The backup quarterback position is one of the most important jobs in sports. A team needs a good backup in case of an injury, bad play, or whatever the case may be. Many times throughout the history of the NFL, there have been situations where the starter could not play, and the backup took over. In no specific order, these are ten backup quarterbacks who took it to the next level.
Brock Osweiler, Denver Broncos, 2015
The 2015 NFL season is one of the most memorable in recent memory. The Carolina Panthers went 15-1 behind MVP Cam Newton, J.J. Watt had a historic season for the Texans, and many NFL legends played their last seasons, including Peyton Manning. Despite being a farewell tour for Manning, he missed a good chunk of the season with plantar fasciitis. In for Peyton was 2013 second round pick Brock Osweiler, who did all he needed to do to help this Broncos team.
Osweiler went 5-2 in his seven starts, while recording ten touchdown passes and six interceptions. Despite Osweiler outplaying Manning in his time as starter, the starting job was given back to Peyton for the playoffs, as the Broncos went on to win Super Bowl 50. Osweiler was rewarded with a ridiculous four year, 72 million dollar contract from the Houston Texans in the offseason.
Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers, 2012
With the 36th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers selected Colin Kaepernick, quarterback from Nevada. Kaepernick was a backup for a year and a half, occasionally coming in to replace Alex Smith. When Smith went down with a concussion in Week 10 of that season, Kaepernick stepped in, and never gave the job back.
He went 5-2 as a starter, recording fifteen total touchdowns to just three interceptions, but it didn’t stop there. Kaepernick took the momentum he had and ran with it, getting the two-seed and the bye, winning in both the Divisional Round vs the Packers and the NFC Championship vs the Falcons. Unfortunately in Super Bowl XLVIII (47), he couldn’t get it done, but he almost came from behind in a 34-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
Case Keenum, Minnesota Vikings, 2017
Going into the 2017 season, Case Keenum was a career backup. He never got a real chance to start for a team, or much playing time at all. And when he did start, he was beyond horrible. In 2013, he got his first chance to prove himself, starting eight games for the Texans in a season where they went on to have the worst record in the league. Keenum had eight starts that season, in which he threw nine touchdowns and six interceptions, with an 0-8 record.
With a bad first impression, Keenum really only got one other shot, as he started nine games with the Rams, and did not impress. However, after injuries and bad play derailed Sam Bradford’s 2017 season, Keenum took the helm for the Vikings, helping lead them to a 13-3 record, while taking the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game, but lost to another backup quarterback. After the season, Keenum signed a two year deal with the Broncos, and after one season he was traded to Washington. He currently resides in Cleveland as Baker Mayfield’s backup.
Tommy Maddox, Pittsburgh Steelers, 2002
Maddox started his career as the potential replacement for John Elway. He was drafted 25th overall in the 1992 NFL Draft. He started four games total with Denver in two seasons, throwing five touchdowns and nine interceptions in those starts, before being traded to the Rams. His time in Los Angeles lasted one year, and after short stints with the Giants and Falcons, Maddox was out of the league. He spent a few seasons in the Arena Football League and the XFL before finding his way back as Kordell Stewert’s backup with the Steelers in 2001.
In 2002, Stewart began the season as the starter, before being replaced by Maddox in Week 4. Maddox started every game after Week 4, throwing for 20 touchdowns and 16 interceptions on the season, all while leading the Steelers to first place in the NFC North. The Steelers ended up defeating the Cleveland Browns in AFC Wild Card Round 36-33, but went on to lose to the Titans in overtime in the Divisional Round, 34-31. Maddox was named Comeback Player of the Year for the 2002 season.
Doug Williams, Washington, 1987
The 1987 NFL season was shortened due to the NFL Players Association strike, and because of this, the games from weeks four through six were played by “replacement players.” Even with the strike, Williams got his playing time, starting two games for the injured Jay Schroeder. Although they lost both games, this was not when Williams really shined. That came in the playoffs, as Schoeder had reinjured his shoulder just before the playoffs had started.
This gave Williams his time in the sunlight. He would lead Washington to a 21-17 victory over the Bears in the Divisional Round. And though on paper he played pretty badly in the Conference Championship vs the Vikings, with an abysmal 34 percent completion percentage, Washington still won 17-10 behind Williams’ two touchdown passes. Finally, in the Super Bowl, Williams led Washington to a 42-10 win in an absolute beatdown over the Denver Broncos. Williams was named Super Bowl MVP.
Jeff Hostetler, New York Giants, 1990
The New York Giants defense in the eighties and early nineties are some of the greatest defenses of all time. And though they had a big part in the Giants two Super Bowl runs in 1986 and 1990, quarterback play also played a big role. In 1986, Phil Simms’ stellar play helped lead the 14-2 Giants to a 39-20 victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI (21). It seemed as if Simms was about to do the same thing in the 1990 season, but when he went down with a broken foot in Week 15, in came Jeff Hostetler, a third round pick in 1984. Not only was this the most important time for the defense to step up, it was Hostetler’s time to prove he could be a starter in the NFL.
