Back-up quarterbacks lead a strange existence. At the same time, they can be popular and anonymous. Fans may know nothing about them, but if the starter sucks bad enough, every fan will want the back-up to take the field. If the starter gets hurt, thousands of people will ponder “who is this fucking guy” as the back-up trots onto the field. In any event, there’s no denying that back-up quarterbacks have played major roles in the history of the NFL, and it’s time to show some love for some of those destined to hold the clipboard.
5) Leading an Unlikely Playoff Run – Doug Flutie, Buffalo Bills
A Heisman Trophy winner at Boston College, Flutie wasn’t highly regarded by the NFL. He was viewed as little more than a circus attraction in stints with the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots. Because he was only an alleged 5′ 10″ and 180-pounds, nobody in America saw him as a NFL starter. So, he headed north of the border and became the greatest quarterback in the history of the Canadian Football League. That accomplishment earned him a shot as the back-up quarterback for the Buffalo Bills. In 1998, the Bills got off to an 0-3 behind the starter, the sorry-ass Rob Johnson. Luckily for Buffalo, Johnson succumbed to a rib injury, at which point Flutie took the team to the playoffs while earning himself a spot in the Pro Bowl.
4) Becoming a Quarterback Guru – Steve DeBerg
Steve DeBerg has the distinction of being supplanted as the starting quarterback by three guys he taught how to play the position…and all three of them ended up in the Hall of Fame. DeBerg’s journey to the land of quarterback enlightenment begins with his 25 starts as a San Francisco 49er before a guy named Joe Montana got the job. DeBerg moved on to Denver, where after 11 starts as a Bronco, he gave way to John Elway. DeBerg then moved on to Tampa Bay, where he spent time mentoring Steve Young. Other notable NFL quarterbacks who learned from DeBerg include Chris Chandler and Vinny Testaverde.
During his various stints as a starter, DeBerg passed for over 34,000 career yards, and ranks in the top 20 all-time for attempts, completions, and passing yards. Since retiring from the NFL, DeBerg ahs been a quarterbacks coach, and is now part of a quarterbacks training camp in Virginia.
3) Engineering the Greatest Play-Off Comeback Ever – Frank Reich, Buffalo Bills
Frank Reich is arguably the purest example of a true back-up quarterback on this list. Reich only notched 20 starts during his 13 years in the NFL, but he is also responsible for the single-greatest comeback in NFL playoff history. When he came off the bench to pinch-hit for Jim Kelly in a 1993 playoff game against the Houston Oilers, the fans were right to not expect much from Reich. How wrong they were. He led the Bills to a miraculous 32-point comeback, which culminated on a Buffalo overtime win.
2) Maintaining an Undefeated Season – Earl Morrall, Miami Dolphins
The thought of the 1972 Dolphins team brings several images to mind, but for some reason Earl Morrall tends to get overlooked. That’s a shame, because Morrall quarterbacked this team through the majority of that undefeated season after star signal-caller Bob Griese broke his leg during the fifth game of the season. Morrall started and won 11 consecutive games, leading the Dolphins all the way to the Super Bowl. The story has a bit of an anti-climatic ending as head coach Don Shula decided to play a healed Griese after Morrall posted a shaky performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. In any event, Morrall’s performance was a crucial part of making that undefeated season happen.
1) Winning Two Super Bowls – Jim Plunkett, Oakland Raiders
This entry is the most painful for me personally, because I have to recall the memory of my Philadelphia Eagles imploding against the Jim Plunkett-led Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XV. My personal angst aside, the one thing that becomes clear that if you are a bench guy who gets a team to the promised land, you get a shot to be the starter.
We also can’t forget about Jeff Hostetler and Tom Brady, who also piloted their teams to Lombardi trophies after the guys taking the snaps in front of them got hurt. but Plunkett is the only guy to go from the bench to the big win, get benched again, and go right back to being a Super Bowl Champion.
Then again, this shouldn’t surprise anybody because Plunkett’s career defines “up and down.”
He started out as a Heisman Trophy winner from Stanford whose professional career got off on the right foot with the New England Patriots, but things continually went downhill as the Patriots of the early 1970′s were perpetually awful. Eventually, Plunkett was unloaded on the San Francisco 49ers in 1976, where he struggled as a starter before being sent to the other side of the bay in 1978 to be the back-up quarterback for the Oakland Raiders.
In Oakland, Plunkett languished behind the likes of aging stars like Ken Stabler and Dan Pastorini, until the latter shattered his leg in 1980. Even then, Plunkett stunk in his first start as a Raider; he threw five interceptions against the Kansas City Chiefs. After that, Plunkett led the Raiders to a 9-2 campaign to win the AFC Wildcard sport in the play-offs. As the wild-card, Plunkett led the Raiders to three play-off wins on the road, all of which allowed the Raiders to become the first wild-card team to win it all behind Plunkett’s 13/21, 236 yard, 3 touchdown performance to win Super Bowl XV.
1980 saw the resurrection of Plunkett’s once promising career; he led his team to a Super Bowl win while being named Super Bowl MVP and Comeback Player of the Year. But 1981 saw both the Raiders and Plunkett suffer a Super Bowl hangover, as the team went 7-9 and Plunkett was eventually benched in favor of Marc Wilson. 1982 was an anomaly, as a strike shortened the season to 9 games, all of which were started by Plunkett.
1983 started with Plunkett as the starter, but several weak performances and generally inconsistent play saw him get sat down in favor of Marc Wilson. Wilson responded the next week with a 300-yard, 3 touchdown performance and the conventional wisdom was this would likely be the end for the 36-year old Plunkett. That was until Wilson suffered a season-ending injury, and Plunkett found himself both out of favor and back under center. Plunkett led the Raiders to 5 wins in their final 6 games and an AFC West title. The Raiders then rolled through the play-offs behind Plunkett, dispensing with the Steelers and the Seahawks before crushing the Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII.