Randall Cunningham had quite a comeback with the Vikings. DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images

The best NFL QB comeback seasons

Some longtime starters will attempt to return to top form in 2020. The Lions and Steelers are counting on Matthew Stafford and Ben Roethlisberger, respectively, to bounce back, while Cam Newton works his magic in Foxborough. The NFL (and AFL) features a rich tradition of re-emerging quarterbacks, whether they returned from injury, a demotion or a hiatus. Here are the best quarterback rebound stories.

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25. Alex Smith, 2013

Alex Smith, 2013
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This marked Smith's second comeback. His first came two years prior, with Jim Harbaugh relaunching the former No. 1 overall pick to start a 49ers resurgence. But after a concussion derailed a strong Smith start to 2012, Colin Kaepernick usurped the passer in a season that extended to Super Bowl XLVII. A month later, the 49ers traded Smith to the Chiefs. Under Andy Reid, the inconsistent passer stabilized his career. Smith finished 2013 with a 23-7 TD-INT ratio and helped transform the Chiefs from a 2-14 outfit to an 11-5 squad. This partnership produced four playoff berths in five seasons.

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24. Sonny Jurgensen, 1964

Sonny Jurgensen, 1964
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In his final Eagles season (1963), Jurgensen missed a handful of games due to injury, and he had engaged in a contract dispute with the Eagles a few months prior. They shipped him to the Redskins in a rare intradivision exchange of starting QBs, with Norm Snead going to Philadelphia. After a down '63 season, Jurgensen responded by making four more Pro Bowls and securing a Hall of Fame invite. Paired with future Hall of Fame wideouts Bobby Mitchell and Charley Taylor in Washington, Jurgensen threw 24 TD passes in 1964. Five of those came in a win over the Eagles.

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23. Y.A. Tittle, 1961

Y.A. Tittle, 1961
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The 49ers starter for nearly nine seasons, Tittle saw his Bay Area run end after a 1960 season that featured a groin injury and John Brodie taking his job. After the 49ers dealt Tittle to the Giants for a modest return, the future Hall of Famer revived his career in New York. Tittle's best Giants seasons came in 1962 and '63, but he piloted Big Blue to the NFL championship game and returned to the Pro Bowl in '61 — despite being traded weeks before his age-35 season.

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22. Drew Bledsoe, 2002

Drew Bledsoe, 2002
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The Patriots' decision not to give Bledsoe his job back after he healed from a scary injury in 2001 was proved right. But in 2002, the former starter outshined his replacement. Bledsoe returned to the Pro Bowl for the first time since 1997 — in a season Tom Brady did not receive a Hawaii invite — and finished second in the league with 4,359 passing yards. His 24 TD tosses also outdid Brady. This did not lead to a prolonged revenge measure, as it was the longtime Patriot's final Pro Bowl slate, or a Bills resurgence. They went 8-8. But 2002 did show Bledsoe was far from finished.

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21. Tom Brady, 2009

Tom Brady, 2009
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Brady's second act began after Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard barreled into the Patriot icon's leg in Week 1 of the 2008 season, leading to a torn ACL. Months after the Pats shipped their '08 starter, Matt Cassel, to Kansas City, Brady reemerged. He has not missed a game due to injury since. While 2009 was not the future Hall of Famer's best year — a 28-TD, 13-INT slate that ended with a blowout loss to the Ravens in Round 1 — he did throw a record five touchdown passes in a quarter in a 59-0 snow-game romp and showed he had plenty left in the tank. 

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20. Michael Vick, 2010

Michael Vick, 2010
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Vick in 2010 reminded the football world of his all-time talents. Not all comebacks are equally celebrated; this one came after the former Falcon's two years in prison. The Eagles signed Vick to back up Donovan McNabb in 2009, and he took the reins after 2010's McNabb trade. Vick started 12 games, threw 21 TD passes and just six INTs — while rushing for 676 yards and nine more scores — and led the Eagles to the playoffs. Although this was Vick's final Pro Bowl season, he accounted for six TDs against Washington and piloted a memorable comeback win in New York. 

