Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Best QB to Lose Two Super Bowls

By Brad Oremland

The 2009 Indianapolis Colts lost Super Bowl XLIV. The 2013 Denver Broncos lost Super Bowl XLVIII. That makes Peyton Manning one of only eight quarterbacks to start for two Super Bowl losers. It's an elite eight, to be sure, with Hall of Fame talent. How do these multiple Super Bowl-losing QBs stack up with one another? Let's rank them.

8. Craig Morton

Lost Super Bowls V and XII

Craig Morton was not a bad quarterback. He played for 18 seasons and led two different teams to the Super Bowl. He passed for 27,908 yards, right between contemporaries Ken Stabler (27,938) and Joe Namath (27,663). But you could not ask for an uglier Super Bowl QB.

For years, Super Bowl V was acknowledged as the worst of all time. The Colts and Cowboys combined for 10 turnovers, and the MVP went to a linebacker on the losing team. Morton finished the game with three interceptions and a 34.1 passer rating. He returned to the big game six years later, with the Broncos. Facing his old team, Morton went 4-of-15 for 39 yards and 4 interceptions. He is the only quarterback in Super Bowl history with a 0.0 passer rating. If the rating system allowed negative scores, Morton would have rated -76.0. No joke. He was benched for Norris Weese, and the Broncos lost 27-10.

Morton was a good QB, but he's the worst player on this list, and it's not close.

7. Kurt Warner

Lost Super Bowls XXXVI and XLIII

See how quickly we reach a Hall of Fame standard? I would be willing to argue that the list of QBs who have lost multiple Super Bowls is stronger than the list of those who have won multiple Super Bowls. Like Manning and Morton, Warner lost Super Bowls with two different teams.

Kurt Warner will probably be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and that's fine with me, but he had a short career at a position where the best players often stick around for 15 seasons or more. Warner only played four seasons as a regular starter: 1999, 2001, 2008, and 2009 were the only years he started 12 or more games. It always surprises me how many fans and analysts forget the shape of Warner's career. Following the loss in Super Bowl XXXVI, he got benched three times, by three different teams: in 2003, by the Rams (for Marc Bulger); in 2004, by the Giants (for Eli Manning); and in 2006, by the Cardinals (for Matt Leinart). He arguably got benched by the Cards in '05, too, for Josh McCown. If you want to be charitable, you could argue that Warner wasn't totally healthy in '05. Either way, it's a pretty rough stretch. He got benched or seriously injured for five seasons in a row.

I lived in St. Louis in 2003. Warner fumbled six times in a season-opening loss to the Giants, who went 3-12 the rest of the year. The Rams replaced Warner with Bulger and rebounded to win 12 games. At the end of the season, my friend Nick and I made a list of all the QBs we thought were better than Warner. It had 61 names, including a number of college QBs — we wrote "Tulane guy" because neither of us could remember J.P. Losman's name — and a couple players who were retired. We were exaggerating, but for three or four years, the list looked more or less on-target: Warner was finished as a starting quarterback.

Warner re-emerged as a top QB in 2008, playing with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. In a January 2010 Wild Card playoff, Warner threw more TDs than incompletions. He went 9-4 as a starting QB in the postseason, with a stat line of 307-for-462, 3,952 yards, 31 TD, 14 INT, and a 102.8 passer rating. In his three Super Bowl appearances, Warner averaged 385 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, and a 96.7 rating. He was an accurate passer, on-target with deep throws and setting up yards after the catch on underneath routes. His weakness was too many negative plays: lots of sacks, lots of interceptions.

6. Jim Kelly

Lost Super Bowls XXV, XXVI, XXVII and XXVIII

Kelly lost the most NFL Championships of any starting quarterback in history, four in a row over the 1990-93 seasons. Like Warner, he benefitted from exceptional teammates. Warner quarterbacked the Greatest Show on Turf, with two HOF-caliber receivers (Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt), a legendary running back (Marshall Faulk), and a very good offensive line including potential Hall of Famer Orlando Pace. In Arizona, he had two more HOF-caliber receivers (Fitzgerald and Boldin). The Super Bowl-era Bills have produced six HOFers: Kelly, head coach Marv Levy, RB Thurman Thomas, both starting WRs (Andre Reed and James Lofton), and defensive end Bruce Smith. Buffalo also had a strong offensive line, especially center Kent Hull.

Kelly, who started his pro career in the USFL, played only 11 seasons in the NFL, and it's fair to wonder how much success he would have had in the much stronger NFC. Of course, we might also consider the weather in Buffalo. When Kelly, a Miami Hurricane, chose the Houston Gamblers over the Bills in 1983, he said, "You can't be a great quarterback in snow and 30-mile-per-hour wind." That turned out not to be true, but it took Jim Kelly to prove it.

These are all great quarterbacks, so in this part of the list I'm trying to explain why the player doesn't rate higher, and that means pointing out his weaknesses. For Kelly it was his interception rate, 3.7%. That's far worse than contemporary HOF QBs like Joe Montana (2.6%), Steve Young (2.6%), Troy Aikman (3.0%), Dan Marino (3.0%), John Elway (3.1%), Brett Favre (3.3%), and Warren Moon (3.4%). Kelly threw 7 interceptions in Super Bowls. The only player with more was...

