Heading into Super Bowl XLV, quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger will get the lion’s share of attention. And deservedly so – Roethlisberger is shooting for his third Super Bowl title at just 28 years old and Aaron Rodgers has already been anointed as the best young quarterback in the league.
With that in mind, I decided to see where this quarterback matchup ranked among Super Bowls of the past. For a challenge, I looked at how each quarterback was perceived at the time; after all, anyone can look at matchups like Favre/Elway, Montana/Elway, and Montana/Marino and say they were good in retrospect. Besides that, I really have no other methodology other than my own personal preference. In reverse order:
45. Super Bowl XXXV: Trent Dilfer (Ravens) vs. Kerry Collins (Giants)
Super Bowl 35 pitted the league’s 22nd best passing offense (Baltimore) versus the league’s 13th best passing offense (Collins). Both quarterbacks had had remarkably similar careers up to this point. Both were 28 years old. Dilfer was the sixth overall pick of the 1994 NFL Draft and Collins was the fifth pick in 1995. Neither had lived up to anything close to expectations; Dilfer was already on his second team and Collins was on his third.
The consensus coming into this game was that the winner would be the worst Super Bowl-winning quarterback in history. Dilfer had already lost his starting job in Tampa Bay the previous season and was slapped with the “game manager” tag.* Collins was an even bigger train wreck. This was his sixth season in the league for three different teams. The 2000 season was only the second time he finished with more touchdowns than interceptions. Even after a 22 touchdown and 13 interception season, he had still accumulated an ugly career line of 85 TDs and 98 INTs.
* I’ve watched football for twenty-six years and I’m not entirely sure what a game manager is. Best I can tell, game manager is code for “this guy sucks but he doesn’t have the arm strength to throw interceptions, so he won’t hurt you that much.”
Dilfer’s Ravens came out on top and you could still make a pretty convincing argument that Dilfer is the worst Super Bowl-winning quarterback ever. He bounced around the league for six more seasons with three different teams, starting only 29 more games before retiring in 2007. Collins actually became a solid NFL quarterback. As of the end of the 2010 season, he ranks eleventh on the career passing yards chart and 28th on the career passing touchdown list.
44. Super Bowl XVII: Joe Theismann (Redskins) vs. David Woodley (Dolphins)
Joe Theismann is one of those quarterbacks that is remembered as better than he actually was. As a 32-year old in the strike-shortened 1982 season, he made his first Pro Bowl and first All-Pro team. Judged by his whole career, Theismann would probably rank higher. However, at the time, he had never been considered an elite quarterback.
Woodley has a good argument for the worst quarterback ever to play in a Super Bowl. In nine games in the 1982 season, his third in the league, the 24-year old Woodley finished with only five touchdowns and eight interceptions. The Dolphin passing attack ranked 27th of 28 teams.
In short, there was a reason that the Dolphins drafted Dan Marino the next year. Woodley started only 18 more games in his career and was out of the league by the time he turned 27. Theismann went on to be named MVP of the NFL the next season and became one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks until Lawrence Taylor infamously sent him into early retirement by breaking his leg on Monday Night Football in 1985.
43. Super Bowl XXV: Jeff Hostetler (Giants) vs. Jim Kelly (Bills)
Hostetler is probably the only quarterback that could give Dilfer a run for his money for worst Super Bowl-winning quarterback. After Phil Simms got hurt late in the 1990 season, long-time backup Hostetler improbably led the Giants to the Super Bowl. Including the first two games in the playoffs, he entered the Super Bowl having started a grand total of six career games.
For his part, Kelly had already established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL by 1990. He made the 1987, 1988, and 1990 Pro Bowls. The 1990 season was the best of his career to that point, as he led the league in quarterback rating (101.2) and completion percentage (63.3%).
Kelly must still be kicking himself at the one that got away. He went on to lose the next three Super Bowls, all to more established quarterbacks. Hostetler parlayed his playoff success into a starting job for the next six years, but he only made the playoffs one more time, in 1993 with the Raiders.
42. Super Bowl XX: Jim McMahon (Bears) vs. Tony Eason (Patriots)
Talent-wise, this matchup could certainly be last on the list, but the media hype before the game gives it a few bonus points. At the time, this was billed as a quarterback matchup for the future – both McMahon and Eason were promising young former first round quarterbacks.
Yet for as much trash talking and beer chugging that McMahon did, his career was remarkably light on accomplishments. In his four seasons in the league, he missed 17 of 57 games with an injury and made his first and only Pro Bowl in the 1985 season.
Eason is known as one of the busts of the 1983 NFL Draft that included Jim Kelly, John Elway, and Dan Marino. His career actually started out better than Elway’s or Kelly’s. As a sophomore in the 1984 season, he had 23 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions. He took a step back in the 1985 season and was benched for veteran Steve Grogan. Still, he got the start in the Super Bowl. He promptly redefined “deer in headlights” and went 0-for-6 passing before being yanked for Grogan.
McMahon bounced around the league for the remaining eleven years of his career. He started only 57 more games for six teams and never won another playoff game. Eason had one more solid year for the Patriots, but never really recovered from his Super Bowl catastrophe. He was out of the league by 1990.
