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 3, We COUNTDOWN FROM THE 10th TO 6TH BEST JOURNEYMAN SEASONS…..
When examining quarterbacks for this book, it’s hard not to wonder if players like Jake Delhomme would even get a chance in a league where most starters are first-round picks, and another fraction are marquee free-agent signees. Delhomme did not have this background. Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Southwestern Louisiana in 1997, the Saints had Delhomme work with the practice squad that season. He was then a backup quarterback in NFL Europe behind future NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner and repeated the 1997 season in 1998, earning a spot on New Orleans practice squad before sharing quarterbacking duties during his second season in Europe, winning the World Bowl as a part-time quarterback.
In 1999 he was finally elevated to the Saints 53-man roster and earned two starts late in the season – one a Christmas Eve-day game against the playoff-bound Dallas Cowboys where he and the Saints triumphed, 31-24, and he threw for 278 yards and two touchdowns. A four-interception day to finish the season in Charlotte against his future team, the Panthers, was his last action until 2002 and his last start until 2003, despite playing extremely well in the preseason for the Saints in subsequent years.
His chance would come in 2003, when the Panthers signed him as an unrestricted free agent to back up veteran Rodney Peete, who guided them from a 1-15 record in 2001 to a plucky 7-9 finish under new head coach John Fox. He opened the season as Peete’s backup, but when he could only muster 19 yards on four completions in the first half, Delhomme took over and turned a 17-0 deficit into a 24-23 win on a 12-yard touchdown pass to veteran wide receiver Ricky Proehl with just seconds remaining.
Delhomme would throw every pass for the Panthers the rest of the season. He was a game manager in four-consecutive wins against the Buccaneers, Falcons, Saints and Colts, averaging under 150 yards passing in those games. In the Panthers’ first loss of the season, Delhomme showed his potential to air it out, throwing for over 360 yards and two touchdowns in a 37-17 loss to a playoff-bound Titans team. Steve Smith, who emerged as one of the best receivers in football, caught 10 passes for over 150 yards and a touchdown against Tennessee in the losing effort.
Delhomme completed the season sweep of the team that let him go, leaning on Stephen Davis’ 178 yards rushing and two touchdowns to defeat Saints 23-20 in New Orleans, their second overtime win in three weeks. Julius Peppers, coming into his own as a superstar in the league, forced a Deuce McAllister fumble in Panthers territory on the first drive of overtime, leading to John Kasay’s 31-yard field goal to seal the win.
Despite another Smith touchdown and 153 yards from Davis, the Panthers would fall to the Texans in week 9, 14-10, but would defeat the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-24 on a touchdown from Delhomme to Smith with just over a minute remaining. Delhomme’s 277 yards were his most in a victory all season and overcame his two interceptions and just 56 yards from Davis. Proehl turned three catches in 133 yards, including a 66-yard touchdown from Delhomme to complete the sweep against the Bucs.
Another 317 yards and two touchdowns downed Washington the following week. This time Delhomme connected with veteran receiver Mushin Muhammad nine times for 189 yards, overcoming another inefficient day from Davis on the ground to go to 9-2.
Losses in three-consecutive weeks to Dallas, Philadelphia and Atlanta saw Delhomme struggle, averaging just over 180 yards a game and throwing three interceptions during that stretch. They would get an opportunity to avenge the former two losses in the playoffs, however, as they finished the season on a three-game winning streak, downing Arizona, Detroit and the New York Giants en route to their first-ever NFC South championship, and first division title since 1996. Delhomme threw for over 3,200 yards in the regular season, more touchdowns (19) than interceptions (16), and a passer rating of 80.6.
In his first-career playoff start, Delhomme was terrific, completing over 62 percent of his passes for over 270 yards and a touchdown to down Bill Parcels and the Cowboys 29-10 in Charlotte. The following week they traveled to St. Louis to take on the rested Rams. They controlled the contest for most of the game, with a Brad Hoover touchdown run giving them a 23-12 lead. However, the Rams, on the strength of a Marshall Faulk touchdown and a Jeff Wilkins field goal, would send the game into overtime.
Delhomme converted two third and longs in the first drive of overtime and hit tight end Jermaine Wiggins with a 21-yard pass to put the cats deep into Rams territory. However, a missed field goal by Kasay gave the ball back to the Rams, who would make it to the Panthers 35 on a big play from quarterback Marc Bulger to Isaac Bruce. This time it would be the Rams that missed, with kicker Jeff Wilkins failing to convert a 53-yard attempt.
