The NFL Playoff matchups are set for Wild Card weekend. In no time at all, a champion will be crowned. Not only that, but one player will walk away knowing he had the biggest impact in his team’s championship victory by becoming the 51st Super Bowl MVP.
Among the athletes to shout, “I’m going to Disneyland,” a tradition started in 1987 by MVP Phil Simms, there has been a combination of slam-dunk and questionable choices alike. 23 Super Bowl MVP awards have been bestowed upon Hall of Famers. That’s not counting times current players or recent retirees have won, such as Tom Brady (three times), Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis.
This article therefore splits the fifteen players using two criteria. This list has ten slots that are occupied by the “worst” players to win a Super Bowl MVP. These individuals rose to the occasion of the big stage despite the absence of a Hall of Fame resume during their overall career. The final five players either have a bust in Canton or will join the Hall someday soon, but they won the award due to their position, legacy or bravado instead of Super Bowl performance.
14 Worst to Win: Jim Plunkett (Super Bowl XV)
Jim Plunkett entered the NFL with a bang before fading into obscurity as a has-been quarterback without the skill or confidence to perform above a backup role. Then, ten years into his career, Plunkett suddenly stepped in the Raiders’ starting quarterback position due to injury and led the team to the Super Bowl. He performed admirably and deserved his MVP: 13-21 for 261 yards and three touchdowns. That’s an average of 20.1 yards per completed pass, second only to Terry Bradshaw among Super Bowl MVPs. After fighting for his job in the subsequent years, Plunkett again won a Super Bowl in 1984. As a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, his absence from the Hall of Fame and his inclusion on this ranking opens the door for disagreement. Still, Plunkett retired with a 72-72 record, a completion percentage of 52.5, and 164 touchdowns to 198 interceptions.
14. Worst to Win: Doug Williams (Super Bowl XXII)
Doug Williams played lights out in Super Bowl XXII. In just the second quarter alone, Williams threw for 228 yards and four touchdowns during the Redskins’ 35-point outburst. Washington ended up defeating John Elway’s Broncos 42-10. In the process, Williams forever etched his name in Redskins lore and became the first African American quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Despite his stellar performance, there’s reason to place Williams on the list. Williams struggled with injuries after the Super Bowl season and lost his job to Mark Rypien. All in all, he started 16 regular season games for Washington over four years, including only two before the 1987 championship run. His other postseason trips with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers produced horrific results. In four playoff games, he averaged 111 yards and a 31.7% completion percentage while tossing nine picks. Williams retired with a losing record, 100 touchdowns and 93 interceptions.
13 Didn't Deserve It: Peyton Manning (Super Bowl XLI)
As promised in the introduction, Peyton Manning obviously marks the transition from worst careers to worst individual performances. Just one year ago, the Denver Broncos dragged Manning kicking and screaming to a second Super Bowl victory. The sad disintegration of skill might make people forget Manning’s first ring. Peyton will likely go down as the greatest regular season quarterback in NFL history. The knock on him was always that he choked in the playoffs. The 2006 Colts helped allay those fears, but perhaps it was all a mirage. Manning’s defense in Indianapolis, for so many years a detriment to his success, was the reason the organization won. Manning threw for 247 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Meanwhile, Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai combined for 190 rushing yards and a score. Kelvin Hayden delivered a pick six in the fourth quarter to seal the team’s 29-17 victory.
12 Worst to Win: Mark Rypien (Super Bowl XXVI)
Mark Rypien posted slightly better career numbers than Doug Williams, but the comparison of their Super Bowl MVP performances pushes Rypien a spot below his teammate on the “worst” list. Rypien had his best year as a professional in 1991, the season the Redskins last won the Super Bowl. He threw for 3,564 yards, 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions on the way to a 14-2 record. Rypien’s performance in the big game (18-33 for 292 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) helped Washington defeat the snake bitten Buffalo Bills. Rypien received a three-year contract following the game, but he struggled to recapture the same success. The Redskins snuck into the playoffs at 9-7 in 1992. Injuries and coaching changes spelled an end to Rypien’s tenure in Washington after 1993. He served as a backup for Cleveland, St. Louis and Philadelphia between 1994-1997. Rypien also spent time with Indianapolis in 2001.
