At some point in their respective lives, every single player in the NFL was a star in his football career, which is how everyone got to the league in the first place. So being a backup at any position can’t be an easy thing to deal with and one could argue that being a backup NFL quarterback could be the worst of any position.
The vast majority of these guys have always been stars, whether it be Pop Warner or high school or college and it can’t be easy to stand and hold a clipboard on the sidelines while likely thinking that you could do a better job than the man that’s out on the field taking the snaps.
But then it happens. The starting quarterback goes down with an injury and the backup finally gets that chance to shine. Sometimes, it’s only for the remainder of one game, such as it was with Aaron Rodgers before he finally took over for Brett Favre later down the road. In other cases, it’s a week or two or three before the regular starter gets healthy and takes back his job. But then there are those cases in which the backup quarterback comes in and does so well that the head coach has no choice but to stick with him, as was the case with the 10 men on this list.
Here’s a look at the top 10 quarterbacks in NFL history that became stars after an injury to their team’s regular starter.
10. Jeff Hostetler
While Jeff Hostetler may not have had the greatest overall NFL career, it’s hard to overlook a guy that replaced a Hall of Famer and led his team to a Super Bowl victory.
Drafted by the Giants in the third round in 1984, Hostetler spent quite a long time backing up Phil Simms, sometimes not even making the active roster. He was actually set to retire but in 1990, Simms went down in Week 15 with a severe foot injury that would keep him out for the remainder of the season. The Giants were headed to the postseason and now had to rely on a guy who’d made just two career starts up to that point.
But Hostetler led New York to two victories to close out the regular season and then led the team to three wins in the postseason, including a Super Bowl victory over the Buffalo Bills. Hostetler kept the starting job when a healthy Simms returned the following season but in an unfortunate ironic twist, he lost his job when he got injured himself. The two switched spots again in 1992 before Hostetler finally left New York to become the full-time starter with the Raiders in 1993. Jeff Hostetler was essentially Nick Foles.
9. Colin Kaepernick
Okay, so it’s likely that some folks out there are upset to see Colin Kaepernick on this list but he certainly deserves to be here. His overall stats may not match up with some of the other quarterbacks on this list but perhaps if his career had lasted a bit longer, he’d still be adding to them.
Colin Kaepernick, who was drafted in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft, got his chance to become the San Francisco 49ers’ starting quarterback in his second season when former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith went down with a concussion in Week 10 of the 2012 campaign. When Smith was cleared to play, Kaepernick remained the starter and took the Niners to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Baltimore Ravens. He led San Francisco to a 12-4 record the following season and remained the starter until…well, you know the rest.
8. Earl Morrall
Overall, Earl Morrall might just be the best backup quarterback in NFL history. Taken with the second overall pick in the 1956 NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers, Morrall played 21 seasons in the NFL as a quarterback and punter but is best remembered for leading two different teams to the Super Bowl as a fill-in for the regular starting quarterback.
In 1968, Baltimore Colts superstar Johnny Unitas was injured in the team’s final exhibition game, which made Earl Morrall the starter. He led the Colts to a 13-1 record in the regular season, was named NFL MVP, and added two more victories in the postseason but then split time with Unitas in the Colts’ Super Bowl III loss to the New York Jets. He did get a bit of redemption when he again replaced Unitas in Super Bowl V to lead Baltimore to a 16-13 win over the Dallas Cowboys.
In 1972, Morrall, now with the Miami Dolphins, replaced starting quarterback Bob Griese in Week 4 and helped the Fins to an undefeated season. Morrall started 11 of Miami’s 17 games that season but didn’t throw a single pass in the Dolphins’ Super Bowl VII win over the Redskins.
7. Jim Plunkett
Jim Plunkett helped the Raiders to two Super Bowl wins in the early 1980s and on both occasions did so by replacing an injured quarterback. In 1980, after serving two years as a backup, Plunkett replaced Raiders’ starter Dan Pastorini, who broke his leg in an early-season matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs. Plunkett went 9-2 as a starter in the regular season, throwing for 2,299 yards, and then led the Raiders to a Super Bowl win over the Eagles. Plunkett was named Super Bowl MVP and became just the second player in history to win the Heisman Trophy and Super Bowl MVP.
Three seasons later, after being benched for Marc Wilson, Plunkett again led the Raiders to a Super Bowl title after Wilson went down with an injury early in the year. Plunkett went 10-3 as a starter in the regular season and threw for 172 yards and a touchdown in the Raiders’ Super Bowl victory over the Redskins.
6. Randall Cunningham
Okay, so like Colin Kaepernick, Randall Cunningham never won a Super Bowl or even got to one. But his accomplishments in the NFL can’t be ignored and it’s a shame that they’re often overlooked.
Taken in the second round of the 1985 NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles, Cunningham spent his rookie season as the backup to Ron Jaworski but did make four starts that year. He got his true chance to shine, however, in his second season when Jaworski injured his hand. Cunningham was given the starting job on a full-time basis in 1987 and went on to make three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances from 1988-1990, also earning All-Pro honors in ’88 and ’90.
