Posted: Tuesday March 13, 2012 11:01AM ; Updated: Tuesday March 13, 2012 12:09PM
Don Banks
Don Banks>INSIDE THE NFL

History littered with QBs who have turned backup rags into riches

Story Highlights

Matt Flynn could go either way among QBs who have gone from backup to starter

Brett Favre's trade from Atlanta to Green Bay is the most famous backup QB trade

Fate of two backups-turned-starters, Kevin Kolb and Matt Cassel, is still in the air

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Matt Flynn
Matt Flynn will be a hot commodity in free agency, despite starting just two games in his career.
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It's unlikely helicopters will be involved in the news coverage of where fourth-year Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn lands in free agency, but that doesn't mean the pursuit of the second most sought-after passer in this year's market will lack for significance or intrigue.

Flynn might not match Peyton Manning's Q rating, but the former seventh-round pick out of LSU is going to be a highly coveted commodity starting Tuesday afternoon, when the league's shopping season commences. Given Manning's remaining health issues, it's not a difficult argument to make that Flynn, he of the two career starts, could wind up impacting the NFL's 2012 season far more than wherever No. 18 signs on.

Or not. That's the tricky part about Flynn's appeal. It's mostly based on potential, and not production. In four years of backing up Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, Flynn has launched a mere 132 regular-season passes. And all nine of his career touchdown passes came in those two head-turning starts he owns: A 251-yard, three-touchdown game in a narrow loss at New England in December 2009, and that 480-yard, six-touchdown monster he put together in a thrilling win over Detroit in Week 17 of last season.

Attach too much meaning to those two huge performances turned in by Flynn and a team could be mortgaging its future for the wrong guy. Attach too little and perhaps several clubs will be missing the opportunity to address their quarterback needs with a once-a-decade melding of young talent and availability.

But this much we do know: Those two starts, combined with his seal of approval from Green Bay's well-respected coaching staff, are going to get Flynn paid this month. Some team that doesn't get Manning -- Miami, Cleveland and Seattle come quickly to mind -- is going to throw a big check at Flynn and toss him the keys to their offense. And with that, he'll become the NFL's latest example of a trend that has raged in the league for the last 20 years or so: Trying to find the next Brett Favre as he hides in plain sight on the second or even third rung of an opponent's quarterback depth chart.

Ever since Green Bay shrewdly gave Atlanta a 1992 first-round pick for the lightly regarded reserve quarterback the Falcons drafted in the second round the year before, teams have been rolling the dice in the search for their own Favre-like discoveries. And for the most part, the results have been only so-so. There are as many swings and misses on the scale of a Rob Johnson, A.J. Feeley or Scott Mitchell as there are solid hits like Matt Schaub, Mark Brunell or Matt Hasselbeck.

Of the 12 young and lightly experienced backups chronicled below who got starting shots at some point in the past two decades, the only quarterback to earn a Super Bowl ring was Favre. Hasselbeck and Favre are the only two to lead a team to the Super Bowl, and once you add in Brunell and Schaub, the clear-cut success stories are pretty much exhausted. True, the jury might still be out on a Kevin Kolb or a Matt Cassel, so perhaps the percentage will climb higher in the years to come. But maybe Flynn winds up a miss, and the number creeps downward. Both possibilities remain in play at this point.

One last point in Flynn's favor: When the Packers are involved on either side of this trend, good things usually result. Favre came to Green Bay as a No. 2 quarterback, but Brunell, Hasselbeck and Aaron Brooks were all former Packers reserve QBs who made good elsewhere, at least for a time. When you throw in that Kurt Warner passed through Green Bay's training camp in 1994, fresh out of college, the Packers' track record on that front grows even a little stronger.

Who knows if those past results indicate anything in the case of Flynn and his chances of future success? But some team is about to take the plunge and give the career No. 2 the opportunity to be its No. 1. As free agency looms, we're about to find out if Flynn is ready for his close-up.

The Hits

Brett Favre

• What he did to make someone want him: Favre had a standout collegiate career at Southern Mississippi, but his rookie season of 1991 in Atlanta was memorable for all the wrong reasons. He had been selected in the second round, 33rd overall, by the Falcons, but he wound up seeing action in only two games that season. His first pass attempt was intercepted and returned for a touchdown, and he finished the year 0 of 4 with two picks, and one sack for 11 yards. Any hint of greatness was not in the air.

