In backups they trust.
The top two teams in today's NFL are led by second-string quarterbacks called on to replace injured starters. At 8-1, the Arizona Cardinals are gunning to become the first host city to actually participate in the Super Bowl in February on the strength of 30-year-old journeyman Drew Stanton, who's playing for his fourth team and now controls his franchise's destiny after starting QB Carson Palmer blew out his knee.
The Eagles, at 7-2, have equally lofty aspirations for their season that ride on the right arm of Mark Sanchez, the embattled former Jets starter who embarrassingly lost his job a year ago for throwing too many picks and fumbling after face-planting his O-lineman's butt. A proven playoff maestro, Sanchez has a chance to prove the New York tabloids wrong and become the latest savior for an impatient Eagles fanbase that was growing tired of starter Nick Foles even before he busted up his collarbone.
The task is tall, but history is piled high with heroic performances by backup quarterbacks. All-time greats like Steve Young, Joe Montana, Aaron Rodgers, and Brett Favre all started their legendary careers as clipboard-carrying benchwarmers. Perhaps the greatest backup of all time, Kurt Warner, went from stocking the shelves at a supermarket to Super Bowl hero.
Then there are guys like Steve Bono, who made a career out of being a backup for MVPs. Ty Detmer served as an understudy for Young and Favre. Don Strock was a longtime backup to Miami Dolphins legends Bob Griese and Dan Marino. Heisman winner Doug Flutie came in for Rob Johnson in 1998, led the Buffalo Bills to the playoffs, and earned himself a trip to the Pro Bowl. And let’s not forget about when Matt Cassel replaced an injured Tom Brady in 2008 and somehow won 11 games for the Patriots.
While they’re stuck on the sidelines, riding the pine, watching the starter get all the reps, all the glory, and all the girls, these are the I-think-I-can moments second-stringers dream of.
1972 — Earl Morrall, Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins are forever in the history books for compiling a perfect 17-0 season in 1972, a feat that may never be broken. While that record will never be overlooked, the man who orchestrated most of that flawless streak was 38-year-old backup Earl Morrall, who came in for the injured Bob Griese in the fifth game of the year and guided the Dolphins to football immortality. Morrall started and won 11 straight spotless games through the AFC Championship, but got the hook for the climactic Super Bowl when head coach Don Shula felt a fully healed Griese gave Miami the best shot to win it all. Without Morrall, though, there is no perfect season.
1979 — Vince Ferragamo, Los Angeles Rams
Before defecting to the Canadian Football League for one season, Vince Ferragamo was a 25-year-old backup for the Rams who had never gotten an NFL start. That all changed when four-year starter Pat Haden broke a finger and Ferragamo got the call. Road wins against the Cowboys and Buccaneers earned the Rams their first Super Bowl trip in franchise history. The Rams lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who captured their fourth title of the decade.
1980 — Jim Plunkett, Oakland Raiders
The legendary Raiders QB came in for injured starter Dan Pastorini in 1979, threw five interceptions in his first action off the bench but collected himself and led the Raiders to the Super Bowl in 1980. Plunkett and the Raiders made history as the first Wild Card team to ever win it all. Throwing for three TDs in the game, he took home Super Bowl MVP honors, one of only four players to win MVP and the Heisman Trophy (Roger Staubach, Marcus Allen, and Desmond Howard are the others).
Proving it was no fluke, Plunkett came off the bench again in 1983 for starter Marc Wilson and got the Los Angeles Raiders back to the Super Bowl, where they beat Washington.
1987 — Doug Williams, Washington Redskins
Journeyman backup Doug Williams was 32 years old and had played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Oklahoma/Arizona Outlaws of the USFL before he landed back in the NFL with Washington to back up starter Jay Schroeder in 1986. He saw limited action relieving Schroeder the following season, getting into five games and starting two, but made enough of an impression that he was chosen by head coach Joe Gibbs to start in the playoffs that season. He delivered, leading the Redskins to a championship over John Elway and the Broncos and was the first black quarterback to play in a Super Bowl. He threw for a then-record 340 yards in the game and was named Super Bowl MVP. He retired two years later.
1990 — Jeff Hostetler, New York Giants
Another longtime backup, Hostetler rode the bench for six years behind Phil Simms before the starter broke his foot in 1990 with the Giants already 11-2 and hopeful of a second championship since 1986. Hostetler didn't disappoint, winning the last two games of the season, a playoff game against the Chicago Bears, a gutty NFC Championship Game against the 49ers, and finally Super Bowl XXV against the Buffalo Bills. Hostetler threw for 222 yards in the title game and had one TD before kicker Scott Norwood went wide right.
