Yesterday, I analyzed whether having a great quarterback is more important than ever when it comes to winning it all. The evidence provides a straightforward answer: no.
Today I want to examine the question from another perspective: what about how the eventual Super Bowl-winning quarterback looked prior to the season? From ’99 to ’02, we had four straight quarterbacks come out of nowhere to win the Super Bowl. In 1998, Kurt Warner threw 11 passes. In ’99, Warner won the Super Bowl, while Trent Dilfer ranked 29th among qualifying passers in ANY/A. But in 2000, Dilfer won the Super Bowl, while Tom Brady threw just three passes. In 2001, Brady won the Super Bowl, while a 33-year-old Brad Johnson looked past his prime, as he ranked 24th in ANY/A; the next year, of course, Johnson won the Super Bowl.
Nobody even thought about Warner or Brady in May of the year they won their first Super Bowls, and Dilfer and Johnson were veterans who did not fit within any definition of the words “great quarterback.” And yet, for four straight years, they shocked the football world.
So I wondered: how did each passer rank the year before they won the Super Bowl? A brief departure:
- Jeff Hostetler and Doug Williams each started just two games in 1990 and 1987, respectively, but both won the Super Bowl. Neither played much in the year before they won the Super Bowl, either. For purposes of this study, I am going to use Phil Simms and Jay Schroeder as the starting quarterbacks of the ’90 Giants and ’87 Redskins, although using Hostetler and Williams obviously makes the case even stronger for the “come out of nowhere” theory.
- Earl Morrall led the first 4th quarter comeback in Super Bowl history, but because Johnny Unitas was both the Colts starter for nearly all of 1970, and the starter in Super Bowl V, I am listing Unitas as the quarterback for that Colts team. Morrall does, however, get credit as the 1972 Dolphins quarterback, which is consistent with giving Simms and Schroeder credit.
Failed to Qualify
In addition to Warner and Brady (and ignoring Hostetler and Williams), there were 7 other quarterbacks who failed to register enough attempts to qualify for the passing crown the year before they won the Super Bowl. That includes 5 straight quarterbacks in the early ’70s.
In 1970, Roger Staubach was the backup to Craig Morton, but Staubach won the championship with an all-time great season the next year. In ’71, Morrall was the backup to Bob Griese, but Morrall was the main starter for the ’72 Dolphins due to Griese’s injury. And that means Griese ’72 makes our list, too, since Griese won it all in ’73. Terry Bradshaw in 1973 had just 180 pass attempts, so he didn’t have the 196 passes necessary to qualify for the passing crown (but he was so bad that if he did qualify, he would have ranked just 21st out of 24 passers in ANY/A). The next year he started 7 of 14 games for the ’74 Steelers but ranked 2nd on the team in pass attempts with just 148; as a result, he doesn’t have enough attempts to qualify when looking at Year N-1 performances, which is relevant since the ’75 Steelers won it all. So the ’71 Cowboys, ’72 Dolphins, ’73 Dolphins, ’74 Steelers, and ’75 Steelers all get labeled as having starting quarterbacks who the year before, did not have enough pass attempts to qualify for the passing crown.
The other two quarterbacks are Jim Plunkett and Jim McMahon. In 1979, Plunkett threw 15 passes for the Raiders and was viewed as a draft bust; a year later, he won the Super Bowl. In 1984, McMahon suffered a season-ending injury after just 143 attempts.
That leaves 42 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks who registered enough pass attempts to qualify for the passing crown in the prior year. How did those quarterbacks rank in ANY/A?
40 percent (17 of 42) ranked in the top 5, with five ranking first overall.
An additional 31 percent (13 of 42) ranked in the top 10.
An additional 14 percent (6 of 42) ranked in the top 15.
That means 6 quarterbacks ranked outside of the top 15 in ANY/A and then won the Super Bowl: two are Dilfer and Johnson, as mentioned earlier. The other four?
Eli Manning ranked 19th in ANY/A in 2006, Tom Brady ranked 18th in ANY/A in 2002, Joe Flacco ranked 17th in ANY/A in 2011, and Johnny Unitas ranked 16th in ANY/A in 1969. Now, Brady and Unitas aren’t exactly obvious counters to the argument that you don’t need a great quarterback to win it all, but some perspective is key.
In May 1970, Unitas was a 36-year-old veteran who just went 7-5 with 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions, a year after missing most of the season with an injury. He looked washed up, and the odds would have been long that he would go on to win a Super Bowl.
In May 2003, Brady and the Patriots still viewed with skepticism: a year after shocking the world, New England missed the playoffs entirely, after losing a de facto play-in game for the division title, at home, to the Jets. Brady himself ranked 19th out of 35 qualifying passers in ANY/A.
Finally, here’s the same information in table form. As always, please leave your thoughts in the comments.