Backup QBs starting in the Super Bowl is nothing new. Tom Brady won his first in a season where he started the season on the bench. Nick Foles is trying to replicate that, and finally history trends in favor of the underdog Eagles: teams who reached the Super Bowl with a backup QB are 6-2. That might sound surprising, but if a team is good enough to go to the Super Bowl with a quarterback that wasn’t good enough to start (or in some cases, wasn’t deemed good enough but in actuality was), it’s probably a really good team, and the QB probably isn’t too bad himself.
Super Bowl III - Earl Morrall
There may never be a career quite like Earl Morrall’s. A journeyman backup, in 1968 he was traded to the Colts as insurance for Johnny Unitas. They’d need it, as Unitas got hurt in the final preseason game. Morrall took over as the starter and won MVP. In the playoffs he played great in divisional round, poorly in the conference championship, and then the magic completely ran out in the Super Bowl, he threw three interceptions and was pulled for Unitas, as the Colts were infamously upset by the Jets. He’d get his ring when he filled in during the regular season for Bob Griese in the Dolphins undefeated season.
Super Bowl XIV - Vince Ferragamo
Pat Haden broke his finger late in the 1979 season and Vince Ferragamo replaced him. Ferragamo wasn’t great, but he was consistent, in a year when QBs averaged a 67.8 passer rating, Ferragamo posted ratings of 79.5, 75.1, and 70.7 as the Rams clawed their way to the Super Bowl before falling to the last of the Super Bowl winning Steel Curtain Steelers teams.
Super Bowl XV - Jim Plunkett
Like Morrall, Jim Plunkett has a unique career. The #1 overall pick in 1971, but he was a bust, and after five years in New England and two in San Francisco, he signed with the Raiders as a backup to Ken Stabler in 1979. Stabler retired after the season and Oakland traded for Dan Pastorini, who broke his leg early in the 1980 season. Plunkett took over and helped the Raiders to the Super Bowl, where he threw three touchdowns in a win. In 1983 he’d get benched, then regain his starting duties when Marc Wilson got hurt, and won another Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XXII - Doug Williams
In a list of already weird careers or seasons, Doug Williams had one of the weirdest, in both categories. For five seasons he was the starter in Tampa, then left in 1983 to play in the USFL after a contract dispute. In 1986 he joined Joe Gibbs, who was his offensive coordinator in Tampa his rookie year, backing up Jay Schroeder. In the 1986 NFC Championship Game Schroeder appeared injured and Gibbs sent in Williams, but Schroeder, rather humiliatingly, wouldn’t let Williams come in and shooed him back to the sideline. In 1987 though, he had quite the season. He appeared in just five regular season games. In Week 1 Schroeder was hurt early in the game and Williams came in and won. Williams started the next week and lost the game and was relegated back to the bench. In Week 9 Schroeder was benched in the 2nd quarter and Williams ignited the team, coming in at 3-3 and throwing two touchdowns before halftime in a 20-13 win. Williams was again rewarded with a start the next week, and again lost the game and his starting job. In the final game of the regular season Schroeder was again benched, and Williams again got the offense going and won. Five games, three relief appearances and wins, two starts and losses. Gibbs ignored the outcome and focused on the process, as Williams was the better player that year. He started him for the playoffs and was richly rewarded as the Redskins won the Super Bowl and Williams threw four touchdowns in the 2nd quarter in a 42-10 drubbing of the Broncos.
Super Bowl XXV - Jeff Hostetler
Jeff Hostetler said that during the 1990 season he thought about retiring. He wasn’t able to get playing time ahead of Phil Simms, which he had no reason to expect, but offered to play special teams just to get on the field. Late in the season, Simms got injured, and Hostetler got his wish for more playing time. He won all five of his starts for the Giants. After winning the final two regular season games, he played well in a blowout win in the divisional round, then well enough in a close win over the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. In the Super Bowl he outdueled Jim Kelly as the Giants eked out a 20-19 win over the Bills.
Super Bowl XXXIV - Kurt Warner
You know his story. Like Earl Morrall, Kurt Warner was handed the keys after starter Trent Green went down in the preseason, and he blew away the league and won MVP. Unlike Morrall, he was victorious in the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XXXV - Trent Dilfer
After six years as a starter in Tampa, Trent Dilfer signed with the Ravens in 2000 to backup Tony Banks. The Ravens offense struggled mightily, going five straight games without scoring a touchdown. Amazingly they won the first two, but during the second loss Banks was benched for Dilfer. After a rough first start, Baltimore never lost the rest of the season, as Dilfer was good enough to not screw up the Ravens defense from carrying them to a title.
Super Bowl XXXVI - Tom Brady
Super Bowl LII is a matchup of QBs who made their first Super Bowls having been the backup to start the season. Tom Brady relieved an injured Drew Bledsoe and began his path to the Hall of Fame.
There’s some Nick Foles in these peers. Like Jim Plunkett, Doug Williams, and Trent Dilfer, he was at one point an unquestioned starter. Like Earl Morrall and Plunkett, he’s a bit of a journeyman. Like Jeff Hostetler, he became so dismayed that he nearly retired. Like Doug Williams, he reunited with a trusted coach from his rookie season (twice, last year in Kansas City and then again in Philadelphia). Foles is even a former Pro Bowler like Morrall and Dilfer.
Unlike Plunkett, Williams, Hostetler (who competed with Simms for the starting job to start the next season), Warner or Brady, he’s not about to Wally Pipp the starter. And that’s fine. The Eagles will settle for Trent Dilfer.