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Do backup NFL QBs ever beat good teams?

How often does the has-been or the never-will-be win vs good teams?

NFL: Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Chargers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

In 2019 Brandon Allen started three games for the Broncos. The Broncos won one of those - against the Browns by a score of 24-19. The 2019 Browns finished the season 6-10.

In 2020 Brett Rypien started one game for the Broncos. It was against the Jets and the Broncos won the game 37-28. The Jets finished that season 2-14.

Over the last three seasons when the Broncos have had to start the backup QB, the team is 2-7. This does not count the final five games in 2019 when Drew Lock started, since he was the starting QB at that point and not the backup. You can count them if you wish, but I think that they don’t belong in this study.

This study is going to focus on how teams do when they have to start their second or third string QB. How often do they win? How often do they win against good teams? Both questions will be answered. I define “good” teams as teams that finish the regular season with eight or more wins.

It’s a truth in the NFL that good teams beat bad quarterbacks. So I went into this study expecting to find very few instances when bad backup QBs beat good teams (and that’s what I found). I define bad backup quarterbacks as guys who never get a gig as a regular starter in the NFL. They are good relative to you and me, but they are bad relative to Peyton Manning or Drew Brees or even Geno Smith. Bad in this context just means that they are not capable of being regular NFL starting (or not anymore if they were at some point).

I looked at every QB this century who has started between one and sixteen NFL games. Once I had removed the guys who entered the league in 2021 and were starters or should/could become starters (Justin Fields, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance), I was left with 133 quarterbacks some of whom were at the tail-end of their long careers (Warren Moon, Troy Aikman, Randall Cunningham, Jim Harbaugh, and Jeff George) and others who were or are just beginning theirs during the past two seasons.

These 133 QBs have combined to start 811 games this century and they have a combined record of 210 wins and 601 losses - meaning that their teams have won 26 percent of their starts. I always give the caveat that QBs get way more credit they deserve when their teams win or lose, but let’s run with the win-loss stats.

I did not look at the strength (or weakness) of the team on which each QB was starting. Obviously a backup QB forced to start for a good team, has a much better chance of winning (despite his play) than a backup QB who is forced to start on a bad team. We will see some of this later.

If you zoom in on the 72 guys with five or fewer starts in their careers, you find that their teams are 50-134 in their starts. That’s a win percentage of 27 percent - which is almost identical to the whole data set. So I decided to focus on those 50 wins to determine how many of those wins were against teams that finished the season with a good record (at least 8-8). In other words, how often did these “bad QBs” beat “good” teams.

First we find that only 32 of those 72 QBs actually “won” a game - they started a game that their team ended up winning. Below are the 32 with how many wins they have this century and how many of those wins were against good teams.

QB Career Wins (2000-2021) W's against Winning teams
Todd Collins 4 3
Randall Cunningham 3 2
Landry Jones 3 0
Craig Krenzel 3 0
Chase Daniel 2 1
Kent Graham 2 0
Scott Mitchell 2 0
Quinn Gray 2 2
A.J. McCarron 2 0
Danny Wuerffel 2 1
Neil O'Donnell 2 1
Dennis Dixon 2 1
P.J. Walker 2 1
Tim Hasselbeck 1 0
Ryan Finley 1 1
Tyler Huntley 1 0
Paxton Lynch 1 0
Tyler Palko 1 1
Nathan Peterman 1 0
Kurt Kittner 1 0
Joe Webb 1 1
Mike White 1 1
Max Hall 1 1
Koy Detmer 1 1
Clint Stoerner 1 0
Stoney Case 1 1
Stephen McGee 1 1
Cooper Rush 1 0
Brett Rypien 1 0
John Wolford 1 1
Scott Covington 1 1
Drew Henson 1 0

So these guys started and won 50 games, but only 22 of those were against teams that finished the season 8-8 or better. Let’s look at those 22 victories in depth - roughly chronologically.

Randall Cunningham started three games for the Cowboys in 2000 (winning one) and then two games for the Ravens in 2001 (winning both). The lone win for the Cowboys in 2000 was against a Washington team that would finish 8-8. The following season he was the backup QB on the Ravens. In case you are too young to remember, the Ravens defense at the turn of the century was one of the best the game has even seen. In Cunningham’s two starts for the Ravens in 2001, Randall simply had to “not lose” the game and let the defense win it. The Ravens beat the Jaguars who finished 6-10 that year and the Steelers who finished 13-3. The score vs the Jags was 18-17 and the score vs the Steelers was 13-10. The lone TD that the Ravens scored in that victory over the Steelers was on a pass from one Hall-of-Famer to another, Cunningham to Shannon Sharpe. Wait, Randall Cunningham is not in the Hall-of-Fame. That’s BS. He should be. {end of short rant}

Stoney Case was the backup QB for the Lions in 2000. He started one game for them that year (game 1) and the Lions would beat the Saints 14-10. The 2000 Saints finished the season 10-6 with Jeff Blake and Aaron Brooks as their QBs. Case may have not had a long career in the NFL, but he will always have one of the best names in NFL history.

