The backup quarterback is a tough job in the NFL. You have to be a good guy and ready to jump in if the starter goes down and even longer if need be. It can be tricky as too many teams make the mistake of putting their hopes on the main starter and not realizing they need a good backup until it’s too late. Notably is that so many times, the backup takes over and ends up doing an even better job than anyone expected to the point that they become a much bigger star than the guy they were replacing. However, many other times, the backup shows why they’re the backup, not nearly as great on the field and the team suffers for it.
It can be tricky as it’s well known how a guy great in college can falter in the pros and thus let his team down. But other cases can be a guy surprising by taking off better than anyone could have dreamed and becoming a starter themselves. Here are 8 backups who proved themselves top starters and 8 who couldn’t live up to that position to show how tricky it is in the NFL.
16 Best: Jim Plunkett
Growing up in poverty in the early years of his life, Plunkett excelled at Stanford, winning the Heisman Trophy and leading the team to a terrific Rose Bowl victory over Ohio State. Despite hopes from the Patriots, Plunkett was slowed by injury and not seeming ready for the NFL, as he was never able to make an impact early on in his career. Traded to the Raiders, he stayed as backup for two seasons before Dan Pastorini broke his leg in 1980. Plunkett took over and proceeded to win nine games that season and then four playoff victories, culminating in a huge win over the Eagles in Super Bowl XV, becoming the first minority player to win MVP honors.
He led the Raiders to another championship three years later and today occupies debate in being in the Hall of Fame due to rough numbers but Plunkett proved himself a winner over all.
15 Worst: Ryan Mallett
Ryan Mallett already got attention for jumping from Michigan to Arkansas to get some good numbers but surprisingly went until the third round of the 2011 draft, snatched by the Patriots. After three seasons as Tom Brady’s backup, Mallett went to the Texans, getting his shot in 2014 and doing a decent job before injuring his pectoral muscle late in the season. However, 2015 was marked by Mallett acting up, losing the starter position to Brian Hoyer and missing practice in an apparent protest against the decision. After a few poor games, Mallett was replaced by Hoyer, including after a bad injury in Week 5.
Mallett’s bad behavior continued, including missing the team flight to Miami and forced to go commercial and was released. While his numbers are decent, his attitude shows Mallett may not have what it takes to be a serious starter in the NFL. He now finds himself back to holding the clipboard behind Joe Flacco in Baltimore.
14 Best: George Blanda
A fascinating story surrounding the early stages of his NFL career, Blanda began playing for the Chicago Bears in 1949 but it wouldn’t be until 1953 that he was named starting QB while also working as a placekicker. He retired in 1958 but returned when the AFL was formed to join the Houston Oilers, mocked as an NFL reject. Blanda shut them up by leading the Oilers to the first two AFL titles, leading the league in touchdown passes and keeping the Oilers in contention, as he was widely considered as one of the best QBs in the league.
He would then move to Oakland, having a fantastic season in both QB and kicker to lead the Raiders to victory and would have a Super Bowl shot as well. Retiring in 1976, he’s ranked as the most seasons (26) in pro football history and no matter which position he played, he excelled as a backup turned starter wonderfully.
13 Worst: Matt Flynn
After four years in the system, Matt Flynn finally got his shot in 2010 as backup to Aaron Rodgers for the Packers, the management thinking his good size would help. He handled himself well against the Patriots with three touchdown passes but an interception sealed a Packers loss. Flynn was the backup when the Packers won the Super Bowl and set single game records in the final game of the 2011 season with 480 yards and six touchdowns. He signed with Seattle but lost the starter job to Russell Wilson and was released, before signing with the Raiders. He got a chance as a starter but a bad loss set him back and he was cut after just six months. His time with the Bills was short and he returned to Green Bay, his time notable for the 2013 game against the Lions where he went 10 for 20, sacked seven times (once for a safety) and the Packers were crushed 40-10.
He bounced back to lead Green Bay in a fantastic comeback win over Dallas later that season but his 2014 campaign was poor and clearly just a placeholder for Rodgers. Since then, short runs with the Jets and Saints produced nothing of note and Flynn, despite showing a few sparks here and there, is just not the guy to be a starter.
12 Best: Earl Morrall
A star at Michigan State, Earl Morrall bounced around the NFL, playing for the 49ers, Steelers and Giants before ending up with the Colts. Morrall assumed he wouldn’t play much as the Colts had Johnny Unitas but when Unitas was injured in the pre-season, Morrall took over and proceeded to lead Baltimore to a fantastic 13-1 record and was named MVP. It ended with the upset loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III with Morrall throwing a key interception. However, he made up for it two years later taking over for the injured Unitas to win Super Bowl V.
