The Greatest Postseason Quarterbacks
April 12, 2011 by Brad Oremland • Print Story •
Last month, we looked at the greatest postseason running backs in NFL history. Players like Franco Harris, John Riggins, and Terrell Davis became legends for what they did when the stakes were highest. But while some running backs have found glory in playoff and championship games, the postseason spotlight has always shown most brightly on quarterbacks. Twenty-four times in Super Bowl history, 45 games, the winning quarterback has been named MVP — more than every other position combined.
A quarterback's performance in the postseason — or at least the performance of his team — can make or break a player's Hall of Fame case. In the minds of some fans and sportswriters, it's the only thing that matters. That's insane, judging a player with a 15-year career by 10 or 15 games, but a great postseason deservingly carves your name in history. No one is ever going to forget Doug Williams. Eli Manning's play in the run up to Super Bowl XLII forever quieted many of his critics. Jim Plunkett's reputation was rebuilt on a pair of title runs.
Naming the best postseason runners in history, you kind of have to go looking for them once you get past the first four or five. For quarterbacks, the challenge is trimming the list, not filling it. Several very accomplished postseason QBs didn't make the cut; it's not to say they weren't great playoff performers, just that others were even better. With so many fine players to choose from, I've tried to avoid one-hit wonders, guys who only played a handful of games. Below are the eight finest playoff and Super Bowl QBs in NFL history.
Chicago Bears, 1939-50
We don't have reliable statistics for all of Luckman's postseason games, but he set the league's earliest standard for postseason dominance, leading the Bears to four NFL championships in the 1940s.
The Bears were underdogs heading into the most thorough whipping in NFL history. The 1940 NFL Championship Game was a rematch of an earlier game between 9-2 Washington, the Eastern Division champ, and 8-3 Chicago, which had lost the earlier meeting 7-3. The game was even played in Washington. In the first half, Luckman ran for one touchdown and passed for another, leading the Bears to a 28-0 halftime lead. The final score was 73-0, the largest margin of victory not only in championship annals but in the whole history of the league.
The Bears also won the 1941 championship, 37-9 over the Giants, and the 1946 game, with Luckman passing for the first touchdown and scoring on a 19-yard run in the 24-14 victory. But it was in the 1943 Championship Game that Luckman's star shined most brightly. Washington was the defending league champion, and had just won a playoff 28-0. Washington QB Sammy Baugh had completed his famous triple crown, leading the NFL in passing, punting, and defensive interceptions.
Rather than Baugh, though, it was Luckman who dominated the field, turning in one of the most masterful performances in championship history. Luckman passed for 286 yards and 5 touchdowns, rushing for another 64 yards, and the Bears won by 20 points. Altogether, Luckman was 5-1 as a starter in the postseason, including four NFL championships.
Cleveland Browns, 1946-55
159/300, 2,101 yds, 14 TD, 17 INT, 67.4 rating
During Otto Graham's 10 seasons in Cleveland, the Browns went 105-17-4 and won seven league championships, plus the so-called "World Series of Pro Football" in 1950. No one else in history has that kind of résumé.
The Browns won four straight AAFC titles from 1946-49. In the '46 Championship Game, Graham passed for the winning touchdown with five minutes left, and intercepted a pass on defense to clinch the victory. In '47, he rushed for a touchdown in a 14-3 win. The 1948 championship was a 49-7 rout of the Buffalo Bills, the '49 title game a 21-7 win over the San Francisco 49ers. All that set up the "World Series" in 1950.
Following a partial merger of the NFL and AAFC, Week 1 pitted the NFL-champion Eagles against the AAFC's Browns. The Eagles were heavy favorites, but the game was so heavily anticipated, it was moved to a Saturday night and a larger stadium — the crowd was 10,000 larger than for the first NFL-AFL Super Bowl. Graham passed for 346 yards and 3 TDs, and the Browns dominated the defending NFL champs, 35-10. They went on to win the NFL championship, their fifth straight title, with Graham passing for all four Cleveland TDs in a 30-28 victory.
That's a résumé any quarterback would envy: five championships in five seasons, plus a decisive victory in the biggest non-championship game in history. Graham was just getting warmed up. His performance in the '54 title game is among the greatest in history: he passed for three TDs and ran for three more, and the Browns won 56-10. The next year, in his final game, Graham threw 50- and 35-yard TD passes, rushed for two more scores, and led Cleveland to a 38-14 win.
Graham's Browns went 9-3 in the postseason, including seven league championships — and he was a star in all of them. Projecting his postseason career to a 16-game season yields 212/400, 2801 yards, 19 TDs, and 23 INTs, plus 479 rushing yards and 8 more touchdowns.
Green Bay Packers, 1956-71
130/213, 1,753 yds, 15 TD, 3 INT, 104.8 rating
Bart Starr was a good regular season quarterback. In the playoffs, he was a legend.
