Frank Reich (pictured) was most famously Jim Kelly's backup in Buffalo. Rick Stewart/Getty Images

The greatest backup quarterbacks in NFL history

Here are the greatest backup quarterbacks in NFL history. In an effort to not include overqualified QBs, only passers who started less than a third of their teams' games are eligible. 

 
1 of 25

Derek Anderson

Derek Anderson
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Browns 2.0 is 1-for-21 in playoff qualification. The closest Cleveland has come since its 2002 berth involved Anderson. Romeo Crennel benched Charlie Frye during a Week 1 loss in 2007; Anderson started the next 15 games. His first start: a 51-45 Browns conquest featuring five touchdown passes. The 2005 sixth-round pick ended that season with 29 TD passes — second-most in Browns history — and a Pro Bowl berth. After Brady Quinn could not full-on supplant Anderson, he later became Cam Newton's backup for seven seasons. His 2-0 starter record in 2014 was crucial in a 7-8-1 Panthers team's playoff journey.

 
2 of 25

Charlie Batch

Charlie Batch
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Batch posted back-to-back winning records as the Lions starter in 1999 and 2000, coming off the bench in '99 to lead them to the playoffs and helping them to the postseason precipice in 2000. But an 0-12 start in '01 led to Batch's release and preceded one of the longest backup-QB runs in NFL history. Batch signed with the Steelers in 2002 and stayed for 11 seasons, playing until age 38. He signed seven Steelers contracts, overcame numerous challenges to his QB2 role and led Pittsburgh to six wins in nine starts — including a 2-0 mark for a 2005 team that needed both wins to allow a Super Bowl march.

 
3 of 25

Bubby Brister

Bubby Brister
Doug Collier/AFP-Getty Images

Although Brister enjoyed a three-plus-season run as the Steelers starter, which peaked with Chuck Noll's final playoff berth in 1989, the 16-year veteran had a lengthy second NFL life as a 1990s backup. In Philadelphia, Brister first replaced Randall Cunningham after his midseason ACL tear in 1993, starting eight games with a 14-5 TD-INT ratio. However, his most notable backup work came at age 36 in Denver. John Elway missed four games in 1998; Brister threw 10 TD passes and kept the Broncos unbeaten until December. Denver scored 30-plus points in three of those games; Brister was a key part of an all-time great team.

 
4 of 25

Cody Carlson

Cody Carlson
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Warren Moon's backup for seven seasons, Carlson mostly kept the Oilers' high-powered car on the road. Houston made the playoffs from 1987-93. Four of those seasons featured at least one Carlson win in a spot start. The Oilers went 10-4 under Carlson, a third-round pick out of Baylor, from 1988-93. Carlson made six relief starts in 1992, twice posting 300-yard games and quarterbacking four wins. He posted three game-winning drives that season. While he failed as Moon's successor in 1994, Carlson was a steady backup during a quality Oilers era.

 
5 of 25

Virgil Carter

Virgil Carter
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The Bengals were dealt a tough blow when potential franchise quarterback Greg Cook suffered a career-ending injury barely a few games into his run. After more injuries at QB, Cincinnati turned to Carter in 1970. The mobile ex-Bears sixth-rounder became the guinea pig for Bill Walsh's future West Coast Offense, piloting the Bengals from 1-5 to a playoff berth. Then a Bengals assistant, Walsh used a short-pass system to help Carter. In 1971, Carter led the NFL in completion percentage. He gave way to first-rounder Ken Anderson in 1972 but hung around as an NFL backup until 1976.

 
6 of 25

Todd Collins

Todd Collins
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Longevity counts in QB2 annals; Collins supplied this better than most. Elvis Grbac's former Michigan successor played 16 NFL seasons, beginning as Jim Kelly's Bills heir apparent but settling in as a backup for most of his career. Collins initially helped the 1996 Bills make the playoffs, filling in for Kelly thrice, and spent much of the 2000s as Trent Green's seldom-seen Chiefs backup. Collins resurfaced in a key spot at age 36, filling in for Jason Campbell and going 3-0 with a 5-0 TD-INT ratio to lift the 2007 Redskins to the playoffs. He threw two TD passes in Washington's first-round loss in Seattle. 