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19. Chad Pennington, 2008

Chad Pennington, 2008
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Pennington is the lone two-time NFL Comeback Player of the Year, winning the award in 2006 as well. He faced greater odds two years later. After a 2007 ankle injury, Pennington went 1-7 as in his final Jets season. Gang Green benched him and waited until August 2008 to cut him, after acquiring Brett Favre. A day later, the Dolphins signed their longtime rival. Despite the late arrival, Pennington led the Dolphins to an 11-5 season and their only AFC East title since Tom Brady's debut. The 32-year-old passer paced the NFL with a 67 percent completion rate and won 11 games for the only time in his career.

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18. Jimmy Garoppolo, 2019

Jimmy Garoppolo, 2019
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Garoppolo did play a supporting role behind the 49ers defense during the regular season and behind Raheem Mostert en route to Super Bowl LIV, but 2019 was his first year as a full-time starter. And it came after another delay — a 2018 ACL tear. The former Patriot started all 19 49ers games, finishing with a 27-13 TD-INT ratio, and played well in pivotal road wins over the playoff-bound Saints — outdueling Drew Brees in a late-season classic — and Seahawks to secure home-field advantage for Santa Clara. 

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17. Trent Dilfer, 2000

Trent Dilfer, 2000
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Dilfer's lone Ravens season is remembered for the former top-10 pick riding the coattails of a defining NFL defense, but that defense was on the verge of being squandered as starter Tony Banks struggled at the midseason mark. A broken collarbone ended Dilfer's six-year Buccaneers career in November 1999; his backup — Shaun King — led the team to the NFC title game. Dilfer replacing Banks 11 months later catalyzed the Ravens. Dilfer went 11-1 as a starter and delivered an upper-class game-management seminar, staying out of the way while Baltimore's defense secured a Super Bowl championship.

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16. Jim Plunkett, 1980

Jim Plunkett, 1980
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The other non-Pro Bowl Super Bowl champion on this list, Plunkett toiled in obscurity longer than Dilfer. A former Patriots No. 1 overall pick, Plunkett washed out in New England and San Francisco. Backing up Ken Stabler in Oakland, he was off the radar from 1978-79. But an injury to new Raiders starter Dan Pastorini brought in Plunkett. The 1970 Heisman winner was rarely spectacular, but he threw seven playoff TD passes and won road games in Cleveland and against a loaded San Diego team before tossing three TDs in the Raiders' Super Bowl XV victory. 

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15. Bobby Layne, 1958

Bobby Layne, 1958
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Quarterback for the Lions' back-to-back championship teams in 1952 and '53, Layne fell out of favor with the franchise by 1958. The hard-partying QB, though, overcame a severe injury at a time when that was quite difficult. Layne broke his leg in three places during the '57 season and watched Tobin Rote secure another Lions title. Detroit traded Layne to Pittsburgh in September 1958. An irked Layne may or may not have placed a curse on the Lions, but he did some forgotten work with the Steelers. En route to the Pro Bowl, Layne guided the Steelers to a 7-2-1 mark. The Lions have won one playoff game since the trade.

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14. Roger Staubach, 1973

Roger Staubach, 1973
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Staubach guided the Cowboys to their first Super Bowl title in 1971 but lost his job a year later when he separated a shoulder during the preseason. Tom Landry stuck with Craig Morton in 1972. But after a Staubach off-the-bench comeback in that year's playoffs, Landry ended Morton's QB1 days in '73. Beginning a seven-year run as Dallas' starter, Staubach led the NFL in TD passes (23), yards per attempt (8.5) and passer rating (94.6). The Cowboys went 10-4 and advanced to the NFC title game.  

