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Guest Post: Alternative Super Bowl MVPs

Today’s guest post comes from Damon Gulczynski, a longtime reader, Seattle sports fan, and part-time writer. He also wrote this book on baseball names. As always, we thank our guest posters for contributing.

White runs for a score against the Falcons

James White was fantastic in Super Bowl LI, setting records in receptions (14) and total points (20), but he did not win the MVP Award.  Instead the voters bestowed that honor on a player who reduced his team’s chances of winning by nearly 15% on a single play (Robert Alford’s pick-six).  That, of course, is a misleading statement — Tom Brady went on to finish the game with over 450 passing yards in leading his team to the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history — but it is completely accurate to say James White was fantastic.  It would not have been unreasonable in the least to pick him over Brady for game MVP.  Super Bowl LI was a case where it would have been more representative of the story of the game to give out two MVP awards — or better yet to have a “three stars” of the game system, like hockey, so that Trey Flowers (2.5 sacks) could have been recognized along with Brady and White.

With this in mind, for fun, I decided to go through each of the 51 Super Bowls and retroactively select the three stars of the game.  In making these selections I relied on box scores, play-by-play logs, news articles, and video clips from past Super Bowls.  My full list is given below.  The actual Super Bowl MVPs are denoted with a + sign after their name; players on the losing team are denoted with a ~ after their name.  In 30 of the 51 cases the MVP was my first star of the game, which means I think the voters “got it wrong” 21 times.  And in six cases I think they really got it wrong, as the player they chose for MVP did not even qualify as my third star of the game.

