IN THIS SPECIAL PROJECT, SKOR NORTH’S MATTHEW COLLER AND PRO FOOTBALL FOCUS DATA SCIENTIST ERIC EAGER HAVE TEAMED UP TO INVESTIGATE THE GREATEST SEASONS EVER PLAYED BY JOURNEYMAN QUARTERBACKS. WE WILL RELEASE THE CREATION IN CHAPTERS… FOR CHAPTER 2, THE COUNTDOWN FROM THE 15th TO 11TH BEST JOURNEYMAN SEASONS…..
This book has a bit of everything. First-round quarterbacks. Undrafted quarterbacks. Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, as well as quarterbacks that never even won a playoff game. With the inclusion of Scott Mitchell, we can add “left-handed quarterback” to the list.
Mitchell, of The Biggest Loser fame, joined the NFL as a fourth-round pick in the 1990 draft out of Utah. Don Shula, Miami’s record-setting coach, drafted Mitchell as insurance behind Dan Marino, Miami’s record-setting quarterback. In Mitchell’s first three seasons premiums were paid without any claims made – Marino started all 16 games in each of the 1990, 1991 and 1992 seasons, and in 1992 he led the league in completions, attempts, and was the league’s only 4,000-yard passer, guiding the Dolphins to an AFC East title and a berth in the AFC Championship Game. Mitchell threw eight passes during that time, serving as the holder of the 1992 team.
Mitchell’s inactivity changed in 1993, when Marino tore his Achilles tendon during their fifth game, a 24-14 win in Cleveland. Mitchell stepped in and threw two touchdowns in that game, and five in his first four starts as a pro – generating a 3-1 record before being hurt during Shula’s 325th career win, a record-setter in which future Eagles coach Doug Pederson relieved him in the second half. He would return to the starting lineup for the final three games of the season, but by then the Dolphins were in the middle of taking a 9-2 record to 9-7 and missing the playoffs, and while Mitchell played well enough for the entire league to take notice as he approached free agency the following spring.
After winning a bidding war with the Vikings, the Detroit Lions, coming off of an NFC Central title in 1993 (still their last division title as of this writing), signed Mitchell to a three-year, $11 million deal to replace a quarterback room that included long-time starter Rodney Peete, fellow journeyman Erik Kramer and former first-round pick Andre Ware. Lions coach Wayne Fontes had been notorious for his happy feet with these three players, starting Peete 28 times, Kramer 15 times and Ware 5 times during the 1991, 1992 and 1993 seasons. That the Lions won two division titles and made an NFC Championship Game during that stretch implied that figuring out the quarterback position would propel them to the next level.
Such elevation did not occur in Mitchell’s first year, where the tall lefty failed to complete more than 50 percent of his passes in nine starts, throwing more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10). It had gotten so bad for the Lions offense under Mitchell, that Lomas Brown admitted decades later to missing his block on purpose to get Mitchell injured in favor of veteran Dave Krieg. While this story seems sketchy, at best, Krieg was the better quarterback in 1994 than Mitchell by a country mile, completing over 61 percent of his passes and throwing 14 touchdown passes to just three interceptions, going 5-2 as a starter and guiding the Lions to a playoff berth and a 9-7 record. A week 17 Minnesota Vikings win over a San Francisco 49ers team resting their starters meant the Lions would not defend their NFC Central title, and would have to play on the road in Green Bay (their fifth such encounter with the Packers in the 1994 calendar year) in the Wild Card round. They would lose 16-12 in a game where star running back Barry Sanders managed -1 yards rushing. Krieg would join the Arizona Cardinals the following year to be their starting quarterback, opening the door for Mitchell to start anew in 1995.
Much like the Fonts during his tenure with Detroit, Mitchell started slowly in 1995, and was furiously playing for his job thereafter. In losses to Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Arizona to start the season, the Lions quarterback completed 62 of 105 passes for 691 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. The Lions offense put up fewer than 16 points per game to open the season, and questions arose as to if the Lions were going to be able to three-peat as playoff participants in the NFC.