Like Cunningham, Neil O’Donnell was also still hanging around the league as a backup at the turn of the century. He was the backup QB for the Titans in 2000 and he started one game for them, against the Steelers, who would finish the season 9-7. The Titans won the game 23-20, but Neil played poorly completing 13 of 27 passes for 237 yards but with 3 interceptions.

Danny Wuerffel was also still hanging on in the NFL in 2002 as a backup QB. He started four games for his old college coach, Steve Spurrier, while in Washington that year winning one against the 2002 Titans who finished the season 11-5. Washington won the game, 31-14, but that wasn’t Wuerfful’s doing. He only threw three passes in the game. Former Bronco, Patrick Ramsey would play the majority of the game at QB for Washington and play fairly well. Ramsey had too many starts in his career (24) to be included in this study.

Scott Covington had a short career as a backup QB in the NFL. He was allowed to start the week 17 game for the Rams against the 49ers in 2002, but he was pulled for ineffectiveness after completing 2 of 5 passes for 7 yards. Jamie Martin would play the majority of the snaps at QB for the Rams in this meaningless 38-17 victory.

Also in 2002, Koy Detmer got a chance to start for the Eagles against the 49ers, who would finish the season 10-6. Oddly enough, Detmer would get hurt in the second half of the game and be replaced by third string QB, A.J. Feeley. Feeley would start 5 games in 2002 for the Eagles before he would be replaced by the original starter, Donovan McNabb, once the Eagles reached the playoffs. With 18 career starts this century, Feeley just missed being included in this study.

Todd Collins had one season as a starting QB in the NFL (1997), but he was in the league for twelve seasons mostly as a backup. This century, he started three games in 2007 for Washington and one game for Chicago in 2010. His team won all four games. What’s amazing is that only one of those wins was a against a bad team (the 2010 Panthers who were 2-14). The three wins against good teams were all in 2007, against the 10-6 Giants, the 8-8 Vikings and the 13-3 Cowboys. The Giants won the Super Bowl that season. Collins was playing for a Washington team that finished the season 9-7 despite having the outdated Joe Gibbs at head coach and the overmatched Jason Campbell as the primary starting QB.

Quinn Gray started for the Jags and beat both the Bucs and the Titans in 2007. The Bucs finished the season 9-7 and the Titans finished 10-6. Gray’s play in both games with not very good (7/16 for 100 yards and 1 TD, 13/23 for 101 yards and 1 TD), but he didn’t lose either game by turning the ball over. The Jags won 24-23 over the Bucs and 28-13 over the Titans.

The 2010 season saw four “good” teams lose to “bad” backup QBs.

Dennis Dixon led the Steelers to a game one victory over a Falcons team that would finish 13-3. The Steelers D deserves the credit for the win though, but holding the Falcons to 9 points. Dixon was starting in place of suspended Ben Roethlisberger, who received a four-game suspension for rape.

Joe Webb led the Vikings to a week 16 victory over the Eagles who would finish 10-6 on the season. The Vikings won the game 24-14 but a lot of the credit for the win has to go to the Viking defense which forced three turnovers. Webb actually played fairly well, but this would be one of only four starts during his ten year career as a backup.

Max Hall led the Cardinals to a 30-20 victory over the Saints who would finish the season 11-5. The Cardinals’ offense would only be responsible for one TD during the game and that would be on a two yard drive. So while Hall didn’t pay terribly, he definitely didn’t “win” the game for Arizona. The other two Arizona touchdowns would be a fumble return and a pick-six.

The fourth backup to beat a good team in 2010 was Stephen McGee. This one comes with a huge asterisk. McGee was given the week 17 start for the Cowboys against the Eagles who would have nothing to play for since their playoff spot and seeding was already secured. Neither team played many if any starters. The Eagles similarly started their backup QB, Kevin Kolb. While the Cowboys would win 14-13, McGee would have little to do with the victory. He completed 11/27 passes for 127 yards and 1 TD. The other Cowboy touchdown in the game would come from a DeMarcus Ware fumble return.

Tyler Palko would be forced to start four games for the 2011 Chiefs, who would fire Todd “handshake” Haley during the season. Matt Cassel was the primary starter, but former Bronco, Kyle Orton, would also start three games for them that season (and beat Denver in one of them). Palko’s lone “win” was a 10-3 victory over the Bears who would finish 8-8. Palko would only complete 17 of 30 throws in the game, but he would be responsible for the game’s only TD hitting Dexter McCluster on a 38-yard throw as clock expired at the end of the first half.

