Top 10 Times a Backup NFL Quarterback Stole the Show

By Dan Vasta in NFL
| November 8, 2021 1:10 pm PST

The NFL is always about the next man up when injuries occur. The sport of football is barbaric. Thus, we will often have depleted rosters.

There have been hundreds of quarterbacks that have come out of nowhere to start. Looking at both the regular season and the postseason, we have seen performances from no-name passers.

Here are the top 10 times a backup quarterback stole the show in the history of the NFL.

Who Just Missed the Cut?

Several signal-callers stole the show and became stars in the NFL. Many had to wait to have a shot. Whether it was from injury or poor performances, backup quarterbacks are often needed.

Steve Bono

Bono was a career backup for three Hall of Fames legends. Brett Favre, Steve Young, and Joe Montana all saw Bono behind them on the depth chart. There were few sensational performances in seasons that Bono was unlikely to start.

Montana and Young were dinged up periodically with the 49ers. It was Week 15 of the 1991 season, and it was against the Saints. Bono was spinning the magic bean. Bono threw for a whopping 347 yards and three touchdowns in the 38-24 victory.

Doug Flutie

It was in 1998 where we saw Flutie fill in admirably for Doug Johnson. There were ten games that Flutie started in the season. However, the Week 6 matchup against the Colts in 1996 was his best performance.

Johnson started and was hurt right away. Flutie came in and threw for 213 yards and two scores. He dominated for the rest of the season and took the Bills to the postseason.

Jake Delhomme

The Panthers made it to the Super Bowl in 2003 thanks to the arm of Delhomme. It all started with an appearance in Week 2 at quarterback, replacing an injured Rodney Peete.

He ended up with three passing touchdowns in relief in a narrow victory over the Jaguars and it was the start of a magical season.

The overall numbers were not of the caliber of an MVP. However, he made up for it in the postseason. That 2003 Super Bowl loss to the Patriots was a showdown.

The Panther passer ended up with 323 yards and three touchdowns in the 32-29 loss. The career with Carolina would continue through the 2009 season, which wasn’t too shabby for a player that went undrafted out of Louisiana.

10. Earl Morrall

The undefeated season for Miami was not in large part due to Bob Griese. Griese was injured early in the season after Miami started 5-0. Earl Morrall would win nine straight to finish 14-0 entering the postseason.

Miami would eventually win the Super Bowl, but it would be without Morrall at the start. Griese came back for the Super Bowl victory over Washington.

Morrall deserves a ton of love for being able to dominate and not miss a beat. When he went to take snaps under center, the Dolphins continued their winning ways.

He may not have had any specific game where he posted video game numbers, but being the quarterback to lead a team to an undefeated season is remarkable.

We may never see a team run the table in a season or come close to New England going 18-1 in 2007.

9. Don Strock

Strock started the four-plus hour marathon that was a thrilling finish. The starter was David Woodley, but Strock went off as the replacement.

The Dolphins fell short in overtime, 40-37. The backup quarterback was Strock, and he had one of the better moments even in defeat, throwing for 403 yards with four touchdowns.

The opposition had Hall of Fame legends Dan Fouts and Kellen Winslow. Yet, it was Strock and the Dolphins that almost ended up dethroning them.

It was one of the better postseason games in NFL history, and a backup quarterback nearly led the way.

8. Doug Williams

At 32 years old, Williams had a sensational postseason in 1988. He stole the show in Super Bowl XXII against Denver.

It was complete domination as Williams threw for 340 yards and four passing scores. Becoming the first black quarterback in the Super Bowl, Williams was named the Super Bowl MVP.

7. Jeff Hostetler

Jot down another stud backup that saw success in the postseason. The Giants were fortunate to have a capable backup for Phil Simms. Simms was on the shelf for the postseason and in the final two weeks of the regular season.

Hostetler didn’t have to take over most games due to an elite defense and a strong rushing attack. However, that all changed against the Bills in Super Bowl XXV.

The Giants backup was vital for their Super Bowl victory over Buffalo thanks to 222 yards passing and a score in a defensive slugfest.

Yards were a challenge to get, and Buffalo seemed destined to win it all. The Bills were touchdown favorites and were in their first of eventual four straight Super Bowl appearances.

Buffalo had their best shot to win the Super Bowl as a favorite. They let the opportunity slip as the favorite and would be an underdog the next three seasons. It was all thrown out the door.

Thanks to the steady play of Hosterler, the Giants stunned the Bills with a game-manager that stole the show.

6. Jim Plunkett

Dan Pastorini started the first five games before an injury forced him to miss the rest of the season. That opened the door for Jim Plunkett to become the MVP of Super Bowl XV over the Eagles.

Philadelphia was favored to win the championship with Ron Jaworski under center, but Plunkett was flawless for Tom Flores and the Raiders.

Plunkett started 11 games during the regular season, which prepared him for the moment.

Plunkett won the MVP, thanks to throwing for 261 yards and three touchdowns. He would win a second Super Bowl a few years later, but coming off the bench during the 1980 season was when he stole the show in the NFL.

5. Frank Reich

One of the better moments in NFL postseason history was when the Bills squared off with the Oilers in an absolute shootout. Buffalo led 35-3 early in the third quarter, making the game competitive seemed impossible.