After a Panthers punt, Ricky Manning Jr. intercepted Bulger in Panthers territory. After a negative run by DeShaun Foster and a sack of Delhomme, the game went into a second overtime. On the first play of the new frame, Delhomme hit Smith on a post pattern for a 69 yard touchdown, and the Panthers were going to Philly for the NFC title game.
In a rematch with the Eagles, it was all defense, as Delhomme completed only nine passes. Three interceptions of Donovan McNabb preceded him leaving the game via injury on a hit by linebacker Will Witherspoon. Three interceptions by nickel Ricky Manning Jr. and a 24-yard touchdown from Delhomme to Muhammad would be all the Panthers would need in a 14-3 road victory.
In Houston, the Panthers would face off against a fledgling dynasty in the New England Patriots, who just two years earlier won their first title, 20-17, against the Rams in New Orleans. The Panthers were every bit the Pats equals in this matchup, turning a 21-10 deficit into a 22-21 lead on an 85-yard touchdown from Delhomme to Muhammad in which the former was seen on television talking smack to veteran safety Rodney Harrison at the conclusion of the play. In a game that saw Janet Jackson have a tier-one wardrobe malfunction during halftime, Ricky Proehl would score yet another touchdown to tie a Super Bowl against New England, this time a 12-yarder from Delhomme with just one minute and eight seconds left in the game.
With the score tied at 29, however, Brady did as Brady would eventually always do, driving the Patriots into position (with the help of an out-of-bounds kickoff by Kasay) for Adam Vinatieri to hit his second-career game-winning field goal in a Super Bowl, denying the Panthers of their first title.
2003 was a remarkable ride for Delhomme and the Panthers, but it wouldn’t be their last with Delhomme at the helm. After Steve Smith broke his leg in the opener of the 2004 season, and the Panthers started 1-7, Delhomme and Muhammad (the league’s leading receiver that season) would help the Panthers storm into a position where they were a missed field goal away from the playoffs in a weak NFC. The following year, the Panthers were back in contention, making it to the NFC Championship Game in Seattle, before Delhomme’s three interceptions helped down them 34-14 in the Emerald City.
The Panthers would be back in the mix in 2008, going 12-4 and earning a bye in the first round of the NFC playoffs. However, five interceptions by Delhomme would be too much for the Panthers to overcome in a 33-13 home loss to Warner and the Arizona Cardinals. While Delhomme had shown signs of decline, the Panthers rewarded him with a lucrative contract extension in April of 2009, which would be one of the worst decisions in franchise history.
Delhomme was awful in 2009, starting with the opener against the Eagles, where he threw four interceptions to 73 passing yards in a 38-10 loss. He would throw multiple interceptions four more times that season, to finish the season with 18 (to only eight touchdowns). He was benched for career backup Matt Moore after throwing four interceptions in a 17-6 loss to Rex Ryan’s Jets, and after Moore finished the year with four wins in five tries, it was the end for Delhomme in Carolina.
The journeyman portion of Delhomme’s career would round out with trips to Cleveland and Houston, the former to revive his career as a starter. He would last just one game in Cleveland before an injury would put him on the bench until an injury to rookie Colt McCoy would force him back into action. He threw seven interceptions to just two touchdowns for Cleveland. In Houston, he backed up T.J. Yates en route to the Texans first ever playoff berth, replacing the injured Matt Leinart, who was replacing the injured Matt Schaub, on the roster mid-season.
The final few years of Delhomme’s career obscure the fact that he was a very good player for the Panthers, especially considering his humble, journeyman-like initial conditions. In 96 starts for three teams (and 103 games for four teams), Delhomme was 56-40 as a starter, throwing 126 touchdowns to just 101 interceptions. He threw for over 3,000 yards in three-consecutive seasons and made a Pro Bowl after the 2005 season. He will always be remembered for the run he put the Panthers on in the 2003 season, starting the cats on a path of sustained relevance that was their first in franchise history. While he has been surpassed by Cam Newton as the best player at his position in franchise history, there will always be a place for Delhomme.
Chris Chandler is best known for his time as an Atlanta Falcon, where he took the Dirty Birds to the Super Bowl after a 1998 season that saw the former Washington Husky go 13-1 as a starter in the regular season. However, his 18-year career saw him play in eight cities for seven different franchises, throwing for over 28,000 yards and 170 touchdown passes.