It’ stretching it a bit to call Lovie Smith’s 2011 Bears a “good” team. Not only did they lose to the Tyler Palko-led Chiefs, but they lost in overtime to the Tim Tebow Broncos. The 2011 Bears were an odd team, winning five straight games at one point and then losing five straight. They would finish the season 3rd in the NFC North and miss the playoffs.

Chase Daniel had one game where he started and beat a “good” team. That would be in 2014 when he started for the Chiefs against a Chargers team that would finish the season 9-7. But here’s the catch, it was week 17, and KC had nothing to play for having already secured their spot in the playoffs. They started Daniel and let Alex Smith rest. Daniel didn’t do anything to win the game, but he also didn’t really do anything to lose the game as KC won 19-7 largely on the strength of their defense which turned the Chargers over three times in the game.

You have to go all the way to 2020 before you find the next instance this century of a bad backup beating a good team, but it happened twice in 2020. Ryan Finley made one start replacing injured former Bronco Brandon Allen, who was replacing injured Joe Burrow. Finley started in a game that the Bengals would win 27-17 over the Steelers who would finish the season 12-4. Finley would complete 7 of 13 passes for 89 yards and one TD, but he would run for 48 yards and another TD. The Bengals defense would hold PIT to 244 yards of offense and force three turnovers.

That same year, John Wolford would get a week 17 start for the Rams against a Cardinals team that would finish the season 8-8. Wolford would play ok, but this an another game that really needs an asterisk as neither team played their starters much if at all. Kyler Murray only played a few series for the Cardinals. Wolford would finish with with 231 passing yards, 1 INT and 56 rushing yards as the Rams would win 15-9 in a game that had nearly as many penalties as points. Neither team had anything to play for in this one and the game was treated as such.

That bring us up to 2021, a year in which we saw two backup QBs beat good teams.

Mike White led the Jets to a 34-31 victory over the AFC champion Bengals that finished the regular season 10-7. White completed 37 of 45 throws for 405 yards, 3 TDs and 2 picks. This was a week after he got put in during garbage time when Zach Wilson imploded. Like most backups who have a great game (or even a good game), White was exposed two weeks later when he threw four picks in a 17-45 loss to the Bills.

Another backup who had his “one shining moment” in 2021 was P.J. Walker. Walker would make his second career start against the Cardinals in week ten of last season. Walker’s Panthers would stomp the Cardinals 34-10, but most of the credit should go to the Panther defense which held the Cardinals to 169 yards of total offense and forced two turnovers. Walker would complete 22 of 29 throws for 169 yards and one pick, but the Panther ground game and defense would rule the game. Oddly enough, Cam Newton would be the red zone QB in this game account for two touchdowns (one passing and one rushing).

While this would have been impressive if the Panthers defense had been able to do this to Kyler Murray, they didn’t. Murray was hurt so the Cardinals were starting Colt McCoy at QB. When it become a blowout, they even played their 3rd sting QB, Chris Streveler.


So while untested backup QB beating “good” teams has happened more often than I expected, many of the 22 instances when this has happened this century require an asterisk. So the truism still holds - backup QBs don’t beat good teams in the NFL, with very rare exceptions.

The other side of this is that if this happens to your team when they are “good”, the terrible memory of the game gets seared into your brain. Think about Orton leading the Chiefs to victory over the 2011 Broncos when the playoffs were on the line in week 17. In case you don’t remember, the Broncos lost 7-3 with Tebow completing 6 of 22 throws for 60 yards with one interception. The Bronco offense had 216 rushing yards and 50 net passing yards. While the Broncos stilled somehow backed their way into the playoffs, that loss was painful.

Another game that was similar and might also be seared into your brains like it is in mine was the 2019 loss in Denver where Patrick Mahomes hurt himself and Matt Moore came in and led KC to a comfortable 30-6 win.

Of course you might also remember the game from last season, in which, former Bronco, Case Keenum, who was the backup to Baker Mayfield, led the Browns and their 5th string RB to a 17-14 victory over the Broncos. D’Ernest Johnson came into that game with 120 total offensive snaps in his career and embarrassed the Bronco run defense to the tune of 22 carries for 146 yards. The Browns dominated the time of possession (36-23) largely due to the Bronco’ defense’ inability to stop the run.


Which QB would you rather have as the backup QB for your team?

This poll is closed

  • 59%
    The old veteran who can’t cut it as a starter anymore but could in the past
    (112 votes)
  • 5%
    The highly drafted bust who never made it as a starter
    (11 votes)
  • 28%
    The mid-to-late round draftee who never got a real chance to be "the guy"
    (53 votes)
  • 5%
    The undrafted QB who has been living on practice squads or playing in the USFL
    (11 votes)
187 votes total Vote Now