Quarterback injuries annually force teams to make adjustments. Teams’ second options under center have made considerable impacts on several occasions throughout NFL history. Here are the best seasons submitted by backup quarterbacks.
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25. Erik Kramer, 1991
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Rodney Peete’s October 1991 Achilles tear opened the door for Kramer, a CFL veteran who had joined the Lions a year prior. Kramer remains the only QB to lead a Lions playoff victory since 1957. The former undrafted free agent quarterbacked the Lions to six straight wins to close the regular season, giving Detroit the NFC Central title. While Barry Sanders factored in prominently in that run and did deliver this epic scamper in the Lions’ playoff win, the Cowboys largely contained him in that divisional-round game. Kramer’s 341-yard, three-TD performance piloting Detroit’s Silver Stretch offense spurred a 38-6 demolition.
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24. Tony Romo, 2006
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Romo began his fourth Cowboys season as a backup, but the second-most famous Drew Bledsoe benching sequence began another lengthy QB1 run in October 2006. Five years after Tom Brady took over for an injured Bledsoe, Romo replaced a healthy version — in the veteran’s final season. Romo injected some life into the Cowboys’ last Parcells season, leading the NFL with 8.6 yards per attempt and helping Dallas return to the playoffs. A Pro Bowler despite starting just 10 games, the former Eastern Illinois UDFA kept the gig until 2016. Though, Romo’s first starter season ended with his infamous botched field goal hold in Seattle.
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23. James Harris, 1974
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The Rams received a spellbinding offer for their original 1974 starter, John Hadl, in October. They unloaded him to the Packers. That trade burned Green Bay, but Los Angeles kept its ship going behind Hadl’s backup. Harris led the NFC in passer rating (85.1), earned Pro Bowl acclaim, and helped the Rams to their first title game of any sort since 1955. Harris led a double-digit comeback over the Vikings in the regular season, and although a Minnesota goal-line stand gave the hosts a Super Bowl IX berth in the teams’ rematch, Harris — the first Black QB to start a playoff game — more than justified GM Don Klosterman’s decision to unload Hadl.
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22. Jeff Hostetler, 1990
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Phil Simms’ backup of six years, Hostetler finally received his chance when the longtime Giants starter suffered a foot injury in Week 15. While these Giants were a ground- and defense-based force, Hostetler delivered quality game-managerial work in his five starts to cement the team’s second Super Bowl victory. The mustachioed fill-in eclipsed 200 passing yards in just one start (Super Bowl XXV), but he led a Giants upset of the 49ers — derailing the NFL’s best three-peat attempt — and guided a two-score Giants comeback against the Bills. Hostetler’s late-season effort led to a two-year QB controversy with Simms.
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21. Stan Humphries, 1992
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Bobby Ross went with 34-year-old Bob Gagliano to start his first season as Chargers head coach but pivoted to the team’s late-summer trade acquisition soon after. Humphries’ effort led to his becoming by far the most notable Bolts QB between Dan Fouts and Drew Brees. Humphries lost his first three starts but lifted San Diego to a 12-1 record over the team’s next 13 games. This included a wild-card shutout over a Chiefs team that notched a regular-season sweep. The former Washington backup’s 3,356 passing yards ranked fifth that season, one that propelled him to a six-year stay as the team’s starter.
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20. Nick Foles, 2013
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Four years before his career-defining winter, Foles ensured Chip Kelly’s NFL career began with a bright spot. The second-year passer did not replace an injured Michael Vick until Week 5, but he ended the season with a staggering 27-2 TD-INT ratio. Seven of those tosses came in a record-tying performance against the Raiders — a blowout during which Foles was removed early — but the Arizona alum produced throughout an Eagles NFC East-winning season. Due partially to Kelly’s accelerated offense, Foles was only working with a 29th-ranked defense. He went toe-to-toe with Drew Brees in a narrow wild-card loss as well.