A third-round pick in the 1988 NFL draft, Chandler would emerge as the (newly) Indianapolis Colts’ starting quarterback as a rookie, throwing eight touchdown passes and for over 1,600 yards in 13 starts. Chandler’s starts came after Indianapolis opened the season 0-3 with Gary Hogeboom and Jack Trudeau. With Eric Dickerson leading the NFL in rushing, the Colts finished 9-4 in Chandler’s starts, narrowly missing the playoffs. He started only three games in 1989, playing poorly enough for the Colts to ship Andre Rison, Chris Hinton and draft picks to the Falcons to acquire the right to pick Illinois star and Indianapolis native Jeff George with the first-overall pick in the 1990 draft. While the George trade placed some well-deserved egg on the Colts’ face for years to come, they did save some face by acquiring what ended up being the second-overall pick in the 1992 draft from Tampa Bay for Chandler (the Colts picked first and second that year).
Chandler’s six starts in Tampa Bay resulted in an 0-6 record, with five touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He was released during the 1991 season and picked up by the (then) Phoenix Cardinals, where he would start 17 games (winning five) with an equal number of touchdowns (19) as interceptions. After starting six games for the Los Angeles Rams in 1994, he joined the Houston Oilers and would embark on a two-year stretch where he started 25 games and threw 33 touchdown passes (to just 21 interceptions).
While he held off third-overall pick Steve McNair for his two seasons in Houston, when the Oilers picked up and moved to Tennessee, they shipped Chandler south to Atlanta for a fourth-round pick to replace… George, who had gotten into a shouting match with head coach June Jones on Sunday Night Football in week 3 of 1996, an ordeal that led to being benched for the final 13 games of the season.
Chandler was very good in his first season in Atlanta, going 7-7 as a starter, throwing 20 touchdowns (to just seven interceptions), while generating almost 2,700 yards. In 1998 he really hit his stride under second-year coach Dan Reeves, guiding the birds to a 5-1 start with wins against Philadelphia, New Orleans, the New York Giants and two triumphs against the Carolina Panthers. While Chandler didn’t light the world on fire early, Jamal Anderson was more than enough to help the offense have success, rushing for over 100 yards in four of those first six games, and 12 games overall during the season.
After a 28-3 loss to the New York Jets started by 44-year-old journeyman backup Steve DeBerg, Chandler started all but one game the rest of the year, winning them all, finishing the year averaging an outrageous 9.6 yards per pass attempt, with more than twice as many touchdowns (25) as interceptions (12). His yards per attempt mark was three-tenths of a yard per attempt higher than fellow Falcon Matt Ryan in 2017, who took Atlanta to their only other Super Bowl berth that season and won the league MVP.
In January of 1999, Chandler guided the Falcons to their first playoff win in the Georgia Dome, downing Steve Young and the 49ers 20-18. Anderson led the way with 113 yards and two touchdowns, while Chandler threw only six incompletions and was sacked only twice during his first-career playoff start.
After squeaking out a close win against their division-rival San Francisco, they headed to the Metrodome to face the seemingly-coronated, 15-1 Minnesota Vikings. The Falcons were 11-point underdogs on the road, and fell behind 20-7, despite an opening-drive touchdown pass from Chandler to Anderson, due in large part to fumbles by Harold Green and O.J. Santiago. With the first half dwindling down, the Vikings decided to try to let their record-setting offense go for another score, deep in their own territory. When Chuck Smith stripped Randall Cunningham and Travis Hall recovered, it opened the door for Chandler and the Dirty Birds, and it took just one play for the quarterback to hit Terance Mathis for a 14-yard touchdown to cut the lead to six points going into halftime.
Two Falcons field goals straddled a Matthew Hatchette touchdown during the first quarter and a half of the second half. When the Falcons failed to convert after a sack-fumble on Randall Cunningham deep in the Vikings territory, and the purple went on a 10-play drive to set up Gary Anderson (who had not missed all season) to put them up by 10 points, things looked bleak for Atlanta. However, Anderson was infamously wide left, setting up Chandler for his career-defining drive.
Completions to Santiago for two yards, Mathis for nine yards and Ronnie Harris for 29 yards had the birds set up in Vikings’ territory, and while Robert Griffith dropped a possible game-ending interception, three more completions, including a 16-yard touchdown to Terance Mathis, tied the game up with 49 seconds remaining.
