Crafting a list of the greatest players in Super Bowl history is a near-impossible endeavor. Do you favor the biggest stars? Those who shone brightest on Super Sunday? The ones with sustained levels of excellence? While undertaking this fool’s errand, I weighed each consideration, attempting to also make it representative of all positions rather than skew too heavily toward quarterbacks or offensive players who more easily show up in the box score (and MVP log).
1. QB Tom Brady: The longtime New England Patriots star, who was also crowned with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has more rings (7) than any other franchise and more Super Bowl MVPs (5) than any other player. His record 10 Super Bowl starts have allowed him to become the game’s all-time leader in pass attempts (421), completions (277), yards (3,039) and TDs (21). Brady aired it out for a Super Sunday record 505 yards in the Super Bowl 52 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles following the 2017 season, breaking his mark of 466 set the previous year. But his Super Bowl 51 effort may be the most impressive given he orchestrated the greatest comeback in the game’s history, leading the Super Bowl’s lone overtime drive against the Atlanta Falcons after digging out of a 25-point hole. The storybook ending came last year, when he and the Bucs proved way too much for Super Bowl 54 MVP Patrick Mahomes and the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs.
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2. QB Joe Montana: He’s been overtaken in several categories by Brady, who grew up idolizing the man who set the gold standard for Super Bowl quarterback play. Montana went 4-0 on Super Sunday with the San Francisco 49ers, was named MVP thrice and had 11 TD passes with nary an interception, which explains his remarkable record for passer rating (127.8). And who can forget the methodical, 92-yard TD drive he led – capped by the game-winning throw to John Taylor in the final minute – to win Super Bowl 23?
3. WR Jerry Rice: As you’d expect of the original “GOAT,” he’s in a class by himself. He owns Super Bowl career records for receptions (33), receiving yards (589) and TDs (8). No one else save Rob Gronkowski (5) has more than three TD catches, a total Rice matched in Super Bowl 29. His single-game record of 215 receiving yards made him Super Bowl 23’s MVP.
4. QB Terry Bradshaw: He’ll always have his detractors. But it was Bradshaw, not the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ famed Steel Curtain, who showed the way to victory in Super Bowls 13 and 14, taking MVP honors in both games. He was the first quarterback with four Lombardi Trophies, and his nine TD strikes trail only Brady and Montana. And what about the toughness factor? Bradshaw threw the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl 10 while taking a helmet to the jaw that literally knocked him out.
5. OLB/DE Charles Haley: Count ’em, five Super Bowl rings (two with the 49ers, three with the Dallas Cowboys) – a figure exceeded only by Brady. Since sacks became official in 1982, Haley’s 4½ are the most in the Super Bowl record book. He bagged Cincinnati Bengals QB Boomer Esiason twice in Super Bowl 23, the Niners’ narrowest Super Sunday win.
6. QB Doug Williams: He only played on Super Sunday once. But all the Washington star did was prove to any remaining naysayers that a Black quarterback could win it all … while doing it on a hyperextended knee … while throwing four TD passes in an unreal 35-point second quarter on his way to MVP honors in Super Bowl 22.
7. RB Emmitt Smith: The Super Bowl 28 MVP was the Cowboys’ closer that night (132 yards, 2 second-half TDs) and again in Super Bowl 30. Smith’s five rushing TDs are a record, and his 289 rushing yards rank third.
8. QB Eli Manning: We’re not suggesting he’s better than big brother Peyton. But Eli is definitely more deserving of a spot on this list given his heroics in twice winning Super Bowl MVP honors for the New York Giants with some truly miraculous plays in upsets of the Patriots.
9. RB Terrell Davis: In what was arguably the greatest Super Bowl effort by a tailback, he ran for 157 yards and a record-tying three TDs – while combating a migraine – on his way to Super Bowl 32 MVP honors as the Denver Broncos won their first title. Davis added 102 rushing yards and 50 more receiving when Denver repeated the next year.
10. QB Joe Namath: He was more game manager than gunslinger on Super Sunday and didn’t throw a touchdown in the New York Jets’ monumental upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl 3. But Broadway Joe was still that contest’s MVP, wisely calling for effective gainers from his backs while delivering on his epic pregame guarantee and changing the course of pro football history by vanquishing the NFL establishment, which had already agreed to absorb the American Football League.