• What someone gave up for him: The Packers' legendary deal for Favre is, of course, the mother of all backup quarterback trades, the standard by which all else is measured. New Packers general manager Ron Wolf had wanted to draft Favre in 1991, but the Falcons took him one pick before New York's second-round selection came up. So, with Atlanta not knowing what they had, Wolf in February 1992 offered to take Favre off the Falcons' hands, in exchange for Green Bay's No. 1 pick that year (19th overall). Atlanta jumped at the deal, and selected running back Tony Smith, who happened to be Favre's old teammate at Southern Miss. Smith lasted three undistinguished seasons in the NFL, just 17 fewer than Favre.

• How did that one work out?: Pretty, pretty, pretty well for the Packers, I'd say. Favre played 16 record-breaking seasons in Green Bay, leading them to one Super Bowl title, two Super Bowl appearances and seven division championships. He holds many of the NFL's major passing records, and his three MVP awards trail only Peyton Manning's four. His late-career retirement theatrics marred the end of his Green Bay career, but he'll be in Canton some day soon, and he'll be there because of what he accomplished as a Packers great.

Matt Schaub

• What he did to make someone want him: Schaub spent three years as Michael Vick's backup in Atlanta, flashing steadily in the preseason and showing enough in very limited regular season action (two starts for the Falcons) to get noticed by quarterback-needy teams around the league. In Week 5 of 2005, his second year in the league after being taken in 2004's third round out of Virginia, Schaub threw for 298 yards and three touchdowns in a three-point loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots. That performance put Schaub firmly on the map and led Atlanta to start entertaining trade offers for him. With Vick in place and financially committed to, the Falcons presumed Schaub was a luxury they had no need for.

• What someone gave up for him: Ready to move on from the team's failed David Carr era, the Texans swung a deal for Schaub in March 2007, with Atlanta getting second-round picks in 2007 and 2008, as well as moving up two spots in 2007's first round (going from 10th to 8th.) The trade looked great for Atlanta, right up until Vick later that summer was lost for the entire year due to his dog fighting scandal, leading to the Falcons' abysmal existence of the Bobby Petrino-Joey Harrington debacle in 2007.

• How did that work out?: Though the story is still in progress, Schaub has been one of the more successful backup-turned-starters in recent league history. Though he's just 32-32 in five seasons in Houston, Schaub led the NFL in passing yards (4,770) in 2009, and later won MVP honors in the Pro Bowl that season. He has thrown for nearly 17,000 yards with the Texans, with 92 touchdowns, 52 interceptions, a 65.3 completion percentage and sterling 94.0 passer rating. Ironically, Houston made its first trip to the playoffs in the franchise's 10-year history in 2011, but Schaub wasn't in place to reap the benefit of the Texans' success. He was lost for the season with a foot injury after 10 games last year, with the Texans starting 7-3 on their way to a 10-6, first-place finish in the AFC South.

Matt Hasselbeck

• What he did to make someone want him: Hasselbeck entered the league as a lowly sixth-round pick out of Boston College in 1998, but his three years playing caddy to Brett Favre in Green Bay were not wasted. He never started a game for Green Bay, of course, with Favre doing the Iron Man thing. But Hasselbeck showed promise in preseason action, and did well in mop-up chances, completing 13 of 29 passes for two touchdowns, no interceptions, and 145 yards overall in 1999-2000.

• What someone gave up for him: When Seattle head coach and general manager Mike Holmgren went shopping for a young starter in early 2001, he targeted Hasselbeck, who he helped draft in his final year in Green Bay. The Seahawks got Hasselbeck somewhat cheaply given his thin track record. The Packers traded him, along with their first-rounder in 2001 (17th overall) and a seventh-rounder, to Seattle for its first rounder (10th overall) and a third-round selection.

• How did that work out?: In his 10 seasons in Seattle, Hasselbeck more than repaid the Seahawks for their initial faith and investment in him. Though he struggled to win the starting job outright from veteran Trent Dilfer in 2001-2002, starting just 22 of 32 games, Hasselbeck, by 2003, had led Seattle to its first playoff berth since 1988 and was selected to the Pro Bowl. The Seahawks made six playoff trips and one memorable Super Bowl run (in 2005) with Hasselbeck under center, and he went to three Pro Bowls while compiling a starting record of 69-62. In its most successful stretch, Seattle won four consecutive NFC West titles from 2003 to '07.

Mark Brunell

• What he did to make someone want him: Brunell was the first Packers reserve quarterback to benefit from having the Mike Holmgren/Ron Wolf seal of approval on him, just as Matt Hasselbeck and Aaron Brooks would later experience. Playing behind the indestructible Brett Favre, Brunell saw just two games of minimal action as a Packer, completing 12 of 27 passes for 95 yards in 1994. But that didn't stop the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars from coming after the 1993 fifth-round pick out of Washington.

• What someone gave up for him: The Jaguars saw a potential starter in Brunell and sent third- and fifth-round picks to Green Bay in the spring of 1995, acquiring an untested talent who would go on to start 13 games that season, throwing for 2,168 yards, running for 480, with 15 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Somebody's instincts were solid in Jacksonville, because by 1996, the Brunell-led Jaguars were playing in the AFC Championship Game.

• How did that work out?: Brunell had a good, long run in Jacksonville, spending nine seasons as a Jaguar and setting all of the franchise's major passing records. He played in three Pro Bowls, and Jacksonville made four consecutive playoff trips in his tenure (1996 to '99), twice losing in the AFC title game. The Jaguars were the first NFL expansion team to make the playoffs three times in their first four seasons. Those two 1995 Jaguars draft picks were incredibly well spent in trade, because Brunell finished 63-54 as a starter in Jacksonville, with 25,698 passing yards, 144 touchdown passes, 86 interceptions, and a solid 85.4 rating. Brunell held onto his starting job until early in the 2003 season, when he was replaced by first-round pick Byron Leftwich.

Aaron Brooks

• What he did to make someone want him: Buried on the depth chart behind Favre and Hasselbeck, Brooks saw no regular-season playing time as a rookie with the 1999 Packers, after Green Bay had drafted him in the fourth round out of Virginia that season. But the Packers were still able to talk up his potential enough to develop a potential trade market for his services, perhaps helped by the fact that quarterback stars such as Brunell and Warner had come out of the Packers system in the '90s.

• What someone gave up for him: The deal that sent Brooks to the Saints was hardly a blockbuster, and is little remembered today. During training camp of 2000, the Saints received Brooks and Packers tight end Lamont Hall in exchange for a third-round pick in 2001 and linebacker K.D. Williams. Once again, the Packers were able to turn a player into a higher draft pick than the one he was taken with, and burnish their reputation as a quarterback farm system for the rest of the league.

• How did that work out?: All things considered, Brooks was a low-cost, shrewd acquisition for New Orleans. He didn't enjoy great success with the Saints, but he did start 82 games (38-44 record), set both franchise career and single-season touchdown passing records (since broken by Drew Brees) and became the first quarterback in New Orleans history to start and win a playoff game (in 2000).

Brooks looked like a star in the making early on in his Saints tenure, taking over for the injured Jeff Blake in Week 11 of 2000 and passing for 1,514 yards and nine touchdowns in the last six games of the season. Brooks had a 441-yard passing game in the regular season, a 100-yard rushing game, and threw for four touchdowns in New Orleans' first-round playoff upset of the defending Super Bowl champion Rams. But his six-year tenure with the Saints ended after the 2005 season, and he played just one more year in the NFL, retiring at 30 after a miserable 2006 in Oakland.

The Misses

Rob Johnson

• What he did to make someone want him: Johnson backed up Mark Brunell in Jacksonville his first two seasons in the league, then opened Week 1 of 1997 in place of the injured Jags starter. He was an eye-opening 20 of 24 for 294 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-27 win over Baltimore, running for another score. That's still a league record for highest completion percentage by a quarterback making his first start, and it made quite the impression league-wide.

• What someone gave up for him: In February 1998, the Jaguars traded Johnson to the Bills, somehow extracting Buffalo's first- and fourth-round picks in the 1998 draft for a former fourth-round pick (1995) with one career start. The Bills went all in on Johnson, giving him a five-year, $25 million contract and proclaiming his arrival a "new era'' in Buffalo.

• How did that work out?: By early November of his first season as a Bill, Johnson had lost his starting job to the ever-popular backup, Doug Flutie, and he never really recovered in Buffalo. Flutie took the Bills to the playoffs that season, and inspired an earlier, less-obsessive version of Tebow-mania in the NFL. Johnson wound up his four-year stint in Buffalo with a 9-17 record as a starter, absorbing a staggering 110 sacks in those 26 games. Though Johnson started and nearly won a first-round playoff game at Tennessee in 1999, the Titans' famed "Music City Miracle'' denied him his finest moment as a Bill. Johnson played with three more teams during his final two NFL seasons, but started just two more games before retiring after splitting 2003 between Washington and and Oakland.

