Skip to main content

Backing up the backups: Emergency NFL QBs who have been called into action

If Julian Edelman, the Patriots emergency backup quaterback, is pressed into play, he won't be the first non-quarterback to step in under center in the NFL. A few of those select players recall their experiences and provide advice for the New England wide receiver.

In what would be an absolutely quintessential Thursday Night Football moment, there’s a chance the nation will be introduced to Julian Edelman, the quarterback, during tonight’s game.

How did we get here? First, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Patriots QB Tom Brady for the first four games of the season as part of some sort of revenge fantasy (or Deflategate), and New England prepared backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo to start those games. Then Garoppolo sprained his shoulder in Sunday’s win over Miami, and coach Bill Belichick opted not to sign free-agent QBs T.J. Yates or Sean Renfree after working them out on Monday (which is fair).

Add it up, and New England’s QB depth chart consists of a one-armed Garoppolo, 2016 third-round pick Jacoby Brissett and, well, Edelman, who threw more interceptions than touchdowns while under center for Kent State from 2006–08. Oh, and did I mention the Patriots are facing a defense that leads the league with nine sacks through two games?

• Thursday Night Football: Stream Patriots vs. Texans live in prime time on

As you’d expect, Belichick, something of a mumbling mastermind, did not indulge reporters’ hypothetical situations about an Edelman-led offense, though he did show his hand somewhat when asked about the one NFL throw the eight-year veteran receiver has made, a 51-yard trickeration touchdown in 2014. “Yeah,” Belichick retorted. “He has thrown more than that in practice.”

The currently suspended Patriots QB, Tom Brady, was slightly more loquacious about the possibility.

Quarterback Julian Edelman? Patriots wide receiver has experience under center

“If that’s the case I’d expect Julian to go in there and the coaches to be comfortable with the plays they’re calling for him,” Brady said. “He still talks about that touchdown pass he threw against Baltimore a few years ago. Actually, maybe it would give him a little more ammunition if he did well. But if he didn’t do so well, he’s batting 1.000 right now, so there’s only one place to go.”

As for Edelman himself? “I play receiver for a reason,” he said. But, he later added, “I’m just gonna do what my coach asks me to do.”

So, what if he is called into action? It would not be the first time a position player was handed the keys to an offense. Three of the more notable emergency quarterbacks in NFL history recall their experiences and explain what Edelman should be prepared for.

Tom Matte, Baltimore Colts

Injuries to Baltimore QBs Johnny Unitas and Gary Cuozzo led to a football innovation in 1965. With only a week to prepare for the regular season finale against the Rams, Matte, a running back who previously played quarterback for Ohio State, had his wife write down the Colts’ plays on a wristband (his print wasn’t as neat as hers). The first play-call wristband of its time now sits in Canton. (“She’s in the Hall of Fame,” Matte chuckles.) That slip of paper was mostly full of QB draws and straightforward rollouts as coach Don Shula had Matte run a slimmed-down offense in his debut, a 20–17 win over the Rams.

Matte remained under center the following week in a playoff game at Green Bay, where Baltimore lost in overtime 13–10. In the following consolation matchup against Dallas, Shula opened the playbook up. “He went into the defensive room and said, ‘Listen guys, you may need to play a lot today,’” Matte recalls. “‘I’m going to let Matte throw the ball and I don’t know what the hell is going to happen.’” Well, Matte threw for two touchdowns and was named the game’s MVP.

NFL picks Week 3: Previewing Texans at Patriots on Thursday Night Football

“The whole key to my success was my offensive line rose to the occasion,” Matte says. “They knew if I got hurt we didn’t have anybody left. ... The team has got to have some confidence. They’ve got to feel like they can still get it done, but they have to play at a higher level.

“That’s what saved my ass from getting killed. We’d get back in the huddle and I’d call the wrong play and someone would say, ‘Tom, call it this way.’ They were looking out for me.”

Beyond rallying the troops, Matte’s other piece of advice for anyone following his path is simple: Have fun.

