How Often is Super Bowl-Winning QB the Best QB?

Two weeks ago, Nick Foles was named Super Bowl MVP. He was a worthy choice for the award; it's hard to imagine he could have played much better against the Patriots. But I don't think anyone believes that Foles was the best quarterback in the NFL last season. Our sports culture seems to have reached a bizarre consensus that the best way to evaluate individual quarterbacks is by how many Super Bowls their teams have won. To what extent might this be valid?

Determining "best" is a dicey proposition. A lot of people seem content to crown the QB whose team wins the Super Bowl as the best, which would make this a circular and pointless exercise. I'm using three criteria: Pro Bowl selections, All-Pro voting, and a purely statistical rating system, QB-TSP. I'll outline various circles of greatness based on how strict you are in anointing someone the "best" at his position.

Here's the least restrictive standard I could come up with ... it's plausible that someone was the best quarterback in the NFL as long as he [1] made the Pro Bowl, OR [2] was named All-Pro or All-Conference, OR [3] ranked among the top five in QB-TSP.

To determine what counts as All-Pro or All-Conference, I used First-Team or Second-Team selections by any major organization (like the Associated Press or Sporting News) or by myself (2002-17). It's my column, I get to count myself as an authority.

Even that least restrictive standard eliminates 15 of the 52 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks from consideration as the best QB in the league that year. Those 15 are: Bart Starr (Super Bowl II), Bob Griese (VII), Terry Bradshaw (IX), Jim Plunkett (XV and XVIII), Doug Williams (XXII), Joe Montana (XXIII), Jeff Hostetler (XXV), Trent Dilfer (XXXV), Ben Roethlisberger (XL and XLIII), Eli Manning (XLII), Joe Flacco (XLVII), Peyton Manning (L), and Nick Foles (LII). Six of those 15 spent part of the season as backups, and a seventh (Griese) missed almost the whole season with an injury. The others simply didn't have great years.

I don't think a reasonable argument can be made for any of those QBs as the best in the league the years their teams won it all. If a given player was the best at his position, it should show up in the stats, or he should be recognized as such by Pro Bowl voting or by one of the major organizations that names an All-Pro team. Outside of those standards, the only way to view someone as the best is tautological: he was the best QB because his team won the Super Bowl, and his team won the Super Bowl because he was the best QB. That denies the relevance of any position other than quarterback, which is patently absurd.

So, pretty clearly, at least a quarter of Super Bowl-winning QBs were not the best in pro football that season. But the system outlined above is very generous, designed to exclude only the most obvious imposters. Realistically, making the AFL All-Star Game or winning Second-Team All-Conference or sneaking into 5th place in TSP is not, by itself, much of a recommendation as the very best quarterback in the league, even on a successful team.

For a more realistic standard, I required: [1] meeting any two of the previous criteria, OR [2] a higher All-Pro standard (see below), OR [3] ranking among the top three in QB-TSP. By this standard, to determine what counts as All-Pro, I used First-Team or Second-Team selections from the Associated Press, and First-Team selections by another major organization (like the Sporting News) or by myself.

This tougher standard eliminates: Len Dawson (Super Bowl IV), John Unitas (V), Phil Simms (XXI), John Elway (XXXIII), Tom Brady (XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX, and XLIX), and Brad Johnson (XXXVII). Combined with the 15 who failed to meet the most generous standards of eligibility, that indicates 24 Super Bowl-winning QBs — almost half — who were not the best in pro football that season. It's an unfortunate coincidence that Brady makes this list four times, but would anyone really want to argue that Brady was the best QB in all of football in 2001 (when he was basically a rookie and still learning the game), 2003 (when his stat line was about the same as Jon Kitna's), 2004 (when Peyton Manning was a unanimous choice as All-Pro), or 2014 (when Aaron Rodgers passed for 38 TD and 5 INT)? His company in this category — three Hall of Famers near the ends of their careers, a Brad Johnson season, and Phil Simms in a year he threw more INTs than TDs — further attest to the soundness of the criteria used for this category. I don't think there's a compelling argument to be made that any of the nine was the absolute best QB in football the year his team won the Super Bowl.

In fact, I think it's obvious that our criteria are still too loose. For our third sweep through the list of championship-winning QBs, let's require: [1] meeting all three of the original criteria, OR [2] being All-Pro and top-3 in TSP, OR [3] First-Team All-Pro honors across all major organizations, OR [4] leading in TSP.

Now we're really narrowing things down. In addition to the 24 Super Bowl winners already eliminated, we're also dropping: Bob Griese (Super Bowl VIII), Terry Bradshaw (X), Jim McMahon (XX), Troy Aikman (XXVII and XXX), John Elway (XXXII), Aaron Rodgers (XLV), Eli Manning (XLVI), and Russell Wilson (XLVIII). While we've clearly moved on to more successful players, I don't think there are any particularly controversial cuts here. Aaron Rodgers was excellent in 2010, but Tom Brady was a unanimous All-Pro, winning all 50 votes from the AP panel. That makes it tough to argue for Rodgers as the best: there's a consensus against him. If you subscribe to these criteria, only 19 of the 52 Super Bowl-winning QBs might have been the best in football that season — that's about a third who are still eligible.

Now, maybe you think there's still some question about a few of those remaining 19. For our fourth culling of the ranks, let's use the same criteria as last time, except we'll drop the first one, that players can qualify by meeting all three of the original (pretty weak) criteria: being named to the Pro Bowl, named All-Pro or All-Conference, and ranking among the top five in QB-TSP. That allows us to cut Ken Stabler (Super Bowl XI), Terry Bradshaw (XIII and XIV), Joe Montana (XVI), Joe Theismann (XVII), and Tom Brady (LI).

Some of the quarterbacks in that group have legitimate arguments as the best QB in the league. Bradshaw was the Associated Press MVP in 1978, and Brady would have been safe without his four-game suspension as a result of the idiotic Deflategate scandal. That round of cuts trims our remaining candidates to 13, and I think most of them have at least a decent case as the best QB in football that year. If you axe the ones who weren't AP First-Team All-Pros, you'd lose: Roger Staubach (Super Bowls VI and XII), Joe Montana (XIX), Mark Rypien (XXVI), Troy Aikman (XXVIII), Peyton Manning (XLI), and Drew Brees (XLIV). A few of those, I would argue, were the best QB of the season. Others, like Montana in 1984, had great seasons but clearly weren't as exceptional as the All-Pro QB.

If that's the exacting standard you want to apply, though, there are still six Super Bowl-winning QBs who are difficult to dispute as the best alive the year their teams won the championship: Bart Starr (Super Bowl I), Joe Namath (III), Joe Montana (XXIV), Steve Young (XXIX), Brett Favre (XXXI), and Kurt Warner (XXXIV). For what it's worth, if I wanted to argue against one of those six, it would be Starr, who was supremely efficient but didn't rank near the leaderboards for yardage and touchdowns. Steve Young in 1994 was probably the single greatest Super Bowl-winning quarterback of all-time. He broke the single-season record for passer rating, led the league in TD passes and TD/INT differential, led all QBs in rushing yards and TDs, and in Super Bowl XXIX passed for 6 TDs and led all rushers.

How often is the Super Bowl-winning QB the best QB? Probably between 10-25% of the time, depending on how strict you prefer to be.

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