Super BowlWinLoseScoreStar 1PosTeamStar 2PosTeamStar 3PosTeam
LINWEATL34-28James WhiteRBNWETom Brady+QBNWETrey FlowersDENWE
50DENCAR24-10Von Miller+LBDENDeMarcus WareLBDENKony Ealy~DECAR
XLIXNWESEA28-24Malcolm ButlerCBNWETom Brady+QBNWEJulian EdelmanWRNWE
XLVIIISEADEN43-8Cliff AvrilDESEAMalcolm Smith+LBSEAPercy HarvinWR/KRSEA
XLVIIBALSFO34-31Joe Flacco+QBBALAnquan BoldinWRBALJacoby JonesWR/KRBAL
XLVINYGNWE21-17Justin TuckDTNYGEli Manning+QBNYGHakeem NicksWRNYG
XLVGNBPIT31-25Aaron Rodgers+QBGNBJordy NelsonWRGNBNick CollinsFSGNB
XLIVNORIND31-17Drew Brees+QBNORTracy PorterCBNORGarrett HartleyKNOR
XLIIIPITARI27-23Santonio Holmes+WRPITKurt Warner~QBARIJames HarrisonLBPIT
XLIINYGNWE17-14Justin TuckDTNYGMichael StrahanDENYGEli Manning+QBNYG
XLIINDCHI29-17Jeff SaturdayCINDJoseph AddaiRBINDBob SandersFSIND
XLPITSEA21-10Hines Ward+WRPITIke TaylorCBPITWillie ParkerRBPIT
XXXIXNWEPHI24-21Deion Branch+WRNWERodney HarrisonSSNWETom BradyQBNWE
XXXVIIINWECAR32-29Deion BranchWRNWEJake Delhomme~QBCARTom Brady+QBNWE
XXXVIITAMOAK48-21Dexter Jackson+FSTAMDerrick BrooksLBTAMDwight SmithDBTAM
XXXVBALNYG34-7Michael McCraryDEBALRay Lewis+LBBALDuane StarksCBBAL
XXXIVSTLTEN23-16Kurt Warner+QBSTLIsaac BruceWRSTLTorry HoltWRSTL
XXXIIIDENATL34-19John Elway+QBDENDarrien GordonCBDENRod SmithWRDEN
XXXIIDENGNB31-24Terrell Davis+RBDENAntonio Freeman~WRGNBBrett Favre~QBGNB
XXXIGNBNWE35-21Desmond Howard+KRGNBReggie WhiteDEGNBBrett FavreQBGNB
XXXDALPIT27-17Larry Brown+CBDALTroy AikmanQBDALDeion SandersCB/KR/WRDAL
XXIXSFOSDG49-26Steve Young+QBSFOJerry RiceWRSFORicky WattersRBSFO
XXVIIIDALBUF30-13Emmitt Smith+RBDALJames WashingtonFSDALErik WilliamsRTDAL
XXVIIDALBUF52-17Troy Aikman+QBDALMichael IrvinWRDALThomas EverettSSDAL
XXVIWASBUF37-24Fred StokesDEWASBrad EdwardsFSWASGary ClarkWRWAS
XXVNYGBUF20-19Thurman Thomas~RBBUFOttis Anderson+RBNYGJeff HostetlerQBNYG
XXIVSFODEN55-10Joe Montana+QBSFOJerry RiceWRSFODanny StubbsDESFO
XXIIISFOCIN20-16Jerry Rice+WRSFOJoe MontanaQBSFORoger CraigRBSFO
XXIIIWASDEN42-10Doug Williams+QBWASTimmy SmithRBWASRicky SandersWRWAS
XXINYGDEN39-20Phil Simms+QBNYGLeonard MarshallDENYGPhil McConkeyWRNYG
XXCHINWE46-10Jim McMahonQBCHIRichard Dent+DECHIOtis WilsonLBCHI
XIXSFOMIA38-16Joe Montana+QBSFORoger CraigRBSFODwaine BoardDESFO
XVIIIRAIWAS38-9Marcus Allen+RBRAICliff BranchWRRAIRod MartinLBRAI
XVIIWASMIA27-17John Riggins+RBWASJeff BosticCWASRuss GrimmGWAS
XVISFOCIN26-16Dan Ross~TECINEric WrightCBSFOJoe Montana+QBSFO
XVOAKPHI27-10Jim Plunkett+QBOAKRod MartinLBOAKCliff BranchWROAK
XIVPITRAM31-19Jack LambertLBPITJohn StallworthWRPITRobin ColeLBPIT
XIIIPITDAL35-31Terry Bradshaw+QBPITLynn SwannWRPITJohn StallworthWRPIT
XIIDALDEN27-10Randy White+DTDALHarvey Martin+DEDALRandy HughesDBDAL
XIOAKMIN32-14Willie BrownCBOAKWillie HallLBOAKClarence DavisRBOAK
XPITDAL21-17L.C. GreenwoodDEPITLynn Swann+WRPITTerry BradshawQBPIT
IXPITMIN16-6Franco Harris+RBPITJoe GreeneDTPITMel BlountCBPIT
VIIIMIAMIN24-7Larry Csonka+RBMIANick BuonicontiLBMIAManny FernandezDTMIA
VIIMIAWAS14-7Jake Scott+SSMIAManny FernandezDTMIALarry CsonkaRBMIA
VIDALMIA24-3Chuck HowleyLBDALBob LillyDTDALDuane ThomasRBDAL
VBALDAL16-13Chuck Howley~+LBDALMike CurtisLBBALRoy HiltonDEBAL
IVKANMIN23-7Emmitt ThomasCBKANLen Dawson+QBKANJan StenerudKKAN
IIINYJBAL16-7Matt SnellRBNYJGeorge SauerWRNYJJoe Namath+QBNYJ
IIGNBOAK33-14Herb AdderleyCBGNBWillie DavisDEGNBBart Starr+QBGNB
IGNBKAN35-10Max McGeeWRGNBBart Starr+QBGNBRay NitschkeLBGNB

In looking at the table above, the first thing that might jump out to you is that four-time MVP Tom Brady was never a first star of the game.   This is not a hot take, and it’s certainly not an indictment on Brady’s football skills.  I think he is one of the five greatest quarterbacks of all time, and I ranked him as the second star twice and the third star two more times.  My feeling on Brady is that he’s been very good in the Super Bowl overall — in spurts he’s played as well as anybody ever has — but he’s never put together a truly great Super Bowl from the opening kickoff to the final whistle.

