Not all Super Bowl champions are created equal. Players on winning teams will forever remember their victory, but that does not mean history looks upon them fondly. The last fifteen years has seen its share of underperforming players on teams that won it all.
From the beginning of Tom Brady’s career to the end of Manning’s, this list has plenty to dissect. The criteria are loosely assembled thanks to the varying situations of each team. As a baseline, every player has to appear in at least half of his team’s regular season games. The player cannot be judged or labeled “worst” because of injury time.
With the exception of one, who was benched due to terrible on-field performance, each individual appeared in the playoffs. All teams carry benchwarmers and practice squad players on the road to the Super Bowl. Including any of them would be pointless.
The results are widely varied: legends at the end of their rope, players with holes in their game, young draft picks who failed to deliver and a lineman who made a crushing mistake on the game’s biggest stage.
Here is the list for Worst Player on the Last 15 Super Bowl Winning Teams:
15 Peyton Manning QB – Denver Broncos (2015)
Peyton Manning, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, holds the NFL record for career passing yards (71,940) and touchdowns (539). He also holds the distinction of being the worst player on the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl winning team. Shortly after Manning set the league on fire in 2013, Father Time crept up on the legend and dropped an anvil. Peyton failed to throw a touchdown in four of his last six games during the 2014 campaign. In 2015, he ranked 31st in passing touchdowns with nine. This tied him with 40-year-old backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Peyton tossed the second-most interceptions (17). His season reached a breaking point during a week 10 matchup against the Chiefs. In the same game he broke Favre’s all-time passing yards mark, Manning went 5-20 for 35 yards and four interceptions. Gary Kubiak benched him in favor of the unproven Brock Osweiler. Osweiler kept the job until the third quarter of week 17.
Needing a victory against the Chargers to clinch the AFC’s first seed, Manning retook his role and sparked a comeback win – sort of. He threw five passes for a paltry 69 yards. The Broncos’ historic defense carried him into the playoffs, all the way to a Super Bowl victory. Manning won his second ring with a performance of 13-23 for 141 yards, one interception and two fumbles. Peyton Manning deserved a ring, but if he had played on any other team, his final season would have become a forgotten footnote to a storied career.
14 Jonas Gray RB – New England Patriots (2014)
The New England Patriots won their fourth championship during the Bill Belichick era because of Tom Brady’s performance and Malcolm Butler’s goal line heroics. Their running game, however, has left a lot to be desired over the past couple years. Picking one player from Belichick’s carousel of backfield secrecy becomes difficult. Blount kept his name off the list with his monster performance in the AFC Championship game, running for three touchdowns and 148 yards on 30 attempts. Deflategate be damned, Blount and Brady would have won the 45-7 massacre playing football with a watermelon – or better yet, sour grapes, courtesy of the rest of the league. Vereen did little on the ground, but proved a valuable check down target with 52 receptions.
This leaves Jonas Gray. Jonas Gray rose to prominence in week 11 after starting the season on the practice roster. He ran for 201 yards and 4 touchdowns against the Indianapolis Colts. A player without a previous career touchdown had not scored four in one game since 1921. Gray, fantasy football’s heartbreaking flash in the pan, slept through a practice the next week. He did not appear in that Sunday’s game and totaled 80 yards the rest of the season. Gray ran four times for four yards in the playoffs. He was inactive for the Super Bowl. The one-hit wonder split time between Jacksonville and Miami in 2015, tallying 176 rushing yards.
13 Byron Maxwell CB – Seattle Seahawks (2013)
Former wide receiver and ESPN analyst Cris Carter would likely select Doug Baldwin here. In the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, Carter referred to the receiving corps as “appetizers” due to the lack of a number one wide receiver. Agreeing with a Hall of Famer would be an easy decision if Baldwin didn’t get the last laugh. He recorded five receptions for 66 yards and a touchdown, proving himself on the game’s biggest stage.
The “worst player” designation falls on the shoulders of the Legion of Boom’s ugly stepbrother instead. Byron Maxwell joined Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman after the NFL suspended Brandon Browner indefinitely. Maxwell benefited from playing with a ferocious defense full of playmakers. He quietly put up serviceable numbers and remained a starter in the 2014 season. He cashed in for a $63 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles during the 2015 offseason. In Byron’s first game as the primary cornerback, Julio Jones torched and exposed him for 141 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches. Without stronger players to fall back on, Maxwell lead a squad that ranked third-worst in pass defense and gave up a franchise-record 33 touchdowns. The onus of Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia dumpster fire cannot belong entirely to Maxwell. Still, the team shipped him to the Dolphins after one year. The message? If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
12 Michael Oher OL – Baltimore Ravens (2012-2013)
Michael Oher, the inspiration for The Blind Side, didn’t give an inspiring performance in his last two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens had moved Oher from left tackle to right tackle at the beginning of 2011, meaning he did not protect Joe Flacco’s blind side during the team’s Super Bowl run. Flacco could see when defenders beat Oher and he saw it happen often. The offensive line allowed 38 sacks in their championship season. Michael gave up 11.5, accounting for 30%. The output of a former first round pick should be much higher. After receiving his first ring, Oher again disappointed the next year. Baltimore released him following the 2013 season. Oher burned out with the Titans before finding a home as the left tackle for the Carolina Panthers. Pro Football Focus currently ranks him as the biggest liability on Cam Newton’s offensive line.
