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11 Biggest NFL Quarterback Controversies of All Time

by: Esteban On  Tuesday, December 4, 2012

biggest nfl quarterback controvsies of all time

While the 2012 NFL Season hasn’t featured any truly epic quarterback controversies, we have seen an inordinate amount of minor ones. There’s Vick vs. Foles in Philly, Kaepernick vs. Smith in San Francisco, Cassel vs. Quinn in KC, Gabbert vs. Henne in Jacksonville, and, of course, Sanchez vs. Tebow in New York. But, like I said, all of these are relatively minor. Not one of these guys has won a Super Bowl—or even come close—and only San Fran is a winning team.

You want some serious quarterback controversies? Then check these out. Each of the controversies on this list feature seriously talented QBs and significantly impacted outcomes in one way or another. And, moreover, some of them got pretty nasty.

So let’s see who comes in at #11…

11. Hostetler vs. Simms


New York Giants, 1991-92

We kick things off with one of the most drawn-out QB controversies in NFL history. It would place higher on the list if not for the fact that the whole thing didn’t amount to much in the end.

You see, Jeff Hostetler was Phil Simms’s backup in New York from 1984 to 1990, and he watched the guy win the Super Bowl in 1986. However, at the end of the 1990 season, Simms broke his foot with two games to go, Hostetler came in, and the Giants won the Super Bowl again.

But none of that was controversial. Simms was injured; it happens.

No, the controversy began the following season when Bill Parcels left the Giants and new head coach Ray Handley had to choose between the guy who just won the Super Bowl and the guy who won the Super Bowl in ’86. Hostetler won the gig over Simms out of camp in 1991, but he suffered a season ending injury that put Simms back in. Then, in 1992, Simms won the gig out of camp…and Hostetler came back in after Simms got injured.

Back and forth, back and forth.

This one was finally settled for good when the team let Hostetler go after the 1992 season. Simms then led played all 16 games in 1993 and led the Giants to a 11-5 record.

10. Aikman vs. Walsh

10 troy aikman and steve walsh (quarterback controversies)

Dallas Cowboys, 1989-90

In 1989, the Dallas Cowboys drafted two quarterbacks: Troy Aikman out of UCLA at #1 overall, and Steve Walsh as the #1 pick in the supplemental draft a few months later.

Aikman, a winner on paper but not in real life, was the team’s choice. Walsh was the choice of first-year head coach Jimmie Johnson, since Walsh had been his QB at Miami when he won a National Championship.

That first year, the Cowboys were abysmal, going 1-15. However, it was Walsh who got them their only win, while Aikman was pretty much brutal in every way shape and form. Nevertheless, the team decided to nip the controversy in the bud the next season before it got too big, and since Aikman had a whopping (at the time) $11 million contract and looked awful, that meant Walsh was sent packing.

Usually, when one QB gets shipped off, that’s the end of the controversy. But not here. You see, after Aikman had another terrible game in his first as the team’s official #1 QB, Johnson vented to reporters that he traded the wrong guy.

Of course, eventually everything worked itself out. Aikman won 3 rings in four years and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006.

9. Rivers vs. Brees

9 phillip rivers and drew brees (quarterback controversies)

San Diego Chargers, 2004-05

Here’s one that looks much worse now that it did at the time. And in fairness to the Chargers, they didn’t really handle the situation all that poorly. They just bet on the wrong guy.

You see, they weren’t convinced Brees was the guy for them after so-so 2002 and 2003 seasons, so they decided to use their #1 overall pick in the 2004 draft on a QB. And since Eli Manning said he wouldn’t sign with San Diego, they took Rivers.

However, Rivers held out for all but the last week of the preseason in 2004 before signing a contract, which meant Brees got the starting gig out of the gate. All he did then was lead the Chargers to a 12-4 record and earn a Pro Bowl invitation. So that meant he got another shot at QB in 2005, and Rivers had to keep waiting. But of course Brees suffered a serious shoulder injury at the end of that season and the Chargers decided it was time to let him go via free agency.

Oops. Since then, Brees of course has been named an All-Pro four times, won a Super Bowl, and a Super Bowl MVP Award. Rivers and the Chargers? Well, they haven’t been too successful.

