5 Greatest Backups in NFL History

Sam QuinnContributor IIIMay 21, 2012

5 Greatest Backups in NFL History

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    It's pretty hard not to get noticed in the NFL, but it happens. Sometimes it takes a while for players to get their chance, whether it's because of the dominance of the guy ahead of them, injury issues or simply a stubborn coach. Here are the best backups in NFL history.

    *Note: to be eligible a player had to be a backup for multiple seasons. Yes Tom Brady wasn't a starter as a rookie, but he was never known as a backup. Those are the guys we're looking for here. 

Frank Reich

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    Yes, I know Reich isn't as good as other players I could put on this list, but this is a list of the best backups, not the best players who happened not to start. 

    In terms of career-long backups, few can match the resumé of Reich. 

    On several occasions he relieved an injured Jim Kelly to lead the Bills to important victories, but none meant as much Buffalo's wild-card playoff win over the Oilers in 1993.

    Why does that win mean so much? Because it was the greatest comeback in NFL playoff history. The Bills were down 28-3 at halftime, but used a 35-3 second-half run to send the game to overtime and eventually win. 

    The irony here is that Reich also engineered the biggest comeback in college football history, a 31-point comeback for his Maryland Terrapins against the University of Miami. 

    Maybe Reich never became a star somewhere else, but that doesn't mean he wasn't a great backup, and that's what this list is about. 

Earl Morrall

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    Earl Morrall has not only been a part of two Super Bowl teams, but he's also backed up two legends. 

    He started his career backing up Johnny Unitas for the Baltimore Colts. He played for an injured Unitas in 1968, where he led the Colts to a Super Bowl loss against the Jets. Two years later he'd fill in again, this time leading the Colts to a win in Super Bowl V. 

    He then took his talents to South Beach backing up Bob Griese. When Griese went down, he came in and went 11-0 as the starting QB for the Dolphins. Despite not losing, he was benched when Griese was able to return. The Dolphins went on to win the Super Bowl as the only undefeated team in NFL history.

    It's odd that Morrall never got a full-time gig, but in backup terms he's a Hall of Famer. 

Jim Plunkett

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    By all rights Plunkett probably shouldn't have been a backup, but that's what happens when you're a bust. 

    Plunkett won the Heisman trophy in 1970 for Stanford and was drafted first overall by the Patriots. 

    Things didn't go smoothly from there, and after a brief stint in San Francisco Plunkett ended up playing for the Raiders. 

    He spent two years on the bench before getting his shot when starter Dan Pastorini got hurt. Despite a five-interception loss against the Chiefs, Plunkett led the Raiders to a win in Super Bowl XV. 

    Plunkett went back to a backup role after that, but got another chance as a starter in 1983 when starter Marc Wilson went down. He again led the Raiders to a title, this time in Super Bowl XVIII. 

    So basically when you put Jim Plunkett in, you win the Super Bowl. That's a nice backup quarterback to have. 

Bo Jackson

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    This guy is the reason this list isn't called "The 5 Greatest Backup Quarterbacks in NFL History."

    Bo Jackson might be the greatest pure athlete in NFL history. He once ran the 40-yard dash in 4.12 seconds. As a baseball player he routinely broke bats against his knee. As a runner he was unstoppable. 

    Jackson averaged over five yards per carry as a Raider. He had at least one touchdown run of 88 yards or more in three of his four NFL seasons. He once ran for over 220 yards on Monday Night Football. And he did all of this backing up Marcus Allen.

    What's more is that he saw football as a "hobby." He was a baseball player first and foremost. Yet we still wonder what might have been. Had Bo Jackson played football full time and never gotten hurt, we could be looking at one of the greatest football players of all time. And we're saying all of this about a career long backup. 

Steve Young

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    Steve Young is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time by any measure. His stats measure up against anyone's, yet he backed up Joe Montana for four years.

    To be fair to Young, his path to the NFL was odd. Despite being picked first in the draft, he chose a then inconceivable $40 million dollar contract with the USFL.

    When the league folded, he was picked in the supplemental draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After a few bad years, the team deemed Young a bust and traded him the 49ers. 

    A few years behind Montana worked wonders for Young. Eventually he was so impressive that the team traded an aging Montana to Kansas City. The move worked out as the 49ers would win Super Bowl XXIX behind their league MVP.