There is a difference between a quarterback controversy and a quarterback catastrophe.
The Jets had a quarterback controversy in the preseason: Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith, two imperfect solutions that at least qualified as possible solutions. Controversies rarely involve Joe Montana and Steve Young, but when the coach says "let the best man win," there is at least a slim chance that there actually is a best man.
A quarterback catastrophe is an injury/ineffectiveness plague that forces a team to start grabbing quarterbacks off golf courses and sending them right into the huddle. The Bills are currently dealing with a classic catastrophe. Rookie EJ Manuel keeps getting injured. Veteran Kevin Kolb suffered a serious training camp concussion (and a less serious slip-and-fall incident). Jeff Tuel leapt from undrafted rookie onto the field for two ugly quarters in Cleveland and may rise again. Matt Leinart showed up for a week, then vanished. Thad Lewis, acquired in late August, started in Week 6, played well, then suffered a foot injury that required an MRI. The Bills are now "interested" in Matt Flynn, in the way a starving person is interested in rice cakes.
The Bills crisis is both unfortunate and fascinating, but can it grow into an all-time catastrophe? The worst (best, for rubberneckers) quarterback situations involve many quarterbacks, most of them obscure, including one or two that received job offers while lying on the beach in mid-September. They often include franchise dissention, something that is absent in Buffalo. A good (bad) quarterback catastrophe can be more memorable than a humdrum 9-7 season. It can even define a team, or galvanize a future champion.
Here are six quarterback catastrophes from post-merger NFL history that are worse (better) than what the Bills are experiencing right now. Of course, it is only Week 6. There is still time for Joe Ferguson to come out of retirement and send the Bills rocketing up the countdown.
6. 1984 Chicago Bears
The Bears were one year away from shuffling into the record books in 1984. Most of the pieces of one of the NFL's most historic teams were in place: the defense, Mike Ditka, Walter Payton. All that was missing was a backup quarterback for always-injured Jim McMahon, someone who could hand off to Payton and let the defense do its work. For some reason, the Bears could not find that quarterback in 1984.
Bob Avellini, who had been with the team for a decade, broke camp as McMahon's backup. McMahon suffered both hand and back injuries in the second game of the season, so the Bears used him as a five-inning pitcher for a while, keeping him in the game until the Bears had a full lead or he could take no more, then inserting Avellini. But Avellini threw a pick-six after changing a play in Week 4, sparking a 38-9 loss to the Seahawks. Ditka demoted the longtime backup, then released him.
Rusty Lisch became McMahon's middle reliever. Lisch backed up Joe Montana at Notre Dame, finally earning a starting job as a fifth-year senior when Montana entered the NFL. In four seasons with the Cardinals, Lisch threw 30 passes, good for one touchdown and five interceptions. Lisch managed to throw four more interceptions in 22 relief passes with the Bears, so Ditka promoted Steve Fuller to second string while McMahon enjoyed a brief stretch of good health and the Bears pummeled opponents.
Fuller, a scrambling former first-round pick who had started a few seasons for the Chiefs, briefly gave the Bears the caretaker backup they needed. McMahon suffered a lacerated kidney in November, and Fuller guided the Bears to two wins and a loss, helping the Bears to clinch a playoff berth by the time he separated his shoulder on December 3 against the Chargers. Lisch entered the game, and the Bears were forced to punt 11 times in a 20-7 loss. "At times out there, I was a little jittery," Lisch said after the game. "I got a little rattled."
Lisch started the next week against the Packers, competing just 10 of 23 passes with yet another interception. With the game close, Ditka unveiled his super-secret quarterback weapon: Walter Payton. Eliminating the middle man with a proto-Wildcat was not a crazy idea, because Payton had thrown several successful halfback option passes during the season, and defenses were loading up to stop him anyway. But Payton was 1-of-4 for one two-yard touchdown and an interception as a quarterback against the Packers, and the Bears lost.
With the playoffs looming and a running back playing quarterback, Ditka signed 38-year old Greg Landry for the season finale. Landry left the NFL in 1981 but had a USFL stint in 1983, making him slightly more viable than Lisch or Payton. Landry threw three interceptions, but he also threw one touchdown and rushed for another as the Bears defense produced 13 sacks in a 30-13 win over the Lions.
Fuller returned for the playoffs and was good enough to manage a win against the Redskins. McMahon's backups combined for six touchdowns, 13 interceptions, and a 3-4 record for a team with a soon-to-be-legendary defense.