Another thing you might notice is that the Manning brothers go from three MVPs to zero first stars.  The big story in both the Giants’ Super Bowl victories over the Patriots was that the New York defensive front four dominated the New England offensive line and kept their high powered passing attack at bay.  And yet Eli claimed both MVP Awards with mediocre performances.  Justin Tuck, in my opinion, was a more deserving MVP choice in both instances.  He had two sacks in each game and consistently made Brady uncomfortable by collapsing the interior of the pocket.

As for Eli’s older brother, I don’t think he deserved a star at all for his MVP performance in Super Bowl XLI against the Bears.  He didn’t have great numbers, and his only big play was due to a busted coverage that left Reggie Wayne so wide open he was starting to get lonely waiting for the ball to arrive.  The Colts offense was able to penetrate a stout Bears defense by running the ball effectively with a tandem of backs (Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai), so I gave the first star of the game to center Jeff Saturday.  By making such a choice I do not claim to be able to evaluate the play of the individual offensive linemen.  On the contrary, I claim to be expressly unable to do this.  I chose Saturday based on the overall success of the Colts ground game, and on what I recall people who are qualified to judge O-line play saying in the immediate aftermath of the game.

But Peyton Manning’s Super Bowl MVP is not the one in which I think the voters most erred.  That “honor” goes to Fred Biletnikoff’s selection in Super Bowl XI.  No Super Bowl MVP has been more statistically underwhelming than Biletnikoff.  He caught four passes on seven targets for 79 yards and no touchdowns.  And he wasn’t particularly clutch either.  Just one of his four receptions came on third down, and over half his yards came on a single reception (of 48 yards) that occurred in the fourth quarter when the Raiders already had a greater than 99% chance of winning the game.  I’m just not sure what the voters saw in Biletnikoff.

The biggest stars of Super Bowl XI were on an Oakland defense that shut out Fran Tarkenton and his Minnesota Vikings until late in the third quarter.  Cornerback Willie Brown scored on a pick-six and held Vikings deep threat Ahmad Rashad in check all game; linebacker Willie Hall helped stop a touchdown early in the game by recovering a fumble on his team’s two-yard line and then added an interception later in the game; safety Jack Tatum doled out bone-crushing blows.  On the other side of ball, the most productive player was Oakland running back Clarence Davis who gained 137 yards rushing on just 16 carries.  No disrespect to the Hall of Famer with the Stickum hands, but I could name a half dozen Raiders I would have picked for MVP over Fred Biletnikoff.

Anyway, there are many other great stories and tidbits I discovered in making this list, but I will stop here for now  I will be happy, however, to talk about anything people want to talk about in the comments sections.  So let me know if something on my list strikes your fancy for football palaver.

  • Ryan

    Cool idea and post daniel, I will try to take a deep dive into this later.

  • sacramento gold miners

    Eli Manning did have a good game in the second SB against the Pats, and we can’t discount how timely he was in both upset wins. In the historic SB42 upset, it was Manning leading the Giants to 14 points and the win. Brady completed a ton of short passes in a disappointing performance.

    I’m also going to have to disagree about three of your older SB MVP picks, the numbers alone don’t tell us who was more valuable. Dan Ross had a nice game in SB16, but nearly half his production came in the fourth quarter, after SF already had a 20-7 lead. It was Joe Montana outplaying Ken Anderson from the get-go which was more impressive.

    Jim McMahon played well in SB20, but the story of the game was the Chicago defense. NE never had a chance, seven of their ten points came in garbage time, and the other three were as a result of a Payton fumble.

    In SB25, the Bills made a strategic mistake in not giving Thurman Thomas more than 15 carries. But it was O.J. Anderson who had a greater impact on his team winning with ball control, wearing down the Bills defense. Buffalo’s defense was on the field so long, it played a role in the meager offensive output of 19 points.