41. Super Bowl XXII: Doug Williams (Redskins) vs. John Elway (Broncos)
Doug Williams might be the most unlikely quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Williams was an average quarterback for the Tampa Bay Bucs between 1978 and 1982 before moving to the USFL to become an average quarterback for three more years. By 1986, he was a 31-year old backup quarterback for the Redskins. He saw little action with the team until starting QB Jay Schroeder went down with an injury halfway through the 1988 season. Williams was again average – he threw 15 TDs and 12 INTs in 10 regular season games. Still, it was good enough to make it to the Super Bowl. Conveniently, he had the best game of his career and was named MVP of the Redskins’ 42-10 romp over the Broncos.
At this point in his career, Elway had established himself as a very good quarterback, but was not quite the legend that he would later become. He made the Pro Bowl in both 1986 and 1987. This was his second chance at a Super Bowl after losing to the Giants the previous season.
The two quarterbacks took slightly different paths after this game. Williams started two more games before retiring following the 1989 season. Elway would go on to win two Super Bowls ten years later and pops up in every “greatest quarterback ever” discussion.
40. Super Bowl V: Johnny Unitas (Colts) vs. Craig Morton (Cowboys)
Another matchup that looks way better in name than it was at the time. Unitas and Morton both had fantastic careers, but the timing just didn’t align for the two.
The 1970 season was Unitas’s last full season as a starter and he simply wasn’t very good. In his last two full seasons with the Colts, he threw for only 26 touchdown passes and 38 interceptions. Morton was only in his second season as a starter with the Cowboys. Though he showed promise, he was not considered one of the top quarterbacks in the league – the Cowboys only finished 16th out of 26 teams in passing that season.
Perhaps it isn’t much of a surprise that this game is often considered the worst Super Bowl ever played. Morton went on to lose Super Bowl XII with the Broncos and had a solid 19-year NFL career. Unitas had three more forgettable seasons as a part-time quarterback before mercifully retiring.
39. Super Bowl XXXVII: Brad Johnson (Bucs) vs. Rich Gannon (Raiders)
Like Doug Williams, both of these quarterbacks were extremely unlikely candidates to lead their team to a Super Bowl. Johnson was the epitome of a “game manager.” By 2002, he was a 34-year old quarterback with nine years of NFL experience, only four of which were spent as a starter. He wasn’t terrible by any means; although he couldn’t throw the ball downfield because of poor arm strength, he at least seemed aware of his own shortcomings. He stuck to dink and dunk type passes and never finished a season with less than a 60% completion rate.
Gannon was an even more unlikely story. He joined the Oakland Raiders in 1999 as a 12-year NFL veteran with only 58 career starts. His career improbably took off, and he made four consecutive Pro Bowls between 1999 and 2002. In 2002, he led the league with 4,689 yards passing and was named MVP.
Neither Johnson or Gannon did much after the Super Bowl. Gannon only started 10 more games after two seasons before retiring due to injuries. Johnson hung around the league for six more years as a backup before retiring in 2008.
38. Super Bowl XXXVIII: Tom Brady (Patriots) vs. Jake Delhomme (Panthers)
In 2003, Tom Brady wasn’t quite the Tom Brady we now know. He won the Super Bowl in 2001 as an upstart rookie injury replacement with the Patriots, but had yet to put up the Madden-like numbers he later would. It wasn’t until after this Super Bowl victory that Brady joined the discussion of best quarterbacks in the league.
In 2003, Jake Delhomme was still Jake Delhomme. This was his first year as a starter after four years as a backup for the Saints. Amazingly, he led the Panthers to the Super Bowl and actually had a very un-Delhomme-like performance in the big game as the Panthers almost pulled out the win. He went on to have a few more decent seasons before his name became synonymous with the TAINT.
37. Super Bowl XXXVI: Tom Brady (Patriots) vs. Kurt Warner (Rams)
If Tom Brady wasn’t quite Tom Brady in 2003, he certainly wasn’t in 2001. You’ve heard Brady’s story by now – a sixth round draft pick, he was forced into action when Drew Bledsoe got hurt in the Patriots’ second game of the season. He wasn’t great by any means, but got the job done and led the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
It’s easy to forget that Warner only played two and a half full seasons with the Rams…he was just that good in that short time period. In 2001, he was clearly the best quarterback in the league. He was named NFL MVP for the second time and led the league in most passing categories.
36. Super Bowl XLI: Peyton Manning (Colts) vs. Rex Grossman (Bears)
Talk about a matchup of polar opposites. Before this game, Manning was known as the great statistical quarterback who couldn’t win the big game. Grossman was known as the terrible quarterback who fell ass backwards into a Super Bowl appearance.
By 2006, Manning had an argument for best quarterback in the game – it really came down to whether you appreciated Brady’s three Super Bowl rings or Manning’s superior statistics. He was already a seven-time Pro Bowler, three-time First Team All-Pro, and two-time NFL MVP. The only knock on his resume was his 3-6 playoff record coming into the 2006 season. With Grossman’s help, he handled that one blemish with ease.
