The 5 Greatest Backup NFL Quarterbacks of All Time

Aaron Rodgers poses with Green Bay fans | Mike McGinnis/Getty Images
Aaron Rodgers’ football career is a Cinderella story | Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

This is the stuff of legends: A hotshot college quarterback goes first in the draft as the franchise savior. He wins Super Bowls and owns the key to the city, before retiring and entering the Hall of Fame. As “The Man,” the starting quarterback considers Hollywood actors, billionaire businessmen, and world leaders within his peer group.

Then, there is his backup, a journeyman quarterback just hoping to make the team. A quality backup runs the scout team in practice, carries a clipboard on game day, and above all else, keeps his mouth shut. Like any insurance policy, the backup quarterback will never see any real action, if everything goes according to plan.

Still, a select few backup NFL quarterbacks have been able to live the dream. If anything, a backup must always be prepared for the potential time when the coach finally calls his number. The best backups maintain full command of the offense, while stepping in to win games down the stretch. Aa successful reserve may demand a trade and leave town for big bucks elsewhere. By definition, the most celebrated backup NFL quarterbacks were loyal to a fault.

5. Aaron Rodgers

The 5 Greatest Backup NFL Quarterbacks of All Time
Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers signals to his offense | Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

No major programs recruited Aaron Rodgers, a scrawny high schooler out of Chico, California. In college, Rodgers spent his freshman year at Butte Community College and ultimately landed at the University of California, Berkeley, after Jeff Tedford visited the small school to scout another player, but ended up getting his man at quarterback. At Cal, Rodgers lit up the Pac-10 competition for 5,469 yards and 43 touchdowns through two years of play. He declared early for the NFL draft. Many expected the Golden Bear with the Golden Arm to be the first quarterback off the board.

Rodgers’ hometown San Francisco 49ers, however, took Alex Smith with the first overall pick in the 2005 draft. In one of the biggest draft day snubs ever, Rodgers fell to 24th, where the Green Bay Packers selected him. The Packers, of course, were Brett Favre’s team. Ironman Favre was then at the backstretch of his career, amid a running streak of 321 consecutive starts. At the time, a cantankerous Favre icily proclaimed that getting Rodgers ready to play was not part of his contract.

Rodgers ran the scout team for three years in Green Bay. In limited, mop-up duty, Rodgers did complete 71% of his passes for 218 yards and one touchdown in 2007. That offseason, a tearful Favre announced his retirement. Then he changed his mind and still expected the red carpet treatment in Green Bay. Favre, however, forced a trade to the New York Jets, after quickly discovering that his starting quarterback position was actually up for grabs.

Rodgers, in his first year as the starter, completed 64% of his passes for 4,038 yards and 28 touchdowns, and immediately established himself as one of the better quarterbacks in the game. As a natural talent, Rodgers can always make throws, while still being able to tuck the ball in and run for large chunks of yardage as a last resort. Still, even Rodgers himself may admit that the Green Bay Packers did not feel like his team until 2010, when he won his first Super Bowl.

His story sounds similar to that of Tom Brady. Brady, also hailing from Northern California, fell to the sixth round in the 2000 NFL Draft. In 2001, Brady entered the game after Drew Bledsoe took a sideline shot against the Jets to end his season. From there, the rest was history. Brady sat for one year, behind a good-but-not-great quarterback in New England. Rodgers, on the other hand, remains overshadowed by a living legend; many fans consider him the second best quarterback in Packers history.

4. Frank Reich

The 5 Greatest Backup NFL Quarterbacks of All Time
Frank Reich looks for his target | Rick Stewart/Getty Images

The 1990s’ K-Gun offense was before its time. Jim Kelly, of course, was the triggerman behind the K-Gun, in calling his own plays, handing the football off to Thurman Thomas, and spreading the football around to the likes of James Lofton, Andre Reed, and Don Beebe. Darryl Talley named Jim Kelly “Heathcliff,” after a cat that behaved like a dog. Kelly, at 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, was a linebacker playing quarterback and happily took his shots behind the line of scrimmage after firing the football out downfield.

In all, Kelly completed 60% of his passes for 35,467 yards and 237 touchdowns through 11 seasons in Buffalo. Frank Reich stood in perfectly as Kelly’s stunt double throughout the majority of his time in New York. Like Kelly, Reich measured out at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, and he was a tough quarterback with a big arm. In 1989, Reich won all three of his starts, after completing 61% of his passes for 701 yards and seven touchdowns.

Reich, of course, is forever immortalized for orchestrating the greatest comeback of all time. The 199293 Bills were down 35-3 in the wild-card round, early in the third quarter at home, after Reich threw a pick-six to Bubba McDowell and the Houston Oilers. From there, Reich caught fire and threw four touchdown passes to tie up the game in front of a delirious Buffalo crowd. Steve Christie split the uprights in overtime and the Buffalo Bills were on their way, punching a ticket to their third out of four straight trips to the Super Bowl.

3. Steve Young

The 5 Greatest Backup NFL Quarterbacks of All Time
Quarterback Steve Young surpassed everyone’s expectations | Monica M. Davey/AFP/Getty Images

Steve Young, like many backup NFL quarterbacks, was never the golden boy. In high school, he was an option quarterback, before struggling as a pocket passer at Brigham Young University (Young is a descendent of Brigham Young). In 1985, after the USFL went bust, Steve signed on with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Unfortunately, he went a miserable 3-16 as the starter through two years in Tampa. The Bucs took Vinny Testaverde out of Miami as the first overall pick in the 1987 draft.

