Legacies on the line: 10 players and coaches who have most to gain with a trip to Super Bowl LIV

Nothing helps a football coach or player’s legacy more than making a Super Bowl. Go figure, playing in a game with more than 100 million people watching can boost someone’s profile.

Just one big performance in a Super Bowl can make a forgettable player immortal. It’s not like we’d remember Timmy Smith had the 1987 Washington Redskins lost in the NFC championship game. Mediocre players are regarded as heroes and good players are considered great if they shine in a Super Bowl. That will never change.

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There’s a spot in Super Bowl LIV line for all four teams on Championship Sunday in the NFL, and even more at stake for some of the individuals involved in the conference championship games.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) and coach Andy Reid have a lot to gain this weekend. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga, File)
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) and coach Andy Reid have a lot to gain this weekend. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga, File)

Here are the top 10 figures of championship weekend who could see their legacies change in a dramatic way with a trip to Super Bowl LIV:

10 (tie). San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan

It makes sense to combine the two since they came to San Francisco together.

Shanahan is a couple wins from establishing himself as the best young coach in football, surpassing Sean McVay. He could also erase the memory of the Atlanta Falcons’ Super Bowl collapse against the Patriots when he was calling plays. Lynch might get a bump for his Hall of Fame candidacy with a Super Bowl appearance as an executive.

There were a few rocky moments the first two seasons in the Lynch-Shanahan era, but Year 3 has been a dream. Bringing one of the NFL’s flagship franchises back to the Super Bowl would elevate their reputations around the league.

9. San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman

When Sherman was cut by the Seahawks and joined the 49ers on an incentive-heavy deal, he was coming off a torn Achilles and it seemed like the second chapter of his career could go either way. It was at least feasible that his time with the 49ers would be a regrettable encore, as we have seen with so many stars.

Sherman has added a lot to his resume in San Francisco. He had an outstanding season in 2019 and is a main reason the 49ers are a game away from the Super Bowl. Even at age 31, he’s one of the best cornerbacks in football.

A second Super Bowl title with a different team, on a dominant defense, would look good for Sherman. He’s likely a Hall of Famer either way, but a 49ers title would eliminate any small doubt. We’d also have to start having a discussion about Sherman’s place in history. He’s a five-time Pro Bowler, three-time first-team All-Pro and probably should have had his fourth All-Pro nod this season. Winning a ring with a second franchise would have to put him among the best cornerbacks who have ever played.

8. Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo

A long time ago, Spagnuolo was a can’t-miss star in coaching. His work as New York Giants defensive coordinator in 2007-08 included an all-time upset of the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Since then? He went 11-41 as a head coach and his defenses have mostly finished in the bottom half of the league.

What if Spagnuolo, who is in his first season with the Chiefs, was behind a defensive revitalization over the second half of the season that led to the Chiefs’ first Super Bowl appearance in 50 years? Add that to his Super Bowl XLII ring, and his career looks a lot different. Maybe he won’t get back to being a hot name for a head-coaching job because he’s 60, but leading two defenses to a Super Bowl would be something to remember.

7. San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle

By now, people know about Kittle’s ability. He has the single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end. His dominant blocking is getting more attention. He’s one of the best non-quarterbacks in football.

Kittle is also one of the most fun-loving personalities in the NFL. Being on the stage of Super Bowl week would push him to a new level of stardom. He could start on a Rob Gronkowski-type track, on and off the field. It’s not like he’s an unknown, but being in a Super Bowl would be a boon for him.

6. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo

There’s a reason you’ll find all four quarterbacks on this list. Super Bowls define quarterbacks. Imagine how we’d view Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, Eli Manning or Joe Flacco if they didn’t have rings.

Garoppolo has had an interesting NFL career. He became the great unknown as Tom Brady’s backup. He had a strong start to his 49ers career and became a cult figure. He signed an enormous contract and then tore his ACL. He came back this season and played well, though nowhere near a top-five level.

Nobody will remember anything else if Garoppolo takes the 49ers to a Super Bowl. That’ll be on the top of his resume forever. Plenty of very good quarterbacks faded away quickly and were mostly forgotten because they never made a Super Bowl. With a win Sunday, Garoppolo would ensure that he’ll be remembered no matter what happens over the rest of his career.

5. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes

Mahomes and Dan Marino have been compared often because both broke records in their second NFL season. Then it should be clear that a Super Bowl trip for Mahomes can’t be taken for granted.

