Backup quarterbacks have always played a key role in the NFL, but it seems the plethora of quarterback injuries this season has made them even more prominent than ever before.
Historically speaking, Earl Morrall was the starting quarterback for the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins in nine games in place of Bob Griese. Morrall was also the starting quarterback for the Baltimore Colts in the 1970 season when they defeated the Cowboys in Super Bowl V.
When the Giants won Super Bowl XXV over the Buffalo Bills following the 1990 season, Jeff Hostetler was the starting quarterback for Bill Parcells’ team and not the injured Phil Simms.
Those are among the most famous cases where the backup quarterback had hugely successful runs or won the Super Bowl. Other backup quarterbacks who won the Super Bowl include Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins in 1987, Kurt Warner of the St. Louis Rams in 1999, Trent Dilfer of the Baltimore Ravens in 2000, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots in 2001 and Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2017.
Eleven backup quarterbacks have ascended to starting positions this season because of injuries or coaching decisions in 2023. It started in Week 1 when Aaron Rodgers went down with an Achilles injury, and it has continued all the way through Week 13 when Jacksonville quarterback Trevor Lawrence suffered a painful ankle injury and had to be replaced by C.J. Beathard.
In this piece, ClutchPoints spoke to one former NFL head coach and one AFC executive who provided analysis in our rankings of the backup quarterbacks who are scheduled to play in Week 14. There are clearly two tiers among the backups.
Top-tier NFL backups
- Gardner Minshew, Indianapolis — 213 of 339 for 2,284 yards with 10-7 TD-interception ratio, 5-3 record as starter. Accurate and creative passer who will take what the defense gives him and then add to that as the game moves along with some outstanding throws on challenging plays. Not overly athletic, but he senses the pass rush and knows where his receivers are going.
- Jake Browning, Cincinnati — 59 of 78 for 649 yards with 3-1 TD-interception ratio, 1-1 record as a starter. Sensational effort on Monday night and did not look like a backup quarterback. Excellent growth from first start to second against a very good defense. Reads defenses extremely well and seems to play in a relaxed manner when others feel pressure.
- Joe Flacco, Cleveland — 23 of 44 for 254 yards with 2-1 TD-interception ratio, 0-1 record as a starter. Just one start this year, but this is Flacco's 16th NFL season and his experience is a powerful asset. There's nothing he hasn't seen before, and his ability to get the ball downfield is his greatest strength. Will throw the ball into coverage, but he understands how to come through in the 4th quarter.
- Jameis Winston, New Orleans — 25 of 47 for 264 yards with 2-3 TD-interception ratio. Played in five games for the Saints this season, but none as a starter going into Week 14. Strong, athletic and solid know-how, but does seem to get worked up when the game is on the line. Will try to force the ball into coverage, and this is one part of his game that has not changed very much throughout his 9-year career.
- Josh Dobbs, Minnesota — 85 of 128 for 832 yards with 5-5 TD-interception ratio with Vikings. 1-2 record as starter. Made eight previous starts with Arizona before being acquired by Vikings at trade deadline. Tremendously opportunistic as he did not have time to learn much of the playbook, but he led the Vikings to two victories (one coming off the bench, early in the first quarter). Reckless with some of his decision-making, but fully motivated to do anything it takes to help his team win.
Second-tier NFL backups
- C.J. Beathard, Jacksonville – Led team to tying field goal after Trevor Lawrence injury but must prove that he can handle a full-game assignment if Lawrence is ruled out.
- Aidan O'Connell, Las Vegas – Rookie quarterback who has demonstrated a willingness to throw the ball downfield and hang in the pocket but does not have full understanding of how to run the offense at this point.
- Mitch Trubisky, Pittsburgh – Athletic and strong, but very inconsistent when it comes to reading defenses and delivering the ball accurately. Runs very well, but it is difficult to see him coming through in the fourth quarter of a close game.
- Tommy DeVito, New York Giants – Giants had a solid backup in Tyrod Taylor, but forced to go with third-stringer DeVito. Courageous and tough but limited in his overall passing skills.
- Bailey Zappe, New England – Brutal situation in New England as the offense has very limited talent, and major changes appear to be on their way. Zappe flashed some ability last year, but not in his only start this season.
- Trevor Siemian, New York Jets – The Jets' season has been disastrous without Rodgers. Zach Wilson and Tim Boyle were not the answers, and neither is Siemian. It appears Wilson is back to starting anyway, but who knows how long the leash will be.
DeMeco Ryans makes his case for NFL Coach of the Year
The two biggest aspects of the Houston Texans' remarkable season have been the play of rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud and the coaching of DeMeco Ryans.
Ryans was one of the hottest coaching candidates during the offseason because he had been the architect of the 49ers' top-ranked defense and a winner of the Assistant Coach of the Year Award.
In addition to his coaching credentials, he had been an excellent player for the Texans, and he has demonstrated leadership at every phase of his career. He certainly had more magnetism than predecessors David Culley and Lovie Smith.
But there’s more to Ryans than just his past achievements and his intangibles. He excels at diagnosing an opponent’s offensive strength and coming up with a winning game plan.
In the Week 13 win over the streaking Denver Broncos, he came up with the perfect plan to prevent Russell Wilson from making big plays over the top of the Houston defense. The Texans intercepted Wilson three times, two by Derek Stingley Jr.
Stingley was able to read Wilson and dive into the play to get his interceptions. Ryans came up with the strategy that would frustrate Wilson and his players made it successful
Ryans has done this every week, and he has the inside track on the Coach of the Year Award.
This and that
— The Chiefs have not fixed their offense. They have not exceeded the 400-yard mark in five straight games. The offense looked ordinary against the Green Bay Packers, and Patrick Mahomes is the 11th-ranked quarterback in passer rating with a mark of 95.1.
Mahomes has not suddenly lost it, and neither has head coach Andy Reid. The problem may well be offensive coordinator Matt Nagy. If the Chiefs are going to make a run at defending their Super Bowl title, Reid needs to regain control of the offense or the season will end in disappointment for Kansas City.
— The Lions are still in first place in the NFC North, but their defense could become their undoing. They have given up 38, 26, 29 and 28 points in the last four games. If the Eagles and 49ers finish in the top two seeds, the Lions will likely finish in the No. 3 spot. That might give an opportunity for the No. 6 seed to upset them in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs.
The Lions rank 21st in yards allowed, but they have fallen steadily as the season has progressed. Their defense appears to be disintegrating on a weekly basis.