Backup quarterbacks — most of the following are passers who didn’t start their team’s season openers — have been counterintuitively successful in the biggest game of the season. Since the beginning of the Super Bowl era, these replacement passers are 7-3 in NFL championship games. In fact, the last six teams to start a backup in the Super Bowl have all hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.
In some cases, these Super Bowl performances are the launchpad for Hall of Fame careers, like with Roger Staubach, Kurt Warner, and even Foles’ Super Bowl 52 opponent, Tom Brady. In others, a team strong enough to overcome a lackluster performance behind center was enough to bulldoze its way to a title, like with Trent Dilfer’s 2000 Ravens or Jeff Hostetler’s 1991 Giants.
Here’s how each and every backup quarterback has fared when given a shot under the NFL’s brightest lights.
Earl Morrall, Colts: lost Super Bowl III
Morrall was an overlooked backup pressed into the starting lineup due to a preseason injury to Johnny Unitas. He exceeded expectations to win a league MVP award. But his breakout season ended in heartbreak, thanks to a showdown against a cocksure Jets quarterback named Joe Namath.
Craig Morton, Cowboys: lost Super Bowl V
Morton started 11 games for Dallas in 1970, but sat out the first game of the season as he recovered from shoulder surgery. That makes him a borderline inclusion on the list, but since he missed the opener, he counts. Morton completed less than 50 percent of his passes, but threw for nearly nine yards per pass. His three-interception performance in the Super Bowl allowed the Colts, led by journeyman Morrall, to win their first NFL title.
Roger Staubach, Cowboys: won Super Bowl VI
The Heisman winner took over for Morton early in the 1971 season and started every game of the perfect playoff push. He teamed with Hall of Famers Lance Alworth, Bob Hayes, and Mike Ditka to deliver Dallas’ first Super Bowl title and prove he deserved his spot as the starting quarterback.
Vince Ferragamo, Rams: lost Super Bowl XIV
Ferragamo’s first start came after Pat Haden suffered a broken pinky. The third-year passer went 4-1 as a starter in the regular season despite completing less than 50 percent of his passes and throwing 10 picks to five touchdowns. Even so, a well-rounded team parlayed a run to the Super Bowl, where the Steelers’ budding dynasty awaited. The Rams led through three quarters, but couldn’t hold back an ascendant Pittsburgh.
Jim Plunkett, Raiders: won Super Bowl XV
Another Heisman winner, he was a bust with the Patriots after being selected with the first pick of the 1971 NFL draft, once leading the league in INTs, but his performance under coach John Madden earned him Comeback Player of the Year honors. The journeyman replaced another middling veteran after Dan Pastorini broke his leg, then showed off a knack for big plays to cement his status. Plunkett’s revival shook off a 2-3 start while building the Raiders’ reputation as one of the 1980s’ toughest teams.
Doug Williams, Washington: won Super Bowl XXII
Williams had started 67 games over five seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but was relegated to backup status after escaping Hugh Culverhouse and spending two years in the USFL. He appeared in one game in 1986 and was 0-2 as a starter during 1987’s strike-affected regular season, but shined in a history-making Super Bowl. Williams dismantled the Broncos to the tune of 340 passing yards and four touchdowns, all as the first black quarterback to ever start a Super Bowl.
Jeff Hostetler, Giants: won Super Bowl XXV
Hostetler had only started four games in five seasons leading up to 1991, but the league’s top-rated defense made sure he didn’t have to do much in Phil Simms’ absence. The mustachioed backup threw for only 510 yards across three playoff games as the Giants held their opponents to fewer than 12 points per game. Hostetler avoided mistakes (zero career playoff interceptions) and did just enough with his feet against the Bills.
Trent Dilfer, Ravens: won Super Bowl XXXV
Like Hostetler, all Dilfer had to do was avoid mistakes. Ray Lewis’ Ravens were 2000’s scariest team, punishing opponents with the league’s top defense. Dilfer, filling in for an injured Tony Banks, had just a 12:11 TD:INT ratio in the regular season, but did enough in the playoffs to win a ring.
Kurt Warner, Rams: won Super Bowl XXXIV
Warner was an Arena Football lottery ticket primed to serve as Trent Green’s backup for a shaky St. Louis team in 1999. When Green tore his ACL in the preseason, Warner was elevated to starter, where he went 13-3 during the regular season and took home MVP honors.
Tom Brady, Patriots: won Super Bowl XXXVI
The Patriots were 0-2 and without face of the franchise Drew Bledsoe after the veteran quarterback suffered internal bleeding due to a massive sideline hit from Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. Enter Brady, who thrived with a short-range passing attack before growing into a confident starter. Brady led New England to one of the biggest upsets in NFL history, pushing his 14-point-underdog Pats to their first title by defeating Warner’s “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams.
Nick Foles, Eagles: won Super Bowl LII
It looked like the Eagles were done when Carson Wentz’s MVP season was cut short by a torn ACL. But Foles stepped in and didn’t just do enough to get his team wins. He dismantled the Vikings’ No. 1 defense to advance to the Super Bowl. He rose to the occasion on the NFL’s biggest stage and took down the Patriots dynasty with a 41-33 win.