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Who is the Best Backup Quarterback Ever?

That's a pretty good backup.

That's a pretty good backup.

Determining the best backup quarterback ever is really complicated. Steve Young and Aaron Rodgers backed up Joe Montana and Brett Favre, respectively, but neither Young nor Rodgers morally feel like they belong in the discussion of best backup quarterbacks.

There are a couple of ways to measure how a backup quarterback fares. One way is on a game-by-game approach: i.e., the starter gets injured or pulled, and now the backup is in charge. That’s the sort of thing Frank Reich, at least anecdotally, excelled at.1 The more interesting, and easier question to analyze, is to take a season-by-season approach. If a quarterback does not start his team’s season opener, he’s a backup. If he does, he’s not.

Using that concept, the name that immediately jumps to mind is Earl Morrall.  After all, he led two teams to Super Bowls during seasons that began with him on the bench. But what do the numbers say?

Ironically, my proposed definition excludes what is undoubtedly the greatest season in backup quarterback history: Kurt Warner in 1999. That season may have been a top-three season in quarterback history, but it began with Warner second on the depth chart to Trent Green. When Rodney Harrison ended Green’s season in the preseason, Warner become the starter, which would exclude his ’99 season from this analysis.

And, uh, ironically again, Morrall’s best season is excluded, too.  His top year was in 1968 when he won the NFL MVP, but since Johnny Unitas was injured in the preseason, Morrall isn’t labeled a backup by this formula, either. But I do think that the Warner and Morrall examples are rare enough that we can proceed with minimal concern.

Nick Foles had a backup season for the ages in 2013, although it’s too early in his career to see if he’ll fall within the definition of “backup quarterback.” Most of the best seasons by a backup came from the hands of longtime starting quarterbacks: Randall Cunningham in 1998 with the Vikings, Vinny Testaverde in 1998 with the Jets, Chad Pennington in 2002 with the Jets, Boomer Esiason with the ’85 Bengals, Craig Morton for the ’70 Cowboys when Roger Staubach was the starter, and then Staubach in ’71 when Morton was the starter (remember, this was during the brief era when Tom Landry was a little crazy).

Morton in particular presents some issues. In 1969 and 1970 he was excellent, but he gets labeled a backup because Staubach started week 1 in both seasons. I tend to think of him as a starter (or co-starter with Staubach), but if you don’t, those two seasons are enough to put him in the running for title of Best Backup Ever. Morton was also solid off the bench in 19 starts for Denver in ’79 and ’80, and very good as a starter in ’77, ’78, and ’81.

So how did I go about running a query to determine the best backup ever?

  • 1) Record the week one starter in every season since 1960. The only manual override was in 1968, when I made Unitas the starter. This is stacking the deck for Morrall, I realize.
  • 2) Calculate the league average Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt for each season.
  • 3) Give each quarterback credit in each season using the following formula: (ANY/A – 0.75*League_Avg_ANY/A) * (Pass Attempts + Sacks). This is essentially giving quarterbacks credit for their value over replacement.
  • 4) To compile career grades, only give quarterbacks credit for their performances in seasons in which they were not the week one starter. Call this the Rich Gannon adjustment.
  • 5) To qualify, a quarterback must not have been the week one starter in at least half of his seasons. This is the Kurt Warner/Ben Roethlisberger adjustment.2

By this method, Morrall does in fact come out as the top backup ever.  Here’s how to read the table below: Morrall first played in 1956 and last in 1976, and played in 17 seasons since 1960 (that’s the first year we have data on quarterback starts).  In only four of those seasons did he begin the season as the starter, which leaves 13 seasons since 1960 where he began as the backup.  That means he began the season as the starter just 23.5% of the time.  For his career, he produced 4,930 yards of value over replacement but that includes all 17 seasons.  As a backup, he produced 3,903 yards of value over replacement, and that’s the most ever (the “Backup Val” is the metric by which the table is sorted).  Finally, he had 1,458 dropbacks in seasons as a backup.  As always, the table below is fully searchable and sortable, and it displays the top 50 backup quarterbacks since 1960 by this method.3

