Spanning three different decades, Steve DeBerg’s career can best be described as luckless.
Although he was capable of playing good football, DeBerg was constantly replaced by franchise quarterbacks.
No less than three teams demoted him to a back-up after drafting signal callers with brighter pedigrees.
Bucs shoulda never ditched these threads (and yes, that's Steve DeBerg). pic.twitter.com/JUF7ptG0DY
— Jeff Rosen (@jeff_rosen88) November 20, 2016
When DeBerg did finally get an opportunity, he led the NFL in several categories and even guided one of his teams to two playoff appearances.
Despite his hard luck experiences, DeBerg played for several notable coaches and tutored All-Pro quarterbacks.
This is the story of Steve DeBerg.
Early Life and College Choice
Steven Leroy DeBerg was born on January 19, 1954 in Oakland, California.
He got hooked on sports when he was young and played them constantly before entering Savanna High School in Anaheim, California.
While at Savanna High, DeBerg played football and was the team’s starting quarterback.
He also used his 6’3” frame in the pole vault for the school’s track team.
Although DeBerg was a solid prep quarterback, large colleges showed no interest.
Faced with limited options, DeBerg chose Fullerton College, a community college in nearby Fullerton, California.
He mostly looked on from the sideline in 1972, but in 1973, DeBerg took the lead for the Hornets.
That season, he guided Fullerton to a 5-0 record and a South Coast Conference title.
In the postseason, DeBerg and the Hornets crushed San Diego City College 24-0.
The following week, Fullerton was eliminated by Los Angeles City College 29-20.
Their final record was an impressive 10-1-0.
Transfer to San Jose State
After completing his community college career, DeBerg decamped to the Bay Area to attend San Jose State University in 1974.
It would take awhile, but Deberg finally became the Spartans starter in 1976.
The program went 7-4 that year and won the Pacific Coast Athletic Association (later renamed the Big West Conference) title.
DeBerg completed 141 of his passes that season for 2,084 yards, 19 touchdowns and six interceptions.
San Jose State Football on ESPN. Bill Walsh, Dick Vermeil, Al Saunders & Steve DeBerg are all alumni of the school. Not bad.
— JKuhn (@h8rproof82) September 28, 2013
He was named the PCAA Offensive Player of the Year award for his play.
Although he really only shined for two college seasons, DeBerg was inducted into the California Community College’s Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1993.
In 2001, he was inducted into the San Jose State University Ring of Honor and Sports Hall of Fame.
Drafted by the Cowboys then signed by the 49ers
DeBerg didn’t overwhelm pro scouts with his talent while in college.
He did show just enough, though, to be viewed as a project.
With the 275th overall selection in the 10th round of the 1977 NFL Draft, the Cowboys snagged DeBerg.
In a trend that would follow him throughout his career, DeBerg was waived by the team during training camp.
Dallas would win Super Bowl XII later that year.
Instead of being a Super Bowl champion in his rookie year, DeBerg was signed by San Francisco in September.
QOTD: The correct answer from yesterday was B. Steve DeBerg. On September 14, 1977, DeBerg was signed to the San Francisco 49ers' taxi squad. The starter in 1978, he was the first quarterback to implement Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense the following year. When Walsh drafted Joe pic.twitter.com/FzCwA6mjYx
— Christopher Cozby (@LoneStarChamp) August 3, 2021
He would spend the remainder of the season on the team’s taxi squad.
The following year, DeBerg got his opportunity and he became the 49ers starter.
San Fran would end the year 2-14 while DeBerg passed for 1,570 yards, eight touchdowns and a ghastly 22 interceptions.
In 1979, the team hired Bill Walsh to be their new coach and he immediately implemented his West Coast offense.
DeBerg thrived under Walsh’s system and attempted 578 passes and completed 347 of them, both were league highs.
Although it seems like they played in different eras, Joe Montana and OJ Simpson both played on the 2-14 1979 San Francisco 49ers. One was a rookie who was mainly a backup to Steve Deberg. The other, hobbled by knee issues, ran twice for 12 yards in their final NFL game. pic.twitter.com/FqLSmC6IIh
— 𝙃𝙚𝙡𝙢𝙚𝙩 𝘼𝙙𝙙𝙞𝙘𝙩 (@HelmetAddict) February 12, 2019
He also ranked fifth in the NFL with 3,652 passing yards and connected for 17 touchdowns against 21 picks.
Something else happened in 1979.
As Walsh was preparing for his first year, the team drafted a certain Notre Dame quarterback by the name of Joe Montana in the third round.
In 1980, DeBerg and the 49ers got off to a hot start, winning their first three games.
