Having a capable backup on your roster is something that’s often overlooked, but can give you that extra edge when you really need it. Whether your starter goes down to a long-term injury or simply isn’t getting the job done, the backup can be the ace up your sleeve when you need him and when other teams do not expect it.
Backups can indeed come out of nowhere and lead their teams much further than anybody could’ve anticipated. Whether it was through the team’s success that year, or their own individual stats, here are the best seasons put together by a backup QB in history. To clarify, these quarterbacks were listed as the team’s backup prior to the season, but took over at some point, be it just before or during the season.
10) Kerry Collins, Tennessee Titans, 2008
Kerry Collins had himself a pretty successful career, but by the time he got to Tennessee, it was widely assumed that he’d spend the rest of his career on the sidelines.
He had brought the Carolina Panthers to the NFC Championship in 1996, helped the Giants to a Super Bowl appearance and was nearing 30,000 passing yards in his career.
When the Titans traded Steve McNair and subsequently drafted Vince Young in 2006, Collins was meant to be the bridge starter until Young was ready. An 0-3 start forced Tennessee’s hand and Young took the starting job. Young went on to be the rookie of the year in 2006 and the Titans made it to the postseason in 2007. Expectations were high entering the 2008 season.
In Week 1, Vince Young was injured against Jacksonville and was booed at LP Field. Allegations arose that week that Young had attempted to commit suicide. Whatever the truth was, it was apparent Young was immature and Collins was named the starter for the rest of the 2008 season.
The Titans responded by going on a 10-0 start and finished first in the NFL at 13-3, the franchise’s best regular season to date. Collins’ numbers were modest, but effective, with 2,676 yards, 12 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. His job was to manage games and yield to the team’s running attack and stout defence. The Titans though would lose their first playoff game, a 13-10 loss to Baltimore.
9) Doug Flutie, Buffalo Bills, 1998
Doug Flutie deserved far more opportunities than he got, constantly overlooked due to his 5’10” 180-pound frame not being that of a traditional quarterback. This guy was a competitor and made the most of what he was given.
With the Bills sputtering with Rob Johnson at quarterback, Flutie was given the chance to start midway through the 1998 season. Flutie made Bills games must-see television and the excitement level in Buffalo quite frankly hasn’t been matched since.
His first start was a comeback win against Indianapolis and the following week he scored the winning touchdown against Jacksonville. Flutie would finish 7-3 in the regular season and led the Bills to the playoffs.
The Bills lost to Miami in the wildcard round. Flutie would then lead the Bills to a 10-5 start in 1999 only to be benched for the Bills’ playoff game against Tennessee. The Music City Miracle happened and the Bills have yet to make it back to the postseason.
8) Vince Ferragamo, L.A. Rams, 1979
Vince Ferragamo wasn’t the Rams’ second option. He was their third option. The Rams were struggling in the 1979 season, treading water at 5-6 with Pat Haden as their starter. Following an injury to Haden, the Rams went to rookie Jeff Rutledge. After four interceptions, Los Angeles decided to go to Vince Ferragamo, a 25-year-old third string quarterback.
Ferragamo went above and beyond anywhere imaginable. Ferragamo led the Rams to four victories in their final five games to squeak into the playoffs with a 9-7 record.
The Rams met the first-seeded Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round. Trailing 19-14 with 2:16 left, Ferragamo connected with receiver Billy Waddy for a 50-yard touchdown pass on the drive’s first play. L.A. would hang on to win 21-19.
In the NFC Championship, the Rams kicked three field goals, which was enough in a 9-0 shutout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Ferragamo and the Rams’ magic ran out against Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl, falling behind in the fourth quarter and losing 31-19.
7) Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers, 2012
It wasn’t too long ago that Colin Kaepernick was Alex Smith‘s backup. The 49ers were coming off a 2011 season that saw them go to the NFC Championship and Alex Smith appeared poised to lead them right back there.
