Backup quarterbacks pressed into duty due to injuries have won Super Bowls more often than you'd think.
Jim Plunkett was a failed Heisman Trophy winner backing up Dan Pastorini in 1980 for the Oakland Raiders and had thrown one pass all season when Pastorini broke his leg in the Raiders' fifth game. Plunkett took over and the Raiders won a Super Bowl a few months later. Jeff Hostetler had started two NFL games when the 1990 New York Giants needed him to replace an injured Phil Simms late in the regular season. Hostetler played pretty well and the Giants won Super Bowl XXV. In 2018, Nick Foles took over for injured Carson Wentz and went on a magical ride that ended with the Philadelphia Eagles' first Super Bowl win.
And we all know the origin stories for Kurt Warner and Tom Brady.
What the San Francisco 49ers are facing the rest of this season isn't impossible, but it's not easy. San Francisco isn't down one quarterback, it's down two after Jimmy Garoppolo's season-ending injury. Trey Lance's season ended in Week 2. Many NFL teams have a hard time finding one good QB. It's impossible to expect a team to have three good ones. When you lose your top two, there's not much you can do about it.
However, if any team is equipped to put practically anyone at quarterback and still have success, maybe it's the 49ers.
San Francisco was never reliant on its quarterback anyway. The 49ers have perhaps the best defense in the NFL. They might have the best collection of skill-position players too, or close. All the 49ers asked Garoppolo to do was run the offense and get the ball out on time to the 49ers' star offensive players. He was great in that role.
Sunday wasn't a great day for the 49ers, but it offered hope. Brock Purdy, the last pick in the 2022 draft, had to go in the game for Garoppolo. The Miami Dolphins at that moment led the AFC East and their only losses came when Tua Tagovailoa was injured. And the 49ers blasted them 33-17.
Purdy played pretty well. He completed 25 of 37 passes for 210 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. That's as well as anyone could expect from a seventh-round pick coming off the bench. He played just how Kyle Shanahan wants his quarterbacks to play, which is to run the offense as directed. He wasn't dynamic but he completed the easy passes. Whether it's Purdy or new addition Josh Johnson or someone off the radar (there will be a lot of Baker Mayfield speculation but have you watched Mayfield play this season? He's nobody's answer right now), the 49ers will ask that quarterback to not be a hero and just run the offense. Maybe that's good enough.
Yet, for all the optimism we can muster, the 49ers have a very hard road ahead. They are taking a third-string quarterback, probably Mr. Irrelevant in this year's draft or maybe a journeyman veteran who has been on a record 14 NFL teams, and trying to win a Super Bowl. They're not even set up as well as you'd hope in the running game because Elijah Mitchell is out with a knee injury and Christian McCaffrey has had his own health issues that could keep him from carrying a full-time workload over the next couple months. It's not like they can ask McCaffrey to log 30 touches a game.
And make of this stat what you will, but Shanahan's record as a head coach without Garoppolo as his starting QB is 9-29. Whatever limitations Garoppolo has, he's a perfect match with Shanahan.
It's a brutal injury for the 49ers because they have the talent to make a Super Bowl and the NFC isn't that great. It was easy to see the 49ers getting on a roll and making another Super Bowl. Maybe that run is still possible. It would make for a great story.
Here are the power rankings after Week 13 of the NFL season:
32. Houston Texans (1-10-1, Last Week: 32)
The Texans never should have switched to Kyle Allen at quarterback. Allen has posted a 60.6 passer rating while Houston has become wholly uncompetitive. The Texans should go back to Davis Mills unless their plan was to play Allen to tank for the first overall draft pick. If that was the plan, it's working.
31. Denver Broncos (3-9, LW: 31)
They're one of the most unwatchable teams in recent NFL history.
30. Chicago Bears (3-10, LW: 30)
It's hard to come onto a team midseason and make an impact. Still, the Bears probably want more out of Chase Claypool than 12 catches for 111 yards in five games. There's still plenty of time for Claypool to emerge as a No. 1 receiver for Chicago, but at the cost of a second-round draft pick, the Bears need him to hit and he hasn't shown anything yet.
29. Los Angeles Rams (3-9, LW: 29)
The Rams battled. They led Seattle with less than three minutes to go, despite an injury list that contains some of the best players in football. Give them credit for the effort. But it's still another loss, their sixth straight. That's the longest losing streak any reigning Super Bowl champ has ever had.
28. Carolina Panthers (4-8, LW: 28)
The final cost of the Baker Mayfield experiment was a fifth-round draft pick and less than $5 million. That's a worthwhile risk for a quarterback who was recently the first pick of the draft. It didn't work out, and Mayfield was cut Monday. It happens. Now the Panthers have to figure out what's next.