5. John Elway

Lost Super Bowls XXI, XXII, and XXIV

John Elway and Dan Marino were my favorite QBs in the '80s and '90s. Having rooted for Elway, I remember his many shortfalls in the postseason. But Elway, who retired immediately after back-to-back Super Bowl victories, the latter of which earned him a Super Bowl MVP Award, has become sort of a legend, celebrated for his acknowledged greatness rather than the things that made him great.

There are several striking parallels between John Elway and Peyton Manning. Both were college stars and both were drafted first overall by the Colts. Both opened their careers with a 2-3 postseason record. Both were named NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP. And of course, they both played on multiple Super Bowl losers. Peyton has been labeled a playoff choker basically for his whole career, and Elway was immune pretty early on because of The Drive, but his postseason record is littered with devastating failures.

The Broncos lost Elway's first playoff game, 31-7. The next season, they again lost their first playoff game. With three minutes left and the score tied, Elway threw an interception that was returned to the 2-yard line and set up a game-winning TD. He was on the wrong side of one of the biggest upsets in playoff history (against the Jaguars in January 1997) and two embarrassing Super Bowl blowouts. Despite all this, Elway is renowned for his clutch play and postseason success.

Elway played for a long time, at a high level. Some of his best statistical seasons came in the last years of his career. That's partly an illusion, because Elway had mediocre offensive teammates in his prime, and exceptional teammates when he neared retirement. He had incredible arm strength, but I suspect what most drew fans to Elway was his visible passion for football. The Drive seemed hopeless, but Elway made it happen. Perhaps the most memorable single play of his career was The Helicopter in Super Bowl XXXII, a vivid demonstration of Not Giving Up.

It's hard to blame Elway for the Super Bowl losses. The Broncos weren't going to win any of those games, no matter who the quarterback was. But even in the regular season, Elway had holes in his game. His stats are good, but more about volume than efficiency. His career passer rating was only 79.9, the lowest of any Hall of Fame quarterback to debut after the 16-game schedule, and he took the most official sacks in NFL history (516), a record that may never fall.

4. Roger Staubach

Lost Super Bowls X and XIII

Like Elway, a multiple Super Bowl loser famous for his clutch play: Captain Comeback, they called him. A Heisman Trophy winner at Navy, Staubach didn't play in the NFL until he was 27, due to his service, and didn't start until he was 29. He threw only 4 interceptions that season, posted a 104.8 passer rating, and led the Cowboys to victory in Super Bowl VI, of which he was named MVP.

Staubach played only eight full seasons. In four of them, he led the NFL in passer rating, and in four of them, Dallas reached the Super Bowl. He did not have a long career, and his stats don't look impressive today. But he was the most efficient passer of his era, and the most prolific when active. On a per-season basis, he's probably one of the five best quarterbacks in history. You wouldn't rank him quite that high because his career was so short, but Staubach has an awfully good excuse for the short career, and the years he missed would have been his athletic prime. He didn't retire until he was almost 37, and he was still one of the best QBs in the league.

3. Tom Brady

Lost Super Bowls XLII and XLVI

Like Elway, like Staubach, a multiple Super Bowl loser famous for his clutch play. Tom Brady's career has something to please everyone. He has career milestones like 350 TDs and nearly 50,000 yards. He has three Super Bowl rings and two MVPs. He's been regular season MVP twice, he's thrown for 5,000 yards in a season, 50 TDs in a season, three years with a passer rating over 100. No matter what measure you prefer, Tom Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play.

Brady spent a few years throwing to Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and Rob Gronkowski could become the greatest tight end of all time if he stays healthy. But for much of his career, Brady has played with no-name receivers. Sometimes he's had a running game, and sometimes not. For most of the last decade, there have been questions about New England's defense. No matter who else is on the team, Bill Belichick and Brady find ways to succeed. Such dramatic shifts in approach are not unprecedented, but they're very rare. Brady surely ranks among the most adaptable QBs in history.

I don't really have anything negative to say about Tom Brady, but I suppose I need to explain why he's "only" ranked third. He's still one of the best QBs in the NFL, and he could easily move up this list by the time his career is over, so that's some of it, longevity. The second thing is harder to define ... Brady has no real weaknesses, other than he's not fast, but he also doesn't have as many outstanding positives as the players ahead of him. He really suffers by comparison to Peyton Manning. Brady is a master of reading defenses and controlling the game at the line ... but not at the same level as Peyton. He runs a great two-minute drill, but not nearly as good as Peyton's. He's good at avoiding sacks, good at play-action, throws a nice deep ball ... but not as well. He's thrown fewer completions, with a lower completion percentage. Many fewer yards, and fewer yards per attempt. Fewer touchdowns, and a lower TD%. More sacks for more yards, and many more fumbles. He does have a lot fewer interceptions and a better INT%. He's less wild than Manning, and he doesn't seem to get rattled or frustrated as easily.

Maybe that's facilitated postseason success, but since that last Super Bowl win nine years ago, Brady's postseason record (9-8) is basically the same as Manning's (8-7). If Brady had a special clutch ability that Peyton lacks, it vanished with New England's once-dominant defense.