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19. Earl Morrall, 1972
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Four years after his 1968 MVP season, Morrall contributed to the NFL’s lone perfect slate. The Dolphins claimed Morrall on waivers in April 1972, reuniting him with ex-Colts HC Don Shula, who dissuaded the 38-year-old passer from retiring. Morrall became necessary that season when Bob Griese suffered a broken right leg and dislocated ankle in Week 5. Though equipped with an elite run game and defense, Morrall led Miami to nine wins to close out a 14-0 regular season. The 17th-year QB also piloted a game-winning drive to lift the Dolphins over the Browns in the divisional round, before giving way to Griese in the AFC title game.
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18. Brett Favre, 1992
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The future superstar began his first Packers season as Don Majkowski’s backup. Three seasons before, “The Magic Man” had guided the Packers to a 10-6 season — their first double-digit win campaign since 1972 — and finished behind only Joe Montana in MVP voting (a landslide, but still). Favre’s forced entrance, due to a Week 3 Majkowski ankle injury, should probably be the modern Wally Pipp reference. Favre began his Lou Gehrig routine with a Pro Bowl season (3,227 yards, 18 TD passes) that left the Pack just shy of the playoffs. The one-year Falcons flameout made every Packers QB start for the next 15 years.
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17. Trent Dilfer, 2000
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Certainly more caretaker than field general, Dilfer nevertheless awakened a Baltimore offense that had gone touchdown-less in Tony Banks’ final four starts. Brian Billick’s midseason replacement, who had signed with the Ravens after a 1999 midseason injury ended his Buccaneers run, did enough to let the storied Baltimore defense dominate. Dilfer (eight regular-season starts) did not notch a 200-yard passing game in the playoffs, but he threw just one interception. That provided more than enough cover for the Ravens’ defense, which benefited from this piece of game-managerial history.
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16. Jim Harbaugh, 1995
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After his Bears release, Harbaugh became the Colts’ 1994 starter. But 1995 free agency add Craig Erickson began the next year as Indianapolis’ QB1. Harbaugh taking over in Week 3 changed the franchise’s fortunes and set the table for the team’s only AFC championship appearance between 1971 and 2003. The future fiery HC earned a “Captain Comeback” moniker, leading the Colts on four game-winning drives and topping the NFL in passer rating (100.4). Indy needed all those drives to sneak into the playoffs, but Harbaugh’s team upset the Chargers and Chiefs — without help from injured Marshall Faulk — and nearly spoiled the Steelers’ Super Bowl bid.
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15. Doug Flutie, 1998
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The 1998 Bills are one of just five non-strike-year teams to start 0-3 and make the playoffs. Flutie, 12 years after hindering a Bears Super Bowl run, saved a swiftly sinking Buffalo season. Replacing Rob Johnson in Week 5, Flutie recaptured his form as an American QB icon — 14 years after his Heisman campaign. The CFL legend, at 36, led the Bills to a 10-6 record. Delivering as a passer and runner, the 5-foot-9 QB — in a stretch peaking with his game-winning bootleg against the playoff-bound Jaguars — re-established himself as an NFL passer. His 360-yard effort in a wild-card game in Miami proved insufficient, however.
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14. Ryan Tannehill, 2019
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Yes, Tannehill benefited from Derrick Henry’s first rushing title. But Marcus Mariota had the same luxury. By Week 6, the Titans were 2-4. The former Dolphins first-rounder/injury risk has not looked back since taking over as Tennessee’s triggerman. Tannehill completed 70% of his passes, and his 9.6 yards per attempt remains a top-10 all-time figure. Helping put A.J. Brown on the map quickly, Tannehill finished his first Titans year with a 22-6 TD-INT ratio and — thanks to a large Henry assist in Foxborough and Baltimore — the team in its first AFC title game since 2002.
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13. Chad Pennington, 2002
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Replacing Vinny Testaverde early in 2002, Pennington made Herm Edwards’ “You play to win the game” offering a seminal NFL mantra. The Jets eased the 2000 first-rounder into their starting role, giving Testaverde two full seasons before turning to the Marshall alum. Pennington guided Gang Green out of a 1-3 hole. By season’s end, Pennington had outdueled the likes of Tom Brady, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning to power a rejuvenated Jets outfit to the divisional round. That year’s completion percentage leader, at 69%, finished with a 22-6 TD-INT ratio. Pennington led the Jets to two more playoff brackets in the 2000s.