Following a year away from the NFL in 1996, Cunningham returned to the league in 1997 with the Minnesota Vikings. He started three games in place of an injured Brad Johnson and then took over the following season and won 13 of 14 starts, throwing for 3,704 yards as the Vikings went 15-1 in the regular season. However, Minnesota came up short in the NFC title game against the Falcons, depriving Cunningham of a Super Bowl appearance.
5. Philip Rivers
Philip Rivers is one of two men on this list still playing in the NFL. Currently with the Indianapolis Colts, Rivers spent the first 16 years of his career with the Chargers. He was taken with the fourth overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft by the New York Giants but was then traded to the Chargers, who were still in San Diego at the time.
As a rookie, Rivers was third on the depth chart behind Drew Brees and Doug Flutie, who knows a thing or two himself about stepping in for an injured starter. Flutie was released in 2005, at which point Rivers became QB2. In the final game of the ’05 campaign, Brees dislocated his throwing shoulder against the Denver Broncos.
The team chose not to re-sign Brees in free agency as they had already invested quite a bit of money in Rivers, who became the full-time starter the following season as Brees went on to a great career with the New Orleans Saints, which includes a Super Bowl win. Rivers went on to break essentially every passing record in Chargers history and was selected to the Pro Bowl eight times.
4. Kurt Warner
Kurt Warner is one of the greatest feel-good stories in NFL history. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Green Bay Packers in 1994 but was released during training camp and began bagging groceries. He then played three seasons in the Arena Football League before signing a futures contract with the then-St. Louis Rams in late 1997. He played a season in NFL Europe before joining the Rams ahead of the 1998 NFL season and was the team’s third-string quarterback behind Tony Banks and Steve Bono.
He became the Rams’ No. 2 option at quarterback in 1999 behind Trent Green when the team released Bono and traded Banks. But then Green tore his ACL in the preseason, moving Warner to the top spot on the depth chart, and all he did was go out and win NFL MVP and lead the Rams to a Super Bowl victory, also taking MVP honors there.
He won a second NFL MVP trophy two years later and led the Rams back to the Super Bowl, which resulted in a loss to the top player on this list. Warner played 12 seasons in the league for the Rams, Giants, and Cardinals, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017.
3. Steve Young
It’s gotta be insanely difficult being the backup to one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time as there’s that much more pressure to perform when you finally do get your chance to play. But that was the situation Steve Young was in for a long time with the San Francisco 49ers.
After a year in the USFL and two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Steve Young was traded to the 49ers ahead of the 1987 NFL season as the Bucs had deemed him to be a bust and drafted Vinny Testaverde. Young spent four seasons as the backup to four-time Super Bowl winner and two-time NFL MVP Joe Montana but became the starter in San Francisco when an elbow injury forced Montana to miss the entire 1991 season.
Young became the starter but then suffered an injury himself in the 49ers’ ninth game of the ’91 campaign and was replaced by Steve Bono. Young didn’t get his job back until Bono himself went down with an injury late in the year. Young was nearly traded to the Raiders ahead of the ’92 season as Montana had nearly healed but the deal never came to pass as Montana suffered a setback in his rehab.
Young took advantage and threw an NFL-best 25 touchdown passes on his way to winning NFL MVP. Montana was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs the following year and Steve Young went on to have a Hall of Fame career. He won NFL MVP again in 1994, the same season in which he led the Niners to a Super Bowl victory.
2. Brett Favre
Following a successful career at Southern Mississippi, Brett Favre was taken in the second round of the 1991 NFL draft by the Falcons, although he threw only four passes as a rookie before being traded to the Green Bay Packers ahead of the 1992 season.
The Packers’ starting quarterback at the time was former All-Pro Don Majkowski and the team had also just drafted Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer. However, Favre won the backup job and actually saw action early in the ’92 season when Green Bay head coach Mike Holmgren benched Majkowski for the second half of the Packers’ Week 2 matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Packers lost the game, 31-3, with Favre throwing for just 106 yards.
Majkowski was named the starter for Week 3 but suffered an ankle injury against the Cincinnati Bengals, giving Favre another shot. Favre fumbled four times in the game but led a 92-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes to give the Packers a dramatic one-point victory. He never relinquished the starting role and also never missed a start for the next 15+ years.
In 1995, Favre won the first of three consecutive NFL MVP trophies and led the Packers to a Super Bowl win following the 1996 season. Favre later played for the Jets and Vikings and retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns (both records have since been broken). He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016.
1. Tom Brady
As if anyone else could be at the top of this list. No quarterback in NFL history has ever taken advantage of an injury to the man ahead of him on the depth chart than six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, who was famously taken in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft by the New England Patriots.
New England was all set at quarterback with former All-Pro Drew Bledsoe when Brady was drafted. Brady threw just three passes as a rookie and the Patriots further showed how committed they were to Bledsoe by signing him to a 10-year/$103 million deal ahead of the 2001 season, at the time the richest contract in NFL history. But everything changed when Bledsoe went down suffered a life-threatening injury in Week 2 of the ’01 season, which thrust Brady into the starting role. And we all know what happened next.
Brady stepped in and led the Patriots to an AFC East title and the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl victory. Bledsoe was traded the following year to the Buffalo Bills and Brady went on to become arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history. He led the Pats to five more Super Bowl wins, won NFL MVP three times, was named to 14 Pro Bowls, and is still going strong today as the quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference