Who knew Marc Bulger was a hero-in-waiting? Or that Chad Pennington was ready to ace his first test in the NFL? Or that Tommy Maddox was able at last to cash in on his misspent potential?
Backups all until October, those three quarterbacks offer the latest primer in how fickle NFL fate can be.
Bulger, an obscure sixth-round draft pick in 2000, served up a controversy in St. Louis by leading the Rams back from oblivion. Pennington and Maddox, a pair of former first-round picks, sparked revivals for the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers with unexpected proficiency.
Unexpected, but not unprecedented.
Backup quarterbacks climbing the charts are a recurring phenomenon of the era. The past three Super Bowl champions all were quarterbacked by players who went to training camp as backups -- Tom Brady in New England, Trent Dilfer with the Ravens and Kurt Warner with the Rams.
Until he was taken off the field in an ambulance last week with concussions of the head and spinal cord -- an injury that will sideline him for several weeks -- Maddox looked like he might make it four in a row.
As it is, Bulger and Pennington rank one-two in the league's passer ratings entering Week 12. And what are the odds of this? Neither played much, if at all, in the NFL before becoming a starter, and both played in the state of West Virginia -- Bulger for the Mountaineers and Pennington at Marshall.
"I think it says a lot for their preparation," Jets General Manager Terry Bradway said. "Without going through all that, you don't just step on the field and produce.
"I know what Chad did to get ready for this. He didn't leave any stone unturned. He prepared like he was a starter every week (through two seasons). It's easy to say, but hard to do. He watched extra tape, came in on his off days. His biggest motivation was when that time came (to play), he wanted to be ready."
Pennington replaced Vinny Testaverde as the starter in Week 5 with the Jets reeling at 1-3. After losing his first start, Pennington has won four of the last five games to get the 5-5 Jets in the playoff hunt in the AFC East.
His 110.2 passer rating for his first six starts is the best in team history, and he leads the league with an overall completion percentage of 71.0.
Pennington, the 18th pick in the 2000 draft, is one of 11 quarterbacks who didn't start at the beginning of the year but who will start in Week 12. The two newest additions are Koy Detmer of the Philadelphia Eagles and Steve Beuerlein of the Denver Broncos, replacing Donovan McNabb (broken ankle) and Brian Griese (knee), respectively.
Already this season, 19 backups have started and posted a combined record of 24-38-1.
Bulger's 5-0 record turned the Rams' season around, but it wasn't good enough to keep him in a starting role. He'll make way for Warner, returning from a broken right pinkie finger, in Washington on Sunday.
Remarkably, while there has been plenty of speculation about whether Bulger should yield to Warner, there has been no acrimony. "I don't know that any two quarterbacks in the league could deal with the situation with as much class and dignity that these two guys have dealt with it, without the jealousies," Rams Coach Mike Martz said.
Bulger was a practice squad player with Atlanta and the Rams in 2000 after being cut as a sixth-round pick with the New Orleans Saints. He spent last season with the Rams, but didn't play, and was actually the third-team quarterback this year until Warner's injury.
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