What happened next? Fuller stayed healthy in 1985 and went 4-1 as a starter on the Super Bowl run. He was so important to the Bears that he is prominently featured in the "Super Bowl Shuffle" song. Lisch left football quickly after 1984 and is now a hospital project engineer; his son Kevin Lisch is a pro basketball player. Avellini left football in 1984 and is now in the real estate relief business. Landry coached in the NFL and college for years, serving as Ditka's offensive coordinator later in his Bears glory years.
We'll be seeing the punky QB known as McMahon again very shortly.
5. 1977 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers went 0-14 in their expansion 1976 season, but at least they had former Heisman winner Steve Spurrier at quarterback to provide a smidgen of professionalism and credibility. Spurrier retired after that season, and who could blame him? The Bucs signed Eagles journeyman Mike Boryla and failed Bears prospect Gary "The Magic Dragon" Huff, but both got hurt in the preseason. That left them with Randy Hedberg, an eighth-round rookie from Minot State, as their opening day starter. Fans adopted a "Why not Minot?" slogan after Hedberg's preseason heroics made him the Jeff Tuel of the mid-70s. They would soon learn the answer to that question.
Hedberg took so many hits behind a horrendous offensive line in his first two starts that he frequently had to be helped off the field. Huff returned for a few weeks, then fractured a rib in a loss to the Packers. Hedberg replaced Huff and suffered a concussion so severe that he could not find his locker.
Jeb Blount, acquired off the waiver wire from the defending champion Raiders in the offseason, came on for four starts, zero touchdowns, seven interceptions, and four losses, plus 18 sacks in 69 pass attempts. Hedberg and Huff returned to absorb the punishment for two more games. Finally, Huff beat the Saints in the penultimate week of the season for the first win in Bucs history. Actually, the Tampa Bay defense returned two Archie Manning interceptions and a fumble for touchdowns, but beggars cannot be choosers. The Bucs offense scored just seven touchdowns all season. The Magic Dragon, Why Not Minot, and Blount combined for three touchdowns, 30 interceptions, and a 40.8% completion rate.
What happened next? The Bucs drafted Doug Williams in 1978. Huff stuck around for a year, then resurfaced as a player-coach in the USFL. Hedberg entering the college coaching ranks, and is now the quarterbacks coach at Southern Illinois. Blount entered the oil business.
4. 1974 Atlanta Falcons
Falcons coach Norm Van Brocklin was a hard person to deal with in the best of times. The preseason players strike of 1974 was the worst of times. The Dutchman, a staunch Nixon supporter who would criticize his players after routine losses (he liked to say they spent the week with "the Peachtree whores" instead of the playbook) announced to veteran leader/player representative Ken Reaves that he was traded while Reaves was walking the picket line. "You and your sign have been traded to New Orleans," he told one of the most respected Falcons. "He considers every player but Tommy Nobis to be a &^%$," guard Andy Maurer told his hometown paper in the summer of 1974. Maurer was also traded.
Because Van Brocklin considered everyone but his Pro Bowl linebacker to be a commie or a &^%$, playing quarterback for the former Rams and Eagles superstar was quite a challenge. Bob Lee was one of the few people who may have earned a Nobis exemption from The Dutchman. Lee was a punter first and a quarterback second, but as the Vikings coach, Van Brocklin once benched Fran Tarkenton for Lee just to prove a point about scrambling.
Van Brocklin grabbed Lee from the Vikings in 1973 and inserted him into the lineup when starter Dick Shiner got hurt. Lee had one of those magical runs backup quarterbacks often have: The Falcons went 8-2 on the strength of Nobis' defense, a great running game, and journeyman efforts by a punter-quarterback.
But that was before the strike, when a handful of Falcons players may have still respected their coach.
Lee went 4-of-22 in his first start of 1974 and threw three interceptions in his second start. Shiner had already been traded, so Van Brocklin turned to Pat Sullivan, the 1972 Heisman trophy winner at Auburn. Sullivan threw one touchdown and eight interceptions in four losses. Lee returned, but the players who Van Brocklin had not traded away were just going through the motions. Van Brocklin's tirades grew crazier. After one game, he threatened to stack chairs and fight reporters during a press conference. (Van Brocklin hated sportswriters even more than players and hippies). He was fired in favor of defensive coordinator Marion Campbell.