After the Vikings infamously took a knee to send the game into overtime, the teams exchanged punts before Chandler and the Falcons took over at their nine yard line. Completions of 15 and 26 to Santiago, and five Anderson runs set up hall of famer Morten Andersen for a 38-yard field goal, which split the uprights and put the Falcons in their first Super Bowl.
While the Falcons’ journey would end a couple weeks later in Miami, losing 34-19 to the defending champion Denver Broncos in a game that wasn’t even that close. Chandler was 19 of 35 for 219 yards, throwing three interceptions. He would be the Falcons’ starter for three more seasons, going 14-25 and never again reaching 20 touchdown passes. The 1999 season was especially disappointing, with Atlanta’s 4-12 campaign hampered by an injury to Anderson and a tougher schedule.
Chandler’s days were numbered in 2001, when the Falcons traded up to select Virginia Tech’s Michael Vick with the number one pick in the draft. After being left exposed for the Houston Texans during the expansion draft, he was eventually released, and finished his career with stints with the Bears and the (now) St. Louis Rams. Chandler threw six interceptions in his first start for St. Louis, with a total of eight of his 62 passes during his second stint for the franchise picked off by opposing defenses. He retired after the 2004 season, when the Rams released him.
Chandler’s career, and 1998 season specifically, is what this book is all about. He was about as good as any quarterback in the NFL during the second half of the 1998 season and was largely good enough to start in the NFL for a decade. However, his top-end success was always short-lived, which is why he ended up playing in so many cities and was always replaced by first-rounders like George, McNair and Vick after having his chance.
Jim McMahon is one of the most interesting players in the history of the NFL. Known for his brash style, a real rebel with a cause, McMahon had a record-setting career at Brigham Young, of all places, in his two years as their starting quarterback. In his first season the Irish Catholic, in a sea full of devout Mormons, threw for over 4,500 yards and 47 touchdown passes, winning 11 straight games to finish the season to earn All American honors. After throwing for 30 more touchdowns and over 3,500 yards as a senior, earning his second All American nod, McMahon famously bid Provo farewell and joined the Bears as their number one pick in 1982.
Instead of retreating in his early days in Chicago, letting his play do the talking as many a young player is want to do, McMahon continued to lean into and enhance the personality that he felt was bottled up at BYU. He, to the chagrin of Chicago’s head coach Mike Ditka, showed up to his first Bears function with a beer in his hand. He was the only quarterback in the league to wear a tinted protective eye shield which, while adding to his persona, was the result of an eye injury as a child.
His unusual personality aside, he was the Bears’ new franchise quarterback, starting seven of the nine games in a strike-shortened 1982 season, and a career-high 13 games in 1983. He won the NFC offensive rookie of the year award in ’82, throwing more touchdowns than interceptions while almost leading the Bears to the playoffs. In ’83 he would start a streak of six consecutive seasons with a winning record as a starter, going 7-6 while throwing for over 2,000 yards.
1984 would be a preview of things to come in a couple of ways. First, McMahon’s Bears would break through in many ways, going 7-2 in his starts and 10-6 overall, winning the NFC Central Division title for the first time since 1963. The third-year quarterback completed almost 60 percent of his passes, good for eight yards per pass attempt and a four-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Jim McMahon and Walter Payton turn a 15-yard loss into a 40-yard gain like the bosses they were. Look at Walter. pic.twitter.com/8EHM8MZzEl
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) April 23, 2020
1984 would also start a series of injuries that would ultimately be the biggest reason McMahon made this book. He missed seven games and the playoffs with that eventually amounted to broken ribs and a scary kidney laceration. The Bears would lose to the eventual Super Bowl Champion San Francisco 49ers 23-0, in a game where backup Steve Fuller would be sacked eight times and accumulate only 87 total passing yards.
McMahon returned in 1985 for his signature season, one in which the Bears would go a perfect 11-0 in his starts and he would make his one and only Pro Bowl. Like many others in this list, McMahon’s team success was both a product of his solid play and a historically good defense. However, in week 1 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, McMahon would have to carry the torch. The Bears allowed three first-half touchdown passes to journeyman Steve DeBerg en route to a 21-7 second-quarter deficit. A McMahon touchdown pass to Dennis McKinnon and a one-yard run by the quarterback would keep the game close at the half, 28-17.
The defense opened the second-half scoring, with future Minnesota Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier turning an interception into a 29-yard score, before two more touchdowns by McMahon (one through the air and one on the ground) would propel the budding Monsters of the Midway to a 38-28 win.