I seem to remember Grossman sucking for a lot longer than he actually did. In truth, the 2006 season was his only full season for the Bears. He wasn’t a complete train wreck – he started all 16 games and had 3,193 yards passing, 23 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions that season. But yeah…it was Rex Grossman.
35. Super Bowl XXXIV: Kurt Warner (Rams) vs. Steve McNair (Titans)
The first of many matchups that look much better after the fact. This game surely didn’t lack for storylines, but at the time, no one thought Warner and McNair were particularly great.
This was the 28-year old Warner’s first NFL season after he famously stocked shelves at a grocery store in Iowa while playing arena football. After starter Trent Green tore his ACL in the preseason, Warner emphatically stepped in. He led the league in completion percentage (65.1%), touchdowns (41), and quarterback rating (109.2) en route to winning the NFL MVP Award.
McNair was in his third season as a full-time starter but was not yet considered one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He led the Titans to two straight 8-8 seasons before his breakout 1999 season.
Warner and McNair both went on to have very good careers. They each made three Pro Bowls, threw for over 30,000 yards, and are considered potential future Hall of Famers.
34. Super Bowl IV: Len Dawson (Chiefs) vs. Joe Kapp (Vikings)
In 1969, Hall of Famer Dawson was at the tail end of his prime. He made his fourth consecutive AFL All-Star Game (and sixth overall), but actually had his worst statistical season and only started seven games due to injury. Prior to the 1969 season, he had led the AFL in completion percentage and quarterback rating for five years in a row. Despite the down season, it was safe to say that Dawson was the premier quarterback in the AFL (although Joe Namath certainly got more attention).
Joe Kapp is the surprising answer to the question “who was the Vikings quarterback in their first Super Bowl appearance?” Kapp was picked up from the Canadian Football League’s B.C. Lions in 1967 and started for three seasons for the Vikings while Fran Tarkenton was on his brief mid-career exodus to the New York Giants. Kapp led the Vikings to two consecutive division titles and the 1969 NFC Championship. He was one of the top quarterbacks in the league in 1969 and made the NFL All-Star Game.
After the 1969 season, Kapp was not resigned by the Vikings. He eventually signed a four-year deal with the Boston Patriots as the league’s highest paid player. After one horrendous season (three TDs, 17 interceptions), he was sent home at training camp the following season and never played in the league again. Dawson had six more productive years but the Chiefs have yet to make it back to the Super Bowl to this day.
33. Super Bowl XL: Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers) vs. Matt Hasselbeck (Seahawks)
Long before Ben Roethlisberger was an elite NFL quarterback and alleged rapist, he was a 23-year old stud sophomore in his first Super Bowl in 2005. In two seasons in the league, Big Ben compiled a stellar 22-3 regular season record, but he was still a relatively unknown commodity prior to this game.
Meanwhile, two-time Pro Bowler Hasselbeck was one of the many solid, but not great, quarterbacks that permeated the NFL in the suddenly pass-happy league of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Hasselbeck continually put together very good seasons but might just be the most boring quarterback of the decade. Not only was he trapped on the West Coast, but he was the epitome of the good at everything, great at nothing quarterback.
I feel like Hasselbeck probably deserves his own column one day – he’s basically on the Mendoza Line of quarterbacks good enough to keep a starting job for an entire career but never manage to become one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
32. Super Bowl XV: Jim Plunkett (Raiders) vs. Ron Jaworski (Eagles)
The list of quarterbacks that have won two or more Super Bowls consists of Hall of Famers Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Roger Staubach, John Elway, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, and Joe Montana; active players Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady; and Jim Plunkett. Plunkett was a 33-year old quarterback in 1980 primed to go down as another in the long list of journeyman quarterbacks. And then he got traded to the Raiders and won two Super Bowls in four years.
His career statistics: 52.5 completion percentage, 164 touchdowns, 198 interceptions, 2 Super Bowl wins, 0 Pro Bowls.
Jaworski was a solid quarterback for a long time. He is probably best known as the guy who held the consecutive games streak for a quarterback before Brett Favre broke it two decades later. In 1980, Jaworski had the best season of his career (257-451, 3,529 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions) and was selected to his only Pro Bowl.
31. Super Bowl XVIII: Jim Plunkett (Raiders) vs. Joe Theismann (Redskins)
Plunkett was an even more unlikely Super Bowl winner three years later at the age of 36. In 1983, he did have the best season of his career and set career highs in completion percentage (60.7%), touchdowns (20), and passing yards (2,935).
Theismann earned his only All-Pro First Team after the 1983 season but could not make it two Super Bowl wins in a row with a victory in this game.
30. Super Bowl XIV: Terry Bradshaw (Steelers) vs. Vince Ferragamo (Rams)
Terry Bradshaw was the first quarterback to win four Super Bowls. I knew that his statistics weren’t all that great, but they really are something else. He had more Super Bowl victories than Pro Bowl appearances (three). He ranks just below Chris Chandler, Trent Green, and Ron Jaworski on the career passing yards list. But the guy did what he was supposed to, and did it well.
The 1979 season was actually Bradshaw’s best statistical season. He passed for a career-high 3,729 yards and earned his third and final Pro Bowl appearance. However, his reputation was already set at this point in his career – he was an unspectacular winner. This game was the fourth and final Super Bowl that Bradshaw won.
