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 - injuries 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.
After Jamie Martin started and lost one game, Bulger got his chance. He completed 65.3 percent of his passes and led the league with an average gain per attempt of 8.65 yards in his five games.
Bulger threw for yardage totals of 453 and 347 in his last two games, with six touchdowns. He never struggled at all, a fact he attributes to coaching and the Rams' prolific system.
"My first read was there most of the times," Bulger said. "Coach Martz did a great job of game-planning. Like I've said, those guys were playing with a sense of urgency. Guys were stepping up to play."
Maddox resuscitated the Steelers while reinventing himself as one of the league's better passers. A former first-round flop with the Broncos, he played in three leagues and was out of the NFL for five years before making the Steelers' roster a year ago. He became an instant sensation upon relieving Kordell Stewart in Week 4.
Maddox engineered an overtime victory over Cleveland in that game, then lost only two of seven starts before getting hurt. It's not certain if he will return this season.
In New York, Pennington's passing accuracy rallied a Jets team that had been outscored, 102-13, in three consecutive losses under Testaverde.
"Guys rally because they feel they have to do a little extra," Bradway said. "The line blocks better, the receivers run better routes. A lot of guys are playing a lot better than they did early on."
Pennington said his success is predicated on playing the Jets' West Coast offense the way it's designed.