McMahon threw another touchdown pass to McKinnon in a 20-7 week 2 win against the Patriots, but a neck injury forced him into a backup role the following Thursday in the Metrodome against the Vikings. With the Vikings ahead 17-9 in the third quarter, McMahon famously begged his way onto the field and promptly threw three long scoring strikes, a 70-yarder to Willie Gault, and two over 25 yards to Dennis McKinnon. The Bears would go on to win that game 33-24, and while McMahon only managed eight completions the entire night, he made them count. He would start and win the following six starts, with the Bears’ opponents scoring over 10 points only once during that time. McMahon was a rich man’s game manager, completing over 20 passes in just one start (which happened to be the game the Bears allowed 19 to Tampa), but throwing only five interceptions during that time.
After an injury sustained against the Packers in Lambeau Field, McMahon would miss the next three games, all Bears wins, before entering a Monday Night Football game against Miami as a reserve. In that game the 12-0 Bears were trailing the Dolphins, trying to keep Chicago from stealing their distinction as the only unbeaten team in league history, by multiple scores. McMahon would be unable to orchestrate a comeback in Miami, but would go on to win his last three games, all starts, to get the Bears to 15-1 and in possession of home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
McMahon’s 1985 regular season, which included an appearance on the rap record “The Super Bowl Shuffle” and a $5,000 fine for wearing an Adidas headband, would finish with him generating career highs in both passing yards and touchdowns. The Bears would steamroll through the playoffs, allowing zero total points during the NFC portion of the postseason and only 10 in the Super Bowl, a 46-10 drubbing in their rematch against the Patriots, a wild-card team that upset the Dolphins in the AFC Championship Game (and preventing a revenge game for the Bears). While Chicago’s defense got and still gets most of the praise for this run, McMahon was brilliant himself during the playoffs, throwing for three touchdowns and no interceptions, while completing almost 60 percent of his passes and rushing for three more touchdowns. It was McMahon’s finest hour, one that many thought would continue in perpetuity.
The 1986 Bears would go 14-2, and 6-0 in McMahon’s starts. However, in a week 12 game in Chicago, Packers’ defensive lineman Charles Martin body-slammed the quarterback well after the play, earning the NFL’s first suspension for on-field conduct and landing McMahon on injured reserve. After watching the Bears lose to Washington at home in the divisional round of the 1987 playoffs (in Doug Flutie’s first-career playoff start), McMahon returned to the Bears in week 6 of the strike-shortened 1987 season, throwing for 12 touchdowns in seven starts. He would start Chicago’s only playoff game, again against Washington, despite not having played since week 12, and struggled, throwing for three interceptions against the eventual Super Bowl champions in a 21-17 road loss.
1988 would be his final season with the Bears, and following the retirement of the (then) all-time leading rusher in league history (Walter Payton), McMahon would again lead a winner, going 7-2 in his starts while completing almost 60 percent of his passes. Chicago would earn the NFC’s top seed, with a 12-4 record. After coming off of the bench in the Bears win against the Eagles in the famous “Fog Bowl”, the veteran quarterback would start against the 49ers at home the following week in the NFC title game. He struggled, earning just a 45.3 passer rating in a 28-3 loss to the 49ers at home – handing Joe Montana his only road playoff win during his time with the 49ers. With first-round pick Jim Harbaugh in the wings, McMahon was dealt to San Diego the following summer.
McMahon struggled in San Diego and would lose his job to Billy Joe Tolliver, before rejoining former Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan in Philadelphia in 1990. When Randall Cunningham suffered a season-ended knee injury on his fourth pass of the 1991 season, McMahon would take over and guide the Eagles to an 8-3 record in his starts, earning the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award. After backing up Cunningham again in 1992, he would join the Minnesota Vikings in 1993, his last season as a starter. Again backed by the league’s top defense, McMahon would go 8-4 as a starter, including a 4-1 finish that propelled the Vikings to the playoffs. He went 2-0 against his former mates, the Chicago Bears, during the 1993 season, and while he and the Vikings would eventually lose 17-10 in the playoffs to the Giants, he set a career high in completion percentage with a 60.4 mark. He was credited with rejuvenating the offense by lobbying head coach Dennis Green to fire offensive coordinator Jack Burns after the initial Chicago victory, elevating eventual Super Bowl-winning Brian Billick into the position. He joined Buddy Ryan again in 1994, this time with the new Arizona Cardinals, but would start only one game, a 32-0 loss to the Cleveland Browns, the team for which he would serve as the third-string quarterback the following year (their final year in Cleveland).