In 1987, Bill Walsh traded for Steve for pennies on the dollar when many thought the athletic quarterback was a complete bust. In San Francisco, Steve saw his way to the end of the bench, behind the legendary Joe Montana. The 49er dynasty won back-to-back Super Bowls XXIII and XXIV, with Steve carrying a clipboard. Still, he already showed flashes of greatness in limited action. In 1989, Steve relieved Montana to start and win three games; he completed 70% of his passes for 1001 yards and eight touchdowns.

With time, Steve’s game evolved from that of a raw athlete trying to play quarterback, into that of a traditional pocket passer who only took off after scanning the whole field and going through his progressions. The threat to scramble added another dimension to the West Coast offense, setting up a three-way quarterback controversy between Young, Montana, and Steve Bono. In 1992, Young actually won the league MVP award, while an injured Montana stood and watched from the bench. That offseason, San Francisco traded Montana to the Kansas City Chiefs. Young was 32 years old.

In 1994, Young put together one of the better statistical seasons ever, at a time when linebackers and safeties were still allowed to tee off and maul receivers dragging across the middle. Young completed 70% of his passes for 3,969 yards and 35 touchdowns. He also picked up another 293 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. Young dispatched the hated Dallas Cowboys, before making quick work of the San Diego Chargers in the Big Game to close out the season. In taking home Super Bowl MVP honors, he torched the San Diego defense for a record six touchdown passes through the air.

2. Jeff Hostetler

The 5 Greatest Backup NFL Quarterbacks of All Time
Quarterback Jeff Hostetler of the New York Giants moves the ball during a game against the Phoenix Cardinals | Stephen Dunn /Allsport/Getty Images

Many unfairly dismissed Phil Simms as a game-managing quarterback; one who simply rode a historically dominant defense and tough ground game to glory. In 1983, even head coach Bill Parcells went so far as to bench the young Simms. The 1983 Giants went a woeful 3-12-1, without Simms at the controls. By 1986, the team firmly entrenched Simms as the starter and they went 14-2 through the regular season. To top things off, Simms went 22-for-25 for 268 yards and three touchdowns through a 39-20 Super Bowl XXI blowout over the Denver Broncos.

Still, Parcells kept Simms on a tight leash, with the constant threat of giving him the quick hook for Jeff Hostetler. In 1990, Simms had the Giants at 11-3 and headed for another deep postseason run, before he was shut down for the season with a broken foot. Hostetler was ready to go — and he did, with 313 yards and two touchdowns to win the final two games of the regular season. In the playoffs, Hos went on the road to upset Montana, Young, and the San Francisco 49ers 15-13 in the NFC Championship Game.

Super Bowl XXV was the ultimate showdown, pitting Parcells, Bill Belichick, and Lawrence Taylor against Kelly (the aforementioned Reich was the backup), Thomas, Lofton, Reed, and the high-octane K-Gun Bills. To keep the Bills off the field, the Giants established the run early, with Hostetler also making timely throws to Mark Ingram, Mark Bavaro, and Stephen Baker to move the chains and chew up clock. In all, the New York Giants held on to the football for a record 40:33 in time of possession.

Hostetler, on third and 13, calmly stood in the pocket and Mark Ingram on a curl route late in the fourth quarter to pick up the first down. This pass play set Matt Bahr up to hit a chip shot and put the Giants ahead 20-19. Moments later, Buffalo kicker Scott Norwood sailed his 47-yard kick wide right and Parcells took a Gatorade bath.

1. Earl Morrall

The 5 Greatest Backup NFL Quarterbacks of All Time
Quarterback Earl Morrall | Source: Topps

The 1972 Miami Dolphins are forever immortalized for going undefeated. That season, starting quarterback Bob Griese actually took a sack from Deacon Jones in Week 5 and broke his leg. Earl Morrall, at 34, took over from there, and helped drive the Dolphins through nine straight wins. For the ’72 regular season, Morrall completed 55% of his passes for 1,360 yards and 11 touchdowns. That year, Griese did not take the field again until the third quarter of the AFC Championship Game, with Pittsburgh and Miami tied up at 7-7.

The Dolphins won back-to-back titles in 1972 and 1973, with Don Shula calling the plays; the no-name defense controlling the line of scrimmage; and Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris, and Jim Kiick taking turns running the football over and through the opposition. To keep defenses honest, Griese and Morrall could both go over the top to playmaker Paul Warfield.

Before Miami, Morrall backed up Johnny Unitas for Shula in Baltimore. In 1968, Morrall took over for Johnny U after the legendary signal caller went down in a meaningless preseason game. Morrall then completed 57% of his passes for 2,909 yards and a league-leading 26 touchdowns. For this, he won the league MVP award, with these Colts going 13-1. In Super Bowl III, however, Morrall threw a pick in the second quarter and the Colts ultimately lost to Joe Namath.

Two years later, in 1970, Morrall returned for Super Bowl V, filling in for an injured Unitas. To make amends, Morrall went 7-for-15 for 147 yards to beat the Dallas Cowboys in the Big Game. There’s no doubt that he was the greatest backup quarterback of all time.

Statistics courtesy of ESPN and Pro-Football-Reference.