 
7 of 25

Chase Daniel

Chase Daniel
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Daniel has banked nearly $35 million and has done so without ever being signed to start for a team. Perhaps this era's quintessential backup/NFL character-actor equivalent was a Mizzou Heisman finalist before backing up Drew Brees, Alex Smith, Carson Wentz, Brees again and Mitchell Trubisky. Daniel's 11-year stat line: 149 completions on 218 attempts, seven TD passes, five INTs. He completed 70% of his passes in each of his two-game samples with the Bears, helping the '18 Bears to an NFC North title. Still going strong, Daniel signed a three-year, $13.1 million deal to back up Matthew Stafford. 

 
8 of 25

Gary Danielson

Gary Danielson
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Danielson played 15 seasons of pro football, the first two in the short-lived World Football League. The future college football analyst caught on with the Lions, with whom he played nine seasons. Despite playing in the final era for soaring INT totals, Danielson finished his career with an 81-78 TD-INT ratio. He took the Detroit starting job midway through 1978 and dropped a Lions-record five TDs on the Vikings. Danielson split time with Eric Hipple in Detroit's NFC Central title year in 1983 but threw five INTs in a playoff loss to the 49ers. Danielson finished his career as Bernie Kosar's Browns backup.

 
9 of 25

Doug Flutie

Doug Flutie
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Almost overqualified for this list but not quite. Flutie's most notable NFL work came in 1998, when he replaced Rob Johnson and helped the holdovers from Buffalo's Super Bowl teams voyage to two more playoff brackets. Flutie's first NFL backup foray went poorly, with the undersized USFL alum stumbling for the 1986 Bears. He spent most of the '90s as a Canada icon before resurfacing as a 1998 Pro Bowler. The dual-threat passer was inexplicably benched for the Music City Miracle game but again came off the bench to help the Bills in 2000. Flutie finished a 21-year pro career by playing behind Drew Brees and Tom Brady.

 
10 of 25

James Harris

James Harris
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The first black quarterback to be a regular NFL starter and first to start a playoff game, Harris was an NFL trailblazer. The Grambling product did not receive much of a chance with the Bills in the late 1960s and left football briefly in 1972, but he caught on with the Rams and became their starter when Chuck Knox traded Pro Bowler John Hadl in-season. Harris steered a defensively powered team to the 1974 NFC championship game, earning Pro Bowl honors. Back as a part-timer by 1976, Harris posted a 436-yard, four-TD day in a shootout win over the Dolphins. He finished his career backing up Dan Fouts in San Diego.

 
11 of 25

Shaun Hill

Shaun Hill
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Although Hill never made any starts for a playoff team, the 2002 undrafted free agent put together a 14-year career. Hill saw extensive time as a backup to Alex Smith in San Francisco, Matthew Stafford in Detroit and Sam Bradford in St. Louis. Given the keys to some bad teams' offenses, Hill finished his career with a 49-30 TD-INT ratio. The 2008 49ers wanted winners, and Hill delivered, going 5-3 with a team that ranked 23rd defensively. He threw 16 TD passes in 10 Lions starts in 2010 and hung around through until 2016, backing up Bradford again in Minnesota.

 
12 of 25

Kelly Holcomb

Kelly Holcomb
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Enjoying a quiet 14-year career best remembered for a shootout loss in Pittsburgh, Holcomb made the move from Peyton Manning's backup to a challenger to Tim Couch's Browns job by following Bruce Arians to Cleveland in 2001. The Middle Tennessee alum started three 2002 games, two of them shootout losses featuring 300-plus Holcomb passing yards. After subbing for Couch in Week 1 (the Dwayne Rudd Game), Holcomb did so in the Browns' only 21st-century playoff contest -- a 36-33 loss to the Steelers. But Holcomb threw for 429 yards, earning the 2003 Browns QB1 job. He played until 2007.