After finishing his career as Brett Favre’s backup in Green Bay, a team against which he had a 10-1 record as a starter for the Bears and Vikings, winning the Super Bowl after the 1996 season. In what was the final, vintage, troll job of his illustrious career, McMahon showed up to the White House following the 1996 title wearing his… Bears jersey.
Had no idea Jim McMahon was Favre's backup on the Packers Super Bowl 31 team. He also won Super Bowl 20 in the Superdome with the Bears. pic.twitter.com/97TEkE3kYC
— Stephen Florival (@StephenFlorival) April 26, 2020
McMahon finished his career with an outrageous 67-30 overall mark as a starter, throwing for an even 100 touchdown passes to just 90 interceptions, and earning the aforementioned two Super Bowl rings. He’s the type of throwback that would likely not be replicated in today’s game – a player more than willing to allow his defense to win games for him in an era when that was more than feasible. His time in BYU and his days in the NFL could not have been more different, so in an alternative universe where he was in a high-powered offense like Dan Marino’s or Joe Montana’s could have produced something different, but for now we’re left admiring “The Punky QB” who, despite some really great moments, ending up being just a really entertaining journeyman quarterback in the end.
Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger are responsible for all but one of the Super Bowl victories since 2002. It was in that season that a journeyman, Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson, was able to help the lowly Bucs secure their franchises first (and, to this point, only) world championship. The former ninth-round pick from Florida State, where he spent significant time backing up Casey Weldon, had a quintessential career for this book, going from fourth-stringer to starter and back, selling his fair share of hope to three separate franchises (one twice!)
Johnson’s career started in Minnesota in 1992, where he would back up future NFL MVP Rich Gannon and future ESPN commentator Sean Salisbury. He continued in that role in 1993, backing up Salisbury, fellow journeyman Jim McMahon, and even falling to fourth string behind former Heisman winner and preseason sensation Gino Toretta. It wasn’t until 1994 that he emerged as hall of famer Warren Moon’s backup, where he would spend the next three seasons – taking over for Moon in 1996 and leading the Vikings to the playoffs that season. Until that point in NFL history, only Dan Marino had a more productive first eight starts than Johnson.
Injuries would cut short Johnson’s 1997 and 1998 seasons, and while he threw for over 3700 yards and 27 touchdowns (including one to himself) in 15 starts those two seasons, Randall Cunningham’s revival en route to a 15-1 season for the Vikings left him expendable, and he was traded to Washington for a first, second, and third-round pick. The first round pick would be used to draft Daunte Culpepper, the player Johnson would back up in his second stint with the Vikings.
Johnson earned a Pro Bowl berth with Washington in 1999, going over 4,000 yards and throwing 24 touchdowns, but would lose his job to Jeff George the following year and sign with Tampa Bay in the 2001 offseason.
The 2001 Buccaneers were something of a disappointment, going 9-7 and losing in the first round of the playoffs 31-9 to the Eagles. Johnson’s season was modest, throwing for 13 touchdowns in 16 starts, while completing just over 60 percent of his passes. Tony Dungy, who had brought the Bucs from the pit of despair to perennial playoff contention, would be fired at the end of the season and replaced by Raiders’ head coach Jon Gruden.
Everything would come together for Johnson and the Bucs in the 2002 season. After losing an overtime game at home to the Saints in week 1, 26-20, Johnson would string together wins in five consecutive starts, generating a 90 or better passer rating in three of those starts. Tampa Bay’s defense, led by Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice, John Lynch and Ronde Barber, allowed only six points per game during that stretch, en route to earning a reputation as one of the best units in league history.
After another loss in Philadelphia, this time 20-10, and a week on the inactive list, Johnson began to dominate, throwing five touchdowns and earning the NFC offensive player of the week honor against his former team, the Vikings, in week 10. Two more touchdowns each against the Carolina Panthers, Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints brought the Bucs record to 9-3, before another four touchdowns against the Falcons earned him his second NFC offensive player of the week honor. An injury against Detroit the following week would end his Pro Bowl regular season with over 62 percent completion, with 22 touchdowns to just six interceptions.