Smith led the 49ers to a 6-2 start and was completing 70 percent of his passes, but a concussion gave way to Kaepernick to take over. Kaepernick began tearing up the stat sheets and by the time Smith was healthy, the 49ers decided that Kaepernick was the hot hand and gave them a better chance to win.
Kaepernick went 5-2 as the starter and got the 49ers the NFC’s no.2 seed. Kaepernick tore up the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round, accounting for 444 yards, including 181 rushing yards in a 45-31 victory.
A comeback win against Atlanta got the 49ers to the Super Bowl where a miracle comeback involving a blackout, fell short in a 34-31 loss. Kaepernick is now one of the game’s great young quarterbacks and was recently given a monstrous contract to go with it.
6) Randall Cunningham, Minnesota Vikings, 1998
Randall Cunningham retired following the 1995 season, spending the 1996 season as an analyst.
Cunningham would return in 1997 as Brad Johnson’s backup, but a neck injury ended Johnson’s season in Week 13. Cunningham would finish the season as the starter, losing in the divisional round for San Francisco.
Cunningham was relegated back to the sidelines coming into the 1998 season behind a returning Johnson. However in Week 2, Johnson sprained his ankle, opening the door for Cunningham.
The Vikings would start 7-0, giving the team really no other choice but to stick with a rejuvenated Cunningham.
Cunningham led the Vikings to a franchise-best 15-1 record. He threw for 3,704 yards, 34 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His QB rating was a career-high 106.0.
The Vikings looked to be a mortal lock to go to and possibly win their first Super Bowl.
The offence looked unstoppable in a 41-21 victory over Arizona. However the 14-2 Atlanta Falcons put a stop to it. Gary Anderson’s missed field goal in the NFC Championship is the game’s lasting image, but the bottom line was the Vikings missed several opportunities to win the game. Despite the loss, it was a phenomenal season for Minnesota and particularly Cunningham.
5) Doug Williams, Washington Redskins, 1987
The first man on this list to take his team all the way, Doug Williams made history in the 1987 season, becoming the first black quarterback in history to win a Super Bowl.
Jay Schroeder was injured in Washington’s opening game, but Williams led the team to victory.
Here’s the weird part; Williams did not win a single start in the 1987 season. His two starts were both losses. However, a strong Week 16 performance, coupled with nagging injuries to Schroeder allowed him to take over for good entering the playoffs.
Victories over the Vikings and Bears brought Washington to the Super Bowl to face the Denver Broncos.
After falling behind 10-0, Washington scored 42 unanswered points led by, guess who, the guy who hadn’t won a start during the regular season. Williams was named the Super Bowl MVP, completing 18 of 29 passes for a Super Bowl record 340 yards and four touchdowns, with one interception.
While it wasn’t a season of work, the bottom line is Williams stepped up when his team needed him and got them a Super Bowl.
4) Jim Plunkett, 1980 Oakland Raiders, 1983 L.A. Raiders
Jim Plunkett was an exciting prospect coming out of Stanford. He was drafted first overall by New England in 1971. After a successful rookie year, Plunkett soon found himself relegated to a backup role.
Plunkett signed with the Raiders in 1978 and served as their backup for the next few years. In fact, he threw only 15 passes in his first two seasons with Oakland. However in Week 5 of the 1980 season, starter Dan Pastorini broke his leg. The Raiders found themselves at 2-3 and Plunkett didn’t give them much confidence in a five-interception debut. However the Raiders stuck with him and Plunkett and he led them to a 9-2 finish, making the playoffs as a 11-5 wildcard.
Plunkett still made his share of mistakes, throwing 16 interceptions to 18 touchdowns.
The Raiders would become the first wildcard to win a Super Bowl. Plunkett led them to victories over the Oilers, Browns and Chargers to reach the Lombardi game to play the Philadelphia Eagles.
