Worst Performances By Super Bowl-Winning QBs

Peyton Manning did not play well in Super Bowl 50, but a dominant defense lifted the Broncos to victory. Was it the worst Super Bowl ever by a winning quarterback?

Facing Super Bowl competition, it's very rare to win without good quarterback play, but below, I've ranked my list of the least impressive Super Bowl performances by quarterbacks whose teams won the big game.


These really aren't that bad, but they're among the least impressive Super Bowls by winning QBs. In reverse chronological order:

Tom Brady, Super Bowl XXXVI — The Patriots finished with just 20 points, 15 first downs, and 267 yards — hardly an overpowering performance. That includes 134 net passing yards and 133 rushing yards. Brady had an 86.2 passer rating.

John Elway, Super Bowl XXXII — A triumphant game in which he had a signature play (The Helicopter) but wasn't the hero. Denver had 179 rushing yards and 123 passing yards. Elway threw an interception and posted a 51.9 rating.

Joe Theismann, Super Bowl XVII — He threw 2 interceptions, and his 75.1 passer rating is the fourth-lowest by a Super Bowl-winning QB who attempted 10 or more passes. His 124 net passing yards is also among the lowest totals.

Bob Griese, Super Bowl VII — The second-fewest yards by a Super Bowl-winning QB, 88. Including sacks and rushing, Griese had just 69 total yards, the lowest ever for a winning QB. The Dolphins set the record for fewest points (14) by a Super Bowl champion, as Griese finished with 1 TD, 1 INT, and an 88.4 passer rating.

Joe Namath, Super Bowl IIIJoe Namath is underrated, and his performance in this game is probably a little underrated. He directed the Jets' offense, even if his numbers weren't outstanding (17-of-28, 206 yds). But many Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks had truly great games, and this wasn't one of them.

The Bottom Five

5. Bob Griese, Super Bowl VIII
Miami Dolphins 24, Minnesota Vikings 7
6-of-7, 73 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 110.1 rating

This wasn't a bad performance, obviously. Griese's 110.1 passer rating is excellent, and was even more so for 1973. But Griese wasn't important to his team's victory. He was 6-of-7 for 73 yards, with 2 rushes for 7 yards. He took one sack for 10 yards. That's an efficient performance, against a good defense. But Griese barely even managed the game. He generated 4 first downs and no touchdowns, and finished the game with just 70 total yards, less than half the total of MVP Larry Csonka.

This is one of only seven Super Bowls in which the winning QB didn't throw a touchdown pass, and Griese's 73 yards are the fewest by any winning quarterback. His 63 net yards are also the fewest, and his 70 total yards the second-lowest, ahead of only himself (the year before). Griese didn't tank or choke, and he didn't play badly, but he was incidental to the gameplan. He only dropped back to pass 8 times, and one of them was a sack.

4. Trent Dilfer, Super Bowl XXXV
Baltimore Ravens 34, New York Giants 7
12-of-25, 153 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 80.9 rating

At a glance, Dilfer's stats don't look so bad. He threw a TD, without any interceptions, and his team scored over 30 points. If you didn't watch Super Bowl XXXV, it's hard to understand how poor the QB performance really was.

The signature play, for me, came in the first quarter. The Ravens had a receiver wide open down the right sideline, and Dilfer missed him by a mile. Baltimore wasn't going to lose that game with Art Modell at quarterback, and there were probably a couple times Modell wished he could sub in.

If you look carefully at the stats, there are some indications about Dilfer's role in the victory. He passed for only 6 first downs, and Baltimore's 13 total first downs rank among the lowest in Super Bowl history. The Ravens went 3-of-16 on third downs (18.8%), compared to a league average of 38.3%. Dilfer took three sacks for 20 yards, making his net passing stats 12-of-28 for 133 yards, just 4.75 yards per attempt. Two of Baltimore's four touchdowns came on defense or special teams.

Dilfer, unlike Griese, did play badly. But he's still miles ahead of the bottom three. Those games stand alone, distinctly worse than any of the others on this list. The exact order was a tough call.