    • Manning was okay overall in both SBs. He made some clutch plays at the end of each, but clutch plays are often set up by lackluster player throughout the rest of the game. By at least one metric his game in the second SB was the worst SB perfromance by a Manning brother. The Patriots did not have a good pass defense that season.

      As for Ross, the eighth of his 11 receptions was a touchdown that bought the Bengals within six with over ten minutes to play. He wasn’t a garbage-time compiler. Joe Montana did enough to win, but he barely cracked 150 yards passing, and when the 49ers needed to salt the game away in the 4th quarter, they ran 13 straight running plays.

      I have no problem going defense in SBXX for MVP, as it was obviously awesome. But the offense was pretty damn good as well, and McMahon had one of the great “lost” SB performances he was so efficient passing the ball (see link) and he scored two rushing touchdowns to boot.

      Thomas gained 33 more yards than Anderson rushing, and Thomas caught 5 passes for 55 yards (Anderson 1 for 7). 42 of Thomas’ rushing yards came on the final drive to set up the game-winning field goal attempt. Thomas was clearly the best player in that game, IMO, and if Norwood makes the kick, I think everybody agrees. But he didn’t and so Thomas gets downgraded for something over which he had absolutely no control. That makes no sense to me.


      • Tom

        I’m with sacramento on the defense (whichever player we want) in SB 20 getting the Star 1 MVP, but I would put McMahon second. 100% agree with you Damon that that game is a “lost” great performance. Not a whole lot of “clutch” play there (for obvious reasons), but he does have that 43-yard pass to Willie Gault in the first quarter.

        Anderson and Thomas is a toss-up for me. The 22-yard from Thomas when the Bills were on their own 19 is one of the bigger “clutch” runs in SB; and there’s no doubt he gets the MVP if Norwood makes the kick. Anyway, that’s a tough one.

      • sacramento gold miners

        The excellent “30 for 30” series about the 90s Bills talked about how the Giants designed their defense to stop the pass, in SB 25, and Buffalo just didn’t adjust. I agree about Thomas if the Bills win, but Anderson’s play over the whole game helped put the Bills in dire circumstances at the end.

      • Four Touchdowns

        What metric was that? I’m not a huge Eli guy or anything, but Peyton’s 2015 Super Bowl was far worse than either of Eli’s.

        Additionally, he beat Brady’s “Value” and his 2011 ANY/A on your linked chart in 4 of his 6 Super Bowl appearances charted. He might not be Aaron Rodgers, and yeah, the pass rush deserved the MVP, but he played pretty well.

      • garymrosen

        I think you’re overrating Ross a bit in SB XVI. Yes, he had a good game but he played a role in only one meaningful TD for the Bengals, the last one was garbage time. It is true though that Montana had a poor second half but it only made sense for the 49ers to run the clock out when they did. And while the defense definitely saved the game for the 49ers in the second half I’m not sure that any one player gets most of the credit; the goal-line stand in the 3d quarter was at least as important as Wright’s INT. Whether Montana was deserving or not depends on how much credit you give him for the 49ers big halftime lead.

  • Dr__P

    Give even more credit to Chuck Howley

    • Two-time Super Bowl MVP, IMO. However, trying to find an MVP of Super Bowl V is a bit like trying to find the best QB drafted by the Browns in the last 20 years. It was an utter slop-fest featuring 11 (!) total turnovers. I couldn’t even give the first star to Jim O’Brien who made the game-winning field, as he missed a field goal and an extra point earlier in the game.

      • Tom

        Agreed…I have a fascination with that game and I’ve watched it more than a few times. The game was just all over the place…legendary QB Unitas is in there, legendary journeyman Earl Morrall, not-so-legendary Craig Morton, etc., fluke plays, missed field goals, all those damn turnovers…just a weird game. What the hell, give the MVP to Howley, and let’s go home.