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12. Dave Krieg, 1983
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Behind rookie sensation Curt Warner, the Seahawks made a surprise run to the AFC championship game. But the team made a midseason quarterback switch to help ignite the surge as well. Chuck Knox benched Jim Zorn for Krieg, a former UDFA out of Division III Milton College. Seattle’s Warner-Krieg-Steve Largent offense powered the franchise to its first playoff berth. Krieg finished fourth in passer rating and second in yards per attempt (8.8) in his first go-round as the Seahawks’ starter. After a three-TD wild-card game against Denver, Krieg led Seattle to a divisional-round comeback in an upset in Miami.
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11. Nick Foles, 2017
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Foles’ presence represented why the Eagles were home underdogs in both their NFC playoff games. It also changed a franchise’s big-stage fortunes. Losers of four NFC title games from 2001-08 and losers of both Super Bowls they had played, the Eagles saw a backup force Bill Belichick’s defense to bend and break. Carson Wentz’s December ACL tear summoned Foles, who sliced up the Giants in Week 15 but struggled in the weeks that followed. Foles was masterful in an NFC championship rout of Minnesota, and he etched his name on the QB2 Mt. Rushmore by flaming the Patriots for 373 yards and three TDs (and scoring another via the “Philly Special.”
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10. Doug Williams, 1987
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Williams’ comeback came close to occurring in Los Angeles, rather than Washington. Joe Gibbs backed out of an August 1987 trade with the Raiders, one that would have brought mid-round compensation, to keep Williams as Jay Schroeder’s backup. Williams eventually rewarded Gibbs’ decision. Replacing Schroeder on multiple occasions, Williams led Washington to a Week 1 comeback win over the Eagles but also lost both his regular-season starts. Given the keys for good in Week 16, Williams powered Washington to Super Bowl XXII. His 340-yard, four-TD performance against Denver remains a defining NFL big-stage outing. Schroeder was a Raider by 1988.
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9. Tobin Rote, 1957
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Rote is responsible for leading teams to NFL and AFL championships, forming a one-man QB club here. The first part of that dual accomplishment came in his first Lions season when Bobby Layne suffered a broken ankle in Week 11. Because the Lions and 49ers each finished 8-4, a Western Conference playoff commenced. San Francisco’s 20-point third-quarter lead vanished, with Rote leading a 31-27 win. He then made a late entry into the Lions-Browns rivalry, throwing for 280 yards and four touchdowns to give Detroit a 59-14 win to give Detroit a 3-1 edge in the teams’ four 1950s title games.
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8. Case Keenum, 2017
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Keenum’s 2017 will likely be a one-hit-wonder, but this season lifted the Vikings to heights they have not hit with Kirk Cousins. After Sam Bradford’s injury trouble resurfaced that September, Keenum — on a one-year, $2 million contract after ceding his Rams job to Jared Goff in 2016 — drove the Vikes to 11 wins and the NFC’s No. 2 seed. Mike Zimmer’s consistent defense helped the journeyman, but Keenum (3,547 yards, 22-7 TD-INT ratio) led the league in quarterback DVOA. A Saints defensive miscue raised the profile of this season, yes, but Keenum still went back and forth with Drew Brees in a divisional-round classic.
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7. Tom Brady, 2001
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Placing Brady’s debut is difficult. The defense-fueled Patriots did not ask Drew Bledsoe’s backup to do too much, and the team benefited from the controversial “Tuck Rule” to steal a playoff victory. Bledsoe also guided the Pats past the Steelers in the AFC title game, after Brady went down. And, Spygate. But the 2000 Pats went 5-11. The ’01 edition went 14-3 in Brady’s regular-season and playoff starts, and the future NFL icon was not exactly targeting an elite skill-position corps. Brady’s final drive in Super Bowl XXXVI — to take down a heavily favored Rams team — signaled a defining American sports turning point.