Things turned around a bit, though, when Mitchell threw for 291 yards and a touchdown in a home win against the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers at the Silverdome. Sanders, arguably the league’s best player at the time, was held to just 24 yards on 17 carries, forcing Mitchell and wide receivers Brett Perriman (nine catches for 115 yards) and Herman Moore (six for 73 and a touchdown) to carry the offense. Jason Hansen, one of the best kickers of his era, finished off the 49ers with a 32-yard field goal, a feat that soon-to-be-ex-San Francisco kicker Doug Brien could not replicate, missing a 40 yarder at the buzzer.
The Lions moved to 2-3 with a 38-20 win over the Cleveland Browns, a team that started 3-1 but went into the tank after learning they were moving to Baltimore. Mitchell threw for another 273 yards and two touchdowns in the affair.
In the first of two games against the Packers in three weeks, the Lions fell behind 20-0 and 27-7 in Lambeau Field before a furious comeback would have them within a score into the fourth quarter. Mitchell threw touchdown passes to second-year third receiver Johnnie Morton and two to Moore, touchdowns that would ultimately not be enough, and they would lose 30-21. The Lions would not win in Green Bay until 2015.
They lost the following week in Washington, 36-30, despite 327 yards and three touchdowns by Mitchell on 50 pass attempts. After going ahead 30-27 on a 51-yard touchdown pass from Mitchell to Perriman, the Lions surrendered a 39-yard field goal to long-time Lion Eddie Murray to send the game into overtime, where Mitchell threw his one and only interception of the day, which was returned for a touchdown by Hall of Famer Darrell Green to secure a victory for the team out of D.C.
Mitchell and the Lions rebounded in their rematch with the Packers in Detroit, but fell the following week in Atlanta, 34-22, in a game where Mitchell threw two interceptions and failed to achieve 50 percent completion. The Lions were at 3-6, out of the playoff hunt, and rumors of Fonts demise were palpable. Mitchell’s statistics were good, but with a record of 7-11 as the starter of the Lions post contract, people were wondering whether they were better off with Rodney Peete and Erik Kramer at the helm.
Just when they were considered dead, the Lions would rattle off seven consecutive victories. In the first, against an upstart Tampa Bay team, Mitchell threw for 260 and a touchdown, while rushing for another to put the Bucs away in the fourth quarter. Against the Bears at Soldier Field, Mitchell would leave with an injury after only 12 attempts, leaving the game-winning touchdown pass to fellow journeyman Don Majkowski, who hit Moore with an 11-yard pass after the former Lion Kramer tied the game with a one-yard run in the fourth quarter. Moore, on his way to setting the NFL record with 123 catches in 1995, caught 6 for 68 on the day, while Brett Perriman, who also had over 100 catches on the year, hauled in 12 for 142.
Mitchell returned four days later to play the Vikings on Thanksgiving Day, and was magnificent. The Lions went ahead 14-0 on two touchdown passes from Mitchell to Perriman, only to fall behind 28-24 by halftime, due to two Warren Moon touchdown passes and two special teams touchdowns by Minnesota. The Lions offense would prevail, though, with Moore’s 27-yard touchdown from Mitchell putting the Lions up 34-31 and Sanders’ 50-yard scamper finishing The Purple. Mitchell finished the day with 410 yards and four touchdowns, while three separate Lions receivers eclipsed the 100-yard mark.
Three first-half touchdown passes by Mitchell buried the Bears in their rematch, 27-7, and while it wasn’t pretty, he threw two more touchdowns to Moore in a 24-17 win against a plucky Oilers team in Houston to put them at 8-6. A 44-0 win against the expansion Jaguars required only 19 completions and two touchdowns from Mitchell, but a blowout win in Tampa on the last Saturday of the season had Mitchell throw the ball 41 times for 352 yards and two touchdowns, one each to Perriman and Moore.
At 10-6, the Lions were the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs, and were traveling to play the Philadelphia Eagles, coached by first-year coach Ray Rhodes and quarterbacked by Peete, who replaced Randall Cunningham mid-season and had almost twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. The Lions were three-point road favorites, and Brown guaranteed a Lions win the week of the game.
