Six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady is the most famous former backup QB to take a starting (and starring) role in the NFL, but he’s far from the only one. For these benchwarmers turned stars, it was more than a next-man-up exercise.
Quarterback Trent Green bounced around the NFL and Canadian Football League before getting his first break with the Washington Redskins in 1998. In 15 games with the ‘Skins, he threw for more than 3,400 yards with 23 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. Those stats on a mediocre team that allowed a league-leading 49 sacks were enough to make Green a prized free agent after the season.
With thoughts of ascendancy in the NFC West, the St. Louis Rams shelled out $17.5 million to sign Trent Green to a four-year contract to become their new QB. During the Rams’ fourth preseason game against the San Diego Chargers, Green suffered a season-ending injury on a late hit from Chargers defensive back Rodney Harrison.
Before Tom Brady, there was Kurt Warner in the Hall of Fame
Tom Brady wasn’t the first quarterback to go from unsung benchwarmer to NFL star. It happened in St. Louis first.
In the Trent Green story, the next man up was Kurt Warner, the man whose quarterbacking career took him through the Arena Football League and NFL Europe before latching on to the Rams as a fourth-string backup quarterback.
In 2017, after a 12-year stellar career, Warner, a never-drafted former grocery store bagboy, was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
After losing his job to Warner, Trent Green went on to have a solid career with the Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins, and Miami Dolphins. Green is among the all-time leaders in consecutive starts with 81 games.
Alex Smith’s bad luck started with the 49ers
On November 11, 2012, quarterback Alex Smith was at the helm of a 49ers team off to a 6-2 record in the NFC West. In a game against division rival St. Louis Rams, Smith was clocked by Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar and taken out of the game. The diagnosis was a concussion, and Smith was forced to sit the rest of the game — and season — on the sidelines.
Smith, the first pick in the 2005 draft, saw Colin Kaepernick, the 36th pick in the second round of the 2011 draft, replace him. In his rookie year, the former University of Nevada star saw limited action, completing 3 of 5 passes for 35 yards. Kaepernick, known for his mobility, didn’t do much running in 2011, posting negative 2 yards on two rush attempts.
Taking over for Alex Smith, Kaepernick cemented his role as one of the league’s top signal-callers, taking the team on a 5-2 run to close out the 2012 season, with ten touchdowns to three interceptions. In those seven games, Kaepernick rushed for 415 yards and five touchdowns. The 49ers went on to play in Super Bowl 47 against the Baltimore Ravens, losing 34-31
Kaepernick went on to play four more seasons for the 49ers before becoming a free agent. Due to Colin Kaepernick’s stance on such issues and racism and police brutality, no NFL has signed to a contract since the 49ers.
Drew Bledsoe: the twice bitten starter
Drew Bledsoe, a star out of Washington State University, was the New England Patriots first pick in the 1993 NFL draft. Thrown into the fire right away, Bledsoe had a decent rookie year, throwing for 2,494 yards with 15 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. It was a warm-up for what was to come, leading the league in 1994 with 4,555 yards passing, taking the Patriots to a 10-6 record and a Wild Card playoff berth.
Bledsoe remained New England’s starting quarterback until 2001 when, in the second game of the season, he took a hit from New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis that led to a sheared blood vessel in his chest. Tom Brady, the 199th pick of the 2000 NFL draft, replaced Bledsoe, leading the team to an 11-3 record for the remainder of the season.
Drew Bledsoe never regained his starting job but did come to replace an injured Brady in the 2001 AFC Championship Game against the Steelers.
Arguably the greatest (onetime) backup QB of all time, the still-active 43-year-old Tom Brady has thrown for more than 76,000 yards with 559 touchdowns to only 183 interceptions. He is a likely future first-ballot Hall of Famer.
For Bledsoe, lightning struck twice. In 2006, after six games as starter for the Dallas Cowboys, the team benched him for his mediocre play (seven TDS to eight INTs). Bledsoe was replaced by another relative unknown — undrafted Eastern Illinois star Tony Romo. Bledsoe never again played in the NFL and retired in April 2007.