Greatest Lone Starting Performances of the Past Twenty Years

In my opinion, there’s no tastier banana than the second banana. I’ve been a fan of the “other guys” of this world for years. When I acted in high school, I had dreams of winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. My favorite character in Star Wars is Wedge Antillies. I go to a restaurant and only order soup. Hey, 2 is bigger than 1, so I have no problem being second. That’s why I love second string quarterbacks, having developed an encyclopedic mind of stats, appearances, and watched auctions on eBay for their jerseys. In the realm of backup quarterbacks, no tales interest me greater than the “one shot” appearance. Maybe it comes in Week 17 for a team trying to keep their starting quarterback healthy for the playoffs. Perhaps it arrives after the starter is suspending a single game, likely for drug use. Why does it interest me so much? Because it creates a true test, a glimpse at the answer to the question, “How well can a quarterback play in a single game after not playing all season?” These are the best performances by quarterbacks who started only one game in a season, culled from the previous 15 seasons.

There’s no concrete rules to this, though I will say that the list is in the order of worst-to-first, and after looking at the performances of every one-game-wonder throughout the past twenty years, I decided to make the cutoff performance a 250 yards and two touchdown performance. Anything less than that in either category is simply not to be included. I don’t care about how many yards ya threw for in that one game, Will Furrer. If you don’t put points on the board in your one starting chance, then that chance was wasted.

10. Kyle Orton, Dallas Cowboys
Date: December 29, 2013
Playing Instead Of: Tony Romo (Injured)
Stat Line: 30/46, 358 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT (Loss)

It was all for the NFC East trophy. A playoff spot. An exit from mediocrity. For the Dallas Cowboys, a win against Philly on their home turf would’ve been the first step on the path towards vindication. For a second there, it looked like it would happen. If it had, Kyle Orton would have been the surprise hero. Instead, he was the unsurprising goat. After throwing a huge touchdown to Dez Bryant with four minutes left to go, Orton throws the two-point conversion incomplete. But the Cowboys had one last chance after their defense forced a three-and-out from the Eagles. With a 1:49 left to go, this would be Orton’s chance to lead an amazing two-minute drill. Instead, he threw an interception on the first play. Jerry Jones was disgusted, cussing all the way out of his skybox. Eagles fans were pretty happy, though.

9. Ty Detmer, San Francisco 49ers
Date: November 8, 1998
Playing Instead Of: Steve Young (Injured)
Stat Line: 22/36, 276 yards, 3 TD, 3 INT (Win)

It’s a bit surprising that Detmer, a former Heisman Trophy winner, didn’t have to step in for his fellow BYU alum earlier in the season. Young went into the season with already a long injury history, and was quite ripe at 37. But, aside from this one game, Young actually started the entire season. Detmer made the most of his one game, getting in plenty of touchdowns and interceptions. Efficiency issues aside, Detmer gets the duke over Orton for this spot both because of the win and because of the quality of receiver he was throwing to. Orton had Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, while Detmer got to utilize Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, and my man, J.J. Stokes. Throw in the sweet design of the late 90s San Fran jersey, and you have a much more enjoyable viewing experience.

8. Glenn Foley, Seattle Seahawks
Date: September 19, 1999
Playing Instead Of: Jon Kitna (Injured)
Stat Line: 18/30, 283 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT (Win)

Foley’s performance, on paper, isn’t spectacular, and in truth, this entire game was very nearly one Foley would’ve wanted to forget. Both of Foley’s touchdowns came early in the fourth quarter, giving the Seahawks a 14-13 lead, but leaving plenty of time for a Bears comeback. Instead, the Bears played like many late-90s/early-00s Bears played (mediocre), and when the chance came with 13 seconds left for a game-winning field goal, Bears kicker Brian Gowins missed, and the Seahawks escaped with a win. Shockingly, this would be his last NFL game, though he would pop up in 2002 as a member of the Arena League’s New York Gladiators.

7. Rob Johnson, Buffalo Bills
Date: January 2, 2000
Playing Instead Of: Doug Flutie (Stupid Owner)
Stat Line: 24/32, 287 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT (Win)

How often do you get a chance to ball out harder than Peyton Manning? And I’m talking about young Peyton, too! Manning led the Colts to a 13-3 record, and locked up a playoff bye. The Bills were pretty good too, and were playoff-bound thanks to… their starting quarterback, Doug Flutie. So why didn’t Flutie play in the last game? Well, since the Bills had locked up a playoff birth, and wouldn’t move up or down in the standings, win or lose, they naturally sat a lot of their best players, including the 38-year old Flutie. Johnson had such a marvelous game against the Colts (who weren’t really playing for much either, losing 30-6) that, according to then-head coach Wade Phillips, then-owner Ralph Wilson demanded that Johnson start in the playoffs. What resulted during the Bills’ playoff game against the Tennessee Titans was the Music City Miracle.