Browns’ prediction would not come to fruition, as the Lions, despite tying the score at seven on a 32-yard touchdown pass from Mitchell to tight end David Sloan, would fall behind 38-7 by halftime and eventually 51-7. The lefty would throw four interceptions on just 28 pass attempts, with one of them being returned for a touchdown. Peete was brilliant, throwing for 270 yards and three touchdowns, including a Hail Mary to Rob Carpenter to close out the first half. The Lions came back a bit on three Majkowski touchdown passes, but ultimately fell 58-37.
Despite the horrific end, the Lions saved Fonts’ job and had a franchise quarterback in Mitchell, who was second in the league in passing yards (4,338), third in touchdowns (32) and finished with a passer rating of 92.3. Sanders finished the year with an even 1,500 rushing yards, while Moore and Perriman set an NFL record for receptions by a receiving duo. The Lions were a team presumably heading in the right direction.
Until they weren’t. The Lions have yet to win a playoff game since that loss in Philly. Four interceptions on opening day against the Vikings in Minnesota got the 1996 season off to a poor start for their franchise quarterback, and while the Lions righted the ship a bit to a 4-2 start, they would lose nine of their last 10 games en route to a 5-11 season in which Mitchell would throw only 17 touchdowns versus 17 interceptions. The long-awaited firing of Fonts would be realized, with the Lions opting for Chargers coach Bobby Ross in 1997.
Mitchell entered the 1997 season with a new, four-year, $21 million contract, and largely played better, completing almost 58 percent of his passes for about 3,500 yards and 19 touchdowns. On the back of Sanders’ 2,000-yard rushing season, the Lions would make the playoffs again at 9-7, before bowing out 20-10 to an upstart Tampa Bay team in Tampa. Mitchell would start the first two games of the 1998 season, both losses, before losing his job permanently to rookie Charlie Batch. He started the season opener for the Ravens in 1999 (in Brian Billick’s first game as head coach) but would lose his job after only two starts again. He finished his career in Cincinnati with the Bengals. Throwing 11 interceptions to just three touchdowns in five starts, completing less than 48 percent of his passes in The Jungle.
Mitchell’s career ended after 71 starts in 99 games. He compiled a record of 32-39 (27-30 with the Lions). He threw 14 more touchdowns (95) than interceptions (81), but except for 1995, he always struggled with accuracy, failing to complete more than 50 percent of his passes from 1998 on. His 1995 season was one of many great pop ups that year, but his was arguably the best of them, shepherding a magical run that momentarily saved Fonts’ job and restoring the roar in Detroit, if only for a short time.
It’s rare that an NFL quarterback gets to be a part of three decades, but the subject of this chapter, Steve DeBerg, accomplished that feat with some room to spare. Like many of the quarterbacks in this book, DeBerg was drafted in a round that is no longer a part of the modern NFL draft, in case the 10th round, by the Dallas Cowboys in 1977 out of San Jose State University. After being beat out by fellow rookie Glenn Carano, DeBerg would leave Dallas and join the 49ers practice squad and later earn 35 starts for the team, before joining Denver, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Tampa Bay again, Miami and, finally, Atlanta in 1998 after a four-season hiatus. During his time in the NFL, he was the “quarterback before” Joe Montana in San Fran, John Elway in Denver, Steve Young and Vinny Testaverde in Tampa Bay. Despite this, he accumulated 140 career starts and played in another 66 games, throwing 196 touchdowns (to 204 interceptions). I
In DeBerg’s signature season, however, he led the NFL in avoiding interceptions, throwing only four in 444 passing attempts in 1990. In that season, the Kansas City Chiefs’ second under long-time NFL coaching legend Marty Schottenheimer, the Chiefs were a ground-and-pound football team. Their running back, Christian Okoye (the “Nigerian Nightmare”), was coming off a 1989 season where he led the league in rushing and Kansas City improved from 4-11-1 to 8-7-1. Paired with another bruising back, Barry Word, Okoye would lead a Chiefs offense that would run the ball 504 times and throw it only 512 times (counting sacks). DeBerg, coming off a season where he shared the job with veteran Ron Jaworski and threw 16 interceptions to just 11 touchdowns while completing 60.5 percent of his passes, had one job: manage games.
