A History of Backup Quarterbacks in the NFL Playoffs

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GREEN BAY, WI - AUGUST 18: Connor Cook #8 of the Oakland Raiders jogs off the field after throwing an interception in the fourth quarter of a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on August 18, 2016 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Connor Cook

The 2016 NFL postseason will be largely defined by quarterbacks who began the year as backups. Connor Cook, Matt Moore, and Dak Prescott will attempt to become part of a rare group of quarterbacks to lead their team to a Super Bowl after replacing an injured starter.

A History of Backup Quarterbacks in the NFL Playoffs

There are just three instances NFL history of a quarterback replacing an injured starter and leading his team to a Super Bowl victory. The first instance came in 1990, when Giants quarterback Phil Simms left the NFC Championship game with a broken foot and was replaced by Jeff Hostetler, who went on to help the Giants beat the heavily favored Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV. The next two quarterbacks to join the list did so in legendary fashion, and their stories should be familiar: Kurt Warner in 1999 and Tom Brady in 2001.

There have been a few other notable examples of injury replacements having success. Ben Roethlisberger stepped in for an injured Tommy Maddox as a rookie in 2004 and led Pittsburgh to 14 straight wins and an AFC Championship berth. Colin Kaepernick came in for Alex Smith in Week Ten of 2012, and came within a play of winning Super Bowl XLVII for the 49ers.

There are a number of variables to consider when examining the performance of backups in the playoffs, including the talent of the player, the quality of the team around him, and the amount of time he has had to adjust to his role. Nevertheless, aside from the few aforementioned exceptions, most of the quarterbacks to step in for an injured starter have struggled.

Season
Team
Player
Replaced
Regular Season Record
Playoff Record
2004
Steelers
13-0
1-1
2005
Bengals
Jon Kitna
0-0
0-1
2005
Buccanneers
6-4
0-1
2006
Eagles
5-1
1-1
2007
Washington
3-0
0-1
2008
Vikings
2-3
0-1
2011
Texans
2-3
1-1
2012
Vikings
Joe Webb
0-0
0-1
2012
49ers
Colin Kaepernick
5-2
2-1
2014
Cardinals
0-2
0-1
2016
Cowboys
13-3
2016
Dolphins
Ryan Tannehill
2-1
2016
Raiders
0-0

 

The Cowboys turned to the examples of Brady and Warner for inspiration the moment they lost Tony Romo to injury in August. Their season has been an unprecedented success on a number of levels since, and Prescott has by far the best chance of the three backups to succeed in the playoffs.

For Cook, Moore, and their respective teams, the outlook is less rosy. There is almost no precedent for Oakland’s current situation, and Cook will become the first quarterback in league history to have his first NFL start come in the postseason. The Raiders and Dolphins can look to the Hostetlers of the world in an attempt to rally their teams around their backups, but each team enters the weekend as a road underdog against a division winning opponent, which means Cook and Moore are more likely to end up as historical footnotes than legends.

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