The Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles are in the thick of the playoff race, but both teams are relying on backup quarterbacks to keep Super Bowl dreams afloat. Not ideal, but not unprecedented. NFL Media's Gil Brandt, Kurt Warner, Brian Billick and Willie McGinest provide four first-person accounts of QB disarray begetting championship celebration.
By Gil Brandt
To understand one of the toughest decisions of Tom Landry's coaching career -- replacing Craig Morton with Roger Staubach in the middle of the 1971 season -- you have to go back 10 months to Super Bowl V. Morton played the entire game while Staubach languished on the bench, believing the whole time he could have helped Dallas beat Baltimore. But the Colts prevailed despite having, in my opinion, an inferior team.
After watching the Cowboys lose Super Bowl V from the sideline, Roger Staubach (left) chafed at the notion of continuing to share the starting quarterback job with Craig Morton.
It was upsetting to Roger that he couldn't get into the game like he had much of the season, alternating with Morton, whose shoulder never was the same after he underwent surgery in February of 1970. On the plane ride home from that Super Bowl in Miami, Roger asked Tom for a trade, but we were not about to part with him. Instead, Landry promised Staubach a fair shot at the job in 1971.
The move to Roger seemed inevitable, but Tom was concerned about how team chemistry would be affected if he were to bench a quarterback who had taken the Cowboys to the Super Bowl the previous season. There were factions on the team -- half the players were in Morton's camp, the other half in Staubach's. Their styles couldn't have been more different, either. Morton was a classic dropback passer; Staubach was a scrambler.
For the first seven weeks of the 1971 season, Landry alternated his quarterbacks -- from game to game, within games, from possession to possession. It clearly wasn't working. A team with nine future Hall of Fame players had fallen to 4-3 after a Week 7 loss at Chicago in which Morton threw three interceptions.
Staubach was named the starter the next week, and Morton saw very limited action in just two games the rest of the season. We didn't lose another game with Staubach as our starter. He was efficiently brilliant. We were blowing out every opponent, and we cruised through the playoffs en route to a 24-3 victory over Miami in Super Bowl VI.
Morton doesn't get enough credit for his role that year. He could have put up a stink and ruined the good thing we had going. But he remained a consummate team player through it all. In fact, he was the first one after the Super Bowl victory to congratulate Tom.
A few years later, I traded Morton to the New York Giants for a couple of draft picks, including a first-rounder we turned into Hall of Fame defensive tackle Randy White. As fate would have it, we met up again with Morton, by then the quarterback for the Denver Broncos, in Super Bowl XII. Our defense dominated and made things very difficult for Morton, who threw four interceptions and was under siege all day. White -- the player we acquired from the trade -- was named co-MVP of the game.
By Kurt Warner
When you're a backup quarterback who gets pressed into service after the starter goes down with an injury, there are two competing emotions at play.
First, when your team has some big expectations and you've got good talent around you, there's a level of nervousness that accompanies the move. You don't want to be the reason they don't accomplish what they have a chance to accomplish; they've got a good thing going, and you don't want to screw it up.
On the other side, most backups want to play -- and want to be the reason why the team wins. They've been preparing hard and waiting for their chance, and when it comes, they want to go out and make the most of it and never look back.
Balancing these two forces -- going in and playing the way you need to play, but not messing up to the point where you cost your team an opportunity -- is the hardest part of coming off the bench to replace an injured quarterback.
When I got my chance in the summer of 1999, after Trent Green went down with a season-ending knee injury in the Rams' third preseason game, I'd waited for that opportunity for a long, long time, and I was going to seize it.
And even though most people had no idea who I was, I had a very strong belief in my ability to shine. I had been one of the best players in Arena football and had gone to two championships; then I went to NFL Europe, and felt I was the best quarterback there. I was extremely confident, probably in part because I was ignorant. I had always been successful, and I didn't know any better.
For Ryan Lindley, who's stepping in this week for the Cardinals, it's a little bit of a different story. There are some parallels, but it's not exactly apples to apples.
First of all, Ryan is a bit more untested, and he's also stepping into a very loaded situation. With me, even though I had an idea of how good we might be in '99, no one on the outside had those expectations. We'd been 4-12 the year before, and if I'd come in and gone 4-12, I'm not sure it would have been blamed on me.
Ryan hasn't played a lot of football, and his team is the No. 1 seed in the NFC right now -- and is about to face the No. 1 defense and defending champs, Seattle, with that seed hanging in the balance. Other than that, there's no pressure.
Kurt Warner led the St. Louis Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV with 414 passing yards -- still a Super Bowl record.
The crappy part of that situation, for Ryan, is that the Cardinals can only go down from here. Getting thrown in against the Seahawks' defense, it's almost unfair. Either you're going to win -- and keep the Cardinals where they're already at -- or you're going to lose, and people will blame it on you. And let's be honest: Who's to say that a healthy Carson Palmer beats Seattle at this point?
He might be thinking, If I slip up at all, I'm gonna be the reason we don't win it all.
On the other hand, he's got the excitement of, This is my opportunity -- and it's my opportunity with a really good team. It's perfect. We've got a great defense, and I don't have to do everything.
It's basically a double-edged sword, and because of how good Arizona is and where we are in the season, it really adds additional pressure to both sides of the equation. And as much as it amps up the excitement, it probably adds even more anxiousness -- and that's concerning, because any time you're nervous it can make you play tighter, when you're desperately trying not to make a mistake.
The challenge for Ryan is to let the confidence outweigh the anxiousness. That's what worked for me in 1999, and it ended up being a Super season.