And manage them he did. In week 1 against the defending NFC Central champion and the NFL’s best defense in 1989, DeBerg, known as one of the best play-action passers in the NFL, turned two of his 16 pass attempts into touchdown passes, while throwing for just under 200 yards and taking only one sack. They would win the game, setting up a matchup in Denver against the Broncos.
In what would be yet another loss for the Chiefs and Marty Schottenheimer in Denver (the Chiefs hadn’t won there since 1982 and Marty had never secured a victory at Mile High Stadium), DeBerg was excellent, completing 26 of 45 passes for almost 400 yards and two more touchdowns. He and wide receiver Stephone Paige connected for two touchdowns, the second from 83 yards away, to take a 21-9 deficit to a 23-21 lead, before John Elway set up David Treadwell for the game-winning field goal to drop the Chiefs 24-23.
After back-to-back ho-hum games in victories at Green Bay and at home against the Browns, where he completed a combined 21 of 42 passes, DeBerg struggled mightily in a loss to the Colts in Indy, throwing 75 percent of his season total of interceptions in that game, going 16-36 for 212 yards in a 23-19 loss in the Hoosier Dome.
On his way to a 1,000-yard season, Word emerged against the Lions, rushing for 200 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries (Okoye had 91 and two touchdowns on 23 carries) in a 43-24 home win that brought their record to 4-2. DeBerg played well enough in that game, throwing for a touchdown and 256 yards, and would throw for over 200 yards in a perplexing 19-7 loss on the road in Seattle (who used to play in the AFC West) in which the offense turned the ball over three times. DeBerg’s 59 passing yards were enough to beat the (then) Los Angeles Raiders 9-7 the following the bye week, as their defense forced three turnovers and held Raiders QB Jay Schroeder to 10 of 31 for 139 yards and an interception.
DeBerg would struggle in the completion of the season sweep at the hands of the Seahawks, completing only 16 of 30 passes for 124 yards in a 17-16 loss in which Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Thomas had seven sacks, but could not bring down Seahawks quarterback (and eventual DeBerg successor in Kansas City) Dave Krieg from throwing a last-second game-winning touchdown pass. With a record of five wins and four losses, the Chiefs were in danger of missing the playoffs of the fourth-consecutive season, and needed DeBerg to emerge.
And emerge he did, throwing for three touchdowns in wins against the Chargers and the Raiders, despite throwing for only 320 combined yards in the two games – a number he eclipsed in a 37-7 blowout of the Patriots in New England, where he added two more touchdowns. In a rematch against the Broncos at Arrowhead, he threw three more touchdowns on 18 completions in a 31-20 win.
DeBerg threw his fourth and final regular-season interception in a 27-10 loss at the hands of Warren Moon and the run-and-shoot Houston Oilers at Arrowhead in week 15, a game in which Moon threw for an outrageous 527 yards and three touchdowns against the Chiefs defense. DeBerg would finish the season leading the Chiefs to two-straight road wins, one in San Diego against the Chargers and one in the Windy City against the Bears. Deberg threw for over 500 yards in those contests and two touchdowns, while wearing a large cast on his left hand due to a broken pinky finger.
His career-high passer rating of 96.3 finished behind only Jim Kelly and Moon in 1990. His 23 touchdowns trailed only five other players, and his 3444 passing yards were seventh, and his third-best career mark. In the Chiefs one and only playoff game against the Dolphins in Miami, a 26-yard touchdown to Paige and three Nick Lowery field goals gave Kansas City a 16-3 lead. However, Dan Marino’s two fourth-quarter touchdown passes and a Lowery miss would spell the end to the Chiefs season, the first of six-consecutive playoff appearances for Kansas City. DeBerg would be a part of the second one as well, but his 1991 season would pale in comparison to his charmed 1990 campaign. DeBerg would throw 10 more interceptions and for almost 500 fewer yards in 1991, going 10-5 as a starter and briefly losing his job to Mark Vlasic in week 16 against the 49ers in Candlestick.
