Tony Dungy: The most memorable emergency QB of all time


Terry Bradshaw broke his wrist in the first quarter. Backup Mike Kruczek separated a shoulder on the final play of the third quarter. And suddenly, on a fall afternoon in October 1977, the Pittsburgh Steelers were all out of quarterbacks.

Tony Dungy, a rookie safety for the Steelers at the time, was sitting on the bench at that moment.

"And I'm wondering, 'What is coach going to do now?'" Dungy said by phone this week. "Then I feel a tap on my shoulder. It's Chuck Noll."

And so it came to be that Dungy quarterbacked the Steelers through the fourth quarter of a 27-10 loss to the Houston Oilers. As ESPN.com explores the likelihood of an emergency quarterback playing this season, it's worth remembering that Dungy -- long before he became a Super Bowl-winning coach himself -- carved out a unique niche of NFL history. His rocky one-quarter stint behind center left him as the only modern-era player to both throw and make an interception in the same game.

"It was a fun moment and something I will always remember," Dungy said. "And I feel like I could have done better if I had had just a little bit of preparation for it."

Ah, but isn't that the nature of the role? Dungy had played quarterback at the University of Minnesota and was disappointed to learn that NFL scouts didn't see a future for him at the position. After going undrafted, he signed with the Steelers and spent his first week of practice as a receiver before he was moved to safety.

The Steelers released their third quarterback, Neil Graff, in training camp and it took only four weeks before that decision backfired. As Dungy earned playing time on defense, no one broached the idea of playing quarterback in a pinch. In fact, his career as a safety was just taking off. He intercepted the first pass of his career on that fateful day at the Astrodome.

About an hour later, Noll was asking him if he remembered anything about the Steelers' offense from that one-week stint as a receiver.

"I knew eight plays," Dungy said. "And so that's all we used."

Dashing onto the field for third down on the first play of the fourth quarter, Dungy was so rattled that he forgot to remove the forearm pads that many defenders used in those days. The Steelers failed to convert. Dungy, still not recognizing the magnitude of the situation, trotted to his usual spot on the punt team.

"NOOOO," yelled nearly everyone on the Steelers' sideline, as Dungy recalled it. "YOU'RE THE QUARTERBACK NOW!"

So Dungy retreated to the bench for an emergency strategy session. He finished the game with three completions in eight attempts for 43 yards. He threw two interceptions and fumbled a snap, but he said his fondest memory was completing one pass apiece to John Stallworth and Lynn Swann.

"I always tell them that my throws were the ones that put them over the top for the Hall of Fame," Dungy said, laughing. "If it weren't for those, who knows if they would have made it. But I was in that huddle looking at Lynn and John and Franco Harris, and I'm taking snaps from Mike Webster. Those are some of the greatest players in the history of our game. That's pretty surreal to look back on when you think about it."

There have been other instances of prominent emergency quarterbacks taking the field, from Walter Payton for the 1984 Chicago Bears to Brian Mitchell of the 1990 Washington Redskins. This season, the NFL has already seen 42 different quarterbacks start a game and 62 take at least one snap. With most teams carrying two on their active rosters, as the Steelers did in 1977, it's probably only a matter of time before someone gets another midgame tap on the shoulder.