11. K Adam Vinatieri: His 34 Super Bowl points trail only Rice’s 48. None were bigger than the pair of game-winning field goals Vinatieri drilled for the Patriots to end Super Bowls 36 and 38. He snagged a fourth ring with the Indianapolis Colts in 2006.
12. QB Bart Starr: The numbers won’t wow you – 452 passing yards and three TDs combined over the course of two games – but the steady hand of the Green Bay Packers great also clutched the first two Super Bowl MVPs as a capstone to a legendary dynasty.
13. WR Lynn Swann: He basically built a Hall of Fame career over four Super Sundays. Three of his four catches (totaling 161 yards) in Super Bowl 10 were of the acrobatic variety, including the game-deciding 64-yard TD in the fourth quarter, which is why Swann was the MVP. His 364 career receiving yards are tied with Gronkowski for second most after Rice.
14. QB Steve Young: His six TD passes in the Niners’ Super Bowl 29 victory remain a single-game Super Bowl record. And don’t forget, Young collected two more rings as Montana’s backup.
15. MLB Jack Lambert: The vampire-toothed man in the middle racked up 46 tackles during Pittsburgh’s four victories and famously chucked Cowboys S Cliff Harris after he taunted Steelers K Roy Gerela in Super Bowl 10.
16. QB Kurt Warner: With a break here and there, he’d have three championships instead of one. But credit Warner for leading the long woebegone Rams and Cardinals out of the wilderness. And not only did the Super Bowl 34 MVP set a then-record with 414 passing yards, his 377 yards in Super Bowl 43 and 365 in Super Bowl 36 gave him the three most prolific passing days in the game’s history until Brady’s explosions in Super Bowls 51 and 52.
17. RB Franco Harris: A four-time champion, nearly half of his career record 354 rushing yards came when the Super Bowl 9 MVP posted a since-broken standard of 158 en route to Pittsburgh’s first title. Harris’ four rushing scores trail only Smith, and his 468 yards from scrimmage are second to Rice (604).
18. MLB Ray Lewis: He was the villain of the week prior to the game, but Lewis emerged as Super Bowl 35’s MVP after the dominant 2000 Baltimore Ravens defense shut out the Giants offense. Twelve years later, Lewis collected more bling in his final ride.
19. DE L.C. Greenwood: His four sacks of Dallas QB Roger Staubach in Super Bowl 10 represent an unofficial record since the NFL didn’t officially recognize sacks until 1982. Same goes for the five career sacks by Greenwood, who started all four of Pittsburgh’s victorious Super Sundays in the 1970s.
20. RB Roger Craig: The Niners’ main man in the backfield, he earned three rings as one of the original do-it-all backs. Craig piled up 410 yards from scrimmage, good for third place in the Super Bowl record book, and scored four TDs.
21. TE Rob Gronkowski: No tight end has truly taken over a Super Bowl, but Gronk came pretty close against the Eagles, finishing with nine receptions, 116 yards and a pair of scores in a losing effort. His impact in New England’s Super Bowl 49 victory went beyond six catches for 68 yards and a TD as he thoroughly occupied the attention of the Seahawks. In Super Bowl 53, his 29-yard reception on a badly bruised thigh set up the game’s only touchdown (a 2-yard run by Sony Michel) on the following play. Despite playing on a bum ankle that would require surgery, Gronkowski nearly corralled what would have been a game-winning Hail Mary on the final play of Super Bowl 46. Finally, the four-time champ scored the Bucs’ first two TDs against K.C. in Super Bowl 55, and Tampa Bay never looked back. Gronk’s five career TDs, 29 receptions and 364 receiving yards are bested only by Rice.
22. OLB Ted Hendricks: He’s usually remembered as a Raider, but the first of Hendricks’ four Super Bowl wins came with the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl 5. None of the defenses he played on surrendered more than 14 points.
23. WR John Stallworth: Like Swann, his Steelers wingman, he has three Super Bowl TD grabs, two covering more than 70 yards. Stallworth’s 73-yard TD from Bradshaw in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 14 broke the backs of the plucky Los Angeles Rams.