6. Billy Volek, Tennessee Titans
Date: December 14, 2003
Playing Instead Of: Steve McNair (Injured)

Stat Line: 26/41, 295 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT (Win)
The Bills once again pop up, but only to serve as victims of Billy Volek’s merciless beatdown. Volek was in his third season with the Titans, but only saw a handful of appearances, and didn’t play at all in 2002. While he wasn’t lights out in these performances by any means, he was accurate and competent, the two most important traits for any backup quarterback. Volek would get his chance to start half the season in 2004, and performed admirably, going just 2-6 as a starter, but throwing for almost 2,500 yards, and 18 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions. Volek would return to his one-start ways in 2005, losing his only starting opportunity, before throwing just 44 passes over the next five years with the San Diego Chargers.

5. Rob Johnson, Jacksonville Jaguars
Date: August 31, 1997
Playing Instead Of: Mark Brunell (Injured)
Stat Line: 20/24, 294 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT (Win)

Because nobody asked for it, more Rob Johnson! Yes folks, you read that date right. Johnson actually got to begin the season as starter due to Brunell’s injury. Johnson himself was injured twice during this game, but only briefly as he led the Jags to a one-point win over the Ravens. Johnson’s injuries kept him out of the next three games, and Steve “Don’t Call Me Shane” Matthews was the starter for the second game. Brunell returned in game three and led the Jags to an 9-5 record and a playoff birth. Johnson left after this season for Buffalo, and the rest is history. 

4. Matt Flynn, Green Bay Packers
Date: December 19, 2010
Playing Instead Of: Aaron Rodgers (Injured)
Stat Line: 24/37, 251 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT (Loss)

Flynn’s start came during one of best Packers seasons in history, and one that resulted in a Vince Lombardi trophy. Yet, in the middle of it, a two game losing streak, highlighted by Matt Flynn trying his best. Flynn’s first appearance came the previous week, after Aaron Rodgers was injured. Flynn played admirably, but it was a pathetic 7-3 loss for the Packers to division rival Detroit. Flynn went 15/24 for 163 yards and an interception. The next week, Flynn obviously played much better, and out-gunned the beautiful Tom Brady, who went 15/24 for 163 yards and two touchdowns. Flynn’s turnovers ended up haunting the team, however, and directly contributing to the loss. First, there was his pick-six in the third quarter that put the Patriots up, 20-17. Flynn led the drive to get back the lead, though, throwing a short pass to John Kuhn for a 24-21 lead going into the fourth quarter. Remember though, I said “turnovers”. That’s plural, baby, and his second turnover was a combo sack-fumble with five seconds left in the game on the New England 15. A tough way for Flynn to end a great performance, but he’d pull off something a little better a couple years later (but we’ll get to that).

3. Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins
Date: December 16, 2012

Playing Instead Of: Robert Griffin III (Injured)
Stat Line: 26/37, 329 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT (Win)

A footnote in the lone magical RGIII year, it’s hard to even give context for this game, considering how much has changed for Washington in the following years. This season was supposed to mark a grand beginning of an amazing career for Griffin and a return to greatness for both the franchise and then-head coach Mike Shanahan. Instead, Griffin is public enemy number one (yet named the starter for 2015), Shanahan returned to the tomb from which he was hired, and everybody just realized how racist the word “Redskin” is. Only took them over half a decade. Anyways, yeah, Cousins had a really good game here, something that he can actually do on occasion. In no way, shape, or form should he be a regular starter, but he’s shown he can be competent enough to hold a clipboard, throw some nice passes, and not cry on the sidelines when things get too tough. As far as I know, anyhow. Maybe he cries all the time.

2. Matt Schaub, Atlanta Falcons
Date: October 9, 2005
Playing Instead Of: Michael Vick (Injured)
Stat Line: 18/34, 298 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT (Loss)

I know what you’re thinking. You think this is THE performance Schaub used to parlay himself into the starting role on the Texans. Well, you’re wrong. In fact, Schaub would back up Vick for an additional season after this before landing in Houston. Schaub definitely had that mystique where a lot of analysts believed he was really good, but happened to be in Atlanta behind one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the history of football. Performance like this one, against the defending Super Bowl champs, only served to feed those flames. The Dirty Birds were down big, 28-13, going into the fourth. Schaub led a fierce comeback though, tossing touchdown passes to Alge Crumpler and Dez White, followed up with a two-point conversion on a pass to Brian Finneran to tie up the game. However, Adam Vinatieri, as he always did back in those days, kicked the game winner for the Patriots with 17 seconds to go. That is so Patriots of them.

1. Matt Flynn, Green Bay Packers
Date: January 1, 2012
Playing Instead Of: Aaron Rodgers (Rest)
Stat Line: 31/44, 480 yards, 6 TD, 1 INT

Hey, six touchdowns. Yeah, that’s gonna get Flynn to the top of this list regardless of what happened during the rest of that game. I mean, the rest of what happened was also amazing and baller, but even if it wasn’t, he still wouldn’t move from number one. Even if he didn’t pull off a two-minute drill in one minute and throw the game-winning touchdown. Wait, did I not mention that before. Because that happened. You know what also happened? Flynn getting paaaaaaid. Two months after this game, Flynn signed a three-year $20.5 million deal with the Seattle Seahawks, which included $9 million guaranteed. He could have fulfilled all three years of that contract, but Russell Wilson came along and that was that. Flynn bounced around with the Raiders and Bills for a bit before coming back to Green Bay, where he was outplayed by Scott Tolzien. Tolzien got a new contract this offseason. Flynn didn’t.