Not only did Hostetler prove himself, he helped lead the Giants to a 20-19 win over the Bills in Super Bowl XXV (25). Hostetler stayed with the Giants for two more seasons, where he was the primary starter in both seasons. After the 1992 season, he signed a contract with the Raiders, and he went on to make the Pro Bowl in the 1994 season.
Frank Reich, Buffalo Bills, 1992
Nowadays, Frank Reich is known for being the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, and the offensive coordinator of the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles, who went on to win the Super Bowl. But what he should be more well known for is leading the Bills to a 32 point comeback in the 1992 AFC Wild Card Round vs the Houston Oilers. After Jim Kelly went down with an injury in Week 17 in a loss vs the Oilers, Reich took over the starting role while Kelly recovered. This would mean Reich would be the starter for at least the Wild Card Round vs, again, the Oilers. At halftime, the Bills were down 28-3, and the Oilers would score again in the third quarter, making the score 35-3. While this might have seemed like the end of the game, Reich and the Bills had other plans.
After a drive which ended in a one yard score by running back Kenneth Davis, the score was 35-10. Reich then found Don Beebe for a 38 yard score, making it 35-17. He stayed hot, finding star receiver Andre Reed three consecutive times for scores, giving them a 38-35. After a field goal from both sides, the Bills completed the impossible comeback, winning 41-38. Reich would go on to defeat the Steelers in the Divisional Round, before giving the job back to Jim Kelly. However, Kelly went down with another injury in the Super Bowl, but Reich’s performance was not enough, as the Bills got crushed by the Cowboys 52-17.
Jim Plunkett, Oakland Raiders, 1980
Plunkett’s early career was nothing short of a disaster. Being the first pick in the 1971 NFL Draft, Plunkett had high expectations coming out of the gate, and he did not meet those with the Patriots. Plunkett was an interception machine. One season, he threw twenty-five, and that same season he only threw eight touchdowns, making the number of picks look even worse. Following New England, he had a brief stint in San Francisco with the 49ers, before finding himself as a backup across the bay with the Raiders. For the first five games of the 1980 season, Plunkett was the backup to Dan Pastorini, but found himself as the starter by Week 6 after bad play and an injury to Pastorini.
Plunkett went on to go 9-2 as a starter after Pastorini’s 2-3 start. The Raiders made the playoffs as a four seed, sweeping their way through the AFC, and eventually meeting the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV (15). Plunkett threw three touchdowns in the big game, leading the Raiders to a 27-10 victory, and being named Super Bowl MVP. Plunkett would go on to win one more Super Bowl in his career, Super Bowl XVIII (18).
Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles, 2017
Early in Foles’ career, he looked like the next big star quarterback. Drafted in the third round by the Eagles in the 2012 NFL Draft, his first season was nothing special. But his second season, he went on an absolute tear, throwing for 27 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions, and making the Pro Bowl. In one game against the Oakland Raiders, he even threw for seven touchdowns, tying an NFL record. But in the 2014 season, he played significantly worse than the previous season, throwing 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, breaking his collarbone, effectively ending his season. The following offseason, he was traded to the St. Louis Rams in exchange for Sam Bradford. Foles only lasted one season with the Rams, and he was benched for Case Keenum during that season. He was then released and signed with the Kansas City Chiefs for a short stint in 2016, before finding himself back in Philly for the next season.
The 2017 season found Carson Wentz at his peak for the Eagles, having an MVP type season before tearing his ACL in Week 14. Foles was then named the starter, and he went 2-1 to finish the regular season. He then led the Eagles to Super Bowl LII (52), where the Eagles would go on to defeat the New England Patriots 41-33, in a game where Foles threw three touchdowns, and caught one on the famous “Philly Special” play, and was named MVP. The following season, Wentz got injured again, and Foles was tasked to start three games at the end of the season, as well as a game in the Wild Card round vs the Bears, a game the Eagles won 16-15.
Earl Morrall, Baltimore Colts/Miami Dolphins, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972
Throughout Morrall’s career, he had very inconsistent playing time, but based on what he did with the playing time he had, he should have started his whole career. He played 21 seasons, and in only six of them did he start more than half of the games. In three of those seasons, he played a huge role in getting his team to the Super Bowl. In 1968, he started all 14 games for the Colts after an injury to Johnny Unitas. He would end up winning MVP for that season, and brought the Colts to Super Bowl III (3), but went on to lose to the Jets 16-7. In 1970, he only started one game in the regular season, and Johnny Unitas ended up leading the team to the Super Bowl. But when Unitas went down with an injury very early in the game, Morrall took over, and led the Colts to a 16-13 victory over the Cowboys. Then in 1971, Unitas was knocked out with yet another injury, and Morrall stepped in for nine games. He went 7-2 in those games, but Unitas was handed back the job, and the Colts ended up losing to the Dolphins in the playoffs.
Ironically, Morrall was traded to the Dolphins in the 1972 offseason, and once again did his thing. After Bob Griese got injured, Morall stepped in, and went 9-0 as a starter, helping lead the Dolphins to a perfect 14-0 record. Morrall started in both the Divisional Round vs the Browns, and the AFC Championship vs the Steelers, but the job was given back to Griese for the Super Bowl, and the Dolphins won 14-7 vs Washington.
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