His dedication to the team was on display when, suffering from laryngitis, DeBerg and the team designed a portable microphone and speaker amplification system.
Incredibly, DeBerg wore the device under his uniform so his teammates could hear his voice during a game.
49ers QB Steve DeBerg is fitted for a mic and speaker due to a case of laryngitis, 1980. pic.twitter.com/mFyPYkSMHN
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) March 21, 2016
During two of DeBerg’s starts, he completed over 70% of his passes.
Unfortunately, he began turning the ball over more (17 picks during the year), which led to a losing streak.
Montana was inserted into the starter’s position and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Although San Fran would only win six games in 1980 (four by DeBerg), Montana played well and became Walsh’s protégé.
The 49ers 1980 media guide. Legendary Sam Wyche with starter Steve DeBerg and backup Joe Montana. pic.twitter.com/llju15LAtm
— Tom (@Ando83) June 2, 2020
Only one year later, the Niners would be Super Bowl champs.
Of course, DeBerg wouldn’t be part of the celebration.
Traded to Denver
Just before the 1981 NFL season began, San Francisco traded DeBerg to Denver where he would play for Dan Reeves.
Over the next two years, DeBerg would serve as a backup to NFL veteran Craig Morton.
In the ‘81 and 1982 seasons combined, he would start only six games and throw for a total of 2,202 yards, 13 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
Then, with the first pick of the 1983 draft, the Broncos made a deal with Baltimore and signed Stanford quarterback John Elway.
DeBerg saw five starts during ‘83 and threw for 1,617 yards, nine touchdowns and seven picks.
OTD 1983: #Broncos' future-HOF QB John Elway struggles in his NFL debut (1-8, 14 yds, 1 INT, 1 fumble lost, 1 intentional grounding, sacked 4 times) and is relieved by Steve DeBerg after halftime.
Outgained 314-139, Denver forces 7 Steeler turnovers to win in Pittsburgh, 14-10. pic.twitter.com/FgXm8YJFDa
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) September 4, 2020
Elway’s talent was undeniable, however, and he and DeBerg would fight for starter’s minutes throughout the season.
Denver would finish 9-7 but lose to Seattle in the Wild Card Round.
Elway’s presence meant that DeBerg was no longer needed.
In April of 1984, he was traded to Tampa Bay.
Coach John McKay rode DeBerg’s experience to six wins during the year which was the highest total since 1981.
With DeBerg at the helm, the Bucs were the 10th best offense in the NFL.
Sometimes after a good practice all Steve DeBerg wanted to do was pop in some Zeppelin and cruise around Tampa in his Buccaneers truck. pic.twitter.com/ab8Wqq000a
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) July 24, 2018
He appeared in every game and started 13.
Completing over 60% of his passes, DeBerg passed for 3,554 yards, 19 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.
Just as the 1985 season began, Tampa Bay signed LA Express quarterback Steve Young to a series of one-year contracts.
Even with Young on board, DeBerg started 11 games and passed for over 2,800 yards, 19 touchdowns and 18 picks.
The Bucs would end the season 2-14.
In 1986, DeBerg won the quarterback duel over Young to start the season.
By the end of the team’s second game against Minnesota, DeBerg was on the bench.
In the first two weeks combined, DeBerg threw nine interceptions, leading to his new home on the sideline.
Young took over and guided the Bucs to another 2-14 season.
DeBerg would finish the year with only 610 passing yards, five touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
As 1987 dawned, new coach Ray Perkins took over and the team selected University of Miami’s Vinny Testaverde with the first pick of the draft.
With Testaverde on the board, Young was traded to the 49ers to serve as Montana’s backup.
DeBerg couldn’t help but comment on his situation after Testaverde was drafted.
“It amazes me how history repeated itself,” said DeBerg in 1987. “Each time a ‘franchise’ quarterback would come in, I’d ask myself, Is it possible this could happen again? Lightning isn’t supposed to strike twice in the same place.”
With the rookie learning the ropes, DeBerg was back under center where he started eight games.
Look, he isn't going to the Hall of Fame or anything and he played on some very bad teams but I always felt like Steve DeBerg gave you a chance to win and I respect that. pic.twitter.com/eBlGlE7ZGs
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) September 17, 2019
He passed for over 1,800 yards, 14 touchdowns and seven picks.
DeBerg also finished eighth in the league in QB rating (85.8).
“I have average talent,” DeBerg said in late ‘87. “But I’ve made myself better than 10,000 quarterbacks who had more talent, because they weren’t as committed as I was. I figured this would be my last shot at being a starter in the NFL. For your last hurrah, you go for it.”
Despite DeBerg’s leadership and capability as a player, the lure of Testaverde was too much to risk for Tampa Bay.