The Buffalo backup had a few historic drives that brought them back in the game. He connected with Andre Reed for three touchdowns.

Two were in the third quarter that cut the deficit from 25 points down to 4. The third score was the charm as the Bills took the lead towards the end of regulation.

The Oilers tied the game up at 38 apiece and forced overtime. Kicker Steve Christie then hit the game-winner in overtime.

The kick made it the most thrilling and successful comeback in NFL postseason history. Reich ended his day with 289 yards passing and four touchdown passes.

The Buffalo backup only started two games before the magical Wild Card comeback. They ended up going to Super Bowl XXVII before losing to Dallas (52-17).

Reich would only go on and start 15 more games in his career, going 1-14. Still, the magical Wild Card performance was one of the best and it will live on in NFL history.

4. Matt Flynn

Green Bay has some of the best Hall of Fame quarterbacks during the existence of their franchise. Bart Starr, Brett Favre, and Aaron Rodgers have all won Super Bowls.

Winning regular-season games and making postseason berths seem like a walk in the park is what makes Green Bay such a successful franchise. However, they have had a few quarterbacks that flew under the radar over the years.

Some were remarkable performances which have been forgotten, and others live on in Packer immortality. Green Bay’s Matt Flynn had the opportunity of starting in the 2011-12 season finale.

It was Week 17 against the Detroit Lions. Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford threw for 520 yards and five touchdowns and lost at Lambeau Field.

The performance was insane to comprehend since it was the first NFL game in which both signal-callers ended up with 400-plus yards and five touchdowns.

Many NFL signal-callers will get some rest to end the season before the postseason, so Aaron Rodgers ended up giving way to Flynn against the 10-5 Detroit Lions. The Lions had a playoff game the following week, but Flynn played with no pressure.

Green Bay had a bye week as the top record in football. The performance was absurd, and it led to a nice payday shortly after.

  • 480 yards
  • 6 passing touchdowns
  • 31-of-44, 70.4% completion percentage
  • Received a 3-year deal from Seattle following the offseason for $19 million

3. Nick Foles

Winning a Super Bowl often trump most performances, even if they are impressive. To have a backup quarterback knock off Tom Brady in the Super Bowl seems like a fairytale ending to a season.

Foles and Brady tore the house down in Super Bowl LII for a combined 878 yards and six touchdowns. The Philadelphia backup won the MVP and upset TB12 in the biggest stage of them all.

2. Tom Brady

Most passers that win their first Super Bowl end up failing to win another. Brady won his first Super Bowl in a stunning upset. None of the accolades would have happened had it not been for an injury to Drew Bledsoe. Imagine having a backup to the caliber of Brady these days?

The Patriots were two-touchdown underdogs to the top offense in the NFL. Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, and Torry Holt were ‘’The Greatest Show on Turf.’’

Somebody forgot to tell Brady because he was on another level that postseason. Many were unsure if they would even knock off the Raiders in the Divisional Round.

The postseason had some thrilling finishes. It was an overtime thriller that saw Brady throw for over 300 yards in a monumental victory.

Many called it the Tuck Rule, and others called it the Snow Bowl. However, there was a better moment that season.

While the stats were impressive in the snowstorm over the Raiders, winning the Super Bowl was the best moment for Brady and the Patriots. It was the first of an eventual six championships that the franchise won with TB12 under center.

Most of the titles won were down to the final kick that Adam Vinatieri knocked through the goalposts. Brady led them down the field after the Rams miraculously came back from a two-touchdown deficit. The poise, accuracy, and ability to play his best when the team needed him most were surreal at the time.

Brady was only 24 years old when he won his first Super Bowl, but it was one where he no longer had to compete for the starting quarterback position as a backup.

1. Kurt Warner

The best story of a former backup quarterback in the NFL was and may forever be Kurt Warner. They even made a movie about his career, and the 1999-00 season was one for the record books.

Warner took over for an injured Trent Green, who was out for the season. He suffered a devastating knee injury in the preseason.

Many believe the Rams would only win a few games after the injury. Warner had prior experience in the Arena Football League with the Iowa Barnstormers.

Dick Vermeil turned to Warner, and the rest was history. The weapons around him put together fantastic seasons, and they were remarkable to watch every Sunday.

  • Marshall Faulk: 253 carries for 1,381 yards with 87 receptions for 1,048 yards and 12 total touchdowns
  • Isaac Bruce: 77 receptions for 1,165 yards and 12 touchdowns
  • Kurt Warner: 4,353 yards passing and 41 passing touchdowns

Warner won the MVP, and the Rams ended up 13-3 while capturing the top seed in the NFC. Throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce under two minutes in regulation was one of the better moments in Super Bowl history.

The Titans got the ball back and came up one yard shy of giving us a potential overtime thriller. Warner won the Lombardi Trophy, and it was the start of a Pro Football Hall of Fame career.

Summary

There are dozens of other backups that have had their moments in spot starts, and many flourished and made a career out of it.

Many players on the list put together an individual performance in one game. Others shined for the entirety of the season without an actual single moment.

The top passer in NFL history nearly went undrafted and received his opportunity thanks to an injury to Drew Bledsoe.

These were your best moments for backup quarterbacks in the NFL that stole the show, often under the brightest of lights.

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