While DeBerg would steward the Chiefs to their first playoff win at Arrowhead (and still one of only five such wins, and one of only two from the building’s inception until 2018), a multiple-score loss against the Bills in Buffalo, one where DeBerg would leave after just nine passes with an injury, would be the end of his career in Kansas City, and the end of his era as a team’s starter. He backed up Testaverde again in Tampa in 1992, and split time between the Bucs (as Craig Erickson’s backup) and the Dolphins in 1993.
Dan Marino tore his Achilles in a week 4 game against the Browns in 1993, giving way to Scott Mitchell, who was on his way to earning a big contract with the Lions in the 1994 offseason. However, an injury to Mitchell in Don Shula’s NFL record-setting 325th left the fins with future Eagles head coach Doug Pederson as their only quarterback, forcing them to turn to DeBerg, who had been let go by Tampa Bay. DeBerg would win his first two starts for the Dolphins, including the infamous Thanksgiving snow game in which Leon Lett muffed a blocked Pete Stoyanovich field goal, Miami recovered, and made good on their second opportunity to down the defending champs, 16-14. The 9-2 Dolphins would then lose their remaining five games and miss the AFC playoffs, and DeBerg would retire. He came back in 1998 and backed up Chris Chandler, starting one game in a season that saw the “Dirty Birds” go 14-2 and represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, before finally retiring after the season.
DeBerg was an unbelievable 45 years old when he retired for the final time, generating a 53-86-1 record as a starter and over 34,000 passing yards in the process. He started games for San Francisco, Denver, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Miami and Atlanta. He’s the quintessential journeyman quarterback – a low-round draft choice that had his moments (he led the league in completions and attempts in 1979 – Joe Montana’s rookie year) but was always a bridge to something better. That dynamic was abated briefly in 1990 with the Chiefs, where he helped usher in one of the most-successful stretches in franchise history. Like many a journeyman, though, he was unable to maintain his brilliance, making for a career tailor made for this book.
For the longest time, Doug Flutie was used by football people as evidence for two different scouting truths: A) College stardom doesn’t always translate to the NFL and B) you can’t be under six feet and play quarterback at the highest level.
In 1998, Flutie blew up both of those supposed truisms.
At Boston College, the 5-foot-10 quarterback used his athleticism and wizardry outside the pocket to dominate college football. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1983 and won the award in 1984 — a year that was capped off by his famous Hail Mary pass that beat Bernie Kosar and the Miami Hurricanes.
Despite his success on the field and academically (he was a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship), the NFL simply wasn’t interested. During a stint in the USFL, he was drafted in the 11th round by the Los Angeles Rams, who traded him to Chicago. The Bears eventually traded him to New England, where he played a handful of games over two years. All and all, he started just 14 games between 1986 and 1989 before leaving for the CFL. It appeared at that time his final stat line would be: 9-5 record, 14 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and 63.7 quarterback rating.
After eight wildly successful CFL seasons in which he won three championships and six CFL Most Outstanding Player awards, Buffalo Bills pro personnel director AJ Smith brought Flutie back to the NFL as a backup for Rob Johnson, who the Bills had acquired from Jacksonville in exchange for a first-round pick.
It took all of one week for the oft-injured Johnson to go down. Flutie entered his first NFL game in nine years in the Bills’ opener against the San Diego Chargers. He made some magic, bringing Buffalo back from down 10-0 to take a late 14-13 lead on a touchdown pass to Andre Reed. But Ryan Leaf earned one of his four career wins on a 54-yard John Carney field goal and Johnson was given the job back the following week.
Another opportunity would come in Week 5. With Johnson hurt again, Flutie put on an excellent performance against the downtrodden Indianapolis Colts, going 23-for-28 with 213 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-24 win.
While the victory over Indy was impressive and included some exciting runs and jump passes, it wasn’t until the next week that Flutie’s magic captured the city and earned the league’s shortest QB the starting job for the rest of the year.
On October 18, 1998, the Bills matched up with an AFC favorite in the Jacksonville Jaguars at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Against a Jags team that would eventually finish 11-5, Flutie trailed 16-10 with 1:50 remaining and the ball at his own 30-yard line. Flutie hit Eric Moulds for a 39-yard completion to set the Bills up with a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line. After three straight incompletions, he pulled a QB keeper and ran uncontested into the end zone to seal the 17-16 win.
