Soon after Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending knee injury and Philadelphia’s Super Bowl hopes were placed on backup Nick Foles’ right arm, Jeff Hostetler’s phone lit up.
Out of all the quarterbacks who have gone from holding clipboards to begin the season to Super Bowl starter to end it, Hostetler’s path might have been most similar to Foles’ journey. It provides some hope to the Eagles heading into Sunday’s title game against five-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
”When it happened, all of a sudden my phone starts ringing off the hook,” Hostetler said. ”When you really start to look at it, this is probably out of all the times it’s happened since I played, this may be the most similar when you get to all the nuts and bolts about it.”
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Hostetler had started just two games in almost seven full seasons for the Giants when Phil Simms injured his foot in Week 14. After starting that season with 10 straight wins, the Giants lost three out of four and were mostly written off as a contender when Simms got hurt.
There was a similar mood in Philadelphia when MVP contender Wentz got hurt in Los Angeles in a win that improved the Eagles to 11-2, but left them with a backup quarterback running the show.
”Everyone had jumped off the bandwagon,” Hostetler recalled. ”We were completely shot as a team. That was the outside looking in. Inside where we were at, we just rallied the wagons. It was us versus the world. We just rallied around each other and it showed. I had a team similar to Philly. They’ve rallied around each other and nobody gives them a chance. When nobody gives you a chance and you’re a close-knit team that has been through adversity, look out, you can be dangerous.”
Hostetler said he had gained confidence by being thrown in late in a win against Dallas early in the season, and then leading a comeback against the Cardinals after Simms got injured in Game 6.
But by the time he stepped in for Simms in December, Hostetler had thrown 93 passes since entering the NFL in 1984. Hostetler managed to lead the Giants to two wins to end the regular season, a lopsided playoff opener over Chicago, then upsets over two-time defending champion San Francisco in the NFC title game (15-13 on five field goals) and Buffalo (20-19)in the Super Bowl.
”There were lots of things that were said, lots of negative things,” Hostetler said. ”That fed me because none of those guys had seen me play. I never had the opportunity. It wasn’t like I had gone out there and failed and that’s why I was a backup. I was a backup because we didn’t have free agency and I was behind a guy who was playing really well who hadn’t gotten hurt.”
Foles is the 14th quarterback to start the Super Bowl after not holding that role for the season opener, including Brady (2016) and Ben Roethlisberger (2010), who were suspended to start those seasons. The others fall into a few categories.
There were those who seized the job early in the season such as Jake Delhomme did for Carolina when he replaced Rodney Peete at halftime of the 2003 season opener; Brady when he stepped in for an injured Drew Bledsoe in Week 3 in 2001; and Joe Kapp, who replaced Gary Cuozzo for Minnesota in the second game in 1969.
Then there were teams looking for a midseason jolt that turned into Super Bowl wins. Roger Staubach shared time with Craig Morton in 1971 before taking over for good midway through the year to launch a Hall of Fame career with his first Super Bowl win. Three years later, Terry Bradshaw began the season on the bench behind Joe Gilliam before taking over as starter in Week 7, then winning the first of four Super Bowl titles. Trent Dilfer then stepped in for Tony Banks midway through the 2000 season for Baltimore, lost his first start and then won 11 in a row behind a dominant defense.
There were three other cases of injuries leading to changes before the stretch run, with Vince Ferragamo replacing Pat Haden for the Rams in 1979; Jim Plunkett stepping in for Dan Pastorini the following year in Oakland; and Colin Kaepernick doing the same in San Francisco after Alex Smith had a concussion in 2012.
But of all those quarterbacks, only Hostetler, Foles and Washington’s Doug Williams made it to the Super Bowl with as few as two regular-season starts that season. Williams made his starts early in the year before stepping in for Jay Schroeder in the season finale and sparking a comeback victory over Minnesota, leading to coach Joe Gibbs’ decision to make a change for the playoffs.
”I never was a backup, so the mentality was a lot different,” said Williams, who started 67 games for Tampa Bay before heading to the USFL. ”Even coming to Washington as the backup, I had a backup position with a starter’s mentality. That’s how I always looked at it.”
Williams played that way in the postseason. He helped overcome a 14-point deficit in wind chill of minus-20 degrees in Chicago against the mighty Bears defense in the division round before throwing two TDs to beat the Vikings again at home in the NFC title game.
Williams then put together an historic performance in the Super Bowl, leading five TD drives in 18 plays in the second quarter of a 42-10 win over Denver in San Diego. Williams threw for 340 yards and four TD passes on a gimpy knee to win MVP honors.
”The biggest thing was going to Chicago and being able to come back in that weather to beat the Bears,” Williams said. ”That was bigger than coming back from 10 points in 80 degree weather.”