8. Brady vs. Bledsoe

8 Tom Brady vs. Drew Bledsoe (biggest quarterback controversies)

New England Patriots

This won wasn’t prolonged. The Pats ripped the bandaid off quick.

Still, it was a big, sticky bandaid.

Bledsoe, of course, was the Patriots’ #1 overall pick in 1993. He was the face of the franchise, having led them back to contention and to a Super Bowl appearance in 1996. And of course, prior to the 2001 season, they signed him to a record 10-year, $103 million deal. The guy was their quarterback. Then he got injured in the second game of the 2001 season, and some guy who was drafted #199 in 2000 took over.

That, of course, was Tom Brady. He went 11-3 in the game he started and led the Patriots to their first ever Super Bowl Championship.

After the season, Belichick decided that, even if Bledsoe was the franchise player, he had to go with the guy who just won the Super Bowl. So the Pats traded him to the Bills.

All in all, this is one of the best-handled QB controversies ever. Still, choosing Brady over Bledsoe, while the right call in hindsight, was a pretty big gamble at the time.

7. Warner vs. Bulger

7 kurt warner and marc bulger (quarterback controversies)

St. Louis Rams, 2003-04

After leading the Rams to a Super Bowl victory in 1999-2000 and another Super Bowl appearance in 2001-02, Kurt Warner broke a finger on his throwing hand in 2002, and Marc Bulger went 6-0 after that. Still, the Rams gave their rags-to-riches hero his job back in 2003, but Warner was again sidelined by a broken finger. This time Bulger led the Rams to a 12-4 record and a first round bye in the playoffs. So after the season the Rams decided to release Warner and make Bulger their #1 guy.

It made some sense, but a lot of people didn’t like discarding a 2x NFL MVP.

Bulger went on to have more good seasons with the Rams, but never brought them back to the level at which they previously competed. Warner, meanwhile, led the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl in 2008 and cemented his status as one of the greatest postseason QBs in the history of football.

6. Tebow vs. Anyone

6 tim tebow (quarterback controversies)

Denver Broncos, 2010-11; New York Jets, 2012-present

Unless some team gives Tebow a shot as the legit starter and he proves once and for all that he cannot cut it as a first string QB in the NFL, he will always spark quarterback controversies wherever he goes. Chalk it up to his legendary college success (2 National Championships with the Gators), a flukish 2011 season full of improbable comebacks with the Broncos, and, of course, his cult-hero status as “Football Jesus.”

John Elway declared that Tebow would be the starter heading into training camp this year, but then Peyton Manning hit the market, and Elway jumped on the opportunity to get a real QB. Yet he had to dump Tebow somewhere or else there would still be controversy.

Luckily the New York Jets have no sense whatsoever, so they took on Tebow, and there’s been a QB controversy there ever since.


5. Bradshaw vs. Gilliam

5 Terry Bradshaw vs. Joe Gilliam (biggest quarterback controversies)

Pittsburgh Steelers, 1974

Terry Bradshaw was the Steelers #1 QB in 1974, having been the #1 overall draft pick in 1970. Joe Gilliam, meanwhile, was just an 11th round pick in 1972, so not all that much was expected of him. However, a player strike in 1974 gave Gilliam an opportunity to prove himself, and he took it. Gilliam crossed the picket lines and played in the preseason games, going 6-0 and winning the starting QB job from Bradshaw. Then, through 6 games in the regular season, Gilliam led the Steelers to a 4-1-1 record.

It was a pretty big story back then, because Gilliam was the first black player to be a team’s #1 quarterback coming into the season. He even made the cover of Sports Illustrated. But then Steelers coach Chuck Noll replaced Gilliam with Bradshaw, and the Steelers went on to win the first of their 4 Super Bowls with Bradshaw as QB.

A lot of people were outraged at Gilliam’s demotion. Many people at the time (and now) wondered if the move was racially motivated—not necessarily because Noll was racist (he wasn’t) but because he was under a lot of outside pressure.

Unfortunately, we’ll never really know. However, we do know that the switch demoralized Gilliam, and he spiralled down into a drug addiction and was out of football by 1976.

