Back-up quarterbacks in the NFL often get the short end of the stick, and are frequently the butt of cruel jokes. Yet few positions can be as important to an NFL team as their back-up. One serious injury to their starting quarterback and an entire season can be derailed. It falls to the back-up QB to step in at a moment’s notice, put the team on his back, and (hopefully) save the day. Of course, that’s easier said than done. The reality is that solid back-up quarterbacks are in short supply — after all, if they were that good, why wouldn’t they be starting somewhere else? Yet some of the greatest quarterbacks of all time have started as back-ups before working their way up the ladder. Some of them stepped in when destiny called and never relinquished the job. As you’ll see towards the end of this list, some of the best back-ups of all-time evetually turned into some of the best starters.
10. Doug Flutie
The former Boston College star, orchestrator of the “Hail Flutie,” and a Heisman Trophy winner, Doug Flutie never made the cut as a starting quarterback in the NFL. His short stature of 5’10” made it difficult for him to see over his offensive line and pick apart defenses. In fact, Flutie had his greatest success in football north of the border in the Canadian Football League (CFL). Yet he returned to the NFL in the twilight of his career and had a lot of success as a back-up quarterback for the Buffalo Bills and then the San Diego Chargers, stepping in on several occasions and winning games for his team. In fact, Flutie’s 1998-99 season in Buffalo was extremely memorable. He replaced an injured Rob Johnson at the quarterback position when the team was 1-3 on the season and led the Bills to a 10-6 record and one of their last post-season appearances. Sports writers dubbed the season “Flutie Magic.”
9. Randall Cunningham
Randall Cunningham began his career as a starting quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles before injuries and off field issues sidelined his career in its prime. By age 35, Cunningham was pulling duty as a back-up quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, who were relying on starting QB Brad Johnson at the time. However, Johnson was injured in Week 2 of the 1998 season and Cunningham was handed the ball. The aged quarterback stepped in and never looked back. He went on to set a then-NFL single season scoring record and helped lead the Vikings to a 15-1 record. In the playoffs, the Vikings barely missed going to the Super Bowl, after an overtime loss they suffered in the NFC Championship. Not too shabby for an over-the-hill back-up.
8. Jim Plunkett
How good of a back-up quarterback was Jim Plunkett? Well, for starters, he is the only player to win a Super Bowl twice as a back-up at the position. After starring at Stanford University and winning the Heisman Trophy, Plunkett played for three NFL teams – the New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers, and the Oakland Raiders. It was with the Raiders where he found his biggest success. In fact, Plunkett started and led the Raiders to two Super Bowl victories (Super Bowls XV and XVIII). All this despite never officially being named the Raiders starting QB. He got his first break when starting signal caller Dan Pastorini broke his leg. Plunkett ended up going 9-2 down the stretch to lift the Raiders through the playoffs and to a Super Bowl victory – the first in franchise history. To date, Plunkett is the only quarterback to start and win two Super Bowls without being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Heinous.
7. Earl Morrall
Earl Morrall is another great back-up who has been forgotten a bit by football fans and historians. Back in the 1960s, Morrall was the gold standard for NFL back-up quarterbacks. In the 1968 season, he played the entire season for a then-injured Johnny Unitas and led the Baltimore Colts to a 13-1 regular season record. The Colts won the NFL Championship season that year and Morrall was named league MVP. While some sports writers dismissed Morrall’s 1968 season as a fluke, the quarterback did it again in 1972, when he was the back-up quarterback for the Miami Dolphins. During the 1972 campaign, Morrall started 11 games in a row for an injured Bob Griese, who was the Dolphins starting QB at the time. Morrall went on to lead the Dolphins through the playoffs before stepping aside and letting Bob Griese start in the Super Bowl, which Miami won – completing a then perfect season.
6. Jeff Hostetler
For an example of a consummate professional, look no further than Jeff Hostetler, the back-up quarterback of the New York Giants in the 1980s. The Giants had drafted Hostetler in 1984 to back-up their starting quarterback Phil Simms. However, when Simms broke his foot with three weeks remaining in the 1990 regular season, it fell to Hostetler to pick-up the mantle and lead the team. Hostetler picked up where Simms left off without missing a beat, winning every remaining football game that season, including a 20-19 win over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV. Sadly, Hostetler’s success never resulted in him landing a starting quarterback job in the NFL. While Simms went on to finish his entire career with the New York Giants and was inducted into their “Ring of Honor.”