However, Tampa would not be DeBerg’s last hurrah.
In March of 1988, he was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs.
A Starter in Kansas City
The Chiefs were in desperate need of help.
When DeBerg arrived in 1988, Kansas City had only made the playoffs once since 1971.
On the roster at quarterback then was Bill Kenney and Dave McManus.
In other words, coach Frank Gansz needed a veteran to lead the Chiefs.
However, given his experience, DeBerg couldn’t help but look over his shoulder to see if KC had signed someone to compete with him.
“I’m always the incumbent until they bring in the next Joe Namath,” DeBerg quipped at the time.
Without any substantial competition, DeBerg started 11 games and passed for 2,935 yards, 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
Always a fan of Steve Deberg. Early in his career, he had the unfortunate luck of his team drafting a franchise QB (Montana, Elway, Testaverde) to replace him. Tough dude who had some good years with Marty's Chiefs teams. pic.twitter.com/evbWgThENJ
— Addicted to Helmets (@addicted2helmet) July 4, 2020
Kansas City went 4-11 for the second year in a row and Gansz was fired.
In his place stepped former Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer.
When DeBerg tossed eight picks in the first three games of 1989, Schottenheimer benched him in favor of Steve Pelleur.
After riding the pine for four weeks, DeBerg returned to the starter’s role for the remainder of the season.
That year, he passed for 2,529 yards in 12 game appearances and threw 11 touchdowns against 16 picks.
DeBerg Leads the Chiefs to the Postseason
Schottenheimer turned Kansas City around quickly and the Chiefs went 11-5 in 1990. Their 11 wins were the most since 1969.
The turnaround coincided with a very good year for DeBerg.
Behind one of the best lines in the NFL, and with the assistance of backs Barry Word and Christian Okoye, DeBerg led the team with 3,444 passing yards, 23 touchdowns and a then career low four interceptions.
He also led the league with a 0.9 interception percentage, which included a career-high (and team-record) 223 passes without an interception.
In order for the Chiefs to qualify for the playoffs, they had to beat the San Diego Chargers in Week 16.
Playing with a fractured finger, DeBerg led the Chiefs to victory.
Greetings! Steve DeBerg…broken finger with a plastic peg in that finger which stuck out of the end of the cast. Played anyway!
Toughness is a Choice!😎💯 pic.twitter.com/6v73wxbswj
— David Crawford (@coachcraw4d) July 31, 2020
After the game, he was praised for his gutty performance by safety Deron Cherry.
“Steve DeBerg’s an inspiration to this entire team,” said Cherry. “He’s our MVP, as far as I’m concerned.”
Unfortunately, in the Wild Card round against the Dolphins, the Chiefs could only muster one touchdown pass from DeBerg and settled for three field goals in a close 17-16 loss.
Despite the loss, DeBerg completed 17 of 30 pass attempts for 269 yards, one score and a pick.
In 1991, the Chiefs returned to the playoffs after a 10-6 season.
DeBerg started 15 games and passed for 2,965 yards, 17 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Let's go Chiefs! (Yes, I still love Steve DeBerg.) pic.twitter.com/f63Dgo36Gc
— Mike Ryan (@mikeryan) January 16, 2016
For the first time since the franchise’s victory in Super Bowl IV in 1969, Kansas City won a playoff game in the ‘91 postseason.
After DeBerg threw a touchdown pass, and the Chiefs did just enough to hang on for a gritty 10-6 victory over the Raiders, DeBerg was giddy.
“This is the first playoff game I have ever won,” said DeBerg after the game. “I’m going to enjoy it and hopefully this won’t be the last one I get to enjoy.”
Unfortunately, that would be his last playoff game victory with the Chiefs.
The following week, Kansas City was crushed by Buffalo 37-14.
It was the Bills’ first victory of the postseason on their way to a berth in Super Bowl XXVI.
DeBerg was knocked out of the game early due to a thumb injury and backup Mark Vlasic took over.
Although DeBerg had helped lead the Chiefs to two playoff appearances, he was released after the season.
Back to Tampa Bay and Retirement with Miami
Head coach Sam Wyche brought DeBerg in for his second stint with the Buccaneers.
Testaverde was still in Tampa and DeBerg spent the majority of ‘92 as his backup.
He did get two starts and appeared in six games which led to 710 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions.
In 1993, DeBerg appeared in three games and got one start before he was cut by the Bucs.
Just as he was preparing to call it a career, the Miami Dolphins called and signed DeBerg for the remainder of the season.
Backing up Dan Marino, DeBerg had four starts in relief of an injured Marino and went 2-2 in his appearances.