4. Flutie vs. Johnson

4 rob johnson and doug flutie (quarterback controversies)

Buffalo Bills, 1999

Doug Flutie won the Heisman with Boston College in 1984 but couldn’t get steady work in the NFL. So headed to the CFL, where he had all kinds of success and earned another shot at the NFL in 1998.

That year Flutie was the backup for Rob Johnson. But when Johnson got injured five games into the season, Flutie took over and went 8-3 as a starter, leading the Bills to the playoffs. So in 1999, Flutie was the starter all the way, and he led the Bills to a 10-5 record heading into the final game of the season.

Here’s where this story gets insanely stupid.

With the Bills’ playoff seed locked up and the final game against the Colts, who had something to play for, head coach Wade Phillips wisely decided to rest his starting QB and go with Johnson. But Johnson then had his best game with the Bills, throwing for 287 yards and two TDs in a big 31-6 victory over Indy, and this inspired Phillips to name Johnson as his starter for the playoffs.

Flutie wasn’t injured and had led the team to a 10-5 record, but the Bills went with Johnson in the playoffs.

Only in Buffalo.

Of course, the Bills lost to the Titans, and this one went down as the most unnecessary QB controversy of all time.


3. Waterfield vs. Van Brocklin

3 waterfield and van brocklin (quarterback controversies) copy

Los Angeles Rams, 1949

In 1949, the Los Angeles Rams already had a superstar quarterback. His name was Bob Waterfield, and as a rookie in 1945 he was not only named the NFL MVP, but he also won the NFL Championship Game while throwing three TD passes. After that season, he signed a three-year contract that paid him $20,000 a year, which made him the highest-paid player in pro football.

Yet in 1949, the Rams drafted another quarterback, Norm Van Brocklin, ignited one of the NFL’s first great quarterback controversies. After all, Waterfield was in his prime, and this was before free agency and all the player movement we know today.

However, Rams coach Joe Stydahar solved the problem by creating a functioning quarterback platoon—the key word being functioning. (As we’ll see soon, most controversies can’t be solved by a platoon.) The Rams went to three straight championship games from 1949 to 1951, and they won on the last try.

2. Montana vs. Young

2 joe montana and steve young (quarterback controversies)

San Francisco 49ers, 1992

Joe Montana less the Niners to four Super Bowl Championships, the last one coming in 1990 to cap the 1989 season. However, when Montana suffered a season-ending tendon injury in his elbow in the 1991 preseason, that gave Steve Young a shot. And while he himself struggled with injury in in 1991, in 1992 all he did was go 14-2 with a 107 passer rating and win the NFL MVP. No big deal.

Anyway, this led to a very tumultuous time for the 49ers. Should they stick with the face of the franchise who won 4 rings? Or should they go with the younger guy who just had a legendary season?

Ultimately they put the controversy to rest by trading Montana to the Chiefs. And of course, it worked out, as Young led the Niners to another Super Bowl victory in 1995.

1. Staubach vs. Morton

1 morton staubach (quarterback controversies)

Dallas Cowboys, 1971

Remember what I said about how platoons usually do not solve QB controversies? Yeah, well I had this case in mind.

In 1971, the Tom Landry-coached Cowboys were coming off their first Super Bowl appearance—a loss to the Colts. Though they had been led to that Super Bowl by QB Craig Morton, both he and Roger Staubach had very good training camps in 1971, so Landry decided not to decide the quarterback issue. Instead, he went with a ridiculous 50-5o platoon in which Morton would start one game, then Staubach the next, then Morton, then Staubach, and so on.

The Cowboys were actually 4-2 through the first six week of this. So I guess at that point Landry got cocky and decided to try something really nuts: alternating QBs on every play. Seriously.

This was back in the day before QBs had headsets in their helmets, so play calls had to be given by messengers anyway. Landry figured if he switched QBs every play, he wouldn’t have to send a messenger to relay the call. He could just tell the QB himself.

Obviously, neither QB liked the idea of this. In fact, Staubach once said, “I thought Tom got Alzheimer’s or something.”

Not surprisingly, the Cowboys lost that game to the Bears. But the next week Staubach started and won, and apparently Landry decided his platoon experiment was a failure. So he stuck with Staubach again, and again, and again, and the ‘Boys rattled off 10 straight wins, which included their first Super Bowl.

After that, the QB controversy in Dallas was over, and the rest was history.