Ferragamo drags this matchup down a little bit. He was a career backup and the 1979 season was one of only two in his career that he was a full-time starter. His stats were quite similar to Bradshaw’s on the season…but of course, it was still Terry Bradshaw versus Vince Ferragamo. After the season, Ferragamo was a backup for six more years in the league until he retired following the 1986 season.
29. Super Bowl XXIX: Steve Young (49ers) vs. Stan Humphries (Chargers)
How did the 49ers keep Young as a backup until he was 30 years old? Didn’t the other NFL teams have talent scouts? I mean, this is the same league in which the Houston Texans traded for Matt Schaub and named him their starter of the future after he started one game for the Falcons.
Whatever the reason, Young was immediately one of the best quarterbacks in the league after he took over the starting job in 1992. He made seven consecutive Pro Bowls and three consecutive All-Pro teams. In the 1994 season, he led the league in completion percentage, touchdown passes, and quarterback rating en route to his second MVP Award in three years. The Super Bowl victory over the Chargers cemented a Hall of Fame career that didn’t begin until after the age of 30.
Humphries was basically Hasselbeck, only if Hasselbeck’s career ended early because of concussions. He was a solid, but never spectacular, starter for the Chargers over his six-year career. He is still the only quarterback to lead the Chargers to the Super Bowl, so there’s that.
28. Super Bowl XXXIII: John Elway (Broncos) vs. Chris Chandler (Falcons)
John Elway was the anti-Brett Favre. Elway was a great performer all the way up until he retired following the 1998 season. He was selected to his ninth Pro Bowl in 1998 despite missing four games with injuries. Plus, he gets bonus points for making the last game of his prolific career in the Super Bowl. That’s the big dream for every kid…that’s exactly how I dreamt of retiring, but so far no NFL team has shown any interest in my abilities.
Poor Chris Chandler and the Falcons. They make it to the first Super Bowl in their history and their reward is a dominant Bronco team and 99% of the country rooting against them to give Elway a fairy tale send-off.
Chandler was the very definition of a journeyman quarterback. He played for seven teams over an eighteen-year career and was never very good. But he caught fire for the Falcons in 1998. He threw for career highs in every major passing category and led the Falcons to a 15-2 record in the 17 regular season and playoff games that he started. He promptly fell back to earth the following season and won a combined 19 games in six more NFL seasons.
27. Super Bowl VII: Bob Griese (Dolphins) vs. Billy Kilmer (Redskins)
Griese only started five games in the Dolphins’ historic undefeated season because of injury, but got the start over backup quarterback Earl Morrall in Super Bowl VII. At only 26 years old, Griese had already put together a fantastic career. He was already a four-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro.
Billy Kilmer was basically Chris Chandler. A career-long journeyman for three different teams in his career, he finally put it all together as a 33-year old for the Redskins in 1972. He earned his only Pro Bowl nod and led the league with 19 passing touchdowns.
Kilmer would go on to have six more decent seasons with the Redskins, while Griese won the next Super Bowl and clinch a place in the Hall of Fame by the time he was 27.
26. Super Bowl XXVI: Mark Rypien (Redskins) vs. Jim Kelly (Bills)
Mark Rypien had a strange career. He became a full-time starter partway through the 1988 season at the age of 26. He made the Pro Bowl in both 1989 and 1991 and threw 84 touchdowns and only 48 interceptions in his first three and a half seasons. The Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1991 when Rypien was only 29.
And…that was it. He fell apart in the 1992 season and was eventually benched by the Redskins halfway through the 1993 season after throwing only four touchdown passes in ten games. He was a backup for six teams before finally calling it a career in 2002.
This was the second of four consecutive Super Bowls for Jim Kelly. The 1991 season was arguably his best year – he made the Pro Bowl and earned his only All-Pro First Team selection.
25. Super Bowl XVI: Joe Montana (49ers) vs. Ken Anderson (Bengals)
The 1981 season was Joe Montana’s first as a full-time starter. I was born in 1984, so I probably don’t quite appreciate just how good Montana was. But I’ll try. By 1981, the 49ers were on an eight-year playoff drought. They finished below .500 in all but one year (8-6 in 1976). Then Montana comes in and leads them to a Super Bowl victory in his first season as a starter. In my lifetime, the only comparable season was Kurt Warner taking the Rams to the 1999 Super Bowl, only if Warner then led the Rams to three more Super Bowl titles.
But in 1981 Montana was still largely an unknown. He was a solid quarterback for Notre Dame, but fell all the way to the Niners in the third round of the 1979 NFL Draft. The 1981 playoffs were Montana’s coming-out party. His pass to Dwight Clark to win the NFC Championship Game is still shown 8,400 times each NFL season.
It feels weird to type it now, but Ken Anderson was the far more accomplished quarterback coming into this game. He was a three-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro, although he had never won a playoff game before the 1981 season. He was basically Matt Hasselbeck. Anderson had two more decent seasons in 1982 and 1983 but backed up Boomer Esiason for the last few years of his career.