27. Indianapolis Colts (4-8-1, LW: 25)
Everyone couldn't wait to declare the Jeff Saturday experiment a disaster and he has given them an opening the past two weeks, with the clock management fiasco against the Steelers and the fourth-quarter debacle at Dallas on Sunday night. But has it been that bad for the Colts? They beat the Raiders, who haven't lost since, they almost beat the 11-1 Eagles, they had a close loss to a Steelers team that has won three of four and they trailed 21-19 entering the fourth quarter at the Cowboys, who are one of the best teams in football. Yeah, a 33-0 fourth quarter Sunday night was ridiculous, but the Saturday experiment isn't going as poorly as social media might like you to believe.
26. New Orleans Saints (4-9, LW: 27)
The Saints' final two drives (not counting the final desperation play): six plays, 2 yards, two quick punts. That included a weird pass call on third-and-1 that was incomplete and stopped the clock. That's what opened the door for Tampa Bay to win with 3 seconds left. The Saints would have been a half-game out of first place in the NFC South. Now their playoff hopes are practically dead. They blew it.
25. Arizona Cardinals (4-8, LW: 24)
The Cardinals aren't going to make a playoff push, but they can finish their season on a high note. They should finally be healthy or close after their bye. It would be fun to see an offense with Kyler Murray, James Conner, DeAndre Hopkins, Marquise Brown and Rondale Moore play together. The question is if the Cardinals are motivated. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury better hope they are.
24. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-8, LW: 22)
When Trevor Lawrence went down to end the first half, it looked like he suffered a season-ending injury. He had his leg pinned under him and stayed down for a while. It was surprising to see him come out for the start of the second half. The 40-14 loss was embarrassing but it would have been infinitely worse for the Jaguars if they lost their quarterback to a major injury.
23. Atlanta Falcons (5-8, LW: 18)
The Falcons didn't record a sack on Sunday for the second straight game. They have just 17 sacks this season, and only the Bears have fewer. Atlanta has a lot of needs for next offseason but finding a pass rusher has to top the list.
22. Green Bay Packers (5-8, LW: 21)
The Packers should be set at receiver going forward. Romeo Doubs showed at times that he can be a contributor, especially as a fourth-round draft pick. And second-round pick Christian Watson is a revelation. He could end up stealing Offensive Rookie of the Year. He's going to be a star for many years.
21. Las Vegas Raiders (5-7, LW: 26)
The Raiders looked like one of the worst teams in the NFL a few weeks ago. After a couple overtime wins and a victory over the Chargers, they can dream about winning out and making the playoffs. Will that happen? It's very unlikely. But the fact that it's mathematically possible is a positive. They've turned things around.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-7, LW: 23)
Pat Freiermuth is probably a top-five tight end in the NFL already before the end of his second season. He was the Steelers' best offensive player Sunday, with 76 yards in a win over the Falcons. The Steelers have some really good skill-position talent and an improving rookie quarterback in Kenny Pickett.
19. Cleveland Browns (5-7, LW: 19)
Deshaun Watson looked like a player who hadn't been in a competitive game in 23 months. He wasn't just rusty, he wasn't even close on many throws. The Browns already might privately have buyer's remorse, and it will get a lot worse if Watson doesn't regain his old form. It's not guaranteed Watson gets it all back either.
18. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-6, LW: 17)
The Buccaneers had no business winning Monday night. But worry about that later. For now, appreciate that the greatest quarterback of all time is still capable of incredible moments like the Bucs' comeback on Monday. Tom Brady is having a career that might be impossible to match.
17. Los Angeles Chargers (6-6, LW: 16)
The Chargers' loss Sunday dropped their chances to make the playoffs by 13.4 percent, according to Football Outsiders' playoff odds, the biggest dip in the league for Week 13. Make no mistake: Wasting another year of Justin Herbert on his rookie contract and not getting a playoff berth would be an absolute failure, injuries or not, and head coach Brandon Staley would have to be on the hot seat if that happens.
16. Detroit Lions (5-7, LW: 20)
Imagine if the Lions had beat the Bills on Thanksgiving. That game was tied until the final few seconds. As it stands, the Lions aren't dead in the NFC playoff race, which is impressive after a 1-6 start. Detroit is playing very well.
15. Washington Commanders (7-5-1, LW: 15)
Chase Young is being brought along very slowly by Washington off his torn ACL. The Commanders' defensive line is playing well, so the Commanders don't need to rush. But it would be nice to see Young back on the field, resuming a career that has a lot of promise.