 
13 of 25

Brian Hoyer

Brian Hoyer
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Earning his journeyman letterman's jacket, Hoyer is now on his third Patriots stay. Hoyer's most notable work came in his hometown. In 16 Cleveland starts between the 2013-14 seasons, Hoyer went 10-6. No QB in Browns 2.0 history can match that 16-game sample. Hoyer managed to have the Browns at 7-4 before fading in 2014; his benching for Johnny Manziel began a historically bad Browns run. Hoyer took over for Ryan Mallett early in 2015 and compiled a 19-7 TD-INT ratio in nine starts, helping the Texans to the playoffs. The career backup/spot starter now has a chance to succeed Tom Brady.

 
14 of 25

Damon Huard

Damon Huard
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The more successful of the NFL's quarterbacking Huards, Damon played 13 seasons and collected a Super Bowl ring with the 2003 Patriots. When Dan Marino sat due to an injury in his final season, Huard went 4-1 in workmanlike wins. That stretch helped Miami to a wild-card berth. Huard's age-33 season in Kansas City was better. A frightening Trent Green Week 1 concussion thrust Huard into action. While the backup handed off to Larry Johnson plenty, he threw 11 TD passes and one INT, led the Chiefs to four 30-point games and a playoff spot. The Chiefs benching Huard in 2007 preceded a tough period for the franchise.

 
15 of 25

Jeff Kemp

Jeff Kemp
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In between Roman Gabriel and Jim Everett, the Rams could not find a steady quarterback in a near-15-year period. But like James Harris, Kemp came through in key spots. Replacing Vince Ferragamo in 1984, the fourth-year UDFA led the Rams to the playoffs. Eric Dickerson breaking the single-season rushing record helped matters, but Kemp made 13 starts and aided the Rams to nine wins. The 49ers traded for Kemp in 1986, and he started six games for an injured Joe Montana. He threw for 300-plus yards in two of those during a 49ers playoff season. Kemp played 11 NFL seasons, retiring in 1992.

 
16 of 25

Bob Lee

Bob Lee
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In between reliable stints as a Vikings backup, Lee oversaw the best Falcons stretch in their first decade of existence. A 17th-round pick out of Pacific in 1968, Lee was traded to Atlanta in 1973. He took over in Week 5 and led the Falcons to an 8-2 run that included a Monday night win (highlighted by this play) over his former Vikings team bound for Super Bowl VIII. Lee found his way back to Minnesota in 1975, finishing his career as Fran Tarkenton's QB2. His final start, in a 1977 do-or-die regular-season finale, ended with a 30-20 win for an aging Viking squad attempting to defend its NFC title.

 
17 of 25

Jacky Lee

Jacky Lee
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A highly drafted backup and part of an unusual transaction, Lee was part of three AFL champions. The Oilers used their first-ever AFL pick on Lee but saw future Hall of Famer George Blanda come out of retirement and become the starter for the AFL's first dynasty. Lee came off the bench six times from 1960-61. A 1961 Lee start ended with a then-AFL-record 457 passing yards. AFL commissioner Bud Foss then helped broker a two-season Lee loan -- an all-time oddity -- to the Broncos. Lee actually returned to Houston after the loan but ended his career as a Chiefs backup. He played in all 10 AFL seasons

 
18 of 25

Josh McCown

Josh McCown
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Among non-kickers, only Tom Brady and Drew Brees have been active longer. A third-round Cardinals pick in 2002, McCown has played for nine teams. The 40-year-old QB has been both a productive and unproductive starter while serving as a capable backup for nearly two decades. McCown's game-winning TD pass knocked the 2003 Vikings out of the playoffs; he produced three straight 300-yard games to keep the 2013 Bears in the hunt while spelling Jay Cutler. McCown recently helped a skeleton-crew Eagles offense put a scare into the Seahawks in January. While 23-53 as a starter, McCown has played for many bad teams.

 
19 of 25

Matt Moore

Matt Moore
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Like Lee, Moore also made a cameo for a Chiefs Super Bowl champion. Initially surfacing as a Panthers UDFA, Moore spent seven seasons in Miami. He took over for Chad Henne and helped turn an 0-4 Dolphins team into a less terrible 6-10 squad in 2011, ruining any #SuckForLuck hopes. And after zero starts from 2012-15, Moore secured Miami's lone 2010s playoff berth after Ryan Tannehill tore an ACL. Moore may end up being most remembered for leaving a high school coaching job to be Patrick Mahomes' emergency QB. The Chiefs would not have earned a bye had Moore's 275-yard outing against the Vikings not happened.

