Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Best Performances By Super Bowl-Winning Quarterbacks

By Brad Oremland

Twenty-six times in 48 Super Bowls, a quarterback has been named Most Valuable Player. Not all Super Bowl-winning QBs play well in the big game, and not all MVP performances are created equal. So which were the greatest games by a quarterback in Super Bowl history? Our top 10 is below.

10. Joe Flacco, Super Bowl XLVII

Baltimore Ravens 34, San Francisco 49ers 31

22-33, 287 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT, 124.2 rating

The 49ers had one of the league's best defenses in 2012, ranked second in fewest points allowed (17.1/game). The 34 points they allowed in Super Bowl XLVII tied their second-highest total of the season, and Flacco's 124.2 passer rating was the highest San Francisco allowed all season. He couldn't have picked a better time to have a big game. The Super Bowl victory earned Flacco a huge contract, one that pays him like a top-10 QB.

Of course, this is the infamous "Who Turned Out the Lights?" Super Bowl. In the first half, before the power outage, Flacco had 187 net yards and all three TDs, with a 135.8 passer rating. After the break, he netted just 87 yards, with no scores and a 90.2 rating — solid, but not the same superstar level he showed at the beginning of the game.

Signature play: Near the end of the first half, on the first play after the two-minute warning, Baltimore had 3rd-and-10 at its own 44-yard line. Flacco completed a deep pass to Jacoby Jones for a 56-yard touchdown and a 21-3 lead.

9. Doug Williams, Super Bowl XXII

Washington 42, Denver 10

18-29, 340 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT, 127.9 rating

In 1988, it was remarkable for a black quarterback to start in the Super Bowl; it had never happened before. Leading up to the game, Williams was flooded with attention, generally neither positive nor negative so much as curious. The famous story is that a reporter asked him, "How long have you been a black quarterback?" Other than maybe Len Dawson on the eve of Super Bowl IV, I doubt any Super Bowl quarterback has faced so much pressure and scrutiny.

As the game began, Williams didn't exactly put the controversy to rest. Washington fell behind 10-0, and Williams left the game with a hyperextended knee. He returned to direct a 35-point second quarter that included 357 yards of offense and 4 TD passes by Williams. There was a short TD pass to Clint Didier from the red zone, a medium-range touchdown to Gary Clark, and two deep bombs to Ricky Sanders. Facing the most pressure of his career, Williams played the game of his life.

Signature play: The first touchdown pass, 80 yards to Sanders. A perfect deep ball along the right sideline, caught in stride and run in for the first of many touchdowns. Another long score to Sanders was the nail in the coffin for the reeling Broncos, Washington's fourth TD in a row.

8. Terry Bradshaw, Super Bowl XIII

Pittsburgh Steelers 35, Dallas Cowboys 31

17-30, 318 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT, 119.2 rating

Terry Bradshaw played in four Super Bowls. He posted a passing rating over 100 in all four, and the Steelers won each time. That included back-to-back MVPs in Super Bowls XIII and XIV, and Bradshaw made some negative plays in both games. He threw three interceptions in SB XIV. Against the Cowboys the year before, he had a pick, and a fumble returned for a touchdown.

Bradshaw made enough positive plays to overcome his mistakes. I've been naming signature plays, and it's tough because all these QBs made great throws, but Terry Bradshaw and his receivers combined for more famous plays in the Super Bowl than anyone else. That's most true of Super Bowl X, when Lynn Swann's acrobatics made him the first receiver to win Super Bowl MVP, but SB XIII isn't far behind. Right after the fumble return TD gave Dallas a 14-7 lead, Bradshaw rebounded with a 75-yard TD pass to John Stallworth, but it's not even his greatest pass from that game.

Signature play: Bradshaw's final TD pass, to Swann in the end zone, was a thing of beauty. Swann's regular-season statistics are nothing special, but you watch his Super Bowl performances and wonder how anyone stopped him. Bradshaw's throw was pretty exceptional, too.

