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 a sustained level of excellence? While undertaking this fool’s errand, we 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).
With that prologue in mind, here’s our list of the 53 greatest players in Super Bowl history:
1. QB Tom Brady: The New England Patriots poster boy has more rings (5) than any other quarterback and more Super Bowl MVPs (4) than anybody. His record eight Super Bowl starts have allowed him to become the game’s all-time leader in passes (357), completions (235), yards (2,576) and TDs (18). Brady aired it out for a Super Sunday record 505 yards in last season’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, breaking his mark of 466 set the previous year. But his Super Bowl LI 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 Atlanta. And yet … the book still isn’t closed as Super Bowl LIII and the Rams now approach.
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, 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 XXIII?
3. WR Jerry Rice: As you’d expect of the “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 has more than three TD catches, a total Rice matched alone in Super Bowl XXIX. His single-game record of 215 receiving yards made him Super Bowl XXIII’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 XIII and XIV, 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 TD pass in Super Bowl X while taking a helmet to the jaw that literally knocked him out.
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5. OLB/DE Charles Haley: Count ’em, a record five Super Bowl rings (two with the 49ers, three with the Dallas Cowboys) — a figure matched 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 XXIII, the Niners’ narrowest Super Sunday win.
6. QB Doug Williams: He only played in one Super Bowl (XXII). But all the Washington Redskins 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.
7. RB Emmitt Smith: The Super Bowl XXVIII MVP was the Cowboys’ closer that night (132 yards, 2 second-half TDs) and again in Super Bowl XXX. 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 XXXII MVP honors as the Denver Broncos won their first title. Davis adding 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 III. But Broadway Joe wisely kept 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.
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 XXXVI and XXXVIII. 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 X were of the acrobatic variety, including the game-deciding 64-yard TD in the fourth quarter, which is why Swann was the MVP. His three career TD grabs and 364 yards trail only Rice.
14. QB Steve Young: His six TD passes in the Niners’ Super Bowl XXIX 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 X.
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 XXXIV MVP set a then-record with 414 passing yards, his 377 yards in Super Bowl XLIII and 365 in Super Bowl XXXVI give him the three most prolific passing days in the game’s history until Brady’s explosions in Super Bowls LI and LII.
17. RB Franco Harris: A four-time champion, nearly half of his career record 354 rushing yards came when the Super Bowl IX MVP posted a then-record 158 in the Steelers’ first Super Bowl. Harris’ four rushing scores trail only Smith.
18. MLB Ray Lewis: He was the villain of the week prior to the game, but Lewis emerged as Super Bowl XXXV’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 X represent an unofficial record since the NFL didn’t recognize sacks until 1982. Same goes for the five career sacks of Greenwood, who started all four of Pittsburgh’s victorious Super Sundays in the 1970s.
20. RB Roger Craig: His exclusion in previous iterations of this list was an unfortunate oversight. The Niners’ main man in the backfield, Craig earned three rings as one of the original do-it-all backs. He piled up 410 yards and four TDs from scrimmage, both figures good for third place in the Super Bowl record book.
21. 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 V. None of the defenses he played on surrendered more than 14 points.
22. 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 XIV broke the backs of the plucky Los Angeles Rams.
23. 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 VIII honors and had 112 yards the previous year when Miami capped its perfect season.
24. QB Phil Simms: He threw 25 passes in Super Bowl XXI, and only three hit the ground. Pretty high bar as the MVP led the Giants to the first of their four Lombardi Trophies.
25. S Jake Scott: His pair of interceptions, including the game-clincher, put a bow on the Dolphins’ perfect season and brought him Super Bowl VII’s MVP.
26. 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 XV — he got one ring when the Raiders were in Oakland and another after they moved to L.A.
27. DT Joe Greene: No one embodies the Steel Curtain Steelers more than Mean Joe, who started all four Super Bowls in the 1970s.
28. 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 LII, a decision that surely seemed to backfire on New England.