        • Dr__P

          part of that slop fest was DUE to the play of the defense

          Yet I point out Howley as he has also been overlooked for the HOF.

        • sacramento gold miners

          Super Bowl V was a tremendous letdown for NFL fans that season, we were expecting a quality game between two strong franchises. 1970 was such a pivotal season in league history, with the merger, and interest was high about many of these first time matchups. Obviously, SB 5 was close, but artistically, it was a mess. This was the first of two Miami Super Bowls(X was the other), to be played on artificial turf in the 70s. By SB 13, natural grass had returned to the Orange Bowl.

  • AgronomyBrad

    Great idea and post, and I really liked your comments at the end. Speaking just as a Seahawks fan, I’d put Kam Chancellor as Star #1 for XLVIII, and drop Malcolm Smith off the list. When Smith won the award, I remember saying that he was driving away in Kam’s pickup. That defense was unstoppable that night, and Kam was the tone-setter.

    Don’t get me wrong though, Smith had a great post-season run that year as well, I just feel like Kam and Cliff Avril were more valuable in the SuperBowl, and obviously Percy’s 2nd half return was basically the final nail in the coffin.

    • I can get behind this. I actually wanted to comment on this Super Bowl specifically, but I didn’t want the post to get too long. Having watched every play of that game many times, I was very torn on who to go with. I had Kam in there initially as the third star, but switched to Harvin because I thought the offense and special teams deserved a little love.

      Smith was a tough call. I don’t think any player has benefited more from other people’s plays in a two-game stretch than Malcolm Smith did in the 2013 playoffs. He intercepted Kaepernick in the NFC Championship Game on Sherman’s great deflection. Then in the Super Bowl he had a tailor-made pick-six literally drop into his hands after Cliff Avril hit Manning’s arm, and he recovered a fumble that Byron Maxwell punch out of Demaryius Thomas’ hands. But there is something to be said for Johnny-on-the-spot. So Smith deserves some credit, but I don’t think he was MVP.

      • AgronomyBrad

        I forgot all about Maxwell’s forced fumble! I should rewatch that game…

        I agree, you gotta give Smith credit for being in the right place at the right time during that game. Tough call, there were so many good performances in that game.

  • Tom

    This is an awesome post, great idea! I agree with just about every selection and your comments, especially for the 2007 SB. When that game ended, first thing I said was “That Giants front 4 deserves the MVP”. There was just no doubt about it.

    Your take on Biletnikoff is right on…certainly didn’t play poorly, but the Oakland defense won that game.

    Love that the “Star 1” MVP for SB 14 goes to Lambert…played ferociously the whole game and had that 4th quarter interception that stopped a promising Rams drive.

    Finally, I’m OK with Brady getting the MVP against the Seahawks in 2014. It’s true that Butler make the play of a lifetime, probably the biggest play in SB history, but I gotta give it to the guy who led two 4th quarter drives where he threw two TD passes against a damn good defense. That was huge.

    Great article Damon, thanks!

    • Thanks!

      Yeah, Brady’s fourth quarter performance against Seattle was (unfortunately) spectacular. I don’t have a big problem with him getting MVP. What slid him down to “second star” for me were his two INTs — particularly the first one in the end zone. That was just a horrible decision. Also, he was aided more than a little bit by the Seahawks injuries. Seattle wan’t deep at D-line that season and struggled to generate a pass rush late in games anyway. It’s not a coincidence that the Pats O really turned it on after Cliff Avril got a concussion.

      Also, Butler made a couple other big plays that most people don’t remember. He saved a touchdown by having the presence of mind to actually tackle Kearse after he made the big catch a few plays before the game-sealing INT. (The catch itself was more good offense/fluke than it was poor coverage.) And he was in coverage on Kearse on a crucial third down stop in the fourth quarter. It went off Kearse’s hands, but Butler’s positioning forced Russell Wilson to put it in a spot that made it a difficult catch instead of an easy one.

  • Dave

    Good post. Good work.