While Johnson did not have a great game in the divisional round against the 49ers, going 15-31 for just 196 yards, he did throw two touchdowns in a 31-9 win led by a defense that intercepted 49ers quarterback (and eventual Buccaneer) Jeff Garcia three times. The following week they avenged their previous two losses in Philadelphia, winning as four-point underdogs 27-10, breaking Tampa’s historic streak of not winning in sub-30 temperatures. Johnson was efficient, throwing for 259 yards and a touchdown, while Barber’s fourth-quarter interception return of 92 yards probably stands as the most-historic touchdown in the history of the Bucs franchise.
The Super Bowl would pit Gruden against his former team, and the Raiders never saw the Bucs coming. On the strength of three defensive touchdowns and two interceptions by Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson, the Bucs toppled Oakland 48-21. Johnson was his normal, solid self in the game, throwing two touchdowns to wide receiver Keenan McCardell and accumulating 215 yards passing.
The 2002 Buccaneers have been, and will likely always, be remembered for their brilliant defense, but Johnson’s play in 2002 made the final ascension possible.
But this play was not sustainable. In 2003 Johnson struggled, throwing 21 interceptions while leading the league in pass attempts with 570. The Bucs finished that season 7-9, and Johnson was benched a month into the 2004 season after Tampa started the season 0-4 with him under center. He was released the following offseason and joined the Vikings to back up Culpepper, who was coming off an MVP-caliber season in 2004.
Culpepper suffered a gruesome knee injury in week 8 against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, giving Johnson a chance to start. He threw for 12 touchdown passes, to just four interceptions, and took the Vikings from a 2-5 start under Culpepper to a 9-7 finish, earning him the starting nod for new head coach Brad Childress in 2006. In his final run as a starter in the league, Johnson struggled mightily in Childress’ self-proclaimed “kick-ass offense”, throwing for almost twice as many interceptions (15) as touchdown passes (nine), and losing his job to rookie Tavaris Jackson in week 16. He would finish his career in Dallas as a backup to Tony Romo, starting three games in 2008 before retiring. In 125 starts, Johnson was almost 20 games above 0.500 as a starter (72-53), going to the playoffs for all four of the teams he played for, and throwing 166 touchdowns to just 122 interceptions. Not bad for a college backup and a ninth-round, fourth-string quarterback out of Florida State.
There are a few quarterbacks in this book that have more than one signature season, or a moment in time that was greater than the season we’re highlighting for this book. One such player is Nick Foles, currently of the Chicago Bears and formerly of the Philadelphia Eagles. Foles had a stretch of statistical play under head coach and up-and-coming offensive mastermind Chip Kelly that will always be remembered as a “film over stats” teachable moment.
Foles’ ratio of 27 touchdowns to just two interceptions in 2013 was an NFL record (since broken by Tom Brady in 2016), and propelled the Eagles to the playoffs in Kelly’s first season, a season after they were just 4-12 under longtime coach Andy Reid, who drafted Foles in the third round in 2012 and later signed him to be his backup in Kansas City in 2016. Foles started six of those games in 2012 in place of former superstar Michael Vick, earning his only win on a last-second touchdown pass to wide receiver Jeremy Maclin in Tampa Bay in week 14. Kelly’s offense used an up-tempo style that was supposed to suit Vick more than it did the second-year player from Arizona, and in their first game, a Monday nighter in Washington, Vick and the offense ran 80 total offensive plays, seven of them designed runs by Vick in a 33-27 win. However, the Eagles would lose their next three games, only breaking that streak when Foles came off the bench to throw for 197 yards and two touchdowns against the Giants in New Jersey. After winning his first start of the season, and his second start in two tries against the Buccaneers, Foles was injured against the Dallas Cowboys in a 17-3 home loss and watched Vick and USC rookie Matt Barkley struggle In a 15-7 home loss to a 1-6 New York Giants team.
Foles returned to the lineup in week 9 and promptly threw seven touchdowns (tying an NFL record) on just 28 passing attempts, throwing for 406 yards in a 49-20 win. He threw three more touchdowns the following week in Lambeau Field against an Aaron Rodgers-less Packers squad, followed by three-consecutive home starts and wins against Washington, Arizona and Detroit. The Detroit game was played in a memorable snow storm that included Foles’ first interception, zero successful point-after-touchdown kicks, two kick-return touchdowns by Lions receiver Jeremy Ross, and a 34-6 run by the Eagles after trailing 14-0 in the third quarter. Foles’ first interception came after 19 touchdown passes without one.
