Of the eight remaining teams in the NFL playoffs, two may start what technically could be called “backup quarterbacks”. Sunday the Cowboys will start rookie Dak Prescott, who has started all 16 of their games, but went in to the season expecting to play behind Tony Romo. Even after Romo missed half the season with a back injury, there was reason to believe Prescott wasn’t fully secure as the starter. That thought has long passed. And Saturday night, no matter who coach Bill O’Brien decides to start at New England, could be considered a backup. Last Saturday Brock Osweiler quarterbacked Houston to their Wild Card victory over the Raiders and their not ready for prime time, third string rookie Connor Cook. However, Osweiler was really the Texans’ backup, having lost his job to Tom Savage late in the regular season before Savage suffered a concussion. If Savage starts Saturday night, is he the starter or the backup?
It probably won’t matter much, since Houston is a 14.5 point underdog against the Patriots and the Patron Saint of backup quarterbacks – Tom Brady. You recall he famously replaced the injured Drew Bledsoe 15 years ago and never gave the job back, winning four Super Bowls along the way. Brady is still the best in the business and a win quarterbacked by either Osweiler or Savage would go down as one of the great playoff upsets in history.
There are two quarterbacks who are the gold standard for backup success. In 1990, Jeff Hostetler replaced the injured Phil Simms in the 14th game of the season and went on to the Giants to a win over Buffalo for the title. And let’s not forget Kurt Warner and “The Greatest Show on Turf”. Remember Trent Green was supposed to be the Rams starter in 1999, but went down with a torn ACL in the preseason. Warner was really the Rams backup as they beat Tennessee in the Super Bowl.
The Super Bowl era supplies other interesting backup quarterback stories. The late Earl Morrall plays a prominent role in three of them. The first goes back to 1968 when he backed up Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas in Baltimore. Unitas went down early in the season and Morrall didn’t miss a beat, taking the Colts to the Super Bowl III in Miami, where they were 18 point favorites to beat Joe Namath and the Jets. As much credit as Namath gets for that upset, Morrall had a really bad game. Coach Don Shula nearly had Unitas, who was healthy by then, start the second half. But because Morrall had been so good that season – he was the MVP of the league – Shula stuck by him. Unitas got in the game to produce the Colts only touchdown, but it was too little, too late in the 16-7 loss.
Two seasons later, Shula was in Miami and the script was flipped. Unitas led the Colts to Super Bowl V against Dallas, but he went down early in the game with broken ribs, it was Morrall who quarterbacked the victory topped off by Jim O’Brien’s field goal at the gun. By April of 1972, Morrall was thought to be over the hill and placed on waivers by Baltimore. Shula spent the $100 to claim Morrall for the Dolphins, figuring he’d be a solid backup to young Bob Griese.
It might have been the best hundred bucks the Dolphins ever spent. In the fifth game of the year, Griese went down with a broken ankle. And of course ‘ol flattop haircut Morrall was ready. He won that game to get the Dolphins to 5-0 and started and won the last nine games of the year to get Miami to 14-0. Morrall started and won the first playoff game against Cleveland, but struggled in the AFC championship game against Pittsburgh. Unlike four seasons earlier, Shula wasn’t going to wait until it was too late this time. Griese was healthy enough to play by then and Shula went right to him. Griese won the game and his job back. He went the distance in the Super Bowl VII victory over the Redskins to finish 17-0. Forty five years later, it remains the only perfect season in NFL history.
And that brings us to a story that Sonny Jurgensen likes to tell. Late in his coaching career, Shula used his name in the Miami area to open a steakhouse. It was called “The Undefeated” in honor of that 17-0 team. They got that 17th victory over the Skins with a very sound defensive strategy. The Dolphins bottled up Larry Brown, who had led the league in rushing and dared quarterback Billy Kilmer to beat them with his arm. He couldn’t do it. The Redskins only score of the game came on Garo Yepremien’s botched throw off of a blocked field goal attempt.
Though Kilmer was a starter for most of his eight years with the Redskins, he was brought to Washington to back up Jurgensen. In fact, the first trade George Allen made after coming to D.C. in 1971 was to send linebacker Tom Roussel and a pair of draft picks to the Saints for Kilmer. It instantly proved to be a great pickup when Jurgensen hurt his shoulder in the preseason and Kilmer wound up leading the team to the playoffs for the first time in a quarter of a century.
Kilmer was the starter going into the following season, but Jurgensen was back in for the third game of the year. And Sonny had them humming, racking up wins over the Eagles, Cardinals and Cowboys before a devastating injury against the Giants in New York. As he threw his first pass of the game, Jurgensen stepped in a hole in the Yankee Stadium turf and tore his Achillies’ tendon and was out for the year. So technically, even though Kilmer began the season as the starter, he was really the backup when he replaced Jurgensen in the Giants game. Kilmer was good enough to get the Redskins to the Super Bowl, but not good enough to win it.
Which brings us back to Sonny dining at “The Undefeated” about 15 years ago. He looked at all the photos on the wall of that ’72 Dolphin team. Some of the pictures were from the Super Bowl victory over the Redskins. Sonny took a puff of his trademark cigar and said, “You know if I’d have been healthy, you wouldn’t see all these pictures on the wall.”
That’s one of those great “what if?” stories.
Now as the Divisional playoffs begin, though Prescott is a rookie and a backup just five months ago, he’s got the controls of the favorite from the NFC. The AFC favorite? Patron Saint Tom Brady’s Patriots. And in the names of Hostetler, Morrall, Warner and Kilmer, wouldn’t that make for a great Super Bowl story line?