5. Kurt Warner
Kurt Warner had an improbable NFL career. The undrafted player worked in a grocery store, played in the now defunct NFL Europe, and was looking at a future in the Arena Football League when he landed a job as the back-up quarterback for the St. Louis Rams after a walk-on tryout with the team. Not only were there no expectations for Warner in the NFL, few (if any) sports writers even knew who he was when he joined the team for the 2000 season. Yet Warner was called on to take over for the injured Trent Green due to a preseason injury, and he caught fire. Warner led the “Greatest Show on Turf” to a Super Bowl victory that season and was named both league MVP and Super Bowl MVP. Warner would lead the Rams back to the Super Bowl again in the following 2001 season, but they would lose to the New England Patriots.
4. Aaron Rodgers
It may seem hard to believe now, but Green Bay Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers began his career as a back-up. In fact, he backed up the legendary Brett Favre for three seasons in Green Bay – 2005 through 2007. These were the twilight years of Favre’s career with the Packers, and Rodgers was called in frequently to take over for the oft injured Packers legends. This turned into a bit of a soap opera for the Green Bay Packers, who had an embarrassment of riches at the QB position. But whenRodgers stepped in for Favre in the second quarter of a game against the Dallas Cowboys in 2007, he never again relinquished the job. At that point, Favre’s days in Green Bay were numbered. In that game, Rodgers completed 18 passes for 201 yards, with no interceptions, leading fans to chant his name. At the start of the 2008 season, the Packers held a news conference to announce that Aaron Rodgers was the full-time starter and Brett Favre was traded to the Jets.
3. Steve Young
Speaking of an embarrassment of riches at the quarterback position, and a QB controversy for the ages, remember when Steve Young backed up Joe Montana on the San Francisco 49ers? The Niners’ acquisition of Young from Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987 was one of the NFL’s all-time great coups. However, as good as Young was, it took four years before he snatched the full-time job away from an aging Montana, who was hurt badly in the 1990 NFC title game. Tensions between Montana, Young, and the 49ers brass had been mounting before the season-ending injury. After much deliberation, the 49ers named Young as the starting QB and shipped Montana to the Kansas City Chiefs. Young then went on to lead San Francisco to a Super Bowl victory in 1994 – emerging completely from underneath the long shadow of Montana in the process.
2. Brett Favre
Again, it may be difficult to remember, but Brett Favre began his career way back in 1991 as a back-up quarterback. In fact, Favre’s early career isn’t very illustrious. He flamed out with the Atlanta Falcons and then-Green Bay Packers head coach Mike Holmgren took a flyer on him after the Falcons released him after only one season. Any hopes for Favre turning into something good were extremely low when he stepped into action in Week Four of the 1992 season when regular starting quarterback Don Majkowski injured his ankle mid-game. Favre seemed to come out of nowhere and dazzled in his first game. He started every game for the Green Bay Packers for the next 15 seasons, until Aaron Rodgers finally usurped him. Favre led the Packers to a victory in Super Bowl XXXI and is the only player to win the NFL Most Valuable Player Award three consecutive times (1995–1997). What were the Falcons thinking?
1. Tom Brady
Really, what can you say about Tom Brady and his storied career that hasn’t already been said? The only quarterback to win five Super Bowl Championships started his career from some extremely humble beginnings, including serving as a back-up to then-starting Patriots QB Drew Bledsoe. Never a starter in college, Brady was drafted 199th overall (sixth round) of the NFL draft. He rode the bench the entire 2000 season, and only got to start in 2001 after Bledsoe suffered a devastating hit in Week Two that almost cost him his life. That injury gave the unheralded sixth-round pick a chance to prove himself, and Brady took full advantage – leading the New England Patriots to their first Super Bowl title in franchise history in his first season as a starter, and going on to win four more championships, the most recent being 2017’s memorable comeback over the Falcons. Brady has also been named Super Bowl MVP a record four times, and league MVP twice. Oh, and Brady also holds just about every playoff record on the books. Not bad for a kid who was never even a starter in the college.