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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.

Qualifying Passers

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.

YearTeamQBN-1 ANY/A Rk
1966GNBBart Starr3
1967GNBBart Starr1
1968NYJJoe Namath8
1969KANLen Dawson1
1970BALJohnny Unitas16
1971DALRoger Staubach
1972MIAEarl Morrall
1973MIABob Griese
1974PITTerry Bradshaw
1975PITTerry Bradshaw
1976OAKKen Stabler10
1977DALRoger Staubach5
1978PITTerry Bradshaw5
1979PITTerry Bradshaw3
1980OAKJim Plunkett
1981SFOJoe Montana8
1982WASJoe Theismann13
1983RAIJim Plunkett12
1984SFOJoe Montana4
1985CHIJim McMahon
1986NYGPhil Simms8
1987WASJay Schroeder9
1988SFOJoe Montana2
1989SFOJoe Montana7
1990NYGPhil Simms12
1991WASMark Rypien8
1992DALTroy Aikman11
1993DALTroy Aikman3
1994SFOSteve Young1
1995DALTroy Aikman4
1996GNBBrett Favre1
1997DENJohn Elway7
1998DENJohn Elway5
1999STLKurt Warner
2000BALTrent Dilfer29
2001NWETom Brady
2002TAMBrad Johnson24
2003NWETom Brady18
2004NWETom Brady9
2005PITBen Roethlisberger7
2006INDPeyton Manning1
2007NYGEli Manning19
2008PITBen Roethlisberger7
2009NORDrew Brees2
2010GNBAaron Rodgers6
2011NYGEli Manning13
2012BALJoe Flacco17
2013SEARussell Wilson7
2014NWETom Brady14
2015DENPeyton Manning4
2016NWETom Brady4
  • sacramento gold miners

    Brad Johnson was a better QB than Trent Dilfer, but if the Bucs and Ravens had been involved in tight Super Bowls, not having an elite QB would have been an issue. Both were older than Tom Brady, and while we could not have predicted Brady’s ascent after the 2001 season, he did have more upside.

  • Of the 52 QBs, how many didn’t appear to be a franchise QB entering the season?

    These four are clear

    99 Kurt Warner
    01 Tom Brady
    00 Dilfer
    74 Bradshaw — good comp might be to Blake Bortles: http://pfref.com/tiny/4n19B & http://pfref.com/tiny/nswPJ

    These four were veterans, but hadn’t proven themselves as star QBs entering the season in question:

    02 Brad Johnson — this might be akin to Alex Smith winning it all this year
    07 Eli Manning — maybe a Ryan Tannehill?
    12 Joe Flacco — another Tannehill?
    80 Plunkett — a poor man’s Alex Smith?

    These four had shown something but were the wrong age:

    70 Unitas — good comparison might be Romo if he came back in 2016.

    71 Staubach — superstar prospect but just 4 starts before 71. Would be viewed like a star rookie
    72 Morrall — maybe a poor man’s Carson Palmer? Morrall was 38 in 72
    85 McMahon — maybe Marcus Mariota would be a good comp based on level of play/playing time?

    I think those 12 stand out as guys you wouldn’t have said were on the cusp of winning a Super Bowl, absent their teams (the 01 Bucs, 84 Bears, 71 Dolphins, 70 Cowboys were all really good). You could probably add Doug Williams and Hostetler if you take the big tent view. I’m leaving out 73 Griese and 75 Bradshaw since they already had rings.

    So that’s about 25% of all Super Bowl champs, at a minimum, that didn’t have a guy who seemed like a legit franchise QB entering the year.

    • Richie

      This is good stuff. We often think about “bad” QB’s to win the Super Bowl in hindsight. So guys like Brady and Warner don’t get included.

      But when trying to project into the future, this shows that Super Bowl contenders for 2017 don’t have to be limited to teams with proven QB’s (Brady, Brees, Manning, Roethlisberger, Wilson, etc.)

      There is basically a 25% chance that an unproven or “washed up” QB could lead his team to a Super Bowl this year.

      • sacramento gold miners

        There will always be anomalies in SB winning QBs, but looking ahead, I still think we’ll always have a vast majority of elite talents as winners in that position. Just 12 winning SB QBs have been non-HOF quality since the start.

        • Four Touchdowns

          That’s true but the main point of the exercise is determining if you need a GREAT quarterback to win a Super Bowl — yes, the QB is the most important position and having a great one will increase your odds of winning games and titles… but I think we all know that there have been teams who have won Super Bowls without a great quarterback.