Kim McQuilken, a third-round rookie from Lehigh, started the final two games of the year. McQuilken threw zero touchdowns and nine interceptions in 79 attempts stretched across those two starts and some relief appearances. "A reporter came up to me afterward and told me I threw the ball 27 times and never handed it off," McQuilken told the Allentown Morning Call decades after a 1974 appearance against the Rams. "I didn't know that. All I knew was that, as usual, I was out there getting killed." McQuilken's career stats -- four touchdowns, 29 interceptions, a 39.7% completion rate -- are arguably the worst of any quarterback's in modern history, but the circumstances surrounding his career must be taken into account. "The only thing I can think of in the same league with our season is Watergate," said running back Dave Hampton in 1974, with both events fresh in his mind.
What happened next? The Falcons drafted Steve Bartkowski the next year, and he stuck around as their primary quarterback for most of the next 11 seasons. Lee returned to Minnesota to punt and back up Tarkenton. Sullivan became a businessman, then a broadcaster, and finally a college coach. McQuilken bounced around, played in the USFL, and entered private business.
Van Brocklin retired to his pecan farm. When he had a brain tumor removed, he told reporters: "It was a brain transplant. They gave me a sportswriter's brain, to make sure I got one that hadn't been used."
Matt Winkeljohn's Tales from the Atlanta Falcons Sideline was an invaluable resource for this segment.
3. 1992 New England Patriots
Young fans who have grown up with the highly-professional, well-financed Robert Kraft Patriots cannot imagine what an insolvent, disorganized mess the franchise was just 20 years ago. Victor Kiam, the team's majority owner for just three years, was deep in debt to his investors by 1991. After months of chaos and rumors, he sold his controlling interest to James Orthwein, one of his partners/lenders. Both Kiam and Orthwein were eager to move the Patriots to St. Louis or Baltimore because they could not make any money in New England from stadium revenue. The stadium rights were held by some guy named Kraft.
While Kiam and Orthwein wheeled and dealt, the Patriots played like a team whose owner was broke and hoping to skip town. Six years had passed since the team lost the Super Bowl XX to the Bears. In that time, one-time Class of 1983 prospect Tony Eason was knocked out of the league by shoulder injuries, the team drove gritty Steve Grogan until his tires fell off, and Doug Flutie made a guest appearance on his way to Canada. Former Syracuse head coach Dick MacPherson replaced Raymond Berry, and he tried to cheaply spackle over the quarterback problem with a 28-year old Plan B free agent (don't ask) named Hugh Millen. When Millen led four fourth-quarter comebacks and the penniless, orphaned Patriots won six games in 1991, MacPherson earned Coach of the Year honors.
A quarterback who wins the majority of his games by comebacks is a quarterback who falls behind in almost all of his games, and Millen started the 1992 season with four losses by a combined score of 119-34. He also suffered 28 sacks in five games before suffering an MCL tear and separated non-throwing shoulder. Tommy Hodson, a big-armed former prospect who got lost in the shuffle of coaching and ownership troubles, played well in a 38-17 loss to the Dolphins, but McPherson turned back to Millen the following week. The injury report from two sentences ago is enough to tell you that Millen was in no condition to return after one week. Newspapers questioned and criticized the decision, quipping that Millen must have "made a trip to Lourdes." Millen played well for a man who should have been in traction, but cooler heads prevailed after one start, and Millen was given time off.
Still winless, the Patriots gave Hodson three starts to get knocked around before fracturing a thumb. Up next was rookie fourth-round pick Scott Zolak, who threw two touchdowns in an overtime win against the Colts, then completed just seven passes in a 16-7 win over the Jets. The Patriots followed that brief surge with a 34-0 loss to the Falcons, which is when things got really weird.
MacPherson was hospitalized with acute diverticulitis. Dante Scarnecchia took over, with an assist from team president Sam Jankovich, and MacPherson stated that he would not get involved with coaching decisions until he could return to the sideline. But when Millen suddenly got a clean bill of health from the wishful thinkers on the Patriots medical staff, MacPherson bootlegged around his boss, assistant, and Zolak, appointing Millen the starter. It was the only time a coach in a hospital ever started a quarterback who should have been in a hospital.
Millen completed 5-of-11 passes before getting drilled to the ground before halftime, aggravating his not-really-healed shoulder. Zolak was worse in a 6-0 loss where the two quarterbacks were sacked eight times. "They say adversity builds character," Millen said. "Well, we have 50 aspiring monks."