24. Super Bowl XXX: Troy Aikman (Cowboys) vs. Neil O’Donnell (Steelers)
Troy Aikman came into Super Bowl XXX with two Super Bowl victories and five consecutive Pro Bowl selections under his belt. Aikman was never a statistically great quarterback, but like Bradshaw before him, he got the job done. His third Super Bowl victory over the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX all but assured he would be a Hall of Famer.
Neil O’Donnell was a slightly better Brad Johnson. Like Johnson, O’Donnell stayed in his own lane and stuck with what he was good at. He never threw more than 17 touchdown passes, but never threw more than nine interceptions in a season.
I remember O’Donnell as a pretty solid quarterback, but he loses points after the Steelers didn’t bother to resign him after the season, instead taking their chances with the immortal Mike Tomczak. He was a part-time starter for the Jets, Bengals, and Titans for the rest of his career.
23. Super Bowl XXI: Phil Simms (Giants) vs. John Elway (Broncos)
Simms is another quarterback that I remember as a lot better than he actually was. By 1986, he was a six-year veteran with only one Pro Bowl and only one more touchdown pass than interception (104 to 103). In the Giants’ 14-2 regular season, he actually threw more interceptions (22) than touchdown passes (21).
Meanwhile, Elway had his first breakout season with Denver in 1986 and earned his first Pro Bowl selection after the season. He led the Broncos to the Super Bowl with his first two playoff victories.
Simms had one more Pro Bowl appearance in seven injury-prone seasons with the Giants. He also won a second ring with the Giants in 1990, though he was injured for the Super Bowl itself.
22. Super Bowl XII: Roger Staubach (Cowboys) vs. Craig Morton (Broncos)
Though he was already 35 by 1977, Staubach was still in the prime of his career. He already had one Super Bowl title and became the fourth quarterback to win multiple titles with the Cowboys victory in this game. The Cowboys finished the season at 12-2, the best record of Staubach’s career. He was selected to his fourth Pro Bowl following the season.
The Denver Broncos started former Staubach backup Craig Morton. The 34-year old Morton led the Broncos to a 12-2 record in his first season with the team. Unfortunately, he came up short in his second try at a Super Bowl title.
21. Super Bowl III: Joe Namath (Jets) vs. Earl Morrall (Colts)
I probably have this one on the list a lot higher than most. Namath tends to be one of the most polarizing quarterbacks in NFL history. There seems to be two camps with Namath. On one hand, there is the believers in the legend of Broadway Joe. On the other, there are the cynics who point out that he had 173 TDs, 220 INTs, and only completed 50% of his passes.
I ranked Namath high on this list because most people that seem to fall for the Broadway Joe romanticism are from the era. Since I’m ranking quarterbacks based on how the quarterback matchup was viewed at the time, I’ll go with their thoughts.
Earl Morrall had a fascinating career. He played for six teams over 22 seasons, mostly as a backup. Yet as a starter, he went 63-37-3, so he must have been doing something right. In today’s NFL, there’s no doubt that a team like the Texans would have signed him to an outrageous contract.
As a 34-year old in the 1968 season, he was named to the All-Pro First Team when he stepped in for an injured Johnny Unitas and led the Colts to a 13-1 record. Morrall later won a Super Bowl and went 9-0 as a fill-in starter for Bob Griese for the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
20. Super Bowl VI: Roger Staubach (Cowboys) vs. Bob Griese (Dolphins)
This is another matchup that looks quite a bit better in retrospect than it did at the time. The two future Hall of Famers were relatively unaccomplished quarterbacks when they met after the 1971 season.
Staubach was a 29-year old first-time starter. He joined the Cowboys after a five-year tour in the Navy in 1969, where he backed up Craig Morton for two years. In 1971, coach Tom Landry benched Morton after a couple early season losses. Staubach promptly went 10-0 as a starter and led the league with a 104.8 passer rating. He threw 15 touchdown passes and only four interceptions in leading the Cowboys to their first ever Super Bowl appearance.
Griese was a solid starter for five years, but the 1971 season was the first season that he was considered a star quarterback. He was the NFL Newspapers Association MVP and earned his first All-Pro nod and second straight Pro Bowl selection. Although he lost this Super Bowl, he would go on to win the next two and cement his legacy.
19. Super Bowl XLV: Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers) vs. Aaron Rodgers (Packers)
This seems about right for the upcoming matchup between the Steelers and Packers. Roethlisberger is the only active quarterback not named Tom Brady with multiple Super Bowl rings. Rodgers is only in his third year as a starter, but has already been named the Next Big Thing among future quarterbacks.
18. Super Bowl II: Bart Starr (Packers) vs. Daryle Lamonica (Raiders)
Starr gets a spot this high based mostly on his reputation. In the Packers’ first Super Bowl season in 1966, he was probably the best quarterback in the league. In the 1967 season, he was just bad. He set career lows in passing yards (1,823) and touchdowns (9) and set a career high in interceptions (17). The Packers won in spite of him. Still, Starr was one of the most popular quarterbacksh in the NFL at the time.
Daryle Lamonica finally started for the Raiders in the 1967 season after he was stuck on the Buffalo Bills’ bench for four seasons. In his first season with the Raiders, he was the best quarterback in the AFL. He led the league with 30 touchdown passes and was named to the First Team All-AFL squad.