By Brian Billick
We made the transition from Tony Banks to Trent Dilfer in the middle of a Week 8 loss to the Tennessee Titans during the 2000 season. Banks had thrown three interceptions in that game alone -- and in the previous three games, he'd totaled two picks and zero touchdown passes. Despite boasting a top-five rushing attack that season, we were in the midst of a four-game span in which we scored a grand total of 36 points -- an average of nine points per game, with a high of just 15. Amazingly, we won two of those games!
Without overlooking the fact that we had the best defense in the history of the NFL -- and I will argue that until I'm blue in the face -- I have to say it was just a different era of football then. We didn't have to win shootouts against the likes of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger, who have authored four 50-point games between them just this year. For comparison's sake, we gave up just 23 points total in our four-game postseason run that season and didn't allow an opposing quarterback to throw a single touchdown pass. Long story short: We needed our quarterback to be the prototypical "game manager" -- and I say that in a fully complimentary manner.
Dilfer wasn't a typical backup quarterback, either. Prior to joining our team that season, Trent started 76 games in six years with Tampa Bay.
Still, it wasn't all roses after we made the change. In Dilfer's first start, we scored just six points, and he had two turnovers. But he settled in to throw nine TD strikes against four interceptions over the next four games. And in the playoffs, he had just a single turnover while we outscored our opponents by 72 total points en route to becoming Super Bowl XXXV champions.
By Willie McGinest
The first thing you have to understand about Tom Brady's ascension in 2001 is that he wasn't replacing Drew Bledsoe because of poor performance or a lack of production. It happened because Drew got hurt; he actually got knocked out. Drew was the franchise guy. He had just signed a $100 million contract, and nobody thought he would be injured, or that a recent sixth-round draft pick -- a young kid -- would come in and take his place. Even after Drew first went down in that Week 2 loss to the Jets, nobody thought the change would be permanent. We thought Drew's position as starter was pretty safe.
I would be a fool to sit here and say, "Oh, yeah, I knew Tom was waiting in the wings, and he was going to be Tom Terrific and be so great." I don't think anybody knew. I did know one thing, though: He worked his ass off. He had a great work ethic, studied and was prepared for the opportunity, which is all you can do when you're a backup. He was prepared, and he was ready. And though it took a little time for him to get going -- it's not like we were blowing out teams right away -- he ended up being pretty productive. Of course, we had a really good defense, so there wasn't a ton of pressure on Tom to score a bunch of points. He managed the offense well, took care of the football and gave us opportunities to win games. And that's pretty much all we needed.
After Drew got healthy is when the quarterback controversy kind of started, with the media getting involved. And I think Drew expected to get his position back. Again, he'd just signed a big contract; this was his team; he was the franchise guy. So when the decision was made to stick with Tom, I think Drew was disappointed.
Guys were a little surprised, but at the time, Tom was doing a good job, the team was gaining momentum and playing well, and I don't think Bill Belichick and the staff wanted to mess with that or change it. Everyone in the locker room understood. We were all pros, and we knew Belichick was going to always do what he felt was in the best interest of the organization. That was part of Belichick's message when he addressed the move with the team, and nobody questioned that. He took away the potential distraction immediately. There wasn't any more chatter in our locker room about it.
I was friendly with Drew, as I'm sure he was with everybody. He was the first overall pick for the Patriots in 1993, and I was their first-round pick the year after, and of course I'd played against him when he was at Washington State and I was at USC. Like other guys, I was surprised when Drew didn't get his job back. I think I was numb to it, though, because for me, it was about trying to win games. We couldn't dwell on the change or put much energy into that, because there was so much going on at the time, getting ready for games.
Whenever there's controversy or something that goes on with his team, Belichick nips it in the bud and has a conversation to dispel whatever it is. We always handled things in-house; we didn't let things trickle out of the locker room or meeting room. So after he took away the distraction, why sit around and talk about it?
That didn't mean it wasn't crappy for Drew, who you have to have a lot of respect for. It's one of the toughest things in the world to get your position taken away and have another guy in front of you when you feel like this is your team and you want to be out there. He could have been a knucklehead, but he was a true pro; he handled it right. You could tell Drew wanted to be under center, but still, he helped and supported Tom. He wasn't selfish.
Drew Bledsoe (left) supported Tom Brady as he learned the ropes, and Brady made a point of keeping Bledsoe involved.
That was such a big thing with that team, and why we were so special for so many years. It wasn't about guys being selfish. Everybody wanted to start; everybody wanted to make plays; everybody wanted to be in the game. But guys understood their roles and respected the coach's decision, because the majority of the time, he was right. It was not just about one guy on our team, ever. It was all about team effort.
As for the tenor of the locker room under Tom, it was good. He had all the elements you want your quarterback to have. And he handled the situation well, too. He didn't isolate Drew; he made him feel like he was still a part of things. Tom leaned on Drew for a lot of information and knowledge, because he was still fairly new at starting.
Of course, Drew ended up getting back on the field when Tom hurt his ankle against the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game, and he played pretty well, throwing for 102 yards and tossing a touchdown pass to help us get to the Super Bowl. And I think he was like, "OK, I'm back; I got my spot back." The media was like, "Here they go again; is Drew the quarterback now?" After all, Drew lost his position to Tom in the first place because of injury, so maybe now that Drew played well when Tom was hurt, he'd get his job back. But it didn't happen that way. Belichick stayed with Tom, who went on to win the first of two Super Bowl MVP awards and the first of three Lombardi Trophies, and that was the end of any kind of controversy.
A lot of things made us who we were as a franchise, but that was a big turning point.