Morrall then headed to Miami where he took over for injured Bob Griese to help craft the Dolphins team that had a perfect season. He didn’t play in that Super Bowl but still retired as one of the best guys ever to go from backup to starter multiple times and in fine style.
11 Worst: Bruce Gradkowski
At first, the “Great Gradkowski” looked pretty good, filling in with the Buccaneers after Chris Simms was injured in Week 6 of 2006 and having the best starting debut of a rookie QB that year. However, he was soon tossing interceptions in every game and pulled for alternative options, as he simply was doing his team more harm than good. He came into one game in 2007 but was replaced by Luke McCown. He had a brief run with the Browns before being claimed by the Raiders, and had a few good games but an injury cut any potential short, bringing him to an end with yet another team.
He followed that up as backup to Andy Dalton with the Bengals for a few bad games, and one again failed to do anything of note. Currently with the Steelers, it’s unlikely Bruce is going to get much play time as him being “great” has long passed him by.
10 Best: Kurt Warner
The famed story is Kurt Warner was dropped by the Packers in 1994 and thus was stocking shelves in a supermarket when he decided to give football another try. After time in Arena Football, he was finally signed by the St. Louis Rams as the third-string quarterback, promoted to second string the next year behind Trent Green. When Green went down in the 1999 preseason to a torn ACL, Warner was promoted and soon transformed the Rams into “The Greatest Show on Turf.” Warner is the only man to throw three touchdown passes in his first three games as a starter and breaking the long-standing “curse” of the team with a win over the 49ers.
He led the Rams to a victory in the Super Bowl, becoming MVP in the process and setting a record for most passing yards in a Super Bowl. His play dipped a bit in later years but he had a good resurgence in Arizona, leading the Cardinals to a Super Bowl appearance before finally retiring and becoming easily the greatest undrafted star in NFL history.
9 Worst: Kevin Kolb
Kevin Kolb was drafted in the second round by the Eagles back in 2007 and was dubbed to be the eventual replacement to Donovan McNabb. Kolb eventually got a chance to start some games in 2009 when McNabb suffered some injury problems. He showed enough promise that season for the Eagles to trade Donovan McNabb the following offseason, seemingly paving the way for Kolb to take over.
In his first start of the 2010 season, Kolb suffered a concussion and Michael Vick did well in relief for him, creating an early QB controversy in Philadelphia. Kolb was given the job back when he returned, but failed to hold off a rejuvenated Vick. Eventually Vick beat Kolb out for the starting job and Kolb's career was never the same.
After a failed stint in Arizona, Kolb signed with the Bills back in 2013 but suffered a concussion early in the season. He retired in 2014 due to post-concussion symptoms.
It's a shame Kolb began to experience head problems just when he was given the keys to the starting job back in 2010.
8 Best: Brett Favre
It’s still astounding to realize how the Atlanta Falcons had Favre first but their own coach declared there was no way he would play the guy. After a couple of brief appearances in Atlanta, the future Hall of Famer was traded to Green Bay. Favre was originally the backup to Don Majkowski when in the second game, Majkowski was benched and Favre took over for a hard loss. He improved the next week to take over for a victory and thus began the longest consecutive starts streak in NFL history, 321 games including playoffs. Eight divisional titles, two NFC titles, a Super Bowl MVP and three-time regular season MVP, Favre became one of the best QBs around before injury and age finally took its toll.
He would leave to play for the Jets and the Packers rivals, the Vikings, but ironically would end up leaving the Packers in good hands, as Aaron Rodgers took the reigns in Green Bay.
7 Worst: Chad Henne
Chad Henne was a big time college star, as he was a decorated quarterback and registered 32 wins at the University of Michigan. Henne started in 2008 at Miami as backup to Chad Pennington, but Pennington went down with a shoulder injury in 2009. Henne did his best with some decent numbers but was nothing special as he was taken down to injury himself the following year, finishing with 15 TDs but 19 interceptions. What also hurt him was the talent around him, as he was never equipped with a great offensive line to protect him from opposing defensive lines. He started 2011 okay but a shoulder injury put him out for the rest of the season.
Signed by Jacksonville, Henne took over six games into the season and his work in 2013 only led Jacksonville to a 4-12 finish. Despite that, the Jaguars continue to keep him signed although it doesn’t look like Henne is worth the money at all.