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13. Deshaun Watson, 2018

Deshaun Watson, 2018
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While not a special Texans season, the 2018 slate showed they have a franchise quarterback. Not only did Watson start 16 games following an ACL tear — his second such injury — but the second-year quarterback also took 62 sacks. No QB had absorbed that many since Jon Kitna in 2006. Nevertheless, the dual-threat Texan pilot accounted for 31 touchdowns (26 passing) and 4,716 yards (551 rushing) while lifting the Texans from 4-12 in 2017 to the AFC South crown a year later. 

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12. Tobin Rote, 1963

Tobin Rote, 1963
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A 1950 Packers draftee and fill-in starter for the champion 1957 Lions, Rote returned to the NFL after three CFL seasons. He rebounded after a dreadful five-TD pass, 19-INT season with the '59 Lions. The Chargers acquired the 35-year-old QB in 1963, and he served as a bridge to the younger John Hadl. Said bridge season ended with the only championship in Chargers history. The Rote-Sid Gillman Bolts steamrolled the Patriots, 51-10, in a masterfully crafted AFL title game, doing so after the former submitted an All-Pro season. Rote stayed one more season in San Diego before retiring.

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11. Dan Marino, 1994

Dan Marino, 1994
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A torn Achilles midway through the 1993 season halted Marino's near-decade-long run as the NFL's most prolific quarterback. But Miami's flagship athlete was back by Week 1 in 1994. He immediately showed the Dolphins did not have to worry about their golden ticket being lost, throwing for 473 yards and tossing five touchdown passes in a Week 1 shootout win over the Patriots. Marino reinstalled the Dolphins as a playoff team and returned to the Pro Bowl after a 30-TD pass season. The Dolphins were a missed field goal away from the AFC championship game, marring a quality Marino postseason.

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10. Drew Brees, 2006

Drew Brees, 2006
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Brees did not miss any games in 2005, but the torn labrum he suffered in Week 17 that year changed his career path. The Chargers moved on with Philip Rivers, sending Brees to free agency. The Dolphins' medical staff was iffy on Brees' shoulder, and the Saints landed maybe the most impactful free agent in NFL history. In 2006, Brees and Sean Payton turned a 3-13 team dealing with the Hurricane Katrina aftermath into a 10-6 outfit that soared to the NFC title game. This was Brees' only first-team All-Pro season. It is better remembered for uplifting a city and changing the trajectory of a moribund franchise.

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9. Andrew Luck, 2018

Andrew Luck, 2018
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Luck's shoulder injury gutted the Colts in 2017. The former No. 1 overall pick spent almost 18 months rehabbing a career-threatening setback. He did not resume throwing until June 2018. But Luck returned to start the '18 season. The Colts immediately recovered, making the playoffs after a 4-12 2017 slate. Luck threw a non-Patrick Mahomes-high 39 TD passes, making his first Pro Bowl since 2014 and guiding Indianapolis to its first playoff win since that year as well. While this comeback did not stick, with Luck retiring in 2019, he battled plenty to return for this final season.

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8. Jim McMahon, 1985

Jim McMahon, 1985
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McMahon's injuries did well to derail a would-be dynasty, but the brash passer's 1985 season will live on as long as football does. Before a run of bad breaks befell the Bears quarterback post-'85, "The Punky QB" recovered from a lacerated kidney that sidelined him midway through the '84 season. All he did in '85 was go 14-0 as Chicago's starter — missing time because of injury — lead the NFL's No. 2-ranked offense to make his only Pro Bowl, average 12.8 yards per attempt in these storied Bears' Super Bowl XX coronation and sing lead in the iconic "Super Bowl Shuffle" video. 

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7. Joe Montana, 1993

Joe Montana, 1993
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Leonard Marshall's punishing hit on the then-MVP quarterback in the 1990 NFC championship game, shelved him for the 1991 season. By the time Montana returned, Steve Young — the 1992 MVP — had seized the 49ers' QB job. But the supplanted superstar bounced back after two years off, leading the Chiefs to their first AFC title game. Montana, 37 that season, missed five games but made the Pro Bowl and steered Kansas City to two comeback playoff wins. Although he could not finish said AFC title game because of another injury, Montana's two-year K.C. stay enhanced his claim as the greatest ever.