24. RB Larry Csonka: The workhorse for the Miami Dolphins, including the 17-0 1972 team, his 297 rushing yards in three games are second only to Harris. Csonka scored twice and had a then-record 145 yards to net Super Bowl 8 MVP honors and had 112 yards the previous year when Miami capped its perfect season.
25. WR Julian Edelman: He owns three rings after his 10-catch, 141-yard showing in Super Bowl 53 earned him the MVP trophy. Two years earlier, Edelman’s epic shoestring scoop of a Brady pass that was deflected by Falcons CB Robert Alford helped spark New England’s epic comeback. The Super Bowl 52 loss to Philadelphia might have had a different outcome had Edelman not been sidelined by a knee injury. His 337 Super Bowl receiving yards trail only Rice, Gronkowski and Swann.
26. QB Phil Simms: He threw 25 passes in Super Bowl 21, and only three hit the ground. Pretty high bar as the MVP led the Giants to the first of their four Lombardi Trophies.
27. QB Troy Aikman: He captained the ’90s Cowboys to three titles and was named MVP for the first one in Super Bowl 27 after throwing for 273 yards and four TDs. Aikman’s 70% completion rate in his three appearances makes him the most accurate Super Sunday passer.
28. S Jake Scott: His pair of interceptions, including the game-clincher, put a bow on the Dolphins’ perfect season and brought him Super Bowl 7’s MVP.
29. OLB Rod Martin: The only man to pick off three passes in one Super Bowl – Martin thrice victimized the Eagles’ Ron Jaworski in Super Bowl 15 – he got one ring when the Raiders were in Oakland and another after they moved to LA.
30. DT Joe Greene: No one embodies the Steel Curtain Steelers more than Mean Joe, who started all four Super Bowls in the 1970s.
31. WR Deion Branch: He’s best remembered as MVP of the Patriots’ Super Bowl 39 triumph (then record-tying 11 catches for 133 yards). But Branch may have been even better the previous year against the Carolina Panthers, when he snatched 10 Brady passes for 143 yards and a TD.
32. CB Malcolm Butler: He was an undrafted rookie no-name when he made arguably the clutchest of all Super Bowl plays by undercutting Seattle Seahawks WR Ricardo Lockette’s route at the goal line to intercept Russell Wilson’s pass and turn what seemed near certain defeat into the Patriots’ fourth title. Butler will never be a no-name the rest of his life … though he did garner unwanted attention for essentially being benched by Bill Belichick in Super Bowl 52, a decision that seemed to backfire.
33. OLB Chuck Howley: He’s the only man to win the MVP award despite playing for the losing side when the Cowboys fell in Super Bowl 5. Howley, who established the Super Bowl career record with three INTs, won a ring the following year.
34. DT Manny Fernandez: He had a remarkable 17 tackles and one sack – unofficial totals – in the Dolphins’ Super Bowl 7 win and almost certainly should have been named the MVP.
35. CB Ty Law: His 47-yard pick-six off Warner in Super Bowl 36 helped chart the course for New England’s dynastic run. Law wound up winning three championships with the Patriots.
36. DT Justin Tuck: His contributions typically get overshadowed in the Giants’ dual victories over New England. But Tuck was Brady’s personal nemesis, sacking him twice in each game.
37. G Gene Upshaw: The Oakland Raiders stalwart played in three Super Bowls, each in a different decade. In Super Bowls 11 and 15, he teamed with fellow Hall of Famer Art Shell – they formed probably the best left side of any O-line in history – to embarrass both the Minnesota Vikings’ famed Purple People Eaters and Eagles defense as the Silver and Black won their first two titles.
38. CB Mel Blount: The Steelers’ super-sized corner collected a pair of Super Bowl picks and four rings.
39. CB Deion Sanders: The original shutdown corner went back-to-back with the 49ers and Cowboys in Super Bowls 29 and 30, respectively. Sanders picked off a pass for San Francisco, and the Steelers’ unwillingness to test him the following year was a big reason MVP Larry Brown snagged two INTs.