After a 48-30 loss to a poor Minnesota Vikings team, in which Foles threw for 428 yards and three more touchdowns, the Eagles buried a Chicago team with its eyes set on the playoffs by a score of 54-11. It took Foles only 25 pass attempts in that game, but he completed 21 of them, including two first-half touchdown passes, setting up a game in Dallas for the NFC East title – the Cowboys’ third such affair in as many seasons.
With Tony Romo out with a back injury, it was fellow journeyman Kyle Orton, who played well in leading the Cowboys to within two after a 32-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant with just 3:50 to play. After another pass to Bryant on the two-point conversion failed, he would get one more chance, but his pass for receiver Miles Austin was intercepted by second-year nickel corner Brandon Boykin to seal the victory. Foles played well himself, completing over 65 percent of his passes and throwing for two touchdowns.
The Eagles were NFC East champions for the first time since 2010 and had a date with the New Orleans Saints, a team that had never won a road playoff game in its franchise’s history.
The Eagles lost in Foles’ first postseason start, 26-24, on a Shayne Graham 32-yard field goal as time expired. Foles played well again, engineering a comeback from down 20-7 in the third quarter to take the lead on a three-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Zach Ertz. He would throw for 195 total yards in the game and two touchdowns (again without throwing an interception). In many ways he bested future-hall-of-famer Drew Brees, who threw two interceptions and earned one of his lower Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades of the season on the day.
Despite the disappointing playoff loss, the Eagles appeared on the up-and-up. They had a bright young coach and a quarterback that appeared to fit the scheme perfectly. Sure, Foles’ PFF grade being much lower than his passer rating would indicate, due in large part to a lot of yards after the catch by receivers, would imply the need for a little development on the young quarterback’s part, but he was only entering his third year. The moves made by Kelly to jettison players like DeSean Jackson were questioned, but how could you argue with a coach that had the entire league frightened of what was to come in Philly?
The 2014 Eagles would again go 10-6, but this time miss out on the playoffs. Foles’ regression hit and hit hard, as his completion percentage dropped by more than four points and his interceptions jumped from two to 10 in just eight starts. Furthermore, he would get injured in Philly’s eighth game and be replaced by former top-five pick Mark Sanchez, who played well enough to seed doubts about whether it was Kelly’s system or Foles that were the big reason the pair went 14-4 together the previous season plus.
The doubts were fully acted upon the following offseason, when the Eagles sent Foles, a second-round pick and a fourth-round pick to the St. Louis Rams in exchange for former number one-overall pick Sam Bradford and a fifth-rounder. Both Foles and Bradford would struggle in their new homes, to the point where the former was outright released during the 2016 offseason and the latter was traded to Minnesota to make room for rookie Carson Wentz right before the season opener. There were reports that Foles’ time in St. Louis was so difficult that when he signed with the Chiefs to play for Reid, he was having trouble executing the simplest of passes in practice.
After one season as Alex Smith’s backup in Kansas City, Foles re-signed with the Eagles to be Wentz’s backup. He mostly sat on the bench during the 2017 season, until a knee injury to the Eagles’ young gun put him on injured reserve after week 14. After a few poor weeks to finish the regular season, Foles and the Eagles’ offense came out of the first-round bye and won two home games. In the second, a 31-7 win over Minnesota, Foles had one of the best games ever graded by a quarterback by PFF, completing 26 of 33 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns, for a rating of 141.4. In the Super Bowl against the Patriots in Minneapolis, Foles was arguably better, throwing for 373 yards and three touchdowns, while catching another. Foles won the Super Bowl MVP award and became the first backup quarterback to lead his team to the title since Jeff Hostetler in 1990.
While many a journeyman have had a second act, Foles’ was by far the best.
After leading the Eagles to another improbable run in 2018, from a record of 6-7 to a wild card berth and a playoff win against the heavily-rated Chicago Bears, Foles signed with Jacksonville during the 2019 offseason, to a deal worth $22 million a season. After a week 1 injury and a poor return to the lineup, Foles was replaced in Jacksonville by Washington State standout Gardner Minshew, and was traded to the Chicago Bears in the 2020 offseason, to compete with former top-2 pick Mitchell Trubisky. While it’s a long shot that he’ll be the type of franchise quarterback that he looked like during his run with Chip Kelly, we have a feeling that we haven’t seen the last of a truly great, modern journeyman quarterback.