Starr never again had a winning season for the Packers and retired four years later. Lamonica put together several more solid seasons for the Raiders but never made it back to the Super Bowl.
17. Super Bowl XXXI: Brett Favre (Packers) vs. Drew Bledsoe (Patriots)
1996 was only Brett Favre’s fifth year as a starter, but he was already one of the elite quarterbacks in the league. He had already been selected to four Pro Bowls and two All-Pro First Teams. In 1996, he won his second of three consecutive MVP Awards and led the league in touchdown passes all three of those years.
The Super Bowl was the culmination of Favre’s progress. He missed the playoffs in his first season, then got knocked out in the divisional round two years in a row, then made the conference championship before finally making it to the Super Bowl. In short, the media had plenty of stories ready.
Drew Bledsoe was one of the most underrated quarterbacks of the 1990s. The guy retired seventh on the NFL’s career passing yardage list (now eighth) and his middle name is McQueen – that’s a solid career right there. By 1996, he was already a two-time Pro Bowler, but like the rest of his career, was underrated.
16. Super Bowl XLII: Eli Manning (Giants) vs. Tom Brady (Patriots)
With a couple more bad seasons, Eli Manning is falling dangerously close to Trent Dilfer territory for the worst quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Eli was never considered elite, or even particularly good, before the Giants’ playoff run in 2007. Before 2007, he had never even won a playoff game. In the regular season, he threw a league-high 20 interceptions and finished 25th in the league with a 73.9 passer rating. The four quarterbacks immediately ahead of him? Kyle Boller, Brian Griese, Damon Huard, and Joey Harrington. So, yeah, he was justPeyton’s little brother.
Of course the real reason that this matchup is so high on the list is Tom Brady. Prior to the 2007 season, three-time Super Bowl champion Brady was this generation’s Terry Bradshaw – a sound, but not statistically great “winner.” Then he decided to make the 2007 season his own Madden experience. He easily won the MVP Award after throwing for an NFL-record 50 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. He led the league in completion percentage, passing yards, and passer rating and single-handedly carries Eli Manning to the #17 spot on this list with his historically great season.
15. Super Bowl IX: Terry Bradshaw (Steelers) vs. Fran Tarkenton (Vikings)
In 1974, Terry Bradshaw was on the verge of being called a bust. Drafted by the Steelers with the first overall pick in 1970, Bradshaw was erratic – he threw only 41 touchdown passes to go along with 63 interceptions in his first four seasons. He was benched partway through the 1974 Super Bowl season in favor of the immortal Joe Gilliam. Luckily for Steelers fans, Gilliam proved to be quite a bit worse and Bradshaw “earned” the starting job back before the postseason. He won his first Super Bowl against the Vikings and the rest is history.
Fran Tarkenton was 33 years old when he made his first Super Bowl in 1973; this was his second consecutive trip to the big game. He was a seven-time Pro Bowler with the Vikings and Giants and had a reputation as one of the best quarterbacks in the league, despite never winning a playoff game before 1973. Tarkenton got better with age – he peaked in the three-year period between 1973 and 1975, and won the NFL MVP in 1975 after leading the league in completion percentage and touchdown passes. There was no doubt that he was the far superior quarterback in this game.
14. Super Bowl XXXIX: Tom Brady (Patriots) vs. Donovan McNabb (Eagles)
I already covered Brady above, but this was the year he really cemented his legacy. In just his fourth year as a starter, he already played in his third Super Bowl. I suppose a sixth round pick that already has a Hall of Fame-worthy career by age 27 isn’t a bad story, even if the media shoved it down our throats for most of the lead-up to this game.
McNabb was a six-year veteran in 2004, and owned the title for best active quarterback never to reach the Super Bowl not named Peyton Manning. He made his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl in 2004 and was one of the premier quarterbacks in the league, along with Brady, Manning, and (gasp!) Daunte Culpepper.
13. Super Bowl XXVII: Troy Aikman (Cowboys) vs. Jim Kelly (Bills)
In 1992, Aikman was not yet the Hall of Fame quarterback he would later become. He was thrown into the fire as a rookie in 1989 for a terrible 1-15 Cowboys team. Predictably, he was a train wreck for his first couple of seasons before slowly turning into a star. He was selected to his second straight Pro Bowl in 1992 and led the Cowboys to a 13-3 record.
Poor Jim Kelly. There’s not much more to say about him that hasn’t already been said already. The guy made four Super Bowls, but somehow got progressively farther away from winning the title each season. Against the Giants in 1990, they were 7 point favorites and lost. Against the Redskins the next season, they were 7 point underdogs and lost. They were 6 1/2 point underdogs in this game and 10 1/2 point underdogs the following season. And lost them both.
12. Super Bowl XLIII: Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers) vs. Kurt Warner (Cardinals)
Fun stat: only four times in history have two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks met in the Super Bowl. Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach met twice. Jim Plunkett and Joe Theismann – neither of whom was particularly good – met once. And then there was Roethlisberger and Warner.
Roethlisberger clinched his reputation as a big game quarterback by making it to the Super Bowl this season. Although he had previously won a Super Bowl title, he was not generally considered an elite quarterback. He had only made one Pro Bowl and actually had his second worst statistical season in 2008.