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6. Joe Kapp, 1969
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After holding off trade acquisition Gary Cuozzo in 1968, Kapp began the next season behind the younger passer. But Bud Grant reversed course in Week 2, putting the former CFL star back under center. The Vikings voyaged to their first Super Bowl, and Kapp finished the year as the NFL’s MVP runner-up behind Rams QB Roman Gabriel. Kapp finished with a 19-13 TD-INT ratio, a split much better for the era than such a pairing would look today and provided key rushing contributions in two playoff wins — over the Rams and Browns. While the Chiefs Hall of Famer-laden defense stalled the Vikes, Kapp enjoyed his best season in 1969.
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5. Dak Prescott, 2016
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Tony Romo’s preseason back injury ended one Cowboys backup’s feel-good story and began another’s. Prescott making Mississippi State briefly relevant did not lead to draft buzz, with the Cowboys snagging him in Round 4 — during a draft in which Jerry Jones lamented missing out on Paxton Lynch. Dak did walk into favorable circumstances: a dominant offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott alongside him. But the Cowboys went 13-2 with their starters. Prescott, leading four game-winning drives, was a big part of that. The dual-threat QB’s Offensive Rookie of the Year season, which involved a shootout with Aaron Rodgers, may now be a bit underrated.
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4. Jim Plunkett, 1980
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The oft-hit Dan Pastorini, in his first weeks as Oakland’s starter, sustained a fractured tibia and cartilage damage. This brought in Plunkett, a former No. 1 overall pick who spent the previous two seasons as Ken Stabler’s backup. This season marked a Plunkett pivot point, with the Raiders returning to the playoffs for the first time in three years. While Browns kicking issues helped the Raiders survive a frigid Cleveland contest, they became the first wild-card Super Bowl champion under Plunkett, who totaled 522 passing yards and five TDs in the AFC title game and Super Bowl XV.
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3. Colin Kaepernick, 2012
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Kaepernick’s starter intro offers a decent sample size (seven regular-season starts) and postseason glory. Jim Harbaugh kept the intriguing talent in the 49ers’ lineup after Alex Smith, who ended his shortened season with a 70% completion rate, returned from a midseason concussion. That choice proved correct, and Kaepernick pushed the 49ers to the cusp of a sixth title. After a four-TD showing in a Foxborough win, Kaepernick mowed down the Packers via 444 total yards and four TDs in a Round 2 masterpiece. He then led a 17-point NFC championship comeback in Atlanta. A controversial fourth-down pass interference no-call stopped Kaepernick’s Super Bowl XLVII rally from completion.
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2. Randall Cunningham, 1998
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Despite Cunningham leading the Vikings to a 1997 wild-card win, he was back on the bench behind Brad Johnson the next year. Johnson’s Week 2 broken leg opened the door for a stunning salvo from his recently unretired backup. Cunningham capitalized on Randy Moss’ otherworldly NFL introduction, while doing plenty to enable the Hall of Famer’s dynamic entrance, and threw 34 TD passes. Cunningham, Moss, Cris Carter, and Robert Smith torched defenses, en route to the Vikings setting a single-season scoring record. This marked the ex-Eagle scrambler’s defining aerial season, and although it ended with a Falcons upset, the ’98 slate added a key chapter to Cunningham’s career.
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1. Kurt Warner, 1999
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Outfitted with a similarly potent cast, Warner one-upped Cunningham a year later. But the out-of-nowhere Rams success story laps just about everything for NFL shock value. Although Warner started 16 games, the Arena League import spent the offseason preparing to be Trent Green’s backup. Rodney Harrison’s low hit on Green in the preseason brought in Warner, who threw 41 TD passes on his way to runaway MVP acclaim. He added eight more TD tosses in the playoffs, with the Rams silencing skeptics about a friendly schedule. This Super Bowl run became the defining stretch for Hall of Famers Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, and likely Hall of Famer Torry Holt. Warner enabled it.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.