Scott Mitchell

• What he did to make someone want him: Mitchell was buried in obscurity behind Dan Marino in Miami in the early '90s, at least until Danno went down for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon in Week 5 of 1993. Mitchell took over and initially sparkled as a starter, before getting injured himself. When he returned to the lineup, he was less effective, but still managed a 3-4 record that season, with 1,773 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and an 84.2 QB rating. The Dolphins, however, collapsed late in '93, becoming the first team to ever start 9-2 and miss the playoffs.

• What someone gave up for him: Mitchell's 1993 cameo as the Man in Miami was enough to make him a very coveted commodity in March 1994's free agency frenzy. The Vikings and Lions both pursued him vigorously, but Detroit won out with a three-year, $11 million contract that delivered the Lions' starting job to him on a silver platter.

• How did that work out?: Mitchell had his highs and lows during his five-year stay in Detroit, but the bottom line was that he went just 27-30 in his 57 starts with the Lions, throwing 79 touchdowns, 57 interceptions, with 12,647 yards, and a pedestrian 79.2 passer rating on his record. He played with offensive stars like Barry Sanders and Herman Moore, and in 1995 set single-season franchise records for touchdown passes (32) and passing yards (4,338), but his inconsistency and immobility (124 sacks) were maddening, and he played poorly in his two playoff starts for the Lions. By 1998, the Lions replaced him in the lineup with rookie Charlie Batch, and Mitchell was out of the league altogether after the 2001 season.

A.J. Feeley

• What he did to make someone want him: Adam Joshua Feeley made his bones as the Eagles' emergency quarterback in 2002, when both Donovan McNabb and Koy Detmer went down with injuries. Feeley, a former fifth-round pick out of Oregon, took over and won four of his five starts, helping Philadelphia to the playoffs. Feeley wasn't spectacular in his abbreviated playing stint (55.8 completion rate, six touchdowns, five interceptions, 75.4 passer rating), but those wins he helped hang on the board were big and served to stamp him as starting material.

• What someone gave up for him: There's a sucker born every minute, and some of them grow up, move to Miami and run the Dolphins. Miami gave the Eagles a second-round pick in exchange for Feeley in 2004, and people in the league still don't know how Andy Reid got a choice that high for his third-team quarterback. But I think it bears pointing out that Reid once served under Mike Holmgren and Ron Wolf as a Packers assistant coach, where he learned first-hand how to play the trade-the-backup game.

• How did that work out?: Suffice it to say not well for the Dolphins. Feeley's starting stint in Miami lasted just eight games (he went 3-5), and he was dreadful, completing less than 54 percent of his passes, throwing 15 picks to just 11 touchdowns, and compiling a 61.7 passer rating. Miami fired head coach Dave Wannstedt late that season, and Feeley lost his starting gig to Jay Fiedler, cementing the Dolphins' Feeley-Fiedler era as Forgettable, with a capital F. By 2005, Feeley was glued to the bench in Miami, and he wound up returning to Philadelphia as Reid's backup in 2006 -- a neat trick all the way around if you're the Eagles.

Cody Carlson

• What he did to make someone want him: Houston's third-round pick out of Baylor in 1987, Carlson, from 1988 to '93, went 10-4 as a starter in various stints as a replacement for the injured Warren Moon. In 1992-93, Carlson won six of his eight starts, throwing for more than 2,300 yards and 11 touchdowns in those games.

• What someone gave up for him: Warren Moon. Convinced by Carlson's strong outings in relief of Moon, the Oilers released the future Hall of Famer in early 1994 despite Houston's NFL-high seven consecutive playoff trips. Seven years after being drafted, Carlson ascended to Houston's No. 1 quarterback job.

• How did that work out?: Not so good. Carlson got injured just five games into the 1994 season, the Oilers replaced head coach Jack Pardee with Jeff Fisher midway through the year, and Carlson never played in the NFL again, retiring after that brief stint as the team's starter.

Jeff Lewis

• What he did to make someone want him: We're not entirely sure. Lewis played in five games and threw all of 19 passes as John Elway's backup in Denver in 1996 and 1997, but there's little indication he did much of anything to move the needle during his meager playing time. A fourth-round pick of Denver's out of Northern Arizona in 1996, Lewis did have the Mike Shanahan quarterbacking pedigree attached to him, and that must have been enough to get him noticed around the league. By the the time the Broncos traded Lewis, Brian Griese had already passed him on the depth chart and was preparing to take over for the retiring Elway.

