The 7 Best Backup Quarterbacks in NFL History

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The role of a backup quarterback involves not only understanding the playbook and offensive schemes but also being mentally and physically prepared to lead the team effectively at any given moment. From Earl Morrall to Nick Foles, there have been tons of great ones who have distanced themselves as the best backup quarterbacks in NFL history. They often spend extensive time studying film, participating in practice sessions, and simulating game situations to ensure they are ready when called upon. A backup quarterback’s readiness and adaptability are critical factors that can influence the outcome of a game or even shape the trajectory of a team’s season, especially if that team is one of the best offenses in the league. Many backups are seen as journeymen, but there are a distinct few who were able to distance themselves as starters. Much like kickers, you typically don’t think about your backup until you have to and it’s hard to win unless you have a good one. Without further ado, let’s dive into the best backup quarterbacks in NFL history. And if you want to learn about the best left handed quarterbacks of all-time, checkout this article.

RELATED: The Most Rushing Yards by a Quarterback in a Single Season

All stats and information taken from Pro-Football Reference.

7. Josh McCown

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(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
  • Teams Played For: Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions, Oakland Raiders, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles
  • Career Stats: 102 Games Played, 60.2% Completion, 17,731 Passing Yards, 98 Touchdowns
  • Years Active: 2002- 2019

McCown was selected in the third round of the 2002 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals. Over his career, he played for nine different NFL franchises, stepping in when they needed him most. While he may not have been a consistent starting quarterback when given the opportunity, McCown was well-regarded for his leadership, professionalism, and mentorship qualities, particularly for younger quarterbacks.

6. Earl Morrall

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(Photo by Ross Lewis/Getty Images)
  • Teams Played For: San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit Lions, New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens, Miami Dolphins
  • Career Stats: 255 Games Played, 51.3% Completion, 20,809 Passing Yards, 161 Touchdowns
  • Years Active: 1956- 1976

Earl Morrall had a lengthy and successful career, serving as both a starter and a backup quarterback for various teams. Morrall played college football at Michigan State University and was selected as the second overall pick in the first round of the 1956 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers. One of the most notable chapters in Morrall's career occurred during the 1972 NFL season when he replaced the injured Miami Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese. Morrall stepped in and played a crucial role in leading the Dolphins to a perfect 17-0 season, culminating in a victory in Super Bowl VII.

5. Frank Reich

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(Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
  • Teams Played For: Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, New York Jets, Detroit Lions
  • Career Stats: 118 Games Played, 54.5% Completion, 6075 Passing Yards, 40 Touchdowns
  • Years Active: 1985- 1999

Reich played in the NFL for 14 seasons from 1985 to 1998. He is perhaps best known for leading the Buffalo Bills to the greatest comeback in NFL history during a playoff game against the Houston Oilers in 1993, famously known as 'The Comeback'. The Houston Oilers dominated the first half, leading 28-3 at halftime. However, led by quarterback Frank Reich who was filling in for the injured Jim Kelly, the Bills mounted an incredible rally, scoring 35 unanswered points in the second half. They tied the game at 38-38 by the end of regulation and kicker Steve Christie booted the game-winning field goal, securing a 41-38 victory for the Bills.

4. Brian Hoyer

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(Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
  • Teams Played For: New England Patriots, Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, Indianapolis Colts, Las Vegas Raiders
  • Career Stats: 79 Games Played, 59.3% Completion, 10,899 Passing Yards, 53 Touchdowns
  • Years Active: 2009- Present

Hoyer entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2009 and has since played for eight teams throughout his still active career. While primarily a backup, Hoyer has had opportunities to start games throughout his career, and he is recognized for his professionalism, football IQ, and ability to step into the lineup when needed. He has provided valuable veteran leadership and mentorship to younger quarterbacks on the teams he has played for.

3. Doug Flutie

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(Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
  • Teams Played For: Chicago Bears, New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills, San Diego Chargers
  • Career Stats: 92 Games Played, 54.7% Completion, 14,715 Passing Yards, 86 Touchdowns
  • Years Active: 1986- 2006

One notable instance of Doug Flutie serving as a backup quarterback in the NFL was during his time with the New England Patriots. Flutie signed with the Patriots in 2005 to be the backup to starting quarterback Tom Brady. While he did not see extensive playing time during the regular season, Flutie had a memorable moment in a game against the Miami Dolphins on January 1, 2006.

In that game, the Patriots were trailing the Dolphins, and head coach Bill Belichick decided to send Doug Flutie onto the field to attempt an extra point kick drop-kick. Flutie successfully executed it, marking the first drop-kick in an NFL game since 1941.

2. Nick Foles

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  • Teams Played For: Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams, Kansas City Chiefs, Jacksonville Jaguars, Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts
  • Career Stats: 71 Games Played, 62.4% Completion, 14,227 Passing Yards, 82 Touchdowns
  • Years Active: 2012- 2022

Foles has played for several NFL teams during his career, including the Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams, Kansas City Chiefs, and Jacksonville Jaguars.

He gained widespread recognition for his role as the Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback during the 2017 NFL season, stepping in for an injured Carson Wentz and leading the Birds on an improbably run through the NFC in the playoffs. In Super Bowl LII in February 2018, Foles led the Eagles to victory over the New England Patriots, earning Super Bowl MVP honors. His performance in that game, including a touchdown reception on a trick play known as the "Philly Special," became legendary in Eagles' history.

1. Tom Brady

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  • Teams Played For: New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • Career Stats: 335 Games Played, 64.3% Completion, 89,214 Passing Yards, 649 Touchdowns
  • Years Active: 2000- 2022

Tom Brady, widely regarded as the greatest quarterback in NFL history, began his professional career as a backup quarterback for the New England Patriots. Brady was selected in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft and served as the backup to veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe during his rookie season.

Brady's opportunity to start came unexpectedly in the 2001 season when Bledsoe suffered a serious injury in a game against the Jets. Tom Brady took over as the starting quarterback and led the Patriots to an impressive run, culminating in victory in Super Bowl XXXVI. This marked the beginning of Brady's remarkable career which began as just a humble backup quarterback.

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