14. New York Giants (7-4-1, LW: 14)
With 1:42 left in overtime, the Giants had fourth-and-3 at the Washington 45. Instead of going for it and maximizing their chances for a win, they took a delay of game and punted. They got the ball back and had a shot at a game-winning field goal, but that fell short. Brian Daboll punted there presumably knowing the tie wasn't a bad outcome for the Giants. Nobody wants to hear that, but a half-win gets the Giants closer to the playoffs. It was fine.
13. New England Patriots (6-6, LW: 11)
Thursday night wasn't close. The Bills dominated in every way. The Patriots will remain stuck in between resetting everything with a rebuild and being a legitimate contender. It's a weird place to be in the NFL.
12. Tennessee Titans (7-5, LW: 10)
OK, now that's four straight bad games for Derrick Henry. His per-carry averages the past four games: 2.8, 3.1, 2.2. 2.7. You can't see that and not have concern that Henry is hitting a wall as he approaches his 29th birthday. It's amazing, given his workload going back to Alabama, that it hadn't happened long before.
11. Seattle Seahawks (7-5, LW: 13)
Geno Smith had 367 yards and led a game-winning drive, saving Seattle from what would have been a brutal loss at the Rams. The Smith story gets better every week. Concerns should remain about the Seahawks. This is their third straight below-average performance, going back to the loss to Tampa Bay in Germany. Maybe that trip took something out of them.
10. New York Jets (7-5, LW: 12)
The Jets can't fall in love too much with Mike White. They threw 57 times with him Sunday. A lot of that was due to trailing most of the game, but it's still too much. And it was really bad in the fourth quarter to throw on third and fourth down from the 1-yard line with the chance to take the lead. White is better than what the Jets had before but he won't carry an offense.
9. Baltimore Ravens (8-4, LW: 8)
The Lamar Jackson knee injury isn't as bad as it could have been but it's not great. Jackson hasn't been overly productive for many weeks but he was still the only thing the Ravens had on offense. Tyler Huntley has mostly played well when he has replaced Jackson, and if Jackson misses time he'll need to be very good to keep this offense afloat.
8. Miami Dolphins (8-4, LW: 4)
Teams lose, and the 49ers are a tough opponent. Miami didn't have left tackle Terron Armstead and that was crucial. Still, losing by 16 points to a team using a rookie seventh-round draft pick at quarterback? That's a bad afternoon. Miami will rebound, but Sunday showed the Dolphins probably are not Super Bowl contenders.
7. San Francisco 49ers (8-4, LW: 6)
Nick Bosa is suddenly making a push for Defensive Player of the Year. Micah Parsons was a runaway favorite before Week 13, but Bosa's three sacks open up the conversation again. Bosa has 14.5 sacks this season. Parsons has 12. If Bosa can reach 20, he has a good shot at the award.
6. Minnesota Vikings (10-2, LW: 7)
The Vikings are an interesting case. Analytics think they're average. Their point differential is only +10. They're 9-0 in one-score games, tying the 2019 Seahawks for the most one-score wins in the first 12 games since 1940, via NFL Media. On top of that all, they're underdogs against the Lions in Week 14. Yet, they keep winning, and 10-2 is impressive no matter how it happens. Are you buying the Vikings?
5. Cincinnati Bengals (8-4, LW: 9)
The win over the Chiefs combined with Lamar Jackson's injury (and the Ravens' continued offensive struggles) probably changes the AFC North outlook. Cincinnati does have tiebreaker problems, having lost to the Ravens once, and also the Browns and Steelers. But they're the better team right now and it might not be close.
4. Buffalo Bills (9-3, LW: 5)
The Bills had a great week. They won at New England and then saw Miami and Kansas City lose. Now the Bills have it all in front of them. If they win out, they're the No. 1 seed in the AFC. That's a lot to ask, but that might be what the Bills have to do, given the Chiefs' easy remaining schedule.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (9-3, LW: 1)
The Chiefs' remaining schedule is: at Broncos, at Texans, vs. Seahawks, vs. Broncos, at Raiders. They're probably not losing any of those games. Sunday's loss wasn't ideal but they still have a great shot at the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
2. Dallas Cowboys (9-3, LW: 3)
The 33 points the Cowboys scored in the fourth quarter on Sunday was a franchise record. Dallas has a gear that most other teams don't. It still isn't getting enough love as a potential Super Bowl champion. The Cowboys have it all.
1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-1, LW: 2)
The Eagles aren't losing many games in which A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith each go for 100 yards, like they did Sunday. The Eagles can win in many ways, and the run defense looked fixed with rookie defensive tackle Jordan Davis back on Sunday.