They say that the most popular player on an NFL roster is the backup quarterback. When the starter shows any signs of struggling, fans start to clamor for whoever is riding the bench in hopes of giving the team a shot in the arm and helping them get a few more wins. While there is a reason that a backup is the backup in most cases, there have been some times where the starter and backup were right on par with each other.
Because of that, a lot of quarterback controversies have been created over the long history of the NFL. When a coach is forced with a big decision on who to appoint as the starting quarterback, it becomes a media circus that nobody on the coaching staff wants to be involved with.
Some teams seem to have more quarterback controversies than some, while some franchises have been lucky enough to have to pick between two Hall of Fame caliber signal callers. People take sides when there’s a huge quarterback controversy, but which ones had people on both sides being the most vocal? Here are the 15 most memorable quarterback controversies in NFL history.
15 Tommy Kramer and Wade Wilson
The Vikings were set at quarterback for a long time thanks to Fran Tarkenton, but after retiring in 1979, a new quarterback needed to step up. Tommy Kramer was selected to be that man, and held the starting job for much of the 1980’s. In 1987, however, Kramer was forced to split time with Wade Wilson, and the two were able to lead the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game, where they would lose to the Redskins team that was facing their own QB controversy (more on that later). By the next season, Wilson was the starter and Kramer was old news, and neither one would be on the team when 1990 rolled around.
14 Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield
The battle between Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield is still considered to be the original quarterback controversy, and it got a lot of attention. Waterfield had already been a solid quarterback for the Rams when they selected Van Brocklin in the 1949 NFL Draft. The head coach, Clark Shaughnessy, was tasked with trying to select one of the two men to start. Instead of sticking with one player, Van Brocklin and Waterfield would take turns playing quarters. The Rams still had success, as they reached two consecutive NFL Championship Games, winning the second one. Van Brocklin became the fulltime starter after Waterfield retired in 1952.
13 Elvis Grbac and Rich Gannon
Elvis Grbac wasn’t selected until the eighth round of the 1993 NFL Draft out of Michigan, but showed a lot of promise as the backup for Steve Young in San Francisco. Grbac signed with Kansas City in hopes of becoming their starter in 1997, but was injured early into his new stint with the Chiefs. Rich Gannon then came in as the quarterback, and the Chiefs won their next five games to grab the top seed in the AFC. When the playoffs rolled around, Grbac was ready to go, but the Chiefs were upset by Denver in the Divisional Round. The next season, the two would share time before Gannon left for Oakland, where he would become the NFL MVP and lead the Raiders to the Super Bowl in the 2002 season.
12 Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy
This is one of those controversies that still seems to be going on. Robert Griffin III was thought to be the franchise quarterback that the Redskins had been searching for desperately for more than 20 years. In the 2012 NFL Draft, Griffin III was drafted second overall while Kirk Cousins was taken in the fourth round as an insurance policy. Griffin III had a tremendous rookie season, but injuries and inconsistent play started to pile up. Cousins was sporadic in his relief appearances and really struggled in 2014, prompting Jay Gruden to start Colt McCoy. When McCoy upset Dallas on Monday night, it turned into a three way battle. In the offseason, Griffin III was said to be the starter, but Cousins ended up taking the starting job in training camp and has been up and down for the Redskins so far this season.
11 Rob Johnson and Doug Flutie
Doug Flutie was never the greatest NFL quarterback, but fans seemed to love him for his scrappiness and recognizability. After spending nearly a decade in Canada, Flutie returned to the NFL to play for the Buffalo Bills. During the same offseason, the Bills signed Rob Johnson to a massive deal, but he was injured early in the season. Flutie then came in and played well, recording eight wins in 11 starts. The next season, Flutie started the first 15 games, going 10-5 before Johnson played in Week 17 and then the Wild Card round. The result was Buffalo losing to Tennessee in the memorable Music City Miracle. Johnson was named the starter the next year as Flutie was let go, ending the debate.
10 Joe Gilliam and Terry Bradshaw
Terry Bradshaw was the first overall selection by the Steelers in 1970, and would spend his entire career with the team, but still ran into controversy in the middle of his career. In 1974, Bradshaw was struggling for the Steelers, and would be benched in favor of Joe Gilliam. Gilliam played well early in his new starting gig, winning his first two starts. When Gilliam started to struggle and got on the bad side of Chuck Noll, Bradshaw was reinserted as the quarterback and the Steelers would go on to win the Super Bowl.
9 Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo
In the 2014 NFL Draft, the Patriots selected Jimmy Garoppolo out of Eastern Illinois in the second round with hopes of him becoming the eventual successor to Tom Brady. Just four games into the 2014 season, many fans were hoping for the Garoppolo era to begin early. The Patriots started 2-2 and were fresh off of a drubbing on Monday Night Football against the Chiefs, losing 41-14. Many analysts said that Brady was done, but he ended the controversy pretty quick by beating Cincinnati and Buffalo in consecutive weeks by a combined score of 80-39. Needless to say, the Patriots would go on to win the Super Bowl that season.