7. Troy Aikman, Super Bowl XXVII

Dallas Cowboys 52, Buffalo Bills 17

22-30, 273 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT, 140.7 rating

This was an ugly Super Bowl. The Cowboys had a punt blocked deep in their own territory, and Leon Lett fumbled an easy touchdown at about the six-inch line, but they won a blowout because the Bills committed 9 turnovers. Jim Kelly and Frank Reich threw 2 interceptions apiece, and the Bills lost 5 fumbles.

Despite Dallas' defensive dominance, Troy Aikman was named MVP. 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.

Signature play: Up 31-17 in the fourth quarter, Aikman hit Alvin Harper for a 45-yard touchdown that put the game away. Michael Irvin caught two TDs from Aikman, but the downfield bombs to Harper were the memorable game-breakers for the Jimmy Johnson dynasty.

6. Jim Plunkett, Super Bowl XV

Oakland Raiders 27, Philadelphia Eagles 10

13-21, 261 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT, 145.0 rating

The 1980 Philadelphia Eagles are underrated. That was a great team, and in particular, it was a great defense. It's underrated because the Raiders tore it apart in Super Bowl XV, and did so with a journeyman QB most of the league thought was washed up. During the regular season, the Eagles held opposing passers to a 57.8 passer rating. Jim Plunkett dropped a 145.0 on them.

The Raiders' supporting cast provided a lot of help. Plunkett was backed by two Hall of Fame offensive lineman, a star receiver in Cliff Branch, and a defensive that picked off Ron Jaworski three times. Plunkett was set up for success, but he took full advantage, and played the game of his life on the biggest stage, against the league's best defense. Three years later, Plunkett played well (172 yds, TD, 97.4 rating) against Washington in Super Bowl XVIII.

Signature play: Without a doubt, it's the 80-yard touchdown pass to Kenny King. Up 7-0 in the first quarter, Plunkett avoided a sack and threw downfield to King, who raced down the sideline to bury Philadelphia in an early hole. At the time, this was the longest play in Super Bowl history.

5. Aaron Rodgers, Super Bowl XLV

Green Bay Packers 31, Pittsburgh Steelers 25

24-39, 304 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT, 111.5 rating

This game is memorable for all the things that went wrong for the Packers, but Aaron Rodgers played so well they still won. All-Pro defensive back Charles Woodson broke his collarbone, and the Packers nearly squandered a 21-3 lead after he left. Veteran receiver Donald Driver got hurt, and the other receivers dropped about 70 passes. The Packers got hit for seven penalties, including three 15-yarders.

Rodgers passed for 304 yards, with 3 TDs and a 111.5 passer rating, against the best defense in the NFL, and that's even with all those drops. If his receivers had played better, it easily could have been 400 yards, 4 TDs, and a rating somewhere in the neighborhood of 140. Against the best defense in the NFL.

Signature play: With Green Bay leading 28-25 and six minutes left, the Packers had third-and-10 at their own 25-yard-line. Rodgers completed a 31-yard pass over the middle to Greg Jennings. Rather than going three-and-out, the Packers got a 10-play drive that lasted 5:19 and added a field goal.

Alternatively, the signature play might be the first drop, by James Jones on a sure touchdown.

4. Joe Montana, Super Bowl XXIV

San Francisco 49ers 55, Denver Broncos 10

22-29, 297 yards, 5 TD, 0 INT, 147.6 rating

The biggest blowout in Super Bowl history, highlighted by Montana's five TD passes, a record at the time. Jerry Rice, the MVP of Super Bowl XXIII the year before, caught 7 passes for 148 yards and 3 TDs. Brent Jones and John Taylor also caught TD passes.

Joe Montana's legend built slowly. The Catch and Super Bowl XVI brought him some attention, but San Francisco slumped to 3-6 the next season, so skeptics could dismiss Montana as a fluke. The 1984 regular season and Super Bowl XIX established his greatness once and for all, and XXIII kept his job safe from Steve Young for a few more years. But I believe it was this game, Montana's fourth championship and third Super Bowl MVP, that really solidified popular opinion that Montana was the best QB in history.

Signature play: Any of the touchdowns to Rice. They were all great throws that highlighted the perfect fit between Montana and Bill Walsh's "West Coast" Offense.

