February 04, 2011
This is the first of many Super Bowl lists we'll put up at Shutdown Corner, and we might as well start with the quarterbacks. Not every Super Bowl has been won with a great quarterback at the helm, but since 23 of 44 possible MVPs have been quarterbacks, it's a good place to begin. Before the arguments set off, this list is just about which quarterbacks have been the greatest Super Bowl performers, win or lose. The "Greatest of All Time" argument is for another day; this is our take on the top 10 for the NFL's biggest game. Neither quarterback playing in Super Bowl XLV -- Ben Roethlisberger(notes) and Aaron Rodgers(notes) -- is on this list, but each one has a very realistic shot at an all-time legacy under the right circumstances.
1. Joe Montana, San Francisco 49ers
Money, money, money. The clutchiest quarterback of all time forged his reputation in four Super Bowls through the 1980s. Montana was impressive enough when he was beating the daylights out of the Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos, but the two Super Bowls the 49ers won against the Cincinnati Bengals (by a total of nine points, and especially in Super Bowl XXXIII, when his 92-yard, last-minute drive was the difference) forever defined him as the perpetually unflappable, viciously accurate quarterback with the even pulse and the killer instinct. He holds Super Bowl records for highest passer rating (127.8), most consecutive completions (13, against the Broncos in XXIV), and best touchdown-to-interception ratio (11-0).
2. Kurt Warner(notes), St. Louis Rams/Arizona Cardinals
A controversial pick over Brady to be sure, but Warner proves the fallacy of the "quarterback win" in Super Bowl competition -- when it comes to pure performance, he has done as well as any player we've ever seen. His two Super Bowl "losses" are by a total of seven points and both at the very last second, and his Super Bowl win came at the expense of the Tennessee Titans, who came up 1-yard short in the most famous goal-line play ever. His three games are the three highest passing-yardage games in Super Bowl history (414, 377, and 365 yards). Two of those games were with the Greatest Show on Turf, and the third was with an Arizona Cardinals team that completely fell apart upon his retirement.
3. Tom Brady(notes), New England Patriots
The only way you're ever going to be "the next Montana" is to bag a few Super Bowls, and Brady has obviously fit the bill. He's also been the engine of the only team to win 14 or more games in a decade, which may be even more impressive. We saw the first glimmer of greatness as Brady was driving downfield in Super Bowl XXXVI, as he got Adam Vinatieri(notes) in field-goal range against Warner's Rams. His team's wins and losses have all been close in the great game, but he's solidified his name as the best quarterback of the salary-cap era by putting up amazing performances in all four of his appearances, including New England's loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII, when he set the Super Bowl record for most passes in a game without an interception.
4. Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh Steelers
Yes, he had Franco Harris, a ridiculous cadre of receivers, and the greatest defense in NFL history in his four Super Bowls, but Bradshaw was the rightful MVP of the Steelers' third and fourth Super Bowl wins, and someone had to throw all those NFL Films chestnut catches by Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Bradshaw did his magic in a different era, when completion percentage was less of an issue and the downfield bomb was a primary weapon -- as such, it's not a surprise that he holds the record for the highest-average career pass gain of any Super Bowl quarterback (an incredible 11.10 yards per completion). He's the only quarterback in Super Bowl history to average more than a first down per pass attempt, which helps ensure his place near the top of this list.
5. Bart Starr, Green Bay Packers
You thought that the Lombardi Packers were all about the ground game and defense? Wrong, Cheesehead-breath! By the time the first two Super Bowls came around, the Green Bay offense was as much about Starr's ability to throw the deep ball. In an era when a 200-yard passing game was considered a good day, Starr finished his Super Bowl résumé with 452 passing yards in two games, a long pass of 62 yards, three touchdowns, and the first two MVP awards. The ultimate "game manager" closed out the Lombardi era as he began it -- as the personification of the Lombardi philosophy.
6. Jim Plunkett, Oakland/L.A. Raiders
Plunkett is an interesting case. After a horrid start to his career in New England and San Francisco, he's nobody's Hall of Famer, but by the time he got to Oakland as an afterthought in 1979, he was surprisingly ready to lead the Raiders' last two successful Super Bowl charges. Like Brady, Plunkett only got the opportunity because of an injury to the starter (Dan Pastorini's broken leg), but he made the most of it, outdueling Ron Jaworski in Super Bowl XV and Joe Theismann in Super Bowl XVIII. Plunkett didn't have incredible stats in either game, but it's as much about what he didn't do -- throw any interceptions -- and he did have an 80-yard pass play in XV. One of the NFL's better late-career comebacks.
7. Roger Staubach, Dallas Cowboys
Roger the Dodger may have "lost" two of the greatest Super Bowls of all time -- both to the Steelers -- but it wasn't for lack of trying on his part. Staubach threw three picks in Super Bowl X, but played among his best games in XIII, when his Cowboys lost 35-31. Staubach really showed off when the ‘Boys beat the snot out of the Dolphins and Broncos, going 29 of 43 for 302 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions.
8. Steve Young, San Francisco 49ers
As with Drew Brees(notes), sometimes it takes just one game to get on this list. Because of Dallas' dominance in the early 1990s, and the Packers' return to form in the later part of the decade, Young had just one shot at the ring, and he went after it with the finest performance any quarterback has ever had in a Super Bowl -- 24 of 36 for 325 yards and six touchdowns. In one game, Young got the Montana monkey off his back and made himself a name as one of the NFL's all-time greats.
9. John Elway, Denver Broncos
Elway was on the losing side of the first three Super Bowls he played in, but after nearly a decade of waiting to get back, he helped win the final two championships he had a chance to. After willing three sub-par teams to Super Bowls they probably shouldn't have been in, Elway had more balanced teams in the 1997 and 1998 seasons, and that was the key to it all. Bonus points for taking home the MVP award in his last game, and beating Dan Reeves, the former Broncos coach who once wanted to trade him to the Washington Redskins.
10. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
WHAT? No Ben Roethlisberger on this list? Not quite yet. If Big Ben defines a Steelers win in Super Bowl XLV as he did in XLIII, he'll hit the middle of the all-timers, but the stinkbomb he put up in Super Bowl XL is still a blotch on the record. I'd rather add Brees to this list -- in his one Super Bowl opportunity, he brought the Saints back from a 10-0 deficit (tied for the greatest opening deficit overcome with the Doug Williams Redskins) with his ruthless efficiency. We remember the Tracy Porter(notes) interception and Sean Payton's decision to open the second half of Super Bowl XLIV with an onside kick, but Brees' 33-of-40 performance, in which he threw for 290 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, was the difference against Peyton Manning(notes) and the Colts.
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