Quarterback is the single most important position in professional sports. Success in the NFL is tied to that position more than any position in any sport, and you can tell by looking at a list of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks.
Star quarterbacks are often built from crowded quarterback rooms, where they have to earn the starting job and learn from a veteran trying so desperately not to lose his job.
Here’s a look at five historic quarterback battles and five present-day quarterback competitions:
San Francisco 49ers: Joe Montana vs. Steve Young (1987-1992)
With one of the best quarterback rooms of all-time, the 49ers were in a golden situation. The 49ers acquired Young from the Buccaneers in 1987 and he served as Montana’s backup for four seasons, something unheard of in today’s NFL. Young had flashes of brilliance in small samples for San Francisco, notably replacing Montana in the 1988 playoffs against the Vikings. Legendary coach Bill Walsh even used a two-quarterback system for part of 1989 before handing Montana his job back.
Everything changed in 1991. With Montana suffering an elbow injury that cost him the season, Young was given his chance. The 49ers went just 10-6 after going 14-2 the year before, so more controversy arose as Montana tried to recover for the 1992 season. He was unable to play early in the season and Young didn’t give him a chance to play later in the season. It was an MVP season and a 14-2 record for Young and the 49ers as Montana threw just 21 passes all year.
The next season brought more debate for the 49ers’ quarterback job. Some players and coaches favored Young while others favored Montana. Owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. famously backed Montana, but it was clear Young had won the job. Montana was traded to the Chiefs at his request before the season and Young led the 49ers to the Super Bowl XXIX title in January of 1995.
New England Patriots: Drew Bledsoe vs. Tom Brady (2001)
This wasn’t a competition until Drew Bledsoe was knocked out with a sheared blood vessel in Week 2 of 2001, just months after signing a record-setting 10-year contract with the Patriots. Brady took over as starter the following week, and Bledsoe never started another game in New England. Bledsoe was cleared to play in November, but Bill Belichick made the decision -- which was controversial at the time -- to play Brady, who was selected 199th overall one year earlier.
Bledsoe’s last start may have come in Week 2, though he did play a role in the Patriots’ playoff run. In the AFC Championship Game against the Steelers, Brady exited in the second quarter with an injury as Bledsoe took over under center. The former No. 1 overall pick went 10 of 21 with 102 yards and a touchdown as the Patriots beat the Steelers by a score of 24-17. Brady started and won the Super Bowl two weeks later before Bledsoe was traded to the Bills in the offseason.
Green Bay Packers: Brett Favre vs. Aaron Rodgers (2005-2007)
Rodgers was in the mix for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft before dropping all the way to the Packers at No. 24. It was clear that Rodgers was the succession plan to Favre, who won a Super Bowl with Green Bay in 1996 and won MVPs in 1995, ‘96 and ‘97. Still, Rodgers had to sit and watch the future Hall of Famer run the show for three seasons. He attempted just 59 passes in three years as Favre led the Packers to the NFC Championship Game in 2007.
Even though Rodgers didn’t get his shot until 2008, there were plenty of rumors of his day coming sooner. There were retirement rumors surrounding Favre dating back to 2006. Favre formally retired in March of 2008, and the Rodgers era was officially underway. Of course, Favre did return for three more seasons, one with the Jets and two with the Vikings, but Green Bay had to be pleased with its decision on Rodgers.
Seattle Seahawks: Tarvaris Jackson vs. Matt Flynn vs. Russell Wilson (2012)
This three-horse race had a little bit of everything. Jackson started 14 games for Seattle in 2011, leading the team to a respectable 7-7 record while throwing for 3,091 yards. Flynn signed a three-year, $19 million deal with the Seahawks in the offseason after an impressive Week 17 performance for the Packers. Then there was Wilson, the third-rounder who looked promising from the moment he stepped on the field.
The preseason brought a true competition between the three players. Flynn and Wilson separated themselves as the top two options throughout training camp and early in the preseason. In Week 3, Flynn was out with a shoulder injury and Wilson was given a chance to prove he was the man for the job. Russ responded by throwing for 185 yards and two touchdowns while adding 58 rushing yards in the 44-14 win. Wilson started all 16 games for the Seahawks as a rookie in 2012 and hasn’t missed a single start in his career through 2020.
Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco vs. Lamar Jackson (2018)
The Ravens traded back into the first round to select Jackson at No. 32 overall in 2018, a clear signal that the end was near for Flacco. The veteran starter played the first nine games of the season before suffering a hip injury. Jackson was thrust into the lineup and never surrendered his job back to Flacco.
With Jackson under center, the Ravens finished the season 6-1 and stormed into the postseason. Despite a disappointing home loss to the Chargers in the AFC wild card game, the Ravens had found their quarterback of the future. Flacco was traded to the Broncos shortly after the 2018 season and Jackson won league MVP in 2019, his first full season as a starter.
Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers vs. Jordan Love (2021)
So, this one isn’t really a competition. Love was drafted No. 26 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft and was tabbed as Rodgers’ successor like Rodgers was for Favre 15 years prior. In Love’s rookie season, he was a healthy inactive in every game while Rodgers won his third MVP award.
Love’s second or third season could be a different story, but not because of any QB competition. Rodgers made it clear how unhappy he is with the Packers organization, and until the two recently worked out a contract, it looked like Love could’ve been the Packers’ starter. This will be an issue moving forward, but not likely until 2022.
New England Patriots: Cam Newton vs. Mac Jones (2021)
When the Patriots selected Jones with the 15th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, it marked the earliest New England selected a QB since 1993 (Bledsoe at No. 1). Jones had an electric season at Alabama in 2020, tossing 41 touchdowns and leading the Crimson Tide to a national championship. Bill Belichick reiterated after the draft that Newton, the Patriots’ 2020 starter, was QB1.
The 2021 Patriots have heavy expectations one year after suffering their first losing season since 2000. Newton was 7-8 as a starter in 2020, but threw just eight touchdowns to 10 interceptions. The quarterback competition will be the prominent storyline throughout the summer and into the fall across New England, as the two battle it out at training camp.
Chicago Bears: Andy Dalton vs. Justin Fields (2021)
Another veteran vs. rookie battle for 2021 where the odds favor the veteran but the fans want to see the rookie. Dalton has been a serviceable starter in the NFL since being drafted by the Bengals in 2011. He spent nine seasons as a starting quarterback in Cincinnati before playing for the Cowboys in 2020. The Red Riffle went 4-5 as a starter in Dallas, throwing for 2,170 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The Bears’ social media team pegged Dalton as QB1 before Chicago traded up to select Fields 11th overall. The Ohio State quarterback had a dazzling career in Columbus, totaling 63 passing touchdowns, nine interceptions and 5,373 passing yards in 22 games. Chicago’s Week 1 game against the daunting Rams defense would be a difficult first test for the rookie, so we’ll see how this battle plays out at Bears training camp.
San Francisco 49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Trey Lance (2021)
Garoppolo has been assured that he’s the starter for 2021, but this could turn into a classic long-term competition. Lance was selected third overall and the team gave up two future first-rounders for him, so he’ll clearly get a chance at some point. The question is when that chance will come, and that question will be answered based on how Garoppolo plays and if he can stay healthy.
In his three full seasons with the 49ers, Garoppolo has played just 25 of a possible 48 games. San Francisco made the Super Bowl in the only season where he played all 16 games (2019). As long as Jimmy G is healthy, he should have no problem starting in 2021. After that, though, all bets are off. The 49ers will likely want to get Lance into the lineup as soon as possible to maximize his rookie contract.
Washington Football Team: Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Taylor Heinicke vs. Kyle Allen (2021)
Year 2 of the Washington Football Team era will bring the same type of quarterback questions that were asked in year one. There’s the wily veteran (Alex Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick), the unproven younger player (Dwayne Haskins, Taylor Heinicke) and Kyle Allen (Ky-well, you get it). In 2020, Washington rode all three of its quarterbacks to an NFC East title and playoff berth. Once it got to the postseason, the fourth stringer Heinicke got the start due to injuries and Haskins being cut.
This season seems to be set up for Fitzpatrick to be the starter. He started seven games for the Dolphins last season, going 4-3 while throwing 13 touchdowns to eight interceptions. Heinicke will likely be his biggest competition after an impressive first career playoff start (26 of 44, 306 passing yards, 46 rushing yards, two total touchdowns) in WFT’s loss to the Buccaneers. Allen is also still looming as the dark horse candidate due to his familiarity with Ron Rivera’s system.