3. Phil Simms, Super Bowl XXI

New York Giants 39, Denver Broncos 20

22-25, 268 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT, 150.9 rating

Three of the top 10 Super Bowl QB performances listed here feature a common opponent: the 1980s Denver Broncos. Simms still holds the record for the highest passer rating in a Super Bowl. The second-highest belongs to Joe Montana in Super Bowl XXIV, against the same team three years later. Doug Williams' 127.9 in Super Bowl XXII is the sixth-highest.

You could write these off based on the low quality of opponent, but I don't think that's right. A game like Simms had is impressive against any NFL team, to say nothing of a conference champion, with the bright lights and pressure of a Super Bowl. Likewise for Montana and Williams: they were so dominant, you can't leave them off the list.

If a Super Bowl you were losing at halftime can be a clinic, this was a clinic. Simms had as many TD passes as incompletions. He also rushed for 25 yards.

Signature play: The tipped TD pass to Phil McConkey may be more memorable for fans, but the signature play for Simms was his go-ahead touchdown pass to Mark Bavaro in the third quarter.

2. Joe Montana, Super Bowl XIX

San Francisco 49ers 38, Miami Dolphins 16

24-35, 331 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT, 127.2 rating

Dan Marino had so much hype coming into this Super Bowl. He had perhaps the best regular season in NFL history, breaking the record for passing yards and blowing away the TD record, then following it up with outstanding performance in the AFC playoffs. But on Super Bowl Sunday, Montana outplayed his younger rival and was the clear star of the game.

Montana's 331 passing yards set a Super Bowl record, as did his 127.2 passer rating, but he devastated the Dolphins as much with his running as his throws. He ran five times for 59 yards — another Super Bowl record, and still the most ever by a winning QB — and scored on a six-yard scramble. It was a brilliant all-around performance, against a solid defense.

Signature play: When I think about this game, I always remember Montana's runs. Most people would probably say the long touchdown pass to Carl Monroe, but for me, it might be Montana's second scramble, for 15 yards and a first down. When he broke off his second long run, you knew the Dolphins were in trouble, because they couldn't defend both the run and the pass.

1. Steve Young, Super Bowl XXIX

San Francisco 49ers 49, San Diego Chargers 26

24-36, 325 yards, 6 TD, 0 INT, 134.8 rating

I'm not a 49ers fan. The Niners get three of the top four positions because Joe Montana is probably the greatest quarterback in Super Bowl history, and Young ... well, let's talk about Steve Young's Super Bowl. He threw six touchdown passes, a record that will probably never be broken. Montana is the only other player with even 5 TD passes in a Super Bowl, and — this year's results notwithstanding — the Super Bowl is more competitive now, with few blowouts or really bad defenses. Young was also the leading rusher in Super Bowl XXIX, with five runs for 49 yards, more than Ricky Watters or Natrone Means.

Montana in Super Bowl XIX and Young in XXIX are the two leading rushers among Super Bowl-winning QBs, but I'm not placing a premium on scrambling or mobile QBs. Young has a strong argument just based on his 325 passing yards and 6 TDs, while Montana would be a clear top-10 even if he hadn't run at all. But we don't usually look at running stats for this position, and an extra 49 yards is a pretty big deal. The Niners gained 449 yards of offense, and Steve Young accounted for 359 of it, 80%.

Signature play: On the third play of the game, Young hit Jerry Rice over the middle for a 44-yard touchdown. The only other Super Bowl in which the tone was set so quickly was probably this year's, Super Bowl XLVIII. But the safety on the first play of the game was more about a mistake by the Broncos, whereas Young and Rice showed immediately that the Chargers weren't going to stop them.

* * *

There are a lot of fine performances and great quarterbacks who didn't make this list. I would have loved to name Terry Bradshaw more than once, and it doesn't feel right that Bart Starr isn't listed. Sixteen MVP-winning performances didn't make the cut, and that doesn't even include strong non-MVP performances like Russell Wilson against the Broncos or Tom Brady against the Eagles.

You're looking at a really high standard here: the 10 greatest performances by Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks.

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