9 Greatest Backup Quarterbacks In NFL History
Nothing gets NFL fans riled up like a good old-fashioned quarterback controversy, especially when a high profile backup quarterback is in the mix. In this regard, the 2011 NFL season has been a real treat, since we’ve got not one but two big-name backups stealing playing time and headlines.
There is Vince Young in Philadelphia, a #3 draft pick and Heisman runner-up who’s getting extra playing time thanks to Michael Vick’s endless string of injuries. And of course there is also the incomparable Tim Tebow in Denver, who made Kyle Orton unemployed and has led his team to a 5-1 record despite pretty much every football analyst saying he sucks.
So with all the hype around these guys this year—both good and bad—I decided to do a little digging and make a list of the NFL’s all-time greatest backup quarterbacks. I’m pretty happy with my selections, but I’m definitely interesting in hearing what you think. So let me hear it.
9. Marc Bulger
Marc Bulger was #3 on the Rams’ depth chart for the 2000 and 2001 seasons. But in 2002 injuries struck the Rams hard, taking out both Kurt Warner and #2 QB Jamie “Who?” Martin. So finally Marc Bulger got his shot… and he nailed it, going 6-0 that season in games he started and finished.
The next season, with Kurt Warner starting out injured once again, Marc Bulger became the number one guy, and he led the Rams to a 12-4 record. Bulger then went on to make Pro Bowl appearances in both 2003 and 2006.
8. Doug Flutie
Doug Flutie has one of the most peculiar stories in the history of the NFL if you ask me. He won and Heisman trophy as the quarterback for Boston College, but was selected 285th in the 1985 draft—the lowest a Heisman winner has ever gone. When he did get a shot in the NFL with the Bears and Patriots in the late 1980s he didn’t do much. So he decided to head up to Canada and play in the CFL.
All he did there was break a bunch of records, win a bunch of championships, and earn himself another crack at the NFL. In 1998 the Buffalo Bills signed him to be their backup and, wouldn’t you know it, five games into the season Flutie gets to play when starter Rob Johnson goes down.
So how’d he do? Flutie went 8-3 as a starter in 1998, leading his team to a wildcard playoff birth. Then, as the starter in 1999, he went 10-5 in leading the Bills to a second consecutive playoff birth.
Not bad for a guy nobody wanted.
7. Jeff Hostetler
Jess Hostetler was a perennial backup for the New York Giants’ Phil Simms for his first 5 seasons in the NFL. Yeah, sure, he got a Super Bowl ring in 1986, but he got only two starts during that span and threw a paltry 107 total passes. So it wasn’t very fulfilling work.
But on December 15, 1990, Phil Simms broke his foot, which meant Hostetler would be making the Giants’ final two starts of the season. Butterflies? Nah. Jeff won those two games, then all of the Giants’ playoff games—including the Super Bowl, in which he went 20 for 32 with 22 yards, a touchdown, and 0 interceptions.
You gotta love it when a backup nabs you a Super Bowl victory.
6. George Blanda
George Blanda was a successful starter for the Houston Oilers in the AFL during the 1960s, but late in his career he was relegated to being just a backup for the Raiders. In 1970, the 43-year-old was cut in the preseason but later resigned after the Raiders got desperate as injuries began to mount. And it turned out the guy had a little juice left in the tank. Late in the season, Blanda came off the bench to relieve starter Daryle Lamonica in five different games, throwing seven late-game touchdowns.
Oh, and did I mention Blanda was also a kicker? So during that remarkable stretch in 1970, he also kicked crucial late-game field goals of 48 and 53 yards.
5. Jim Plunkett
Jim Plunkett is the only guy to win the Super Bowl twice as a backup quarterback…which is just kind of ridiculous when you think about it.
I mean, now here’s a guy (as John Madden would say) who won the Heisman trophy with Stanford, but couldn’t seem to cut in the NFL. But in 1980 he got another shot at glory with the Raiders when Dan Pastorini broke his leg. The 33-year-old Plunkett performed horribly off the bench in that game, but ended up going 9-2 down the stretch to lead the Raiders to the playoffs. Then he won three playoff games and the Super Bowl.
But by 1983 he had become the backup again. And again he had to come off the bench to fill in. And again the Raiders won the Super Bowl.
4. Steve Young
Steve Young was the backup for some guy named Joe Montana from 1987 to 1990. But when Montana went down with a tendon injury in his elbow during the 1991 preseason, Young got his shot. He did well for himself, but suffered an injury himself that gave an opportunity to another backup (Steve Bono) who almost took Young’s job as #1 backup.
Still, Young managed to keep the #1 backup job in 1992, and since Joe Montana was still injured, that meant he was actually the starter. All he did was lead the 49ers to a 14-2 record by throwing for 25 touchdowns on 3,456 yards and a 107.0 passer rating. Oh, and he was the NFL’s MVP.
IN 1993, the 49ers traded Joe Montana to the Chiefs, and Young became their official starting QB. So of course, Young responded by throwing for 4,023 yards and achieving a passer rating of 101.5.
And the next season he won the Super Bowl.
3. Tom Brady
Though Brady is a living football legend now, you have to remember that he was still Drew Bledsoe’s backup when the 2001 season began. He only took over as the starter in week 3 after Bledsoe was injured, and although it took him a few weeks to hit his stride, he ended up leading the Patriot’s to a huge upset win over the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl.
2. Earl Morrall
The 1972 Miami Dolphins are the most famous team in the history of pro football on account of the fact that they went undefeated and won the Super Bowl. This feat is even more amazing when you realize that 11 of their 17 games were started by their backup quarterback, Earl Morrall.
But that wasn’t the first time Morrall had come in as a backup to do incredible things. In 1968 he filled in for none other than Johnny Freaking Unitas to lead the Colts to a 13-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance. (We won’t say how that game went. And if you don’t know, you need to bone up on your NFL history.) Then he filled in for Unitas again two years later—this time winning Super Bowl V against the Cowboys.
Now that’s a backup.
1. Kurt Warner
After spending three seasons struggling to get by in the Arena Football League and NFL Europe, the undrafted Kurt Warner managed to become the third string quarterback for the putrid St. Louis Rams in 1998. Considering where he had been, that third string on an NFL team was pretty good.
But of course, it got better. In 1999, the Rams got Trent Green to be their starter and promoted Warner to second on the depth chart. When Green tore his ACL during the preseason, Warner became the starter. He threw for 4,353 yards, 41 touchdown passes, and won 13 games. Then he won the Super Bowl, throwing two touchdowns on a record 414 yards, attempting 45 passes without an interception.
So in just 12 months, Kurt Warner went from third string quarterback to Super Bowl MVP. He is definitely the greatest backup QB of all time.