With their playmaking quarterback at the helm, the Bills ripped off seven wins in the next nine games. They scored 30 or more points five times after the win over the Jags, including an impressive 30-24 win over Dan Marino and the Dolphins and 44-21 drubbing of Jon Gruden’s Oakland Raiders.
By the end of the ‘98 season, Flutie had his own cereal and a spot on the Pro Bowl roster. The Bills lost to the Dolphins in the playoffs but Flutie finished with 360 yards passing.
The following year, Flutie went 10-5 as a starter. He ran more, gaining 476 yards on the ground but did see some regression in the passing game. The former CFL superstar posted only a 75.1 rating and had plenty of help from his No. 2 ranked defense along the way. In Week 16, the Bills beat the Patriots 13-10 but Flutie only gained 212 yards through the air on 35 attempts. That opened the door for questions about whether defenses had figured him out.
In Week 17, Rob Johnson started a meaningless game against the Colts and went 24-for-32 with 287 yards and two touchdowns. The story goes that owner Ralph Wilson demanded coach Wade Phillips start Johnson in the Bills’ playoff game against the Tennessee Titans.
While Johnson did put Buffalo in a position to beat the Titans, Bills fans will always wonder if the Music City Miracle could have been avoided if Flutie had started the game.
In 2000, Johnson went just 4-7 as a starter and Flutie won four of five games in relief but the Bills cut the shorter of the two QBs. Flutie finished his time in Buffalo as the winner of 21 of 30 starts. The Bills went 3-13 in 2001, Johnson’s final season in Buffalo.
Flutie got one more shot with San Diego but they were in full rebuild mode and he went just 5-11. Drew Brees took over as the Chargers’ starter the following season and Flutie remained the backup in 2004. He finished his career as a starter with a 38-28 record.
But Flutie’s career didn’t end there. He spent one season with the Patriots behind Tom Brady. While he only tossed 10 passes as a Pat, Flutie successfully executed a drop kick extra point try against the Miami Dolphins that should go down as one of the all-time great journeyman QB moments.
Since his career ended, Flutie has been a broadcaster, appeared on Dancing with the Stars and played drums in a band with his brother Darren.
His time as the league’s most root-for-able player lasted only three years, but Flutie became one of the great underdog stories in history and is still known as the Bills’ last good quarterback.
Of the quarterbacks in this book, it’s difficult to argue that anyone had a career arc that typified that of a journeyman quarterback than Steve Bono. Drafted in the sixth round by the Minnesota Vikings in the 1985 draft out of UCLA, Bono eventually found his way onto the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1987, starting three games as a “stab” during the player’s strike. His performance, as poor as it was (45.9 percent completion, 5.9 yards per attempt), was enough to keep him on the Steelers roster into 1988, after which he left as a free agent and signed with the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers to back up hall of famers Joe Montana and Steve Young at quarterback.
After throwing a combined five passes in 1989 and 1990 (and winning a ring after the former season), Bono got his first real NFL chance in 1991. Due to an injury in the 1990 NFC Championship Game against the Giants, Montana was unable to play for the entire 1991 season, leaving the door open for Young, who despite moments of brilliance and continued lobbying for the position through the press, had been waiting in the wings since all the way back to the Bill Walsh days of 1987.
Although Young led the NFL in passer rating in his first season as a starter, he was only able to lead San Francisco to a 4-4 record before a knee injury in Atlanta forced him from action. On a 30-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver John Taylor, Bono had the 49ers leading 14-10 in Fulton County Stadium, before a hail mary from another backup, Billy Joe Tolliver, at the buzzer would down the 49ers 17-14. Bono’s first start would result in a road loss in New Orleans, to a team that would eventually win the NFC West, by a score of 10-3. Bono would complete only 15 of 32 passes in the Superdome while succumbing to three sacks.