Warner came out of nowhere to make the Super Bowl with the upstart Cardinals this season. The 2008 season was the first full season he made it through as starter since 2001 due to a combination of injuries and teams thinking he was washed up. As a 37 year old this season, he made his fourth Pro Bowl and proved that he was far from washed up, throwing for 3,583 yards and 30 touchdowns.
11. Super Bowl XI: Ken Stabler (Raiders) vs. Fran Tarkenton (Vikings)
Now the rankings are starting to get difficult. Ken Stabler did not become a full-time starter until he turned 28, but quickly became one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The 1976 season was his fourth full season as a starter and he had already compiled a stellar 40-8-1 regular season record. He earned his third Pro Bowl nod this season after leading the league in touchdown passes and completion percentage. He was also the 1974 NFL MVP.
Tarkenton turned 36 in 1976 and had his last productive season. He earned his ninth Pro Bowl selection but came up short in his third and final try at a Super Bowl title.
Somewhat surprisingly, Stabler never again reached the highs of this season. He was known as a partier and the Raiders quickly grew tired of his antics after his performance dropped off in the next few seasons. He was traded to Houston before the 1980 season and had five more unsuccessful years with the Oilers and Saints before retiring in 1984.
10. Super Bowl VIII: Bob Griese (Dolphins) vs. Fran Tarkenton (Vikings)
Griese won his second consecutive Super Bowl in the 1973 season, his seventh in the league. He was considered one of the best quarterbacks in the league after adding the Super Bowl victory to his resume the previous season. He earned his fifth Pro Bowl selection in 1973 after leading the Dolphins to a 12-1 record in the regular season.
Tarkenton finished the 1973 season with a 12-2 record with the Vikings. He turned 33 in 1973, and the Super Bowl nod was fairly important for his legacy. Although he already had six Pro Bowl nods to his name, he only played for a winning team twice in his first 13 seasons. The 1973 season was the first time he made the playoffs. Basically, he was the Carson Palmer of his generation – good enough to put up solid stats, but not good enough to be a winner.
9. Super Bowl XXVIII: Troy Aikman (Cowboys) vs. Jim Kelly (Bills)
See #13 above. This is the only time in NFL history that two quarterbacks met in back-to-back Super Bowls and Aikman once again came out on top. This matchup ranks four spots ahead of their first game on account of Aikman making the leap from very good to elite quarterback with his Super Bowl victory the previous season.
Aikman would go on to win one more Super Bowl to become only the third quarterback to win at least three Super Bowls. Kelly never again reached the Super Bowl and retired three years later.
8. Super Bowl XLIV: Drew Brees (Saints) vs. Peyton Manning (Colts)
This might be high for a game between two quarterbacks that had one Super Bowl victory between the two of them. However, it is amazing how infrequently the best quarterbacks in the AFC and NFC meet in the Super Bowl. In this season, that was the case. Brees was considered the best quarterback in the NFC a year after throwing for 5,069 yards for the Saints. In 2009, he led the league in completion percentage, touchdown passes, and passer rating, and won the 2009 Bert Bell Award for Most Valuable Player.
Manning gained the upper hand over Tom Brady and was considered the best quarterback in the AFC this season. He led the Colts to a 14-0 start en route to winning the NFL MVP Award.
Manning and Brees were indisputably the two most popular players in the league that year. More American households (53.6 million) watched the Super Bowl than any other television program in history (only the M*A*S*H* series finale also drew more than 50 million). It was the best rated Super Bowl since 1985, despite the fact that Indy and New Orleans are two of the smaller markets in the league. I’d call that a hyped quarterback matchup.
7. Super Bowl X: Terry Bradshaw (Steelers) vs. Roger Staubach (Cowboys)
The first matchup between former Super Bowl winners gets the number 7 spot on the list. Bradshaw led the Steelers to their second consecutive Super Bowl in 1975. In 1974, he was an erratic potential bust that was the Steelers quarterback mostly by default. By 1975, the Super Bowl victory must have given him renewed confidence – for the first time, he had more touchdown passes (18) than interceptions (9) and earned his first Pro Bowl bid.
Staubach took the leap from solid starter to elite quarterback in the 1975 season. He separated his shoulder and missed most of the 1972 season and struggled through much of the next two seasons. In 1975, he made his second Pro Bowl to began a stretch of five straight Pro Bowl selections.
6. Super Bowl XXVIII: Joe Montana (49ers) vs. Boomer Esiason (Bengals)
Like the Manning/Brees matchup, this game pitted the best quarterback from the AFC against the best quarterback from the NFC. Montana was already a 2-time Super Bowl winner and 4-time Pro Bowler before the 1987 season. The 1987 season was the best of Montana’s career up to that point – he led the NFL in completion percentage (66.8%), touchdown passes (31), and quarterback rating (102.8) and was named First Team All-Pro for the first time. Although Montana actually had a down season (for him) in 1988, he was still the most popular quarterback in the NFC.