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6. Earl Morrall, 1968

Earl Morrall, 1968
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The No. 2 overall pick in the 1956 draft, Morrall enjoyed sporadic success in a journeyman career. He made the Pro Bowl with the 1958 Steelers and played well as a full-time starter with the '65 Giants. But he rode the bench for much of the next two seasons. A Johnny Unitas preseason injury, however, set up an all-time comeback. After being traded for a fourth time, Morrall stunned the NFL world by winning the 1968 MVP Award and guiding the Colts to Super Bowl III. Morrall threw an NFL-most 26 TD passes. While the 34-year-old QB's run stalled against the Jets, his work with Don Shula opened the door to eight more NFL seasons.

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5. George Blanda, 1960

George Blanda, 1960
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Amid a several-act career — the longest in NFL history — Blanda did not start a game at quarterback between 1955-59. The Bears starter in the early 1950s, Blanda served as Chicago's kicker in the years that followed. He retired after the '58 season but returned to play quarterback in the AFL in 1960. He shook off the rust well, commanding a high-octane offense. Although superior Blanda statistical seasons occurred in 1962 and '63, his re-emergence at age 33 propelled Houston to the AFL's first title. The Oilers won again the next year.

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4. Carson Palmer, 2015

Carson Palmer, 2015
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The oldest NFL franchise has won more than 11 games in a season once. Palmer got the 2015 Cardinals to 13 wins, coming back from his second ACL tear to do so. Palmer's 2014 injury doomed a talented Cards team, but he resurfaced to throw 35 TD passes and lead the NFL in QBR a year later. The ex-Bengal made his first Pro Bowl in nine years and finished as the 2015 MVP runner-up. And while Aaron Rodgers' highlights from a divisional-round classic endure, Palmer's 349-yard, three-touchdown night lifted Arizona to victory. 

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3. Ken Anderson, 1981

Ken Anderson, 1981
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Not only was the 13-year Bengals starter limited by injuries in 1980, but he also was benched during a comeback win in Week 1 of the '81 season. Anderson responded with a masterful stretch, winning MVP honors and taking the Bengals to their first Super Bowl. Leading the NFL in yards per attempt (8.1), the former Bill Walsh disciple secured a meeting with his former mentor in Super Bowl XVI by outplaying Dan Fouts in the "Freezer Bowl" AFC championship game. Although Walsh's new disciple (Joe Montana) prevailed in the bigger game, Anderson threw for 300 yards and completed 74 percent of his throws that day.

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2. Randall Cunningham, 1998

Randall Cunningham, 1998
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Cunningham's run as the NFL's most electric player cooled after season-ending injuries in 1991 and '93 and ended when the Eagles benched him in '95. He sat out 1996 but came out of retirement in '97. Though Cunningham led the Vikings to a playoff win that year, he was back on the bench to start '98. After another Brad Johnson injury, the 35-year-old QB became an All-Pro. Working as a pure passer — with Randy Moss and Cris Carter at his disposal — the ex-scrambling demon threw 34 TD passes and helped the 15-1 Vikings set the NFL scoring record. A playoff upset denied Cunningham a Super Bowl shot, but he redefined his career that season.

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1. Peyton Manning, 2012

Peyton Manning, 2012
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Manning's Denver chapter featured a physically diminished quarterback. But after his 2011 absence, four neck surgeries and a rough half on a Week 2 Monday night in at Atlanta, the ex-Colt was back on top. This was Manning's remodeling year, with the weaker-armed passer figuring out his new limitations on the fly. After the Broncos' 24-point comeback during their next Monday night game, Manning helped them craft an 11-game win streak. The 36-year-old passer earned his QB-record sixth All-Pro honor, throwing 37 TD passes and leading the NFL in completion percentage. This laid the groundwork for a record-setting 2013.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.

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