Dolphins QB Steve DeBerg (1993). Rescued Dolphins after injuries to top two QB's. Threw 6 TD & 81.0 rating. Went 2-2 as starter. pic.twitter.com/QCcdqAW1yB
— Dolphins History (@DolphinsHistory) August 14, 2017
He passed for a total of 1,521 yards, six touchdowns and seven picks.
After the Dolphins just missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record, DeBerg retired from football.
Coaching Career, a Comeback and Retirement #2
By 1995, DeBerg found himself as the quarterbacks coach with the New York Giants and Dan Reeves (his former coach in Denver).
He held that position for the ‘95 and 1996 seasons, tutoring the likes of Dave Brown, Tommy Maddox and Danny Kanell.
After the ‘96 season, Reeves was fired and then hired by Atlanta before the 1997 season.
One year later, Reeves called DeBerg and asked him to join him with the Falcons.
However, Reeves didn’t want DeBerg to be a coach.
Reeves wanted him to serve as a backup to Chris Chandler.
DeBerg agreed and he returned to the league as a player for the first time in four years.
By that time, DeBerg was 44 years old.
He became the NFL’s third-oldest quarterback to play in an NFL game when he led the Falcons against the Jets in Week 8.
After four years in retirement, Steve DeBerg returned to the NFL in 1998, at age 44.
On October 25, with Chris Chandler unable to play, Deberg became the oldest quarterback to ever start an NFL game when he led the Falcons against the New York Jets. He threw 9-of-20 for 117 yards pic.twitter.com/9JyCzhcMeP
— Lieutenant Kijé (@BrianLemaire2) September 13, 2018
Showing significant rust from four years away from the game, DeBerg passed for 117 yards and an interception against New York before being replaced.
Fortunately, the Falcons were a very good team in 1998 and the Jets loss was their last of the regular season.
Armed with a 14-2 record, Atlanta beat the 49ers 20-18 in the Divisional Round and then upset a heavily favored Vikings team in Minnesota during the NFC Championship game.
Atlanta’s berth in the Super Bowl meant that DeBerg at long last was finally getting a chance to experience the NFL’s ultimate game.
Although he didn’t play in the Falcons 34-19 loss to the Broncos, DeBerg was the oldest player (45 years, 12 days) on a Super Bowl roster in NFL history.
You guys remember 44 year old Steve DeBerg on the '98 Falcons?
Played with Phoenix Cardinals LEGEND Chris Chandler!@danbickley @Vincemarotta @Bickley_Marotta https://t.co/3ts4Ekiitd pic.twitter.com/IOhyYiK7Mj
— Anthony 🔰 土着 (@Viscous_cree) January 7, 2020
It also wasn’t lost on DeBerg that the opposing quarterback that day was John Elway, the man who unseated him in 1983.
DeBerg’s career had truly come full circle.
At the conclusion of the game, DeBerg retired for good.
In his 18 year career, which spanned the 1970s, 80s and 90s, DeBerg passed for a total of 34,241 yards, 196 touchdowns and 204 interceptions.
He played in two postseasons and was on the roster for the Falcons Super Bowl XXXIII team.
Life After Retirement
Once he retired as a player, DeBerg stayed close to the game.
In 2004, he was briefly the head coach of the Indiana Firebirds of the Arena Football League.
His record was 0-5.
DeBerg also served on the staff of the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena League.
DeBerg has two children with his wife, Marcia North, who he divorced in 1996 after 22 years of marriage.
He also has two grandchildren.
Despite his luckless career as a (mostly) backup quarterback, DeBerg maintained his perspective and summed up his time as a pro while he was still playing.
“I’ve never wished that my career would’ve gone differently,” DeBerg said in 1987. “I’ve never said I got a raw deal. I’ve played a lot more than most. I haven’t accomplished what I could have. But, hey, I wasn’t supposed to make it one year, let alone 11 (he would play 18). I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to get the opportunity to play in the NFL. And I am lucky to have learned from every coach I played for and every quarterback I competed against.”
Loved that guy!
Robert Beers says
Loved his grit when played for us in Kansas City. Wish him well. R.B.
Loved the article! Steve DeBerg was the losing QB in the only NFL game I’ve ever seen live – against the Giants back in ’78. DeBerg had a lousy game and ended up being outplayed by “Paterson Plank” Joe Pisarcik. But as a kid I became a fan of his anyway and followed the rest of his long career. Thanks for the memories.
It was my high school quarterback
Luckless?! How many QBs get to play anywhere with more INTs than TDs. DeBerg had a charmed football career that began with jis getting to play QB at all in high school.
Long carrier God bless my back Up quaterback not number one in all