8 Craig Morton and Roger Staubach
Craig Morton had already been on the Dallas Cowboys when he was selected in the first round in 1965, and then Roger Staubach was brought onto the team in 1969. In 1971, Tom Landry was having a tough time choosing between the two quarterbacks, and actually alternated them between plays. Staubach would win the starting job the next season after winning a playoff game and Morton lost Super Bowl V. Staubach was the starter for good, and stayed that way through the rest of the 1970’s. Morton and Staubach even squared off during Super Bowl XII when Morton was playing for Denver, and Staubach’s Cowboys dominated.
7 Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde
Bernie Kosar was a standout in college at Miami, and was drafted in the Supplemental Draft by the Browns in 1985. Kosar was a fan favorite, and one of the best quarterbacks in their franchise’s last 40 years. Bill Belichick was the head coach of the Browns at the time when Kosar’s skills started to fade, and the two didn’t like each other that much. The Browns then signed former first overall pick, Vinny Testaverde, in 1993. The two would split time that season, but Kosar was released halfway through the season, and Browns fans were incredibly upset. Belichick eventually was dropped as the Browns coach, and became the Patriots head coach in 2000, much to their delight.
6 Jay Schroeder and Doug Williams
After the gruesome injury that ended Joe Theismann’s career, the Redskins had their future quarterback in place with Jay Schroeder. After the Redskins were defeated soundly in the 1986 NFC Championship Game, doubts about Schroeder started to rise, especially with Doug Williams on the bench. Schroeder would end up getting injured in the first week of the 1987 season, and the two quarterbacks would both get playing time throughout the season. When the Redskins made the playoffs, Joe Gibbs selected Doug Williams to carry them through the postseason and they rolled over Denver in Super Bowl XXII as Williams threw for 340 yards and four touchdowns.
5 Tom Brady and Drew Bledsoe
Even bigger than the brief controversy between Brady and Garoppolo was the controversy between Brady and Drew Bledsoe. Bledsoe had a huge contract with the Patriots when he was injured in Week Two of the 2001 NFL Season. Sixth round pick Tom Brady then came in and lit up the league by reaching the Pro Bowl and guiding New England to an 11-3 record as a starter. Bledsoe would only come back in during the AFC Championship Game after a knee injury to Brady. Bledsoe’s win reopened the controversy, but Brady would go on to start in the Super Bowl where the Patriots upset the St. Louis Rams and their high power offense.
4 Phil Simms and Jeff Hostetler
The Giants had snapped their long drought without a Super Bowl victory in 1986 with Phil Simms at the helm, making him a legend in the Big Apple. During the 1990 season, Simms would suffer a foot injury with just a couple of regular season games left. Jeff Hostetler was serving as the backup and came to lead the Giants to another Super Bowl victory. Hostetler and Simms were battling for the starting job the next season, with Hostetler getting the nod. The controversy would continue until the 1993 season when Hostetler was released and signed by the Raiders.
3 Drew Brees and Philip Rivers
Drew Brees was selected in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft by the Chargers, and didn’t exactly take the world by fire, but was still serviceable. The Chargers couldn’t resist themselves in 2004 when Eli Manning and Philip Rivers were available, and they ended up with Rivers after a trade. Brees then played very well after Rivers was drafted as the Chargers went 12-4, and San Diego was forced with a decision...keep the quarterback who was due a huge payday or go with the highly drafted second year player. The Chargers opted to stick with Rivers and Brees would then sign with the New Orleans Saints, where he would win a Super Bowl. The Chargers, however, are still searching for their first Super Bowl victory.
2 Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers
The Packers selected Aaron Rodgers in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft to eventually replace Brett Favre once his career was over. When Favre said he was retiring, the Packers turned their attention to Rodgers. Favre then backed out and said that he wanted to play for Green Bay again, but Rodgers was already named the starter. Not wanting to be a backup, Favre eventually left the franchise and would sign with the New York Jets and had about 47 other retirements and un-retirements.
1 Joe Montana and Steve Young
Steve Young was a legendary quarterback at BYU, but was having trouble getting a chance as a starting quarterback in Tampa Bay. After just two seasons there, Young was sent to the 49ers, where he backed up Joe Montana. Montana had led the 49ers to their best stretch ever, winning four Super Bowls, but the twilight of his career saw a lot of injuries that had Steve Young playing well in mop-up duties. The 49ers were all set to go with Young, who had more prime years ahead of him, sending Joe Montana to the Kansas City Chiefs. There were a lot of angry 49ers fans, but Young would lead them to another Super Bowl victory despite losing to Montana earlier in the regular season.