Marino went to Super Bowl XIX in his second year, and never made it again. These opportunities aren’t guaranteed. We assume Mahomes will have the chance to make other Super Bowls, but we thought the same about Marino after 1984. Mahomes should be in line for another Super Bowl over the next 10-15 years. But you just don’t know.

If Mahomes can win a ring this season, he’ll have an all-time great MVP season and a Super Bowl title to his name at age 24. He’d be laying a foundation to perhaps be considered one of the greatest ever by the time he’s done.

4. Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry

At the end of the 1997 season, Terrell Davis won Super Bowl MVP. He’s the last running back to win that award.

When is the last time a running back was the story of the playoffs? With only a few exceptions, most Super Bowl teams this century have had committees, no-names or flash-in-the-pan stars at running back. It’s a reminder why running back is being devalued.

Henry is trying to change that story. The 2019 rushing champ has been absolutely dominant in the playoffs. He’s the first player in NFL history with three straight games of 180 or more rushing yards. If the Titans make the Super Bowl, he’ll be the headliner. It has been many years since a running back could say that. And Henry is slated to be a free agent in March. The timing couldn’t be better. He could end up as a throwback to a time when John Riggins, Larry Csonka or Marcus Allen ruled those old Super Bowl highlight films.

3. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers

The best comparison for Rodgers’ career to date, funny enough, might be Brett Favre.

Favre was undeniably great, with plenty of records and three MVPs. He had one Super Bowl ring, which means he didn’t have to spend his retirement answering questions about not winning the big one like Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Dan Fouts and a few others do. It still seemed Favre should have won more than one.

Rodgers got his ring, in Super Bowl XLV. But Green Bay’s failure to even reach another Super Bowl has led some to wonder if the Packers have wasted his career a bit. If Rodgers never goes back to another Super Bowl, that will be a part of his legacy. A second Super Bowl would raise his historic rank, which has stagnated the past few years. A few years ago it seemed he would likely be considered a top-five all-time quarterback. After a couple injury-filled and good-not great seasons, he wasn’t one of the 10 quarterbacks included in the NFL 100 All-Time Team that was recently announced. It seems fair to think Rodgers would have been on that team with two rings instead of one.

Rodgers’ career has been great even if he never gets back to a Super Bowl. It would just be considered a lot greater if he won at least one more.

2. Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill

Think of it this way: Aaron Rodgers has a ring already. Patrick Mahomes has an MVP and plenty of time to get back to a Super Bowl. Jimmy Garoppolo has time too.

Tannehill? Who knows what will come next. He has had a tremendous season, but there will be skepticism it’s a fluke. He’ll be 32 next season. Right now, Tannehill would be remembered as not living up to his top-10 draft status with the Miami Dolphins.

But we all remember Super Bowl quarterbacks. We overrate many of them. Tannehill’s career would look much different with a Super Bowl appearance. His price tag this offseason, when he becomes a free agent, would reflect that too. Rodgers’ career would look better with another ring, a Super Bowl appearance would put Mahomes on an all-time track and a conference title would validate Garoppolo. But a win Sunday would define Tannehill’s career in a dramatic way it wouldn’t for any of the other three quarterbacks.

1. Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid

It’s amazing to think about how Reid’s entire legacy would change with just one ring. It’s the overwhelming story of the NFL’s final four.

If Reid never wins a Super Bowl, that’s what he’ll be remembered for. He’s 1-5 in conference championship games. There are endless jokes about time management and playoff failures. It’s not necessarily fair. Reid is 207-128-1 as a coach. Only six coaches have won more games and they’re all legends: Don Shula, George Halas, Bill Belichick, Tom Landry, Curly Lambeau and Paul Brown. Reid has won double-digit games in 14 of his 21 seasons as a head coach, which is incredible. He’s a great coach, but how often do you hear him referred to as a legend or future Hall of Famer?

All it would take is one Super Bowl title to entirely change the perception of his career. Then he’d be mentioned among the all-time greats (if you don’t believe that, take another look at the list of coaches ahead of him in wins). All of the other disappointments would fade away.

It’s possible to make the Hall of Fame as a coach without a ring. But among Super Bowl era coaches, only George Allen, Bud Grant and Marv Levy have done it. Reid will be a borderline case, at best, without a ring. He’s a slam dunk with one. Nobody has more on the line over the next few weeks.