  • Tom

    One more thing…I think Big Ben should get the 3rd place vote for 2008 SB. Harrison had that big play which was a game changer, bur frankly, I found it kind of fluky (not sure how he did the rest of the game, haven’t watched it in a while). Roethlisberger wasn’t perfect, but he did conduct a game-winning drive with more than a few clutch passes…I’d say that at least gets you #3.

    • I vacillated between five players — Holmes, Warner, Harrison, Roethlisberger, and Fitzgerald — at the three spots. You could just about order these players anyway you want, and I wouldn’t put up much of an argument.

      This is my pick for greatest Super Bowl ever — or at least most fun to watch ever (setting aside rooting interests). It was filled with great plays by great players from beginning to end.

      • Tom

        Forgot about Fitzgerald; yeah, he had a great game as well.

        This SB is up there for me as well…late game clutch drives, awesome plays by Holmes, Harrison, Fitzgerald. One other note about that game – lots of penalties, I think there were around 20 (could be wrong about that). And some big ones, like the holding penalty Kemoeatu that put the Steelers in a hole at the beginning of their game-winning drive at the end.

  • Four Touchdowns

    Great idea but I’m not sure how I feel about players from the losing squad being named to the three MVPs — yes, a player could have the best individual performance of the game and his team could still lose, but I get the feeling that these kinds of awards are to celebrate players on the winning team.

    • Tom

      I’m OK with it, in fact, I kind of like the idea of being able to separate the best player on the field that day from the question of who actually won the game. We’re safe from things getting out of hand because for just about all cases, the best player is usually on the team that won. That being said, you might be right that the idea behind the award is to celebrate the winning team…

  • Aaron McCurrie

    The first football game I ever watched was Super Bowl XI. As I recall it, 3 of Biletnikoff’s 4 catches put the Raiders at the goal line (two times at the 1, one time at the 2) and each time they scored TDs on the next play. While obviously (in retrospect) it was nonsense to give Biletnikoff the MVP, I think at the time voters looked at Stabler’s underwhelming statline (12-19-180-1-0) and decided to give it to the guy who “almost” scored 3 TDs.

    It’s an anecdotal recollection but I think people used to go crazy for TDs in the 1970’s (Heisman voters in particular). If Davis had scored 1 or 2 TDs in this game I think he’d probably have gotten the MVP. But the Raiders used FB Banaszak at the goal line instead, and he scored 2 TDs.

    • garymrosen

      How about someone on the O-line? The team rushed for 266 yards with several different runners. Of course it’s hard to single someone out which is why an OL has never won. Though the Raiders had two HoFers there, Shell and Upshaw.

      • Aaron McCurrie

        Well-spotted. The NFL Films Super Bowl XI highlight package (the one narrated by Facenda through Super Bowl XVIII) pointed out that Upshaw and Shell had dominant performances, rendering a storied Vikings DL ineffective.

        • garymrosen

          It amazed me when I read the list that every other position *including* defense has one an SB MVP! While the list is of course dominated by QB I didn’t realize how many defensive winners there have been – 4 LB, 2 DE, 1 DT, 2 safety and 1 CB. And a return man, Desmond Howard in SB XXXI.

          • garymrosen

            d’oh, shoulda been “has won”

  • Mark Growcott

    Most interesting post. I do agree with you about the Mannings, no way they should have 3 SB MVPs among them, 1 at the most to Eli. Same story with Peyton and his 5 Regular Season MVPs (incl. 1 shared). I would have given the 2003 award to a RB, Priest Holmes or Jamal Lewis and in 2009 Drew Brees was more deserving.

    Anyway back to the SB MVPs – what is your take on SB XV?, hard to go past Rod Martin and his 3 INTs, I know you have him in 2nd place.

    Not worth discussing the SB V winner but another contentious award was for SB XXII – I know Doug Williams with his 4 TD Passes in the 2nd Qtr was a fantastic feat but Timmy Smith had an impressive 2nd Qtr too (122 Yds) on the way to his record 204 Yd game.