While the 4-6 49ers would not make the 1991 playoffs, it wasn’t because of Bono, who won his final five starts, including three-consecutive three-touchdown games before giving way to Young via an injury in week 16 against the Chiefs. Despite his impressive 1991 season, he would back Young up again in 1992 and 1993, the former season a league MVP campaign for the left-hander. Like Montana before him, Bono would leave the 49ers before the 1994 season to join the Chiefs. In backing up Montana in 1994, Bono started two games (both losses), and the Chiefs bowed out in the first round of the playoffs via a loss to the Dolphins in Miami.
When Montana retired after the 1994 season, Bono was tapped as his successor. Coming off of six-consecutive winning seasons under head coach Marty Schottenheimer, the Chiefs were predicted by many to finish last in the AFC West as a result of the projected drop off from Montana to Bono, even deridingly chosen to finish sixth (out of five teams) by one writer. These prognostications almost immediately fell on their collective faces, as the Chiefs got off to a 3-0 start. Bono threw three touchdowns in their opening week victory in Seattle, completing over 78 percent of his passes in the process. The following two weeks he threw three more touchdowns in overtime wins against the Giants and Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium. While it was Bono who led the Chiefs offense to a double-digit comeback in the former game, it was a 64-yard interception return by James Hasty that downed the Raiders in the latter week.
After a week 4 loss to the Cleveland Browns (who were on their way to Baltimore at the time), Bono would lead the Chiefs to seven-consecutive wins. In a 24-3 win in the desert against the Cardinals, Bono took a bootleg 76 yards for a touchdown – the longest run play by a quarterback in NFL history up until that point. While 78 yards passing sufficed against the Cardinals, he needed 329 the following week to defeat the defending AFC champion Chargers at Arrowhead. In another overtime affair that ended in a return touchdown, rookie sensation Tamarick Vanover took a San Diego punt and returned it 86 yards for a score. He failed to throw for more than 210 during the next five wins, but the Chiefs were able to score 20 or more points in each affair, due to a defense that forced 11 turnovers during that stretch.
Kansas City would lose two of the next three games, all on the road, the first on Thanksgiving against the eventual Super Bowl champion, the Dallas Cowboys, 24-12 at Texas Stadium. Bono struggled a bit in the game, completing just 20 of 36 passes, with a lone 45-yard touchdown to Lake Dawson in the third quarter. Sandwiched between the two losses was a 29-10 win against the Oakland Raiders in which Bono completed only nine passes and had an interception returned for a touchdown, but the Chiefs were buoyed by 124 yards by hall-of-fame running back Marcus Allen, and another 31 yards and a touchdown from do-it-all back Kimble Anders. In a 13-6 loss at Miami Bono completed only 15 of 37 passes and threw an interception. On Bono’s only touchdown pass, kicker Lin Elliott missed the extra point, his third in two weeks and a precursor for what was to come in the playoffs.
The Chiefs and Bono rebounded the last two weeks of the season, winning divisional home games against the Broncos and Seahawks to finish the season 13-3, the best record in franchise history. Bono started all 16 games for the first and only time in his career, completing 293 of 520 passes for over 3100 yards, with 21 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions, earning a spot on the AFC Pro Bowl team.
With the one seed in their pocket, the Chiefs welcomed the Indianapolis Colts into Arrowhead for the divisional round of the AFC playoffs, and would start a streak of home playoff losses that would extend to the 2018 season (ironically broken against the Colts). Bono was a shell of his Pro Bowl self the entire game, completing only 11 of 25 passes for 122 yards. Despite a horrific game offensively for the Chiefs, they trailed the Colts by a mere field goal going into the fourth quarter, due to an Elliott miss from 35 yards in the first half of the game. However, a 39-yard miss by Elliott, followed by two interceptions by Bono led to future NFL MVP Rich Gannon entering the game to replace Bono, only to have a 13-play, 57-yard drive thwarted by a 42-yard missed field goal by Elliot on the game’s second-to-last play. The Chiefs lost 10-7, blowing one of their best chances to make and win a Super Bowl for the first time since they defeated Minnesota in the league’s fourth such game (a feat they would eventually finally achieve in February of 2020).