• What someone gave up for him: The Carolina Panthers sent a 1999 third-round pick and a 2000 fourth-rounder to Denver for Lewis, but Lewis sat for two years in Charlotte because he couldn't beat out veteran Steve Beuerlein as the starter. A serious knee injury did not help Lewis' cause and meant Carolina got almost nothing in return in the trade.

• How did that work out?: Panthers head coach George Seifert released Beuerlein after the 2000 season and gave Lewis first dibs at the starting job. But Lewis struggled mightily in the preseason of 2001, and wound up being cut before the regular season began. Carolina instead turned to rookie Chris Weinke as its starter, part of the recipe of disaster that was that 1-15 season in Charlotte. Lewis never saw regular-season action in the NFL after 2000.

The Maybes

Kevin Kolb

• What he did to make someone want him: Though he still might make good for Arizona, Kolb stands as the current cautionary tale in terms of investing big in a backup quarterback who's light on experience. Taken by Philadelphia in the second round out of Houston in 2007 -- he was the third passer selected, behind only first-rounders JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn -- Kolb sat behind Donovan McNabb for three years in Philly, then got over-taken by the Michael Vick phenomena in 2010. But he had his moments as an Eagle, becoming the first QB in NFL history to throw for more than 300 yards in each of first two career starts, when McNabb was injured in September 2009. Overall in Philadelphia, Kolb went just 3-4 as a starter, with 11 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and a meager 73.2 rating.

• What someone gave up for him: With Vick's emergence in 2010, the Eagles had little choice but to change course on the quarterback-of-the-future question and put Kolb on the trade market in the summer of 2011. A long-rumored deal with Arizona was finally struck following the end of the league's labor lockout, with Kolb becoming a Cardinal in exchange for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round pick in 2012. At the time, it looked like a win-win deal for both teams, with Arizona getting itself a franchise quarterback and the Eagles yet again picking up top-line talent and draft capital for a surplus arm.

• How did that work out?: Kolb had a rocky, injury-plagued first season with the Cardinals, going just 3-6 as the starter and being out-played by lightly regarded second-year backup John Skelton, who won five out of his seven starts. Kolb played well in a season-opening win against Carolina, but a case of turf toe and concussion-related symptoms interrupted his season, and his final stats were less than impressive: 57.7 completion rate, nine touchdowns, eight interceptions, with a 81.1 rating and 30 sacks absorbed in just nine games. Due a $7 million roster bonus this week, and with the Cardinals very much involved in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes, Kolb knows his future as an NFL starter again looks quite tenuous.

Matt Cassel

• What he did to make someone want him: He did a fairly credible Tom Brady impression, that's what. In 2008, after reigning NFL MVP Brady went out with a season-ending knee injury in the first half of the season opener against Kansas City, Cassel took over the reins of the Patriots offense and kept the ball rolling. No, New England didn't make the playoffs that season, somehow missing out at 11-5. But Cassel was a revelation, becoming the only known quarterback in league history to start an NFL game without ever having started a game in college, and twice winning the AFC's Offensive Player of the Week honors in 2008. Despite barely any playing time to speak of in his first three seasons, the 2005 seventh-round pick wound up throwing for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns in '08, leading New England to slap the franchise tag on him (at a $14 million salary) in February 2009.

• What someone gave up for him: The Chiefs scored a significant coup when they dealt a second-round pick (34th overall) to New England for both Cassel and veteran linebacker Mike Vrabel. While some critics of the trade thought Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had gift-wrapped a sweetheart deal for his former top personnel man, new Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, there was even more ex-Patriot fallout to come. Denver was another team interested in obtaining Cassel, and once that news leaked, the relationship between Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler and new Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels was essentially finished. Cutler was traded to Chicago later that offseason.

• How did that work out?: The Chiefs were so certain Cassel was their quarterback of the future that they quickly signed him to a six-year, $62.7 million contract extension in July 2009, before he had ever started a game for them. The results have been mixed, but the clear-cut highlight was Cassel's performance in 2010, when he led Kansas City to a 10-6 record and the AFC West title, the Chiefs' first playoff appearance in four years. Cassel threw 27 touchdowns and just seven interceptions that season and made the Pro Bowl. But he played in just nine games last season before injuries ended his year, and his 18-21 overall record and 80.0 passer rating in 39 career starts in K.C. have the Chiefs at least willing to bring in competition for Cassel in 2012.

 
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