11 Worst to Win: Larry Brown (Super Bowl XXX)
Larry Brown played a part on all three of Dallas’ Super Bowl winning teams in the early 90s. The peak of his success came in 1995 during Super Bowl XXX. Brown caught two interceptions on his way to becoming the first defensive back to win Super Bowl MVP since Jake Scott in Super Bowl VII. Although his performance in that particular game cannot be questioned, he was occasionally considered a weakness in the Cowboys’ defense. Brown did not dispel those rumblings when he turned his MVP performance into a five-year contract with the Oakland Raiders. He played only 12 games in two years and managed one interception. The Raiders released Brown following the 1997 season. He returned to Dallas to provide depth in 1998. Larry Brown retired with 14 interceptions, two fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns.
10 Didn't Deserve It: Tom Brady (Super Bowl XXXVI)
Tom Brady was not Tom Brady when he won his first Super Bowl. He was simply a young, confident quarterback. He planted the seeds to become possibly the greatest quarterback of all time when he snapped out of a lackluster performance for a game winning drive, but he did little to warrant an MVP nod before the closing moments. Here is Brady’s statline: 16-27, 145 yards and one touchdown. Of course Brady deserves credit for his late game heroics, in which he put up over one-third of his yardage. However, the Patriots won because they were able to shut down the Greatest Show on Turf. Brady played no part in that. Ty Law, who picked off Kurt Warner and took it 47 yards for a score in the second quarter, was easily a more deserving selection.
9 Worst to Win: Santonio Holmes (Super Bowl XLIII)
From an objective standpoint, Santonio Holmes is responsible for one of the most exciting moments in Super Bowl history. His impossible game-winning touchdown catch over the Arizona Cardinals, combined with his three other receptions on Pittsburgh’s final drive, earned Holmes MVP honors. He finished the game with nine receptions for 131 yards. The third year wide receiver appeared well on his way to superstardom. Despite his talents, however, Holmes wore out his welcome with Pittsburgh due to brushes with the law. The team traded him to the New York Jets in 2010 after his best career season (79 catches, 1,248 yards). Injuries and a cancerous attitude plagued his four years with the Jets. He recorded only one touchdown in both 2012 and 2013. After playing nine games with the 2014 Chicago Bears, Santonio Holmes was unable to find a home during the offseason. At 32, he is out of the NFL.
8 Worst to Win: Deion Branch (Super Bowl XXXIX)
Deion Branch knew how to show up when it counted. He posted double digit catches in consecutive Super Bowls, and he is the only Patriots player not named Tom Brady to win a Super Bowl MVP. During the 2004 Super Bowl, Branch caught 11 passes for 133 yards, although he did not score a touchdown. He held out before the 2006 season. Belichick did what Belichick does and flipped the disgruntled wide receiver to Seattle for a first round pick. Despite the big stage displays and high price tag, Branch failed to produce in Seattle. He returned to New England in 2010 for the last three years of his career. Branch retired with 518 receptions and 39 touchdowns. He never eclipsed 1,000 yards or caught more than five touchdowns in a season.
7 Didn't Deserve It: Len Dawson (Super Bowl IV)
Len Dawson rebounded from a Super Bowl I loss to lead his Kansas City Chiefs against the heavily favored Vikings in Super Bowl IV. This time, his team was ready to take the championship. Dawson was impressive against the blitz, going 4-5 for 66 yards and a touchdown. He was efficient and put up solid numbers overall, especially given the era. Dawson finished the game 12-17 for 142 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The MVP nod likely landed at Dawson’s doorstep because of a total team effort. Kansas City left nothing in doubt, beating Minnesota 23-7. Although the Chiefs ran for a total of 151 yards, the leading rusher only had 39 yards. Willie Lanier, Emmitt Thomas and Johnny Robinson all had interceptions in the fourth quarter. Otis Taylor, who caught six passes for 81 yards and a touchdown, could have been considered the game’s most valuable player as well. Ultimately, the award went to a future Hall of Fame signal caller.
6 Worst to Win: Malcolm Smith (Super Bowl XLVIII)
Almost anyone on Seattle’s terrifying defense could have won MVP after the 43-8 dismantling of the Denver Broncos. Malcolm Smith, a spot starter and rotational linebacker, happened to pick off a Manning pass and return it for a touchdown in the game’s second quarter, bringing the score to 22-0. The flashy play paved the way for his MVP award. The following season, Smith returned to a reserve role. Compared to recent winners, Smith was a complete unknown. Smith signed with Oakland in 2015 and led the team in tackles with 122. He started 16 games that season, and has started 14 this year. Although the resume isn’t there yet to elevate him above other Super Bowl MVP winners, Malcolm Smith certainly has the tools to build a solid professional career. The award wasn’t a fluke.