RkQuarterbackFirstLastSeaSea StSea BuSt %Car ValBackup ValBu Db
1Earl Morrall195619761741323.5%493039031458
2Craig Morton196519821981142.1%656934661882
3Doug Flutie198620051221016.7%388025241208
4Gus Frerotte199420081551033.3%427122621715
5Mike Tomczak198519991541126.7%280921971636
6Neil O'Donnell19912003136746.2%551320921228
7Bill Munson196419791651131.3%25431658950
8Vince Ferragamo1977198693633.3%17671640845
9Jacky Lee19601969112918.2%12131610526
10Rich Gannon19872004167943.8%834415681594
11Tony Banks1996200593633.3%206413861310
12Matt Cassel2005201393633.3%253713661411
13Jim McMahon19821996157846.7%41801345909
14Marc Wilson19801990101910%137013302017
15Shaun Hill2005201261516.7%14191306845
16John Friesz1990200093633.3%15981258695
17Steve Bono198519991421214.3%22411210776
18Greg Landry19681984157846.7%264612071393
19Bob Lee19691979111109.1%5971179620
20Jeff Kemp198119919090%10161016984
21Mark Rypien19882001115645.5%56681014643
22Jeff Hostetler19851997104640%40221012979
23Steve Walsh19891999101910%78910091276
24Billy Joe Tolliver19891999100100%9999991832
25Jeff Blake19922005136746.2%4627997818
26James Harris19691979103730%1815991676
27Frank Reich19851998121118.3%844942904
28Matt Moore2007201361516.7%683937674
29Josh McCown2002201382625%1007923806
30Ed Hargett196919713030%920920459
31Don Strock19741988141137.1%1205918672
32Sage Rosenfels200220087070%905905581
33Brian Griese19982008115645.5%40568981012
34Eddie LeBaron1952196341325%794895505
35Vince Evans19771995141137.1%6208391049
36Damon Huard1998200871614.3%971836672
37Jim Miller1995200262433.3%1198812729
38Tony Eason1983199093633.3%2197801808
39Gary Danielson19761988104640%2991800915
40Seneca Wallace200520138080%782782847
41Derek Anderson2006201262433.3%916773863
42Billy Volek200120108080%769769610
43Don Majkowski19871996102820%18417651375
44Don Trull196419697070%752752684
45Charlie Batch19982012123925%20727331029
46Wade Wilson198119981761135.3%3043732885
47David Garrard2002201094544.4%3912732580
48Jamie Martin199620068080%729729577
49Tim Rattay2000200782625%881697308
50Chad Henne2008201362433.3%11866971366
  • By this method, Morrall does come out on top, which seems appropriate. The deck was stacked a bit by including his 1968 season, but one could argue that Morton’s 1970 season shouldn’t really be included because it’s a Backup In Name Only type of year. Morton also spent more time as a starter than Morrall, so depending on how you want to define a backup, he arguably wouldn’t qualify.
  • Speaking of quarterback name association, I don’t think I speak out of turn when I say that people see “Gus Frerotte” and think “concrete headbutt!” But that’s a shame: Frerotte was a pretty good quarterback, and one of the best backups ever. He made the Pro Bowl in 1996, but that season doesn’t get included since he started 16 games. No, Frerotte makes it to #4 on the basis of four good seasons as a backup with four different teams.
    • In 1995, Heath Shuler was still the starter in D.C., but Frerotte wound up starting 11 games and posted a league average ANY/A.  He led the NFL in yards per completion (Norv!), with a 34-year-old Henry Ellard as his top target.  Ellard, of course, was a Turner favorite.
    • In 1999, Frerotte was in Detroit, and Charlie Batch was the starter to begin the year.  Frerotte started six games but was above-average in ANY/A  on 316 dropbacks. The bad news? Frerotte went a combined 5-12 as a starter in ’96 and ’99.
    • In 2000, Frerotte was in Denver backing up Brian Griese. This was the weird year where Griese led the league in passer rating but was limited to ten starts.  Frerotte went 4-2 as a starter and posted well-above average ANY/A numbers, although they were still inferior to Griese’s.
    • In 2003, Frerotte started just two games in lieu of Daunte Culpepper. But what he did in those games! Frerotte went 16/21 with 267 yards and 4 touchdowns in a win over the 49ers in week 4, and 14/24 for 239 yards with 2 touchdowns in a 39-26 victory in Atlanta the following week.  He replaced Culpepper in a game against Detroit in week 3, and threw the game-clinching touchdown that week, a 72-yard pass to Kelly Campbell.
  • Only one quarterback produced over 1,000 yards of value above replacement in two seasons in which he began as a backup: Kurt Warner in 1999 and 2007.
  • Another quarterback who had some strong backup performances for multiple teams was Mike Tomczak. In 1988, he added 474 yards of value over replacement for the Bears when Jim McMahon was injured. Four years later in Cleveland, Bernie Kosar began the season as the starter but Tomczak was the much better passes. And four years after that, in Pittsburgh, he stole the job from Jim Miller

What quarterbacks stand out to you? How would you go about defining the best backup quarterback ever?

  1. Post for another day (or another author): Which quarterbacks were the best off the bench? []
  2. Roethlisberger began the 2004, 2006, and 2010 seasons on the bench, but wound up having magnificent years in ’04 and ’10, in particular. []
  3. Note: I removed Nick Foles and Colin Kaepernick from the table, who would otherwise make it, but I’m not in a trolling mood today. []
  • Kibbles

    Before reading the article, I made my guess that Frerotte would come out as the best backup ever. I was pretty close!

