier with the Giants (on a team that finished with one win), when reigning NFL MVP Johnny Unitas hurt his elbow in the final preseason game. Morrall stepped in, and Shula’s Colts went 13-1, unseating the Packers for the first time since 1964 as NFL Western champs. Morrall averaged a whopping 9.2 YPA and threw 26 TDs in winning league MVP.
Morrall’s 1968 season would be ranked higher if he didn’t have such a horrible game in one of NFL history’s most famous game: the loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III.
10. Earl Morrall, 1972, Miami Dolphins
Four years later, Morrall was again coming off the bench in a historic season. He went 9-0 as starter for the Miami Dolphins while Bob Griese was out, as the Dolphins became the last team to go through a regular season and playoffs undefeated. He also started the first two playoff games before Griese (who played in the AFC Championship Game) returned to start the Super Bowl.
11. Tom Brady, 2001, New England Patriots
The year that started it all. Tom Brady came in for Drew Bledsoe after a week 2 injury, and after an 0-2 start, New England went 11-3, won the Tuck Rule game in controversial fashion, beat the Steelers when Bledsoe came in for an injured Brady, and then Tom Brady entered the history books with a game winning field goal drive against the heavily-favored Rams. Statistically, Brady’s numbers were not eye-popping in 2001, which is why he is below the other names on this list, but there’s no disputing its impact and memorable moments.
12. Chad Pennington, 2002, New York Jets
The Jets had started the year 1-4, but rebounded with Chad Pennington finally getting his opportunity to start, to win 8 of the last 11 and surpass New England and Miami for a playoff appearance. Pennington, who was incredibly accurate and a great “what-if” before the arm injuries, led the league in passer rating, completion percentage, and had 22 TD passes in 12 starts. The Jets went on to destroy the Colts 41-0 in the playoffs.
13. Nick Foles, 2013, Philadelphia Eagles
Nick Foles replaced Michael Vick at QB, and all he did was throw 6 TDs in one game, and finish with an unfathomable 27 TD to 2 INT ratio. He led the league in YPA. He would be higher on this list based only on statistics, if we had faith that the Chip Kelly system didn’t create most of the numbers. Still, an incredible season for a previously unknown player.
14. Jim Plunkett, 1980, Oakland Raiders
In 1976, Jim Plunkett was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in one of the forgotten stints in history. He lasted two years, and in 1978-1979, threw only 15 total passes in the NFL. He got his opportunity in 1980 when Ken Stabler was traded to Houston for Dan Pastorini, and the Raiders got off to a slow 2-3 start, after two seasons of missing the playoffs. Plunkett’s regular season numbers were not impressive (18 TD to 16 INT) but once he became the starter in the season’s 6th game, the Raiders went 9-2, got into the postseason as wildcard, and went 4-0 to win the Super Bowl. Plunkett averaged 9.2 yards a pass in the postseason.
15. Ken Stabler, 1973, Oakland Raiders
Daryle Lamonica started the season with 8 interceptions in the first three games, and Ken “The Snake” Stabler (RIP) finally got his opportunity. He wouldn’t relinquish it for seven more years. The Raiders rebounded to reach the AFC Championship Game and Stabler reached the pro bowl in a season where he ranked 4th in passer rating and yards per attempt.
16. Colin Kaepernick, 2012 San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco had been in the title game the year before, but when Alex Smith suffered a concussion after a 6-2-1 start, Jim Harbaugh made the bold decision of staying with Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick rewarded the move by opening up the offense even more with his strong arm and running ability. The 49ers reached the Super Bowl, and almost mounted a huge comeback to win it. Along the way, Kaepernick set a rushing record for quarterbacks with 181 yards against the Packers in the playoffs.
17. Craig Morton, 1970, Dallas Cowboys
See Roger Staubach at #2, above. We can debate who was the starter or whether either was the backup in the traditional sense. I don’t include Morton’s 1969 season here, because while Roger Staubach was forced to start the season opener because of Morton’s finger injury, Morton started the rest of the year (and Staubach had just joined the team after leaving the Navy).