Plunkett would lead the Raiders to a 27-10 victory, throwing for 261 yards and three touchdowns. He was named Super Bowl MVP. Plunkett actually pulled a similar feat in 1983, taking over as the starter from Mark Wilson. He would again lead the Raiders, now in Los Angeles, to the Super Bowl, defeating Washington 38-9.
It’s amazing how two of the Raiders’ three Super Bowls came on the shoulders of their backup.
3) Earl Morrall, Miami Dolphins, 1972
When you think of those great Miami Dolphins teams of the 1970s, you think of Bob Griese leading the way as quarterback. However in Miami’s perfect 1972 season, it was veteran backup Earl Morrall leading them on the quest to perfection.
Morrall started 11 games for Miami, all victories of course. He threw 11 touchdown passes to seven picks for 1,360 yards and had a QB rating of 91.0. In this era, these were amazing numbers.
A broken leg to Griese allowed Morrall to take the reigns at 38 years old. Many wrote off the Dolphins as contenders once Griese went down, but Morrall would start 11 games, right up until the Super Bowl. After a subpar performance in the AFC Championship, Don Shula elected to go back to Griese for the Super Bowl, in which the perfect season was complete with a 14-7 win. Morrall’s often overlooked in what the Dolphins were able to do in that amazing season.
2) Tom Brady, New England Patriots, 2001
Bill Belichick was actually tempted to bench Drew Bledsoe in favour of Tom Brady, thanks to Brady’s strong showing in training camp. There was just no way they could bench Bledsoe in favour of a skinny young QB who was picked 199th in the draft, right?
Well, an injury to Bledsoe in Week 2 against the Jets – a devastating one that caused internal bleeding in Bledsoe’s chest – forced the Patriots to elevate Brady to starter. They lost the game 10-3 and quickly found themselves at 0-2 on the year. It was the turning point for two franchises, but not in the way people thought it would be. It started a Patriots dynasty.
Brady would go on a tear, going 11-3 in his regular season starts, He would complete 69.9 percent of his passes, and throw for 2,843 yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He then pulled off playoff heroics, defeating the Raiders and Steelers to reach the Super Bowl.
He then led the team to a 20-17 upset win over St. Louis, including a game-winning drive to close the game and was named Super Bowl MVP. Thirteen years later, Brady is still an elite quarterback in the NFL.
1) Kurt Warner, St. Louis Rams, 1999
The St. Louis Rams recently went through their worst nightmare when Sam Bradford tore his ACL yet again in a preseason game. Once again they’re without their starter, their no.1 draft pick from 2010 who still has never lived up to expectations. Shaun Hill is their starter for now and many can’t help but compare the situation to 1999 when Kurt Warner took the starting job after a Trent Green injury.
Warner had played in NFL Europe for the 1998 season and was bagging groceries to earn himself a living at one point. He earned a spot in training camp as Green’s backup, but after Green’s injury was left as the man in charge.
He’d never taken a snap in the NFL at 28 years old. He then became the leading man in the Greatest Show on Turf.
Warner’s season was ridiculous. He completed 65 percent of his passes for 4,353 yards, 41 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. His QB rating was 109.2. The production showed in the win column, as the Rams went 13-3 as the NFC’s no.1 seed. He was named the NFL MVP! Not bad for a backup, right?
The production continued in the playoffs, as Warner threw for 391 yards, completing 27 of 33 passes, with five touchdowns and one interception. That was a 49-37 win over Minnesota, another offensive power house.
The next week the team struggled against a stingy Tampa Bay defence, but managed to win the NFC Championship with an 11-6 win. A late Ricky Proehl touchdown took the Rams to the Super Bowl.
Warner then completed his masterful season by winning the Super Bowl as the game’s MVP, throwing for a Super Bowl record 414 passing yards, with two touchdowns. He was named Super Bowl MVP.
Considering he led his team to a Super Bowl, won both MVP awards, and put up the gaudy stats he did, his is undoubtedly the best season ever put together by a backup quarterback. Warner got his one chance at 28 years old and built himself a Hall of Fame career.