    In my mind, a “backup” is a guy who is going to give the job back when the starter is healthy. Kurt Warner ceased being a “backup” pretty quickly- he won the job and was clearly the starter. It’d be hard to create an objective way to measure that, though.

    Another measure of backup quality (and the reason I guessed Frerotte) is simply longevity. Measuring performance over average is going to be biased towards guys who backed up injury-prone starters. Gary Kubiak didn’t get many chances to show his stuff- he had 5 starts and fewer than 300 career pass attempts- but the mere fact that Denver kept him around for 9 years was a tribute to his quality as a backup. Likewise, you don’t last 15 years in the NFL like Gus Frerotte unless you’re pretty damn good.

  • Dean

    My concern is that this only shows production. If a starter never gets hurt, we never know how good the backup may or may not be. Ed Luther could be the greatest backup of all time, but because Dan Fouts was pretty durable, we’ll never know.

    Problem is, there’s no way to really measure something like that.

  • RustyHilgerReborn

    I know you can’t count his excellent ’95 season with Chicago, but what about Erik Kramer? He either preserved or salvaged playoff runs for Detroit in ’91 and ’93 when replacing Rodney Peete (injured in ’91, ineffective in ’93). I think if injury problems hadn’t derailed his career, he could have done a lot of good things in Chicago.

  • I feel like Hostetler deserves a special shout-out for winning the Super Bowl as a true backup. He came in during the loss to the Bills that dropped the Giants to 11-3. His numbers weren’t amazing, but he was pretty good in the playoffs that year. He made a couple of great throws on the drive to set up Matt Bahr’s kick that beat the Niners.

    I’m kind of surprised Doug Williams doesn’t show up here, too. I think Jay Schroeder was the starter week 1. He got hurt early and then Williams replaced him. And it looks like he was better in ’87 as a backup than he was as a starter for most of his career (94 rating). Maybe not enough throws as the backup. Two playoff games before the SB not great (one against the Bears, though), but the SB obviously was great.

    • JeremyDe

      Schroeder started 10 of the 12 non-strike games that year (missing weeks 2 & 10). He got injured in Week 1 and Williams came in for the win. Williams started Week 2, played decently but lost. The strike happened and when it ended, Schroeder was back again. In Week 9, Schroeder was injured again, and again, Williams came in for the win. In week 10, he got the start and win. Schroeder was back in for Week 11. In Week 15 (last game due to strike), the offense was playing poorly and they yanked Schroeder at halftime in a 7-7 tie for Williams. Williams came in for the overtime win and was picked to start the playoff game in chicago the following week.

  • “This was the weird year where Griese led the league in passer rating but was limited to ten starts.”

    What was weird about that? The fact that Griese was 23 points higher in ANY/A+ than in any other year of his career? The fact that he had a separated shoulder late in the year and Frerotte played okay in his stead? The fact that it was secret how he injured his shoulder? The fact that the team owner once claimed that he actually injured Griese’s shoulder by beating him up? The rumor that Griese injured his shoulder falling down the stairs in his house drunk? The rumor that he injured his shoulder slipping on a beer can in his house? The rumor that his shoulder got injured when Trevor Pryce beat the crap out of him for sleeping with Pryce’s wife/girlfriend (I do not actually remember which)?

    Yeah, that was really weird. And I still wonder if Griese would have been a good QB if that shoulder injury never happened–he looked like one before that but really never looked the same after.

    The first QBs I thought of for best backups were Morrall, Flutie, Frerotte, and Shaun Hill, so my first thoughts were actually pretty good! Morton feels like more starter than backup to me, so I would say not only that Morrall is the best backup ever but that it’s not even very close.

  • Kendall Hanson

    Too bad the stats don’t go back past 1960 for your purposes. I suspect Eddie LeBaron would rank quite a bit higher if they did. Very much a Fran Tarkenton/Doug Flutie precursor.

  • Chris Devereaux

    Ahhhhhh there’s one huge name missing from this list I’ll give you a hint 2001 season

    • Bryan Frye

      I don’t think 14 games of slightly above average play (102 ANY/A+) is going to rate someone very high by this methodology.

  • Howard1952

    Morton was not really the backup in 1969 and 1970. He took over for Don Meredith after the 1968 season. Meredith retired at an early age. Staubach was a rookie in 1969. He did not really play until his break out year of 1971.

    Morton also had good seasons with NYG and Denver, in particular. He led the Broncos to the Super Bowl in 1977. He has an MVP season. He was really a true back up from 1965-1968, behind Meredith. And for a season or two behind Staybach.

  • Lee Clark

    George Blanda came off the bench and rallied the Raiders to more wins than anyone. The real value of a “backup” is to come in during a game and turn things around . . . but I guess everyone’s definition of “backup” is subjective.

  • David Marolda

    Don Strock only at 31?