The Super Bowl has been the premier event in the NFL ever since the first of these games was held on January 15, 1967. How could it be anything else? It’s the game that decides the champions of the National Football League, the team that gets to lay claim to the prestigious award that since 1971 has been known as the Vince Lombardi Trophy.1
Although the first and second games were formally known as the "AFL-NFL World Championship Game," the truth is that a lot of people, including the media, were calling it the Super Bowl from the very beginning, inspired by a suggestion from Lamar Hunt during the merger talks of 1966.2
With Super Bowl LIV coming up fast on the horizon, now’s a good time to have a look at the legendary performers in the history of this annual gridiron event—not necessarily the best-ever players of the NFL, but those who’ve managed to achieve the most in the Big Game.
Were you expecting someone else? You don’t even have to make an argument for New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady as the greatest player in the history of the Super Bowl. All you have to do is point at his stats. He has more Super Bowl rings (six) than any player in NFL history, edging out Charles Haley's five-ring collection.3 (Pats coach Bill Belichick has the overall record for Super Bowl rings, with eight.) 4
Brady can also boast many other Super Bowl records, including these:
Pretty good for a guy who was the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.7
If you’re going to pick the #1 Tom Brady Super Bowl highlight, there are more than a few possibilities to choose from. We’ll go with the obvious choice: Brady’s incredible come-from-behind victory in LI, which saw the Pats miraculously overcoming a 28-3 deficit to capture victory in the only overtime Super Bowl to date.
As quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, “The Comeback Kid” went 4-0 in his Super Bowl appearances and was named MVP three times (which was the record until Brady came along). Joe Montana was legendary for his ability to stay calm under pressure—which earned him an alternate nickname, “Joe Cool” 8—and it’s no surprise that the now-or-never tension of the Super Bowl seemed to bring out the best in him.
His greatest Super Bowl performance came in XXIII. With the 49ers down 16-13 and only three minutes on the clock, Montana directed a merciless 92-yard march down the field, concluding with a 10-yard touchdown pass to John Taylor for the win.9
Oddly, that was the only one of Montana's Super Bowl victories where he didn't get the MVP. It went to Jerry Rice, who caught 11 passes that night.
Like Montana, the famed Pittsburgh Steelers QB managed to rack up a four-and-oh record in his Super Bowl career, and he did it in a six-year period. He also has the distinction of being one of only two players to be selected as Super Bowl MVP two years in a row (XIII & XIV).10 A tough competitor with a strong arm, Terry Bradshaw seemed to save his best efforts for the postseason, for which Steelers fans are eternally grateful.
Bradshaw’s best Super Bowl moment? Probably his extraordinary 64-yard TD pass to Lynn Swann in Super Bowl X. It’s all the more impressive when you consider that Bradshaw was under such intense pressure from the Cowboys’ defense on the play that he was knocked unconscious immediately after the ball left his hand.
Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr was the MVP for the first two Super Bowls ever held, which alone is enough to earn him an honored place in NFL history. His career passer rating in the Super Bowl was a very solid 106.0.11 Starr, always at his best when it mattered most, won 9 out of 10 playoff games in his career.12
Those weren’t his first trips to the summit of the NFL, though. Prior to the AFL-NFL merger, Starr led the Green Bay Packers to three NFL championships: 1961, 1962, and 1965. If the Super Bowl had been established just five years earlier, Starr’s reputation today might be even higher among football fans, many of whom tend to ignore the pre-merger days.
This overview of Super Bowl glory just wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the achievement of Broadway Joe. There is no other player in NFL history whose fame rests so heavily on his performance at the Super Bowl. In fact, a lot of casual football fans have trouble thinking of any Namath accomplishments on the field apart from leading the New York Jets to victory in Super Bowl III. That’s not really fair to Joe, however.
He was famous before he ever played a single pro game. He signed a $400,000 contract in 1965 to play for the Jets—an unprecedented amount of money for a greenhorn—and managed to capture AFL Rookie of the Year honors. In 1967, he achieved another milestone by becoming the first NFL quarterback to throw for 4000 yards in a season.13
The Namath legend really begins with his appearance at the Miami Touchdown Club just a few days before Super Bowl III. Annoyed by a heckling Colts fan in the audience, Namath famously retorted "We're gonna win the game. I guarantee it." 14
That unplanned comment was soon to become football's version of Babe Ruth's "called shot." Just as few observers really expected Ruth to knock the ball into the stands that day back in 1932, no one who didn't wear a Jets uniform on Sundays really thought Namath had a chance of fulfilling his promise. The Jets were 18-point underdogs.15 However, they were also determined to shut up the naysayers—and that’s what they did. The Jets not only won the game 16-7; they kept the Colts scoreless until late in the fourth quarter. 16
For his role in engineering one of the biggest upsets in football history, Namath was named Super Bowl MVP. Some critics have questioned the choice, noting that Namath's numbers on the day (206 passing yards, no touchdown throws) weren't all that amazing and that running back Matt Snell (121 rushing yards; scored Jets' only touchdown) might have been a more appropriate choice.17
Also, the Jets’ defense deserves a lot of credit for the team’s victory in such a low-scoring game. Still, you can’t really dismiss Namath’s role in expertly guiding the Jets’ offensive efforts on that day back in 1969.
Chuck who? Howley was a linebacker who played 13 seasons (1961-73) with the Dallas Cowboys, and he was selected to the Pro Bowl no fewer than six times.18 19 We’re listing him here due to his performance in Super Bowl V, the turnover-filled “Blunder Bowl,” where he nabbed two interceptions (one in the end zone) during a game that his Cowboys ultimately lost 16-13 to the Baltimore Colts. 20 21
What’s so special about that, you ask? Howley ended up being named the Super Bowl MVP. It's still the only time in Super Bowl history that MVP honors were awarded to a player from the losing team. Incidentally, Howley returned to the Big Game the following year, grabbing his third Super Bowl interception en route to a 24-3 Cowboys victory over the Miami Dolphins.22
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