          Hell, Joe Gibbs’ Redskins won three in nine years with three different quarterbacks, none of who I’d rate as “great”. Eli Manning’s Giants won two by beating the greatest dynasty and a much better QB. And while Bradshaw may have played well in the playoffs, his only claim to being a “great” QB is winning so many Super Bowl rings — without that, he’s not going to get in like Marino, Fouts, and Tarkenton based solely on individual effort.

          • sacramento gold miners

            We agree, having a great QB isn’t 100% necessary to win a SB. I’ve mentioned the smaller number of other QBs to break through. In terms of Bradshaw, his role in helping lift those early Steelers teams to winners and then champs is also key. Like Montana and Aikman, turning around a bad team to dominance, then executing in the postseason.

            Marino, Fouts, and Tarkenton were certainly good enough to win a SB, but they did other things which demonstrated greatness. I think it’s revealing to see the Dolphins and Vikings haven’t returned to the SB since Marino and Tarkenton played. And Fouts took San Diego to more conference title games than Rivers has.

            • Richie

              How much of a role did Bradshaw have in getting the Steelers their first winning season in a decade, in 1972? The Steelers’ passing game was ranked in the bottom half, or bottom third of the league (depending which statistics you use).

              Their running game was one of the 2 best in the league and their defense was one of the 2 or 3 best in the league. I think that had more to do with their early success than Bradshaw.

              And even their one playoff win came on “the immaculate reception”, which happened because Bradshaw threw a rocket ball into the defender’s hands.

              • sacramento gold miners

                Bradshaw was still developing in 1972-73, but the potential was there. In 1974, the improvement was apparent in the second half of the season. People forget SB 9 was a 9-6 game in the fourth quarter before Bradshaw threw a TD pass for the final margin.

                • Richie

                  You said Bradshaw lifted the early Steelers to winners. I am saying that the Steelers became winners in 1972 despite Bradshaw.

                  • sacramento gold miners

                    The early years were essential in developing the Steelers run of great success. Troy Aikman had Dallas in the 1991 playoffs without strong numbers, either. If the Steelers or Cowboys had attempted to put in another QB without the same upside, it would have retarded the growth of those HOF QBs.

              • Tim Truemper

                I am depending on recollection here, but I remember reading an analysis of the preview for the game and why the Vikings would win. The Steelers ability to drive the ball down the field was so anemic that they had only two TD drives all season longer than 50 yards. Again, based on recollection but I remember thinking that the Vikings would eke out a victory (as the Raiders could have without “divine” intervention) because of their own defense and seemingly better offense. But Bradshaw did show potential and I think it was a matter of Chuck Noll’s conservative approach that held Bradshaw back to some degree in his development.

              • garymrosen

                “”the immaculate reception”, which happened because Bradshaw threw a rocket ball into the defender’s hands.”

                Actually I think it bounced off his helmet which is why it ricocheted so hard back upfield (incidentally also showing why the play was legal). I wonder if in this case Tatum’s aggressiveness lost the game for the Raiders. If he just tried to knock down the ball it would have been game over on fourth down. But being Tatum he was determined to put a big hit on Fuqua.

                • sacramento gold miners

                  There is no immaculate reception is Bradshaw doesn’t avoid the sack attempt on this play, An Oakland defender very nearly grabs Bradshaw’s jersey on the play, a less agile QB would have been slowed down, or possibly tackled.

  • Tim Truemper

    Doug Williams did have a track record at Tampa Bay before going to the Redskins. He had more experience that Hostetler by a good bit so he did not completely “come out of nowhere.”

    • Richie

      He probably compares to Colin Keepernick. A low expectation player who had success early in his career and had a hard time finding a job for reasons other than on field play.

      • Tim Truemper

        An apt comparison. When I started perusing Pro Football Reference in its early days I was surprised that after William’s early splash as an up and coming QB how little he accomplished numbers wise in the long run. Thanks for your comment, Richie. It’s a pleasure to communicate on this site.

        • sacramento gold miners

          Doug Williams had a tremendous skill set coming out of Grambling, in today’s NFL, he’d be a possible number one overall selection. But in 1978, his race was an issue, and Williams fell to the 17th selection. I give him credit for leading three Buccaneer teams to the postseason, but the death of his wife, combined with a nasty contract situation helped drive Williams to the USFL.

          Knee problems affected his career after that, but we saw his talent in the SB rout over Denver.

          • John

            Here’s what doesn’t make sense, though: Williams was black, but was a first-rounder. However, Warren Moon (another black QB) wasn’t even drafted that same year (in a 12-round draft). Still don’t understand that.