2. Fran Tarkenton

Lost Super Bowls VIII, IX, and XI

Fran Tarkenton played 18 seasons, and in nearly all of them, he was among the most productive quarterbacks in pro football. He played with the Vikings when they were an expansion team, and he put up John Unitas numbers. He played with the Giants when they were awful, and had some of his best years. He returned to the Vikings when they were an NFC dynasty, earning three trips to the Super Bowl and the 1975 NFL MVP Award.

Our enduring image of Tarkenton is a scrambler, and he was a sensational scrambler. But he was also the most prolific passer of his era, the man who broke all of Unitas' records. Today, with 16-game schedules, the liberal blocking rules for offensive linemen, the ban on the head slap, the Mel Blount rule, illegal contact, and innumerable policies to protect quarterbacks and receivers, Tarkenton still ranks 8th all-time in passing yards and 6th in passing TDs. Statistically and stylistically, you might compare Tarkenton to Elway, except that Tarkenton was much more efficient. His career passer rating is actually higher than Elway's, even though he played in the '60s and '70s. For consistent excellence over a long career, the only real comparisons are Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, and maybe Y.A. Tittle.

1. Peyton Manning

Lost Super Bowls XLIV and XLVIII

Peyton Manning has all the stats. Even many critics now acknowledge that he is the greatest regular-season quarterback in history. What's most striking about Manning is his artistry. Several times each season, he plays at a level that is almost incomprehensible. In Week 3, on Monday Night Football, Manning went 32-of-37 for 374 yards, 3 TDs, and a 135.8 passer rating. Jon Gruden called him the Sheriff, because he lays down the law. Mike Tirico called him the Surgeon, because he's so precise and he puts on a clinic. After the game, Steve Young and Trent Dilfer described Peyton, not as anything as crude as a sheriff, or as cold and dispassionate as a surgeon. He was a visionary, whose genius no one can fully understand or replicate. On his good days, Peyton Manning is the most amazing football player you could ever hope to see. On those days, his play is inspiring, everything I love about sports.

Sport isn't about numbers, and it isn't about trophies or rings. It's about overcoming the odds, finding reserves when they should have been exhausted long ago, throwing the perfect back-shoulder pass, calling exactly the right play on 3rd-and-8, accomplishing the improbable, even the impossible. Sports are about nothing less than the triumph of the human spirit, and a football game played in Week 3 is no exception. The stakes rise in big games, but seeing an athlete accomplish something you never would have dreamed of — that's always special, and no quarterback in history has done that as often as Manning.

Manning knows his offense better than any other player in league history. He runs the best two-minute drill. He has the best play-action. He looks guys off the ball as well as anybody. His timing and accuracy are as good as anyone's. He doesn't take sacks. He had arm strength and a quick release. He displays abilities we haven't seen since Marino in his prime and game control we haven't seen since Unitas. In many ways he combines the best qualities of both players.

Peyton has played poorly in some big games. He's also played sensationally in big games. He recorded a perfect passer rating in a 2003-04 playoff game and followed it up with a clinic against the 13-3 Chiefs. He lit the world on fire in a Wild Card game the next year (458 yds, 145.7 rating). He led the biggest comeback in Conference Championship Game history (18 points against the Patriots) and won a Super Bowl MVP Award against one of the best defenses in recent memory (the 2006 Chicago Bears). He dominated the exceptional 2009 Jets defense (377 yds, 3 TD, 123.6 rating). All QBs struggle sometimes, but for some reason it seems to stick to Manning in a way it doesn't for other players. Chase Stuart at Football Perspective compiled some events Peyton Manning's critics prefer to ignore:

"When Tom Brady leads the greatest scoring offense in NFL history to 14 points against a defense that allowed 22 points per game during the regular season, it does not become part of his narrative. When Joe Montana leads the 49ers to just three points in back-to-back playoff losses to the Giants, those games are pushed to the footnotes section of his biography. When the favored Colts were shut out by the Browns in the 1964 NFL title game, that goose egg did not become indelibly intertwined with the legacy of Johnny Unitas. Our memory of Otto Graham's 1953 season is that it was one of the greatest quarterback seasons in football history, even if he went 2/15 for 20 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions in a losing effort in the NFL title game. We remember Sammy Baugh as one of the greatest players ever, forgetting that he was the face of an embarrassing 73-0 loss to the Bears in the 1940 championship game. For most quarterbacks, ugly playoff performances are quirks of history; for Manning, they become bullet points in a character assassination."

If you're going to dismiss the most influential quarterback of the Modern Era, a player who has won five MVPs, set important single-season and career records, turns every receiver he plays with into a superstar, takes the fewest sacks in history, runs the best two-minute drill, and gets his team to the playoffs every year, if you're going to throw all that out the window because of a handful of playoff games, you really ought to re-think the way you analyze the game.

Eight quarterbacks have started at least two Super Bowl losses. They were all good players, and most of them were great. About half are inner-circle Hall of Famers, guys in the discussion for best ever. From where I'm sitting, none have been better than Peyton Manning.

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