In early November, the Patriots signed Jeff Carlson as an emergency quarterback. Carlson had thrown six interceptions in three games with the Bucs and failed a tryout with the Giants. He was reportedly "soaking up the sun" in Florida when the Patriots called him. When Zolak injured his ankle on a rainy afternoon in Kansas City, Carlson became the Patriots quarterback.
Carson held his own through three losses, executing a hyper-simplified gameplan, but his final mistake of the 1992 season is still legendary. With the Patriots trailing 16-13 in the final seconds, Carlson panicked on a routine pass over the middle and took a sack that knocked the team out of field goal range. "You keep training quarterbacks not to do that, but they keep getting hurt and you have to keep training new ones," Scarnecchia said.
What happened next? Orthwein put an end to the chaos by hiring Bill Parcells and drafting Drew Bledsoe. Zolak stuck around as Bledsoe's backup. Hodson bounced around the league, then moved back to Baton Rouge, where he is well remembered for his days at LSU. Carlson is a broadcaster. Millen backed up John Elway for a few years.
After a protracted game of financial tug-of-war, Orthwein sold the team to Kraft, and the modern Patriots era began.
2. 1991 Phoenix Cardinals
Timm Rosenbach looked like a franchise quarterback. Selected as a first-round pick in the 1989 Supplemental Draft, Rosenbach had the size, arm, and speed to succeed, throwing for 3,098 yards and 16 touchdowns in 1990. But Rosenbach also took a lot of hits, which may have set him up for a fluke injury in 1991 training camp. Rosenbach's knee buckled during a non-contact goalline drill, ending his season.
Rosenbach's backup was Tom Tupa, the former Ohio State punter who threw three touchdowns and nine interceptions in spot duty in 1989. Tupa had the size to be an NFL quarterback, and he replaced Mike Tomczak as the Buckeyes quarterback for one undistinguished season, but he was the type of quarterback/punter that the NFL was already moving away from in Bob Lee's day. Still, head coach Joe Bugel was so confident in Tupa that he did not bother acquiring a veteran backup. Craig Krupp, a fifth-round pick a year earlier who played his college football at Montana Tech and Pacific Lutheran, began the season as the only other quarterback on the roster.
Tupa played rather well in his first start, a win over the Rams. He completed just 6-of-19 passes in his second start, but the Cardinals beat an Eagles team we will meet in a few paragraphs. Tupa threw three interceptions in his third start, a 34-0 loss to the Redskins. Krupp saw the only NFL action of his life in that game, completing 3-of-7 passes.
At this point, it dawned on the Cardinals that backing up a punter-quarterback with a kid who played at two of the most obscure programs on earth was not a formula for success. So the team signed Stan Gelbaugh, a sidearm passer who had flunked tryouts with the Cowboys, Bills, Bengals, Saskatchewan Roughriders, and Hamilton TigerCats, among others. Gelbaugh starred in the World League of American Football (which later became NFL Europe), a developmental league the Cardinals used as a talent pipeline. Gelbaugh was selling office supplies when he got the call from the Cardinals.
A few weeks later, Gelbaugh replaced Tupa. "He deserves a battlefield promotion," coach Joe Bugel said. Gelbaugh looked okay in his first start, threw four interceptions in his second, and two more before getting benched in his third.
Meanwhile, a once-promising, oft-injured prospect named Chris Chandler had run afoul of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers management. Tampa Bay had traded a first-round pick for Chandler, who would one day be nicknamed Crystal Chandelier, then was shocked to discover that the quarterback who could not stay healthy for the Colts could also not stay healthy for the Bucs. The Bucs waived Chandler in November. By mid-December, Chandler was the Cardinals starter, with Tupa as the backup and Gelbaugh back at third string.
Chandler started two games, losing both. He got injured (surprise!) in the second, and Gelbaugh threw three interceptions in mop-up relief. The final tally: 10 touchdowns, 25 interceptions, five starts by quarterbacks who were not on the opening day starter, and some of the most mind-boggling wishful thinking at the quarterback position in NFL history.
What happened next? Tupa devoted himself to punting full-time after 1991. Chandler slowly overcame his injury problems and became a solid backup-for-hire. Gelbaugh kept making the rounds as a spunky sidearmer; his Seahawks teams a few years later would earn honorable mention on this list. Kupp is now a banker in Washington.
Rosenbach grew fed up with NFL life after suffering two more injuries in 1992. He quit the game soon after. The Cardinals goofed around with Chandler and rusty veterans like Jay Schroeder and Jim McMahon for years after 1991, finally drafting Jake Plummer in 1997.
