By Lance Rinker
Think fast. How many Super Bowl championships have been won on the arm of a back-up quarterback? Yeah, not many.
It wasn’t until the 1971 season where we saw the first No. 2 quarterback lead his team to a Super Bowl victory. That was none other than National Football League Hall of Famer and Dallas Cowboys legend Roger Staubach, of course. Granted, it was just the sixth official Super Bowl of the NFL era, but still impressive nonetheless.
Today, it would be difficult to imagine a back-up quarterback helping lead a team to a Super Bowl victory. For one, the position just isn’t very deep. There are perhaps eight quarterbacks in the league right now who you could consider truly elite and would feel 100 percent confident in being the difference maker in a Super Bowl.
After the top tier of elitists, the ones who carry an entire franchise on their backs, you’ve got about 10 others who could get you there, but not on their own. Then just about every starting quarterback left could be considered replaceable by a high draft pick at the position or potentially replaceable by a journeyman or young back-up quarterback with a ceiling previously unreached.
Enough of me waxing and waning on the lack of depth at the most important position in the NFL. Let’s dive into the seven back-up quarterbacks in NFL history who didn’t earn or weren’t given the starting job in the preseason and managed to help their team win a Super Bowl.
Apologies to Kurt Warner and the start of the Greatest Show on Turf in 1999. Warner took over for an injured Trent Green during the preseason and was the starter to begin the regular season, so he just misses the cut.
ROGER STAUBACH, 1971
One of the greatest quarterbacks in Dallas Cowboys history wasn’t even the starter during the Cowboys Super Bowl championship run in 1971. He played second fiddle to Craig Morton, who wasn’t necessarily a great quarterback but because he could take a beating and continuously get back up he was considered pretty solid at the time.
Morton was the Cowboys’ starter for the first three weeks of the 1971 season, but after stumbling against their division rival Washington Redskins in Week 3, Staubach was given his opportunity in Week 4. Staubach made the most of it and guided the Cowboys to a 24-3 victory over the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI.
TERRY BRADSHAW, 1974
It’s crazy to think Terry Bradshaw is revered as one of the greatest quarterbacks to don a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform, and is a Hall of Famer, even though his play at the quarterback position was up and down and mostly uninspiring throughout the bulk of his career.
Nevertheless, Bradshaw rode the bench in favor of Joe Gilliam for the Steelers’ first six games of the 1974 season after being unable to hold the starting job through the first four years of his career. Once he got his first start in Week 7, however, he went on to help the Steelers win Super Bowl IX which happened to be the first of four Steelers titles in the next six years with Bradshaw as the starter.
JIM PLUNKETT, 1980
Jim Plunkett had a marvelous college career that includes being a Heisman Trophy winner, though that success didn’t translate to the NFL all that consistently. Plunkett replaced Dan Pastorini in Week 6 of the 1980 season when the Oakland Raiders were 2-3. Once Plunkett took over, he led the Raiders to a 9-2 record to close out the regular season. The magic didn’t stop there as Plunkett went on to earn Super Bowl MVP honors in a 27-10 thumping of the Philadelphia Eagles.
DOUG WIILLIAMS, 1987
Doug Williams is well-regarded in NFL history for helping change the landscape of the game as far as black quarterbacks were concerned. He proved a big, mobile body of a man could win in the NFL under center and the fact he did it while being black at a position largely regarded (at the time) for white men made it even more remarkable.
Williams only started two games during the 1987 season, losing them both. However, Joe Gibbs believed in him enough to start him in the playoffs over Jay Schroeder and Williams’ play elevated the Redskins to a championship in Super Bowl XXII.
JEFF HOSTETLER, 1990
In what is likely one of the more impressive playoff runs, Jeff Hostetler and the New York Giants managed to knock off the wildly-favored Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV (though everyone was knocking off the Bills at the time). Even more impressive then his showing during the ‘big’ game, Hostetler managed to overcome the great Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers in the National Football Conference championship game after Phil Simms broke his foot.
TRENT DILFER, 2000
The one Super Bowl-winning quarterback who gets the most flack for having a Super Bowl ring is Trent Dilfer. Before Alex Smith earned the moniker ‘Captain Check Down,’ there was Dilfer proving to the entire world a quarterback could guide a team to a championship by playing conservatively, not making boneheaded decisions, and simply taking the path of least resistance on his team’s way to a score of some kind.
Dilfer replaced Tony Banks in the Baltimore Ravens huddle in Week 9 of the 2000 season. After losing his first game he went on to rattle off 11-straight victories behind one of the most dominant defenses in NFL history. He also managed to lead the 34-7 drubbing of the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
TOM BRADY, 2001
Tom Brady’s legend began once Drew Bledsoe went down in Week 2 of the 2001 season. That was the only opening Brady needed to prove an undersized quarterback from an underwhelming college program at the time could do great things. Brady and the New England Patriots went on to upset the St. Louis Rams, lead a dynasty, star in multiple commercials, marry a super model or five, and ultimately become the face of the NFL.