40. OLB Von Miller: A rare defender who won the game’s MVP, Miller was picked as the guy from the vaunted 2015 Broncos defense to take the hardware home after registering 2½ sacks and two forced fumbles in Super Bowl 50. Now with the Rams, he’ll chase his second ring in Super Bowl 56.
41. DE Richard Dent: A rare defender who won the game’s MVP, Dent was picked as the guy from the vaunted ’85 Bears defense to take the hardware home after registering 1½ sacks and two forced fumbles in Super Bowl 20.
42. DB Ronnie Lott: The tone-setting defender of the 49ers’ great teams started at both cornerback and safety on his way to four championships.
43. DE Reggie White: Maybe the greatest defensive end ever, he set the official Super Bowl record with three sacks of Patriots QB Drew Bledsoe in the Packers’ Super Bowl 31 victory.
44. T Joe Jacoby: He was one of only two Hogs to start on the offensive line in all three of Washington’s Super Bowl wins. RBs John Riggins (166 rushing yards in Super Bowl 17) and Timmy Smith (204 yards in Super Bowl 22) both had record days running behind Jacoby and Co.
45. OLB Mike Vrabel: A consummate Patriot, he played in four Super Bowls and wound up with three rings. He also racked up 16 tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble … and two TDs on two receptions while lining up as a tight end in goal-line packages. Not bad.
46. OLB James Harrison: He picked up a pair of Lombardis in three trips with the Steelers. He also left his imprint with an unforgettable 100-yard INT return off a Warner misfire – producing at least a 10-point swing – In Pittsburgh’s 27-23 victory over the Cardinals in Super Bowl 43.
47. C Mike Webster: Another four-time Steelers champ, he was a tough-as-nails throwback who also handled long-snapping duties.
48. RB James White: Compelling case to be made that White, not Brady, should have been Super Bowl 51’s MVP. He set single-game records with 14 receptions and 20 points (he scored 3 TDs and a key 2-point conversion in New England’s comeback). White’s 2-yard TD run in overtime provided the winning margin against the Falcons. He added another 66 yards from scrimmage and a TD against Philadelphia the next year.
49. WR Max McGee: Love this guy. After a long night of partying on the eve of the first Super Bowl – McGee thought he’d be warming the pine for the Packers – he stepped in for injured Boyd Dowler and scored again. Despite being less than 100%, McGee caught seven passes for 138 yards and two scores, one a behind-the-back snare.
50. OLB Lawrence Taylor: He never notched a Super sack, but we’re not leaving the two-time champion and greatest pass-rushing linebacker ever off the all-time team.
51. CB Dwight Smith: He had a pair of pick-sixes (covering 94 yards) in the Bucs’ Super Bowl 37 beatdown of the Raiders.
52. KR/WR Jacoby Jones: He gets the nod over Super Bowl 31 MVP Desmond Howard as our return ace. Jones had a strong case to be the Ravens’ Super Bowl 47 MVP after posting a single-game record 290 all-purpose yards, which included a record 108-yard TD on the opening kickoff of the second half. And that was after he ended the first half with his only catch of the game – a 56-yard TD.
53. OL Randy Cross: Had to give the linemen a little more love. Cross was a Pro Bowl guard for the 49ers’ first two title teams and moved to center for their third Super Bowl win, which happened to be his final game.
54. LB Mike Jones: A journeyman who would have receded into NFL anonymity had he not seized his Super Bowl moment by making a game-ending, title-saving tackle of Tennessee Titans WR Kevin Dyson just shy of the goal-line (and a potential game-tying TD) in the Rams’ only Super Bowl victory.
55. P Thomas Morstead: He was always a fine punter. But it was the perfectly executed onside kick by the New Orleans Saints kickoff specialist – the play was designated “Ambush” – to start the second half of Super Bowl 44 against Indianapolis that forever minted him as a legend in The Big Easy.
56. T Anthony Munoz: He might be the best offensive lineman in history. He’s also the only Hall of Famer who’s played his entire career as a Bengal. Munoz is the lone player on this list who didn’t experience a Super Bowl win, but Cincinnati almost surely doesn’t reach its pair of near-miss losses to the 49ers without him.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Super Bowl’s 56 best players ever: Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski rank high
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