3. Ben Roethlisberger, Super Bowl XL
Pittsburgh Steelers 21, Seattle Seahawks 10
9-of-21, 123 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT, 22.6 rating

My old friend Dave Martin is a Steelers fan, and I'll always remember the way he described Roethlisberger's performance in this game, saying that Ben "swallowed his helmet." This is by far the lowest passer rating of any Super Bowl-winning QB, and it's the only time a team has won when its starting quarterback went -2 in TD/INT differential.

Part of what makes Roethlisberger's performance so disappointing is that Seattle did not have a great defense. The Seahawks had a good defense, but they ranked 7th in points and tied for 16th in yardage, despite playing in a weak division, when the NFC was at a historical low. The game was also marred by multiple officiating controversies, all of which went Pittsburgh's way. I don't know how many people remember this, but after Super Bowl XL, there was some discussion as to whether it might be the worst Super Bowl ever.

The Steelers gained more yards rushing (181) than passing (158), and the latter total includes a 43-yard TD pass by Antwaan Randle El. Ben's biggest play was probably a rushing touchdown in the second quarter, but that was the most controversial moment of the game, inspiring an inconclusive replay review and a lot of discussion after the game.

2. Peyton Manning, Super Bowl 50
Denver Broncos 24, Carolina Panthers 10
13-of-23, 141 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT, 56.6 rating

There are strong arguments to consider this the worst of all time. The Broncos gained the fewest yards (194) and first downs (11) of any Super Bowl champion in history. Manning's yardage is low, and with 5 sacks for 37 yards, his net yardage is even worse. He didn't score a touchdown, he threw an interception and lost a fumble, his passer rating was awful.

But Manning did give the Broncos critical momentum early in the game, completing four passes in a row to start the game. Even though the drive stalled into a field goal, it seemed to give the team confidence, and assured there would be no repeat of the disastrous beginning to Super Bowl XLVIII.

There's an argument to be made that Manning was following the game plan, playing to what his team does best. The Broncos were always going to win with their defense, if they were going to win at all. Manning recognized that, and didn't try to force a big play. That line of reasoning is hard to maintain, though, when the player has 5 sacks, 2 fumbles, and an interception. Manning got bailed out by his teammates, period.

This didn't affect my rating, but if you were looking for a tiebreaker in this 3-2-1, worst-of-all-time mess, Manning's tasteless behavior after the game could drop him to worst ever. Shilling for his sponsors was tacky and cheapened a special moment. Many viewers were pulling for Peyton, and instead of being overcome by the improbable win at this stage of his career, he's just glad he has the opportunity to plug junk food and alcohol. Telling viewers — more than once — that he was going to "drink a lot of beer" after the game is just flatly the wrong message for a star athlete to communicate, especially on a day when we already worry about drunk driving and domestic violence.

1. Johnny Unitas and Earl Morrall, Super Bowl V
Baltimore Colts 16, Dallas Cowboys 13
3-of-9, 88 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 68.1 rating (Unitas)
7-of-15, 147 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT, 54.0 rating (Morrall)

This was the first really close Super Bowl, the first one decided by a single score. In fact, the winning field goal came with :05 remaining. Despite the late drama, this is widely considered one of the worst Super Bowls in history. The teams combined for 10 turnovers, and Dallas linebacker Chuck Howley was named MVP, the only time a player from the losing team has won that award.

Unitas was 37, around the same point in his career as Peyton Manning was two weeks ago. He could still play, but he had trouble staying healthy and the magic was gone. In fact, Unitas played less than half the game before exiting with a rib injury. He produced a three-and-out, two interceptions, a lost fumble, and a fluke touchdown on a deflected pass. Both Eddie Hinton and Mel Renfro tipped the ball, then John Mackey caught the deflection and ran 50 yards for the score. It was a bad throw, much too high, but that play accounted for 75 of Unitas' 88 yards.

Morrall wasn't much better, with an INT, and a turnover on downs at the Dallas 2-yard line. The Colts' 16 points is tied as the second-lowest total for any Super Bowl champion.

Comments and Conversation

April 2, 2016

Ryan Dickinson:

As a Bronco fan, I agree that Peyton Manning”s Stat line was pretty terrible in Super Bowl 50. I commend Manning for his mental discipline to recognize has significant physical limitations, and for the most part played within them. Like an aging slow pitch softball player who can no longer crush it, Manning was humble enough to hit singles and set up others to out the team in position to win the game.

Great article!



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