Has There Ever Been a Successful Two-Quarterback System in the NFL?

The NFL as we know it took decades to develop. It was nearly unrecognizable early on. Quarterbacks, in particular, had little to do with how the position is played today. The renewed focus on rushing is something of a throwback, but it’s still remote from the blocking back style of the early game.

Today’s offenses revolve around the quarterback and protecting him rather than the heavily physical role it once was. But things are changing in the current era, with QBs like Lamar Jackson taking on a riskier role. There could be possibilities that NFL teams ignore. Consider the two-quarterback system, which still appears in college football games today. Could it work in the NFL?

What is the two-quarterback system?

According to Bleacher Report, the two-QB system is as it intuitively sounds: regularly swapping between two active QBs. It involves play calling that considers which available QB is the best option for a particular play. Instead of running the game entirely through the starting QB, only changing over injuries, or late in games with large scoring margins, the offensive play-caller can use both options at any time.

That includes using two QBs in a single play. As SB Nation reports, Penn State has done quite a bit of experimentation with a two-QB system. They used two QBs simultaneously in 2018, juggling which served as the “real” QB and which changed to running back. At the college level, it’s often viable in part due to the inexperience of the opposing defense.

Has the two-QB system ever worked in the NFL?

Dolphins kicker Uwe Von Schamann and holder Don Strock celebrate a field goal during Super Bowl XIX
Dolphins kicker Uwe Von Schamann and holder Don Strock in Super Bowl XIX | Sylvia Allen/Getty Images

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Don Strock and David Woodley, under legendary head coach Don Shula, were the most famous two-QB tandem in the NFL, the Miami Herald reports. In the early ’80s, Shula regularly swapped between the two QBs, depending on which play he intended to call. If one failed to score, he’d throw in the other right in the middle of the game. It wasn’t traditional, but it worked, helping the Dolphins make it to Super Bowl XVII.

Strock himself appreciates the Dolphins’ recent return to that tactic. The team spent the 2020 season juggling Tua Tagovailoa and Ryan Fitzpatrick based on the needs of the team, according to Pro Football Network. It took the emergence of one Dan Marino for the Strock and Woodley show to come to an end, and it’ll take Tagovailoa proving himself definitively to earn a traditional starting spot.

Does the NFL have a place for a two-QB system going forward?

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As ESPN reports, transitions between QBs are the most common period for a two-QB system to emerge in the NFL. Joe Flacco graciously handed the baton over to Lamar Jackson, helping him develop as the next starting QB for the Baltimore Ravens. It’s similar to what Tagovailoa and Fitzpatrick did in 2020, and kept the team competitive while giving the heir apparent time to develop.

The league has made it easier to keep three QBs on the roster at all times, since 2011. That opens up the opportunity for teams to rely on a two-QB system as a transitional tool. But the idea of building a full season around it as the Dolphins did during their Super Bowl run, is less convincing.

The role of a starting QB is more than their athletic ability; it’s also about leadership and providing consistency. That’s tough to pull off with two QBs at the helm of the offense. It’ll take very unique circumstances — like waiting on Marino to prove himself as a third-stringer — to go with a two-QB system for more than a season.