Starr is the only quarterback whose postseason accomplishments are truly comparable to Otto Graham's: five championships, including the first two Super Bowls, and a 9-1 record in playoff and championship games. His 104.8 postseason passer rating is terrific in any era; in the 1960s, when the rules favored defense, it was astronomical. Remember when offensive linemen weren't allowed to use their hands, defensive linemen were allowed to use the head slap, and receivers could be hit anywhere on the field? Starr put up a 100+ rating in that era, against the best defenses in the league and when the stakes were highest.
Starr had several terrific performances in the postseason — three TDs in the 1961 NFL Championship Game, passer ratings over 100 in both Super Bowls — but his crowning moment was surely the Ice Bowl. It was New Year's Eve at Lambeau Field. There was a heating grid under the field, to prevent it from freezing, but the -13° F temperatures were so cold that the heating grid itself froze and stopped working. The wind chill was nearly -50°.
In these almost unplayable conditions, Starr shined. The Cowboys led 17-14 when the Packers took over at their own 32 with 4:50 remaining. Starr was 5-of-5 for 59 yards, giving Green Bay first-and-goal with :30 left. With :16 left, Starr scored on a QB sneak, making the Packers NFL champions for the third consecutive year — the only team to do so — and earning them a ticket to Super Bowl II. Starr was in on all three Packer TDs in the 21-17 victory, passing for two TDs before his game-winning sneak.
With Starr at the helm, the Packers amassed an incredible 9-1 postseason record. Projecting Starr's numbers to a 16-game season, you get 208/341, 2805 yards, 24 TDs, and just 5 interceptions, a +19 TD/INT differential.
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1970-83
261/456, 3,833 yds, 30 TD, 26 INT, 83.0 rating
In four Super Bowls, Terry Bradshaw compiled a 112.8 passer rating, finishing over 100 in all four games and winning MVP honors in two of them.
Founded in 1933 as the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Steelers went 39 years without winning a playoff game. Thanks to Bradshaw and the Immaculate Reception, the dry spell finally broke in 1972. Two years later, Bradshaw helped the Steelers win their first Super Bowl, passing for a 108.0 rating and rushing for 33 yards in Super Bowl IX. It was to be the weakest of his four Super Bowl performances.
Among Bradshaw's other postseason highlights is a statistical perfect game: he recorded the maximum 158.3 passer rating in a 1976 playoff win over the Colts: 14/18, 264 yards, 3 TDs. It's for the title games, though, that we remember Terry Bradshaw. No other quarterback, except maybe Bart Starr, elevated his game so much when a championship was on the line. The Steelers went 14-5 in the postseason during Bradshaw's tenure, including four Super Bowls. Bradshaw's 16-game pace equates to 220/384, 3228 yards, 25 TDs, and 22 INTs.
San Francisco 49ers, 1979-92; Kansas City Chiefs, 1993-94
460/734, 5,772 yds, 45 TD, 21 INT, 95.6 rating
The standard by which postseason greatness is judged today, Montana directed the 49ers to four Super Bowl wins, without throwing an interception in any of the four games: 83/122, 1142 yards, 11 TDs, no picks — plus 105 yards and 2 TDs on the ground. Projected to a 16-game season, Montana's Super Bowl performances would yield 4,568 yards, 44 touchdowns, still no interceptions, 420 rushing yards, and 8 rushing TDs.
It's no surprise that Montana earned three Super Bowl MVPs for his work; what is surprising is that Montana — unlike Terry Bradshaw — was often as effective in the earlier rounds of the playoffs as he was with a ring on the line. Consider the playoffs of the 1989 season. In a 41-13 win over the NFC Central champion Vikings, Montana passed for four touchdowns and a 142.5 rating. The next week, in the NFC Championship Game, he completed 26-of-30 passes for 262 yards and 2 TDs. In Super Bowl XXIV, 297 yards, 5 TDs, 147.6 rating.
Everyone remembers the 92-yard game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXIII, the touchdown pass to John Taylor, and The Catch in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, but perhaps Montana's finest moment came in Super Bowl XIX, when Montana out-dueled NFL MVP Dan Marino, passing for 331 yards and 3 scores, plus keeping the Miami defense off-balance by rushing for 59 yards and a touchdown.
Montana also led the Chiefs to two of their few postseason wins under Marty Schottenheimer (3-7 overall, 2-2 with Montana). Altogether, his teams were a combined 16-7 in postseason play, including four Super Bowls. Squeezed into a 16-game schedule, Montana's postseason stats look like this: 320/511, 4015 yards, 31 TDs, 15 INTs, a +16 TD/INT differential. He holds the postseason record for passing TDs, and ranks second in completions and passing yards (Brett Favre).