1993 — Frank Reich, Buffalo Bills
Reich was drafted by the Bills in the third round of the 1985 NFL Draft and basically brought a seat warmer with him to Buffalo because Jim Kelly was firmly entrenched as the starter. But whenever Kelly got hurt, Reich came in and steadied the ship, leading the Bills to big wins through the late 1980s and into the early 90s. On Jan. 3, 1993, Reich was playing for the injured Kelly in a Wild Card playoff game against the Houston Oilers. By halftime, the Bills trailed 28-3. Early in the third quarter, a Houston pick-six made it 35-3. But behind stout defense and 28 unanswered third-quarter points, Buffalo won the game in overtime. Reich was 21-for-34 for 299 yards and four TDs, three of which were caught by Andre Reed.
Reich, it turns out, had experience doing this. In college, he guided the Maryland Terps all the way back from a 31-0 deficit en route to a 42-40 win against the Miami Hurricanes.
2000 — Trent Dilfer, Baltimore Ravens
Sometimes a backup gets to play not because the starter is injured, but because he stinks. Tony Banks was QB1 for the Ravens in 2000, but after two losses and a month without producing an offensive touchdown, head coach Brian Billick turned to the 28-year-old Dilfer midway through the season. He went on to guide the 12-4 Ravens to a Super Bowl win. In his one championship season in Baltimore, Dilfer threw for 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and passed for 153 yards and a TD in the Super Bowl. He has forever been labeled a game manager for a team with a superior defense, but he did what he had to, came off the bench, and got the job done.
2001 — Tom Brady, New England Patriots
There were 198 other players selected before Tom Brady was tabbed by the New England Patriots in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft. Upon arriving in Foxoboro, he was the team’s fourth-string quarterback. By the next season, Brady was No. 2 on the depth chart when Jets linebacker Mo Lewis blasted starter Drew Bledsoe with enough force to cause internal bleeding and change the course of NFL history. Brady took over and never looked back. He led the Patriots to the first of three Super Bowl titles that season and remains one of the greatest second-string success stories of all time.
2003 — Jake Delhomme, Carolina Panthers
An alum of NFL Europe, Delhomme was a preseason hero for the New Orleans Saints before joining the Carolina Panthers in 2003 as 28-year-old understudy to Rodney Peete. Coming off a 1-15 season, the Panthers trailed the Jacksonville Jaguars 17-0 when head coach John Fox made a switch at quarterback. Delhomme started the second half, threw for three touchdowns, and led the Panthers to a win in the last minute of the game. He remained the starter for the rest of the year, showed tremendous guts in racking up an NFL record eight fourth-quarter comebacks for the season, and got the Cardiac Cats to Super Bowl XXXVIII. Delhomme threw for 323 yards and three touchdowns against the Patriots in that game, but another backup-turned-starter named Tom Brady was writing an even more historic story on the opposite sideline.
1999 — Kurt Warner, St. Louis Rams
There is no better Cinderella story than Kurt Warner’s. He was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Packers in 1994 but was released before the season even started. He supplemented his income working as a supermarket stockboy, toiled in the Arena Football League for the Iowa Barnstormers, went to play in Europe for the Amsterdam Admirals and resurfaced in the NFL as Trent Green’s backup in 1999 with the St. Louis Rams. The 29-year-old Warner was handed the starting job when Green tore up his knee in the preseason and the legend was born. He went on to lead the Rams to a Super Bowl championship and manned one of the best offensive attacks of all-time. For the season, he threw for 41 touchdowns and won the Super Bowl MVP, the first of two NFL MVP awards, and is on the 2015 shortlist for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
2012 — Matt Flynn, Green Bay Packers
On Jan. 1, 2012, the Packers backup got to play for starter Aaron Rodgers, who got the last game of the season off against the Detroit Lions. He made the most of his rare opportunity, throwing for 480 yards and six TDs. Flynn got his name in the record book (Lions starter Matt Stafford threw for 520 yards and five scores, the first time in NFL history both starting QBs eclipsed 400 yards and five TDs in the same game), got the Packers a memorable win, set the franchise marks for yards and TD throws in a game, and the record-setting performance earned him a fat $26 million contract from the Seahawks the following season when he became a free agent.
Will Sanchez or Stanton be the next name added to this list? Stay tuned.