“Those three games as a quarterback? I’ve never had so much fun in my whole life,” he says. “Everybody was laughing and joking.”

Tony Dungy, Pittsburgh Steelers

That’s right. Before he was a commentator on NBC’s Football Night in America, a Super Bowl winning coach or even a Super Bowl winning defensive back, Dungy was Chuck Noll’s last resort. Heading into an October game against Houston in 1977, the rookie safety told Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope that he had a chance to have a big day, maybe get in at nickleback if the team built up a solid lead. In the first quarter, he got his first career interception. “I was thinking, ‘I was right. This is going to be a big day.’” Bigger than he imagined, it turned out, as injuries to Terry Bradshaw and Mike Kruczek led Noll to find Dungy on the sideline just before the start of the fourth quarter. “I feel his hand on my shoulder and he said, ‘You are going to go in and play quarterback. Here is what we are going to run.’”

“All of a sudden, I’m taking snaps from Mike Webster and handing off to Franco Harris and throwing to Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. It was kind of surreal,” Dungy said. A college QB at Minnesota, he ended up fumbling a snap and throwing two interceptions (he’s the only modern-era player to tally an interception on both sides of the ball in the same game) while completing just three passes. From then on, every run-in with former Oilers involved a few wisecracks. “All the Oilers, when they see me, they always say, ‘We were worried when you came in,’” Dungy says. “Bum Phillips teased me all the time, ‘We were shaking in our boots.’”

Fantasy football Start 'Em, Sit 'Em: How to set your lineups for Week 3

Dungy had always hoped he’d get a chance to show he could play QB in the NFL, and he still thinks he would have been alright had he had a chance to prepare. “I felt like if I just went over the basic things like ball handling and taking a snap, I could have done OK,” he says. “Coach Noll told me afterwards that he always thought I’d be the one he’d put in but he didn’t want to burden me with that, so we never even talked about the possibility.” Given that Belichick seems to be taking the opposite approach with Edelman, Dungy thinks the wideout would be serviceable in emergency duty. 

“He’ll be fine. They’ll have a plan for what they are going to do. He’s very familiar with the offense,” Dungy says. “Hopefully it doesn’t come to that, but I’m sure they are prepared… The one thing about the Patriots is they always feel like ‘We can adjust, we have a way to do this and we’ll still win the game.’”

If Edelman is called upon, it could become a topic of conversation for years to come. When Dungy attends the Hall of Fame ceremony (his QB play probably has less to do with his enshrinement than his time as a head coach), he still jokes about his time as quarterback with Elvin Bethea—who knocked Bradshaw and Kruczek out of the game and gave Dungy his 15 minutes of fame—as well as Swann and Stallworth.

“I completed one pass to Swann and one pass to Stallworth,” Dungy says. “I always tell them, ‘Without those stats, you might not have made it into the Hall of Fame.’”

NFL Week 3 Power Rankings: Impressive Texans on the rise as Colts keep tumbling

Brian Mitchell, Washington Redskins

When Joe Gibbs told Brian Mitchell “You’re in!” midway through a Monday night game against Philadelphia in 1990, the rookie didn’t know at what position. Known mainly as a return specialist, Mitchell had watched from the sidelines as two quarterbacks and two punt returners, among others, went out with injuries. “He said quarterback and I was dumbfounded,” Mitchell recalled in an interview with His first drive under center ended in seven points, but Mitchell went 3-for-5 for 40 yards passing in a 28–14 defeat.

Washington got revenge later that year with a 20–6 playoff victory. Back at his standard position, Mitchell accrued 48 yards of returns in that game. Twelve years after that, he would use his arm again, this time as a member of the Eagles, connecting on a 57-yard fake-punt touchdown pass to Brian Dawkins in 2002.

The most notable legacy from Mitchell’s performance was a rule change after the 1990 season allowing team’s to stash a third quarterback on the sidelines during games. Evidently, executives wanted to avoid having anyone like Mitchell playing quarterback in prime time again. Yet, here we are, 26 years later, with the league’s suspension of Brady and commitment to Thursday Night Football setting the stage for another potential QB disaster.