29. 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 V. Howley, who established the Super Bowl career record with three INTs, won his ring the following year.
30. DT Manny Fernandez: He had a remarkable 17 tackles and one sack — unofficial totals — in the Dolphins’ Super Bowl VII win and almost certainly should have been named the MVP.
31. CB Ty Law: His 47-yard pick six off Warner in Super Bowl XXXVI helped chart the course for New England’s dynastic run. Law wound up winning three championships with the Patriots.
32. 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.
33. G Gene Upshaw: The Oakland Raiders stalwart played in three Super Bowls, each in a different decade. In Super Bowls XI and XV, 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 & Black won their first two titles.
34. CB Mel Blount: The Steelers’ super-sized corner collected a pair of Super Bowl picks and four rings.
35. CB Deion Sanders: The original shutdown corner went back-to-back with the 49ers and Cowboys in Super Bowls XXIX and XXX, respectively. Sanders picked off a pass for San Francisco, and the Steelers’ unwillingness to test him the following year was a big reason Super Bowl XXX MVP Larry Brown snagged two picks.
36. DE Richard Dent: A rare defender who won the Super Bowl 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 XX.
37. DE Reggie White: Maybe the greatest defensive end to ever play the game, he set the official Super Bowl record with three sacks of Drew Bledsoe in the Packers’ Super Bowl XXXI victory.
38. DB Ronnie Lott: The tone-setting defender of the 49ers’ great teams started at both cornerback and safety on his way to four championships.
39. T Joe Jacoby: He was one of only two Hogs to start on the offensive line in all three of the Redskins’ Super Bowl wins. RBs John Riggins (166 rushing yards in Super Bowl XVII) and Timmy Smith (204 yards in Super Bowl XXII) both had record days running behind Jacoby and Co.
40. OLB Mike Vrabel: One of the consummate Patriots, 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.
41. 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 XLIII.
42. 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 percent, McGee caught seven passes for 138 yards and two scores, one a behind-the-back snare.
43. C Mike Webster: Another four-time Steelers champ, he was a throwback who also handled long-snapping duties.
44. RB James White: Compelling case to be made that White, not Brady, should have been Super Bowl LI’s MVP. White 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 Atlanta. He added another 66 yards from scrimmage and a TD against Philadelphia the next year.
45. 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.
46. CB Dwight Smith: He had a pair of pick sixes (covering 94 yards) in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Super Bowl XXXVII beatdown of the Raiders.
47. KR/WR Jacoby Jones: He gets the nod over Super Bowl XXXI MVP Desmond Howard as our return ace. Jones had a strong case to be the Ravens’ Super Bowl XLVII 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.
48. TE Rob Gronkowski: No tight end has ever taken over a Super Bowl, but Gronk came close against the Eagles, finishing with nine receptions, 116 yards and a pair of scores in the losing effort. His impact in New England’s Super Bowl XLIX victory went beyond six catches for 68 yards and a TD as he thoroughly occupied the attention of the Seahawks. And despite playing on a bum ankle that would require surgery after the game, Gronkowski nearly corralled what would have been a game-winning Hail Mary on the final play of Super Bowl XLVI. Gronk is the only tight end with three Super Bowl TD grabs and shares the record for total catches (17) with Jay Novacek.
49. 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 NFL game.
50. 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 game-tying TD) in the Rams’ only Super Bowl victory to date.
51. P Thomas Morstead: He’s always been a fine punter. But it was the perfectly executed onside kick by the New Orleans Saints kickoff specialist to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV that minted him as a legend in The Big Easy.
52. T Anthony Munoz: He might be the best offensive lineman in league 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 the Bengals almost surely don’t reach their pair of near-miss losses to the 49ers without him.
53. QB Troy Aikman: He captained the ’90s Cowboys to three titles and was named MVP for the first one in Super Bowl XXVII after throwing for 273 yards and four TDs. Aikman’s 70 percent completion rate in his three appearances makes him the most accurate Super Sunday passer.
Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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