6 Best: Aaron Rodgers
Despite the good job he’d done as backup to Brett Favre, Rodgers still had doubters in his abilities to take over as QB of the Packers. If it wasn't because that he had to follow in the large footsteps of Favre, it was because he wasn't on one of the best teams in college football. Those doubts were silenced as fans soon realized that in many ways, Rodgers was actually Favre’s superior. He’s the NFL’s all-time career leader in passing rating and has thrown the least interceptions for several seasons. Most will agree the only reason Rodgers has only one Super Bowl MVP trophy is because of bad coaching and terrible defense. Rodgers has managed to win games the Packers easily would have lost without him.
Despite only one ring, Rodgers is always in the conversation for best active QB, and that conversation will continue for as long as he suits up in pads. Rodgers is still excelling at the job to make Packers fans ask “Brett Who?” quite a lot.
5 Worst: Mike Phipps
After a polished career while posting good numbers in college during his time at Purdue, Phipps was set up for limited action with the Browns in his first two seasons. In 1972, he was given the chance to be starter and did a decent job, as his 13 touchdowns and 2000 yards helped the Browns reach the playoffs. Unfortunately, Phipps’ five interceptions against the Dolphins ended their dreams early, putting the kibosh on people believing he will be Cleveland’s savior. Over the next few seasons, Phipps led the league in interceptions and after an injury, was sent to the Bears where he tried his best.
When Jim McMahon came along, he was soon waived and out of the NFL altogether, a far fall from grace from what many believed Phipps could become one day. A rough guy already but still not a great choice for a starting QB.
4 Best: Steve Young
For three years, Young backed up Joe Montana on the San Francisco 49ers, not getting much playing time as Montana was always insistent on playing even through injury but holding his own when he did play. He proved himself in 1988 when he subbed for Montana against the Vikings and even showed his skills at rushing. With Montana out in 1991, Young had a tough time at first taking over, starting 4-4 and suffering an injury himself before leading the 49ers to a winning record.
He earned MVP honors the next year before controversy with the owners of the team surfaced, as they wanted Montana to start. While many fans backed the move, others thought Young deserved the shot.
Montana himself eventually decided it was better for the team that he be traded and headed to Kansas City. Despite pressure, Young lived up to the promise by leading the 49ers to another Super Bowl championship and established himself as a fine quarterback even beyond just living in Montana’s shadow.
3 Worst: Matt Cassel
Despite some bumps along the way, Matt Cassel did show some skill for the Patriots when he took over from an injured Tom Brady in 2008 and helped lead the Patriots to an 11-5 record but still missed the playoffs. With Brady returning in 2009 and his trade value at an all-time high, Cassel was traded to the Chiefs. After a tough 2009 season, Cassel and the Chiefs made the playoffs in 2010, but he threw three interceptions in the Chiefs’ loss to the Ravens in the playoffs.
The next few years saw his play dip, missing games by injury and was eventually released by the Chiefs. After a 5-10-1 season with the Vikings and an injury, Cassel had a bad year in Houston before going to Dallas where his attempts to take over from an injured Tony Romo had him going 1-6 for a terrible Cowboys year. He has shown flashes in his career, but Cassel has been unable to get anything going since.
He now finds himself in a backup role with the Tennessee Titans.
2 Best: Tom Brady
The obvious choice. The NFL today might look a lot different if Drew Bledsoe hadn’t gone down to injury in 2001. It still amazes that it took until the sixth round of the previous year’s draft for the Patriots to grab Brady and even then not giving him much playing time. But once installed as the starter, Brady took off into a fantastic QB who led the Patriots to finally claiming that elusive Super Bowl win. He followed that up with a solid decade of some of the most spectacular numbers imaginable, leading the Patriots to five more Super Bowls, three of them victories and each championship was backed by Brady.
Despite the controversy over things like “Deflategate,” Brady has proven himself to be the absolute greatest example of a one-time backup who went on to a Hall of Fame career and he has established himself as one of the greatest ever.
1 Worst: Jimmy Clausen
Three times Jimmy Clausen has gotten his chance to take over from a bigger star and blown it each time. That he slipped down to the 2nd round of the 2010 draft should have been a warning sign as the Panthers pushed him with Matt Moore injured in the third week of the 2010 season. Clausen’s first start had him going 16 for 33 with an interception and two fumbles and Steve Smith yelling at him on the sidelines. Over three starts, he was sacked 33 times and fumbled nine times before being benched.
The Panthers ended up finishing 2-14. Ironically, this gave Carolina the chance to draft Cam Newton as Clausen was pushed down the depth chart.
Signed by the Bears, Clausen took over when Jay Cutler was injured in 2014, losing the game and suffering a concussion before being released. The following year, Clausen was sent in by the Baltimore Ravens to take over from Matt Schaub (who was already filling in for Joe Flacco) and lost with two interceptions. Despite talent, Clausen has proven he doesn’t have what it takes to even be a reliable backup, let alone a starter.