1. 1991 Philadelphia Eagles
Randall Cunningham looked indestructible when he scrambled, not because he was so hard, but because he was so soft: Cunningham could bend and twist like a pool noodle when hit in the open field, and he reformed like memory foam. So naturally, he suffered his season-ending 1991 injury while standing in the pocket. Just one quarter of football into his tenure as the Eagles head coach, Rich Kotite needed a backup plan.
Fortunately, that backup plan was Jim McMahon, an expert on helming teams with outstanding defenses. The Eagles had an outstanding defense, developed by Buddy Ryan but coached by the more disciplined Bud Carson.
Unfortunately, having McMahon as a backup plan guarantees that a team will need a backup backup plan. McMahon absorbed at least a dozen hits in his first start, a loss to the Cardinals (and Tupa), but while Kotite sent Brad Goebel into the game for some fourth quarter relief, he felt confident that McMahon could survive 16 games. "I think he can last the whole season, no question," the coach said. "Unless an accident happens."
McMahon won two games and absorbed more punishment. Soon, he was undergoing mysterious shoulder MRIs and throwing left-handed in practice. Kotite stuck with McMahon but signed an insurance policy: Career Jets backup Pat Ryan, who had last played (badly) in 1989. Ryan had already filed his NFL retirement papers and was playing golf in Tennessee when the Eagles called him.
In fairness to Kotite, McMahon did not injure his shoulder in a Monday night start against the Redskins. He sprained his knee instead. Ryan completed four passes for 24 yards and threw three interceptions in relief, with some incompletions bouncing yards in front of their targets. Goebel finished the game and took over as the Eagles starter.
Goebel was an undrafted rookie who missed his senior season at Baylor with injuries. In two losses, he was 21-of-42 for 168 yards (eight yards per completion) and six interceptions. The final scores of those losses were 14-13 and 13-6; the Eagles only touchdown was on a fumble recovery. The Eagles defense was amazing. If they could only find a merely bad quarterback, as opposed to an utterly unprepared or previously retired one, they could reach the playoffs.
Jeff Kemp was a bad quarterback. The Seahawks released Kemp -- son of former Bills star, then-current cabinet member, and future vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp -- after he threw 12 interceptions in five starts. The Eagles gobbled him up. They also looked at McMahon's surgically repaired knee after their bye week and said "why not?" McMahon started against the 49ers but re-aggravated his knee. Kemp entered the game, played a few snaps, attempted one pass, then had his head slammed against a defender's knee while being driven to the turf. He was unconscious for two minutes. "Jeff Kemp doesn't remember the hit, the fall, the stretcher ride off the field or the trip in the ambulance to the hospital," Phil Anastasia wrote for Gannett. Goebel finished the game.
Kemp declared himself "OK" that night and was listed as probable for the next game.
Fortunately, McMahon also declared himself "OK," and the 3-5 Eagles suddenly embarked on a winning streak with the help of a quarterback just healthy enough to stay out of the way of his own defense. The Philly-legendary "House of Pain" game against the Oilers occurred during the winning streak. Eagles fans remember their defense forcing five fumbles and terrorizing the tiny Oilers run-'n'-shoot receivers over the middle. They forget that elbow tendinitis sidelined McMahon in the second half. Kemp, weeks removed from his stretcher ride, threw the only touchdown in a 13-6 win.
With the Eagles in the playoff hunt, McMahon made one more start. He broke four ribs against the Giants. He spent the early part of the week in intensive care, but the Eagles would not rule him out for the following Sunday. Reality eventually dawned on them. Kemp took over the starting job, and former Falcons backup David Archer, out of the NFL for over a year, signed on as the new Kemp. Miraculously, he was not needed. Kemp survived the last two games, but he could not beat the Cowboys. The Eagles missed the playoffs despite a 10-6 record. That may have been a good thing: The way they were going, someone might have gotten killed.
What happened next? Cunningham returned in 1992. He helped Kotite and Carson lead the Eagles to a playoff victory, something Buddy Ryan never managed. McMahon somehow survived five more seasons in the NFL, one more with the Eagles, the final two as Brett Favre's backup in Green Bay. Goebel played a few games for the Browns, then retired to a real estate career. Kemp retired after 1991 and is now involved in marriage ministry. Ryan is in the construction business in Tennessee.
The 1991 Eagles had one of the best defenses in NFL history, and they may have been the best team ever to miss the playoffs because of a complete quarterback disaster.