Meanwhile, Boomer made the leap to superstardom in the 1988 season. For one year at least, Esiason was the big story in the NFL. He led the Bengals to a stunning turnaround from 4-11 in 1987 to 12-4 in 1988. He won the NFL MVP Award and was named to the All-Pro First Team. Plus, his name was Boomer, so that didn’t hurt things.
Montana would go on to win this game to join Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks to win three Super Bowls. Esiason never again reached the heights of the 1988 season; although he was a starter for nine more seasons, he never finished better than 9-7 and won only one more playoff game.
5. Super Bowl XIX: Joe Montana (49ers) vs. Dan Marino (Dolphins)
The 1984 season was the year that Montana made the jump from very good quarterback to superstar quarterback. Montana led the 49ers to their second Super Bowl and a 14-2 regular season record. Although he already owned a Super Bowl ring, he was not yet the elite player that he would later become. Still, he earned his third Pro Bowl appearance in 1984 and set career highs in every major passing category. With a second Super Bowl title in this game, he sealed a position as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.
Marino’s 1984 season was the best statistical season in NFL history. Although he was only in his second year in the league, Marino put up ridiculous numbers. His 5,084 passing yards are still an NFL record and his 48 touchdown passes was the record for over twenty years. He was the runaway winner of the NFL MVP Award and was already a superstar in his second year in the league.
Unfortunately, Marino went on to lose this game and never again made the Super Bowl. Although as a bonus, his statistical supremacy later led to this exchange, perhaps the best in the history of NFL pregame shows:
4. Super Bowl XXXII: John Elway (Broncos) vs. Brett Favre (Packers)
I had trouble separating places 6 through 11. Then there was a bit of a gap between five and six. And then it got even harder – really, any one of the top five could be the best matchup in Super Bowl history.
Super Bowl XXXII had pretty much every story you could want. On one side, there was defending Super Bowl champion Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers. Favre was the young stud of the league and won his third consecutive MVP Award in the 1997 season. He led the league in touchdown passes for the third consecutive year and was probably the most famous quarterback in the league.
Meanwhile, John Elway returned to the Super Bowl for the first time in almost a decade. He turned 37 in 1997 and many felt that this was his last chance to win a Super Bowl after failing to win on his first three chances. Basically, he was football’s Phil Mickelson.
Surprisingly, Elway went on to win one more Super Bowl at age 38 and 28-year old Favre never again made it back to the Super Bowl.
3. Super Bowl XXIV: Joe Montana (49ers) vs. John Elway (Broncos)
In 1989, Montana had his best season to date…and that’s saying something for a three-time Super Bowl winner that was already a sure Hall of Famer. He won his only MVP Award after finishing the season with 26 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and a ridiculous 70.2% completion percentage. The 49ers finished 14-2 this season; although they won three Super Bowls in the 1980s, this was probably the only season that they were truly a juggernaut. They won their three playoff games by an insane combined score of 126-26 to win their fourth Super Bowl of the 80s.
Elway was at his peak in the 1989 season, but the Broncos were trounced in the Super Bowl for the third time in four years. He made his third Pro Bowl following the season, although with Elway, statistics never really told the whole story. Fortunately for him, Jim Kelly came along the next season to lose four consecutive Super Bowls and take some of the heat off of the Broncos.
2. Super Bowl I: Bart Starr (Packers) vs. Len Dawson (Chiefs)
Visa has been playing these commercials with the four guys that have gone to every Super Bowl. One guy’s line is: “We thought this might turn into something big.” And that seems to be the general thought on the early Super Bowls – no one knew what to expect, but aw shucks, it worked out. I wasn’t there, but I’m a bit skeptical.
The first Super Bowl was shown on both CBS and NBC and an estimated 51 million viewers watched on the two channels combined. 79% of American TVs watched the game. And yes, I know that there were only three channels – that’s still a ridiculous number. TV commercials cost $32,000 ($210,000 in today’s money). Keeping in mind that there were twice as many commercials because the game was on two different channels, that’s a pretty penny for a game that supposedly was just a crazy experiment.
Anyway, the NFL and AFL probably lucked out somewhat with this quarterback matchup. Dawson was the AFL’s best quarterback and Starr was the NFL’s best quarterback. Dawson led the league in passer rating for five of the previous six years and was twice named to the All-AFL First Team. The 1966 season was the second time he led the Chiefs franchise to the AFL title.
Starr earned his fourth NFL All-Star Game appearance in 1966 as the Packers won their fourth NFL title in six years. He led the NFL in passer rating in three of the previous five years and owned a 5-1 career playoff record heading into the game.
1. Super Bowl XIII: Terry Bradshaw (Steelers) vs. Roger Staubach (Cowboys)
Finally we reach the end of this exhausting list. Bradshaw and Staubach had five Super Bowl victories between the two of them – by far the most for a quarterback matchup in history.
Bradshaw had his best statistical season in 1978, earning the NFL MVP Award and only All-Pro First Team selection. He led the Steelers to a 14-2 regular season record, their best record in any of their four Super Bowl seasons.
Staubach also had one of the best seasons of his career. He earned his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance and set career highs in touchdowns (25) and passing yards (3,190).
Unlike many of the games on this list, this one actually lived up to its billing. The Steelers won 35-31 in a game that many consider to be one of the best in Super Bowl history.