5 Worst to Win: Desmond Howard (Super Bowl XXXI)
Desmond Howard holds the distinction of being the only player in history to win a Super Bowl MVP for his contributions on special teams, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t also one of the worst. Howard singlehandedly guaranteed Green Bay solid field position almost every time he touched the ball. He had a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown and totaled 244 return yards. Despite Howard’s terrific performance, Brett Favre may have been a more deserving candidate. The young gunslinger threw for 246 yards and accounted for three touchdowns – two through the air and one on the ground. Regardless, Howard’s career stats relegate him to the bottom of the Super Bowl MVPs. He always excelled as a returner, tallying 8 punt return touchdowns, but he rarely contributed as a receiver (123 career receptions for 1,597 yards).
4 Didn't Deserve It: Ray Lewis (Super Bowl XXXV)
Symbolic MVP awards are fine, but let’s call it what it is. Ray Lewis powered one of the most dangerous defenses in recent memory during the 2000-2001 Ravens’ run to the Super Bowl. Baltimore destroyed New York 34-7 on the game’s biggest stage. Kerry Collins completed only 38.4% of his passes for 112 yards. He threw four interceptions and fell victim to four quarterback sacks. For Baltimore, Jamal Lewis ran for 102 yards and a touchdown. After New York brought the score to 17-7 on a third quarter kickoff return, Jermaine Lewis responded immediately with a kick return touchdown of his own. Kim Herring, Jamie Sharper, Chris McAlister, and Duane Starks combined for the four picks, with Starks returning his for a touchdown. What did Ray Lewis do? He finished the game with five tackles and four passes defended.
3 Worst to Win: Dexter Jackson (Super Bowl XXXVII)
Much like Malcolm Smith’s award in Super Bowl XLVIII, Dexter Jackson was one of many defensive players who could have won after obliterating the Oakland Raiders 48-21 in the 2002-2003 Super Bowl. Jackson had two interceptions in the first half while the game was still close. His teammate Dwight Smith returned two interceptions for touchdowns during the second half, but it had little impact on the result. Simeon Rice, who had two sacks for Tampa Bay, tied Jackson in MVP voting but lost based on fan vote. Jackson became the second safety and third defensive back to win the award. He split his seven seasons after the Super Bowl between Arizona, a second stint with Tampa Bay, and Cincinnati. Jackson retired with a solid, but unspectacular career. He had five sacks, five forced fumbles and 17 interceptions.
2 Worst to Win: Joe Namath (Super Bowl III)
If you were wondering why bravado was mentioned in the opening, look no further than Broadway Joe. He won the award thanks to his bold guarantee. Joe Namath followed up the promise of victory with 206 yards and zero touchdowns. He is the only quarterback to win Super Bowl MVP without throwing a touchdown pass. Instead, he led the Jets by igniting a fire under them and managing the game from under center. Although Namath didn’t do anything to hurt his team, it’s hard to imagine anyone talking about his performance or famous guarantee nearly 50 years later if New York didn’t win. His defense was the true MVP. They forced five turnovers. Randy Beverly led the way with two interceptions. Namath running off the field with one finger in the air is all anyone ever talks about.
1 Didn't Deserve It: Fred Biletnikoff (Super Bowl XI)
Fred Biletnikoff is a Hall of Fame wide receiver, but his Super Bowl MVP award is the most baffling of them all. Biletnikoff caught four passes for 79 yards. Although he did not score a touchdown, his receptions helped set up three Raiders touchdowns in the team’s 32-14 victory over the Vikings. Dave Casper’s day mirrored Biletnikoff’s almost exactly (four catches, 70 yards), only he added a touchdown. Clarence Davis ran 16 times for 137 yards. He could have had a legendary outing if Pete Banaszak had not vultured two rushing touchdowns at the goal line. On the defensive side of the ball, Willie Brown added a 75-yard pick six. Nevertheless, Biletnikoff came away with a ring and an MVP award. He’s the only receiver to win with less than 100 yards receiving and one of three offensive players to do so without scoring a touchdown.