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.
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.
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.