Denver Broncos, 1983-98
355/651, 4,964 yds, 27 TD, 21 INT, 79.7 rating
I didn't really want to put Elway on this list. Yeah, yeah, The Drive — his team lost three Super Bowls by an average of 32 points each. Seven of the eight players on this list were fairly obvious selections, guys you can't leave off. The other was Elway. He edged out, in roughly chronological order:
* John Unitas — 6-2, 3 championships, -3 TD/INT, Greatest Game Ever Played
* Roger Staubach — 12-7, 2 championships, +5 TD/INT, Hail Mary
* Jim Plunkett — 8-2, 2 championships, -1 TD/INT
* Joe Theismann — 6-3, 1 championship, +4 TD/INT, 91.4 passer rating
* Jeff Hostetler — 4-1, 1 championship, +7 TD/INT, 112.0 rating and no INTs
* Kurt Warner — 9-4, 1 championship, +17 TD/INT, more TDs than incompletions in a Wild Card game
* Ben Roethlisberger — 10-3, 2 championships, + 3 TD/INT, 69.9 passer rating in Super Bowls
* Aaron Rodgers — 5-1, 1 championship, +10 TD/INT, 5 TDs and 121.3 rating in only loss
The hardest cuts were Unitas, Warner, and Rodgers. Johnny U's two-minute drill in the 1958 Championship Game is just as legendary as Elway's in the '86 AFC Championship Game. Warner's +17 TD/INT differential ranks ahead of everyone but Montana; very few QBs have performed at such a high level in extended postseason action. Rodgers is simply off to the finest start of any QB in postseason history.
Why did Elway, whose early postseason career was full of brutal humiliations, edge ahead on my list? Because we focus more on having great moments than avoiding bad ones. Because he finally did win two championships. Because only Montana won more playoff games as a starting QB. Because he is the only quarterback to lead his team to five Super Bowl appearances. Because of The Drive, The Fumble, The Helicopter, and Super Bowl XXXIII, a legitimate MVP performance. Because that was Elway's final game, and he and Otto Graham went out on top like no one else in history.
The Drive is rightly famous, but looking at the whole game, Elway actually was better in his other two playoff wins over Cleveland than in the '86 AFC CG. In '87, he passed for three TDs with a 114.4 rating and 317 total yards. In a far less competitive conference championship game two years later, Elway passed for 385 yards, rushed for 39 more (424 total), and threw three TD passes with no interceptions, rolling up a 120.7 rating.
The Broncos were 14-8 in the postseason with Elway. Condensing his stats to 16 games, we get: 258/473, 3610 yards, 20 TDs, 15 INTs, plus 335 yards and 4 TDs rushing.
Dallas Cowboys, 1989-2000
320/502, 3,849 yds, 23 TD, 17 INT, 88.3 rating
I wrote above that everyone on this list except Elway was "obvious", a guy you can't leave off. Aikman and Luckman probably come closest to failing those criteria. Could you make a reasonable argument for, say, Kurt Warner ahead of Aikman? I suppose you probably could.
Aikman doesn't have Warner's stats. Really, no one does, except Montana. But Warner went 1-2 in title games, Aikman 3-0. Yeah, there were a lot of other people on the field in those games, and it's as unfair to blame Warner for the losses as it is to give sole credit to Aikman for the wins. At the same time, Warner threw two critical interceptions in Super Bowl XXXVI, and his two best performances came in wild card games (770 yds, 10 TD, 1 INT).
Aikman's best postseason game, maybe his best game, period, was Super Bowl XXVII: 22/30, 301 total yards, 4 TDs, and a well-deserved MVP. Aikman had nine postseason games with a passer rating over 100, all wins. Warner had four, including a loss. Aikman raised his level of play for the postseason, and the more important the game, the more he raised it. The Cowboys were 11-5 in the playoffs with Aikman, and his playoff stats actually are better than his regular-season averages: 281/457, 3194 yards, 16 TD, 14 INT, 81.6 rating.
New England Patriots, 2000-10
424/682, 4,407 yds, 30 TD, 16 INT, 85.7 rating
Three titles, two Super Bowl MVPs, one 18-0 start. Brady is one of six players with at least 30 postseason TD passes; the others are Montana, Brett Favre, Dan Marino, Kurt Warner, and Bradshaw. He is one of six with at least 4,000 passing yards (same list, except Peyton Manning instead of Warner). He is one of only four with 14 postseason wins as a starting QB (Montana, Bradshaw, Elway).
Brady's last three postseason games have been sort of disastrous: the upset loss in Super Bowl XLII, ending the perfect season, and home losses each of the last two years. Before those three defeats, his Patriots were a staggering 14-2 in the postseason, with Brady throwing more than twice as many TDs (25) as INTs (12). Brady is still one of the few QBs to lead his team to three postseason road wins: AFC Championship victories over the Steelers in the '01 and '04 seasons, plus the weird win over the Chargers in '06, Marty Schottenheimer's last game.
Starting quarterbacks whose teams have won at least three championships: Luckman, Graham, Starr, Johnny Unitas, Len Dawson (sort of), Bradshaw, Montana, Aikman, and Brady. The Pats are 14-5 in the postseason with Brady. His stats, converted to a 16-game pace, are 357/574, 3711 yards, 25 TDs, and 13 INTs.
The Best of the Best
There are plenty of great QBs who didn't make the list, but with all due respect to players like Dawson, Plunkett, Bobby Layne, and Big Ben, I think these are the best. The very finest, I believe, are rather obviously Starr and Montana, with Graham, Bradshaw, and Brady rounding out the top five.