            • sacramento gold miners

              John, you’re right. It was a colossal blunder by NFL teams, and many teams could have used Moon’s skills before he arrived in 1984.

              My recollection was that Moon was only a two year starter at UW, and the senior year wasn’t eye-popping. Moon did have a great Rose Bowl, but I believe NFL people were still unsure about him, and were considering a position change. While Williams went to a program at a lower level, he was a four year starter, with a big senior season. I don’t recall any rumor about a position change for him. I heard somewhere Moon let it be known he was intent on playing QB in the pros, and wasn’t interested in switching positions at all.

              • Tim Truemper

                Race may have been an issue though by the 80’s the stereotype about black QB’s was dissipating. Remember, he was still a first rounder. On Warren Moon, I remember Dallas was high on him except for one thing, he was 6 foot and everybody was valuing the taller guys. He lost some good year from the NFL but sure lit up the CFL.

                • sacramento gold miners

                  Unfortunately, Doug Williams was in a rough situation in Tampa Bay during his time there. Despite his success in leading the Bucs to two playoff berths, the media and others brought up the issue of intelligence, and you had the feeling the organization didn’t have his back.

                  • Tim Truemper

                    Good points all and too bad about the bias against him.

        • Richie

          I never knew why Williams left the Bucs. I had never really thought about it until yesterday. According to Wikipedia, he was making $125k,which was less than some backups, despite being a first round pick.

          When his contract was up, he wanted $600k. Culverhouse would only pay $400k,which was still low compared to other QB’s.

          So Williams went to the USFL.

          Sacramento Gold Miners will like that the Bucs doesn’t have another winning season for 14 years after Williams left.

          • Tim Truemper

            Good historical info. I forgot he was one of a notable number of players who left for more money and then had to struggle to resurrect their career in returning to the NFL. Calvin Hill being an example.

  • garymrosen

    Joe Montana started only 7 games in 1980, the year before the 49ers won the Super Bowl. While Montana had unmistakably established himself as the starter going into 1981 it was not exactly clear he was a “star QB”, leading a team whose 4-year record at that point was 15-47 and last winning season was 1976.

    • sacramento gold miners

      Yes, Montana was still in the development phase, but Walsh knew he had something special. In 1980, Montana led one of the greatest regular season comebacks in NFL history versus New Orleans, a game which has been mentioned as the genesis for those Niner comeback wins later.

      • garymrosen

        I’ve been rooting for the 49ers since the mid-70s and am as big a Montana fan as you will find as my comments here usually show. But I don’t think it was quite all that clear going into the 1981 season. Yes, the New Orleans comeback was thrilling but it was only one game for a still-struggling franchise and became a landmark for Montana later on only in retrospect. While Walsh undoubtedly was happy to get a significant upgrade over Steve DeBerg I’m not sure if even he knew at that point that Joe Montana was going to be Joe Montana. And hardly anybody else knew – the 49ers were long longshots to win the Super Bowl at something like 100-1 or 150-1 odds in September 1981. Indeed this is one of the reasons why that season is still so memorable for longtime 49er fans despite the many championships and thrilling moments that were to come in the ensuing years.

        • sacramento gold miners

          Couldn’t agree more, Walsh, just like other HOF coaches probably didn’t know how great his anointed starter was going to be. But the decision to trade DeBerg in the prior to 1981, spoke volumes about his confidence in Montana. As you remember, nobody was even talking about the Niners as a postseason contender heading into 1981, the biggest question was the rookies in the secondary. I was a Montana fan from his college days, those comebacks were amazing to watch.

          Steve DeBerg really didn’t take off in Denver, so the Broncos knew they had to pick a franchise QB in the 1983 draft.

          • garymrosen

            I didn’t follow Montana’s college career though I now have a copy of the “chicken soup” game in my video collection. While Walsh was unquestionably crucial to Montana achieving his full potential in the pros many of his striking capabilities were already evident at ND.

      • Richie

        A single game is not evidence of greatness. Frank Reich had a great comeback (in the playoffs!), but was never even a starting QB.

        It’s kind of a cruel footnote to Jim Kelly’s career. He led a very good Bills team to 4 Super Bowls, yet he wasn’t relevant in one of their most famous games.

        • sacramento gold miners

          A spectacular game by a young QB can certainly be a springboard to something more, and the Niners could see the potential in Montana. Walsh knew the limitations of Steve DeBerg, and traded him to Denver that offseason. In Frank Reich’s case, everyone knew Jim Kelly was the top guy, and while he deserves credit for that playoff win, he had a limited upside.