Like many a quarterback in this book, Bono looked like Kansas City’s starter moving forward. At 34 years old, he started the 1996 season by helping the Chiefs earn a 4-0 start, the best start in team history. Bono was very efficient in these four games, throwing seven touchdowns to just one interception. However, the wheels eventually came off for Bono and company, losing three of the next four games, with the signal caller throwing six interceptions to just two touchdown passes. Three straight wins, including a victory over eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, did not accompany better play from Bono, who was benched again for Gannon after throwing two interceptions in a 28-14 home loss against the Chargers in week 13. After finishing 9-7 and missing the playoffs for the first time since 1989, the Chiefs would opt for another 49ers backup, Elvin Grbac as their starter for the 1997 season.
Bono would join the Packers in 1997 to back up NFL MVP Brett Favre, before going back to Missouri to back up Tony Banks with the Rams in 1998. He would finish his career by throwing one pass in two games for the 1999 Carolina Panthers. In 15 seasons for seven teams, Bono won two-thirds of his 42 career starts, throwing 20 more touchdowns (62) than interceptions, while completing 54.9 percent of his passes. The former scab quarterback was briefly considered an option to start over Steve Young after his stretch of brilliance in 1991, but really got his chance in 1995 and delivered one of the more memorable seasons in Kansas City history in place of a legend.
Our humble book is filled with improbable seasons and rags-to-riches stories but Jeff Garcia stands on a different plane of unlikely success. His first collegiate experience came in junior college, where he was merely an honorable mention All-American. After transferring to San Jose State, he won just 15 of 33 starts and topped out at just over 2,600 yards as his best single season.
With that resume, becoming a grad assistant coach is the best someone can usually hope to achieve. But he earned a third-string quarterback job with the Calgary Stampeders and eventually became Doug Flutie’s backup. When Flutie got hurt, Garcia came in and had the game of his life, throwing for 546 yards and six touchdowns, sparking a QB controversy that ultimately led to Flutie’s exit.
Whatever clicked for Garcia in that first start never stopped clicking. He won Grey Cup MVP in 1998, which led to his chance to be Steve Young’s backup with the 49ers.
Fate would align again for Garcia as he took over for Young when he suffered an injury in 1999 and eventually retired. The 49ers drafted two quarterbacks, but Garcia beat them both out for the starting job in 2000 and threw 31 touchdowns, earning him a Pro Bowl spot despite the team going 6-10.
The following season, the QB who once went 2-9 at San Jose State led one of the NFL’s greatest franchises back to relevance. With Terrell Owens fully developed and dominating, Garcia used his pinpoint accuracy to lead the NFL’s third best offense in scoring and produce 32 touchdowns to 12 interceptions and 12 wins. Owens’s ability to plow defenders after the catch and grab anything thrown up in his direction led Garcia to target him 155 times for 93 catches and over 1,400 yards while the next best receiver, JJ Stokes, saw throws his way only 90 times for 54 grabs.
No great journeyman season comes without a number of crazy close wins. Through the first nine games of the ’01 season, eight were separated by one score with Garcia coming out on top in seven of those tightly contested ballgames. Four of the nine went into overtime, with our hero going 3-1 in those matchups, including three wins over division opponents. Garcia managed four game-winning drives.
The second half of the season was less tense but just as fun for 49ers fans. Garcia led blowouts of the Peyton Manning Colts and the Buffalo Bills and wrapped up the season by beating the Dallas Cowboys in a game that featured Owens’s famous celebration on the star at the 50-yard line and by going off against New Orleans in a 38-0 win in which he registered a 149.3 rating.
The joy ride came to an end in the Wild Card round against Brett Favre and the Packers at Lambeau Field in a 25-15 slugfest. The Packers held Owens to just four catches on nine targets for 40 yards and Garcia’s longest pass was 22 yards in the loss.
By that point Garcia was already in his early 30s. He went 10-6 the next season but the 49ers eventually moved on. He made stops in Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia and made another Pro Bowl at age 37 in Tampa Bay, and led the Eagles to the playoffs in place of Donovan McNabb in Philly.
Garcia finished his career with 58 regular season wins and two postseason victories. Not bad for a so-so junior college QB.