By 1970, though, the competition was increasing, and Staubach started the opener over a banged-up Morton. That changed in week 3, when Morton came in for Staubach after a 2nd interception, and replaced him for good in the lineup. Morton averaged 8.8 yards per attempt, leading the league for a second year. The Cowboys went 8-3 with Morton starting, and reached their first Super Bowl. Morton, though, struggled in Super Bowl V, and threw an interception on 2nd and 35, late in the game, that set up Jim O’Brien’s winning field goal.
18. Jeff Hostetler, 1990, New York Giants
The 29-year-old Hostetler had started only two career games before Phil Simms fractured his foot near the end of the 1990 season. Hostetler managed the games, as the Giants went 5-0, and he threw no interceptions and relied on the running game and defense to upset both the 49ers and Bills.
19. Tony Romo, 2006, Dallas Cowboys
Tony Romo replaced Drew Bledsoe halfway through the 2006 season, taking the Cowboys to the playoffs and inspiring the launch of a classic website (Burgers!). Romo averaged 8.6 yards per attempt that first season, then gave us a playoff moment to remember.
20. Jake Delhomme, 2003, Carolina Panthers
The 2003 season for Carolina began in inauspicious fashion, with the team trailing 14-0 at half after 37-year-old Rodney Peete could manage only 19 passing yards against Jacksonville. Jake Delhomme came on at halftime and led a comeback, and Carolina surged to a playoff appearance at 11-5. That preceded a magical postseason for Delhomme, that included a game-winning touchdown to Steve Smith in overtime at St. Louis, and a 323 yard, 3 touchdown performance in the Super Bowl in a shootout loss to the Patriots.
21. Marc Bulger, 2002, St. Louis Rams
The Greatest Show on Turf came crashing down early in 2002, as the Rams got off to an 0-5 start and Kurt Warner got beat up. The team missed the playoff, but when Marc Bulger was in, the offense started clicking again. The team finished 7-9, but went 6-0 in games that he started and finished (the only loss in one of his starts was when he got injured after one pass, and was replaced by Jamie Martin). Bulger posted a 101.5 passer rating and convinced the Rams to move on from Kurt Warner.
22. Vince Ferragamo, 1979, Los Angeles Rams
First, Vince Ferragamo’s 1979 run as Rams quarterback inspired me to look for footage of his game-winning throw to Billy Waddy against the Cowboys, which resulted in this discovery.
Ferragamo didn’t exactly light it up to end the regular season, throwing 10 interceptions, but the Rams rallied to make the playoffs after a 5-6 start, and then went all the way to the Super Bowl. His gunslinging ways paid off in the playoffs, beating the hated Dallas Cowboys and pushing the Steelers to the limits.
23. Doug Flutie, 1998, Buffalo Bills
24. Frank Reich, 1992, Buffalo Bills
Reich didn’t start a single game in the 1992 regular season. He gets on this list, though, because his first start of the season, in the 1992 wildcard game for an injured Jim Kelly, resulted in the largest comeback in NFL playoff history.
25. Derek Anderson, 2007, Cleveland Browns
Charlie Frye started the season opener for Cleveland, who had also drafted Notre Dame wonder boy Brady Quinn. But when Frye struggled in the opener, it was the unheralded Derek “Horse Balls” Anderson who came off the bench. Ho-hum, it’s the Browns.
The next week, Anderson stunned the world by throwing 5 touchdowns as the Browns beat the Bengals in a 51-45 shootout. Anderson, who would make his only pro bowl, threw 26 touchdowns in his first 12 starts. A late swoon kept the Browns from reaching the postseason, but the 10 wins with Anderson as starter in 2007 still remains as the high water mark for the Browns franchise since it re-started in 1999.
Bob Lee 1973 Atlanta Falcons
Dan Marino 1983 Dolphins
Dave Krieg, 1983 Seahawks
Michael Vick 2010 Eagles
Damon Huard 2006 Chiefs
Pat Haden 1976 Rams
Jeff Garcia 2006 Eagles
Aaron Brooks 2000 Saints
Steve Grogan 1985 Patriots
Jeff George, 1999, Vikings
Tim Tebow 2011 Broncos