 
20 of 25

Earl Morrall

Earl Morrall
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We have to bend the 33.3% rule here. It is impossible to have a backup QBs list without Morrall. A starter in 35% of his teams' games, the 21-year veteran arguably delivered the two most memorable years in QB2 annals. The former No. 2 overall pick was a journeyman before the Colts lost Johnny Unitas in 1968 and traded for Morrall. The late-arriving Colt became NFL MVP, throwing 26 TD passes. Super Bowl III did not go well for the two-time Pro Bowler, but Morrall ended up winning two rings -- first as Unitas' backup/fill-in 1970 and second as Bob Griese's reliever. Morrall went 11-0 as a starter in 1972 to preserve the Dolphins' 17-0 season.

 
21 of 25

Bill Munson

Bill Munson
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A first-round Rams pick in 1964, Munson did not retire until 1980. A backup and part-time starter for five teams, the Utah State product was best known for his Lions stay. Munson split time with the younger Greg Landry during much of his eight-year Detroit run. He came off the bench for a final drive in a 5-0 playoff loss to the Cowboys in 1971, nearing marching the Lions to an upset. Munson re-emerged as a starter in 1974 and '75, sporting a winning record with unremarkable Lions teams. He finished his career as a backup in Seattle, San Diego and Buffalo.

 
22 of 25

Frank Reich

Frank Reich
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Jim Kelly's backup for eight of the Hall of Famer's 11 seasons, Reich played 14 years and is responsible for one of the NFL's signature performances. After Reich struggled against the Oilers in Week 17 of the 1992 season, his NFL-record 32-point comeback in the Bills' wild-card revenge stunner featured 289 yards and four touchdown passes. A week later, Reich guided the Super Bowl-bound Bills to a 24-3 win over the No. 1-seeded Steelers. The current Colts head coach struggled away from Buffalo but still finished with a positive career TD-INT ratio and an unassailable QB2 legacy.

 
23 of 25

Don Strock

Don Strock
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It is difficult for any backup quarterback to top Strock's performance in arguably the greatest game ever played. Strock spent a staggering 15 seasons as the Dolphins' backup, starting 22 games and leading eight game-winning drives. While key in helping the team to two playoff brackets in the late '70s, Strock coming off the bench with the Dolphins down 24-0 in 1981's "Epic in Miami" was an all-timer. He threw for 401 yards and four TDs in the Dolphins' 38-35 Round 2 loss to the Chargers. Even his final start became a comeback win to secure the Bernie Kosar-less Browns 1988 playoff access.

 
24 of 25

Mike Tomczak

Mike Tomczak
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Tomczak played long enough to be a backup dancer in the 1985 Bears' "Super Bowl Shuffle" video and start a game in the 21st century. He received advantages of working with elite defenses -- the Bears of the mid-to-late '80s and the "Blitzburgh" Steelers of the '90s -— but he stepped in for Chicago's Jim McMahon and Pittsburgh's Neil O'Donnell frequently to help several playoff-bound teams. The 16-year veteran's best work came in 1996 when he replaced Jim Miller in Week 1 and led the Steelers to 10 wins and a trip to the divisional round. 

 
25 of 25

Steve Walsh

Steve Walsh
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A national champion at Miami, Walsh emerged as a notable fill-in for multiple playoff teams. With Saints starter Bobby Hebert a full-season holdout in 1990, Walsh replaced John Fourcade early that year and played well in spurts to help New Orleans to the playoffs — albeit at 8-8. He received another chance in a long-term audition four years later in Chicago. The Bears lost Erik Kramer to injury, and Walsh piloted the team to its only postseason cameo between 1991-2001. Walsh fared better in '94, completing 61 percent of his throws and throwing two TD passes in a wild-card win over the Vikings.

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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