11 Aaron Ross CB – New York Giants (2011)
The 9-7 New York Giants are the only Super Bowl champion to record less than 10 wins in a 16-game regular season. The unlikeliest of winners, New York ranked in the bottom ten in both scoring offense and scoring defense. They posted a negative point differential (394 PF/400 PA). Being the worst team to ever win a Super Bowl opens the door for plenty of criticism. With that said, Eli Manning had a career year. He threw for 4,933 yards and was named Super Bowl MVP. The defensive line of Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, and ten-fingered Jason Pierre-Paul got after the quarterback, tied third in the league for season sacks (48).
The biggest weakness existed in the secondary, which allowed the 4th highest yards/game average (255.1). Aaron Ross is the odd man out. He started one game each in 2009 and 2010 before Terrell Thomas’s ACL injury thrust him into the starting lineup. Ross recorded four interceptions during the regular season, but had a miniscule impact on the four postseason games. The Giants did not elect to re-sign Ross following the season. He moved to the Jaguars and struggled mightily, failing to record a single interception. A return to the Giants in 2013 failed as well. Injuries and inconsistent play eventually spelled an end to his career.
10 Brandon Jackson RB – Green Bay Packers (2010)
The Packers operated an unbalanced offense on their way to a Super Bowl. Under the guidance of Aaron Rodgers, their passing offense reached the top five in both yards/game (257.8) and touchdowns (31). The Packers ground game was only the 24th most efficient in the league (100.4 yards/game). The ranking would likely have been even lower without Aaron’s scrambling prowess. Brandon Jackson, a 2007 second round pick out of Nebraska, had a golden opportunity to showcase his talents after Ryan Grant’s early-season injury. He responded with a measly 703 yards, good for 33rd in the league. After giving Jackson 13 starts, Mike McCarthy made a risky, brilliant move before the Packers’ wild card game. He tabbed rookie James Starks as the primary running back. Starks ran for 123 yards in his first career start. The rookie emerged as a playoff hero and future cog in Green Bay’s running game. Jackson, conversely, had six carries for 28 yards in the entire playoffs. The writing was on the wall. The Packers released Jackson. He signed with the Browns. He tallied only eight carries the rest of his career before calling it quits.
9 Remi Ayodele DT – New Orleans Saints (2009)
The 2009 Saints flipped the script for a franchise that had endured long stretches as a hapless laughing stock. Drew Brees finished as the league’s highest rated passer (109.6). Sean Payton defied logic and won with a surprise onside kick to begin the Super Bowl’s second half. New Orleans thrived as a cohesive unit of offense, defense and special teams, but one player failed to live up to the standards. Remi Ayodele started 13 games for the Saints. He recorded 1.5 sacks, the lowest for any Saints defensive lineman who logged a start. His 18 tackles were the fewest of any defender with six or more starts. Remi made his mark on the NFC Championship Game by injuring Brett Favre’s ankle with a low hit. The NFL later stated the play should have been flagged. This illegal hit, as well as several others, jumpstarted the famous Bountygate scandal. Ayodele failed to record a stat in the Super Bowl. The nose tackle lasted two more years in the NFL. He never compiled more than 1.5 sacks in a season and recorded 20+ tackles only once.
8 Justin Hartwig OL – Pittsburgh Steelers (2008)
The Pittsburgh Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII thanks to a heroic final performance by Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben led a 78-yard drive in under two minutes, resulting in a miraculous, toe-tapping touchdown catch by Santonio Holmes. The play sticks out as one of the most exciting finishes to a Super Bowl in recent memory. It would have not been possible without Pittsburgh center Justin Hartwig. He shows up on this list simply because of one horrific mistake. The Steelers held a 20-14 lead over the Cardinals with 2:58 remaining in the fourth quarter. One third down from his own one-yard line, Roethlisberger connected with Holmes for a first down. A holding call on Hartwig nullified the play. The penalty resulted in a safety. Arizona received the ball and quickly went up 23-20 on a huge Larry Fitzgerald touchdown. If Roethlisberger hadn’t delivered, Harwig might have gone down as one of the biggest scapegoats in Steelers history. Rookie Maurkice Pouncey beat Hartwig out during training camp two seasons later, signaling the end of Justin’s career.
7 David Tyree WR – New York Giants (2007)
The 2007 New York Giants completed the ultimate David vs. Goliath story when they beat the previously undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. The 1972 Dolphins still had champagne on ice. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick had never lost a Super Bowl before. David Tyree, the worst player on the Giants and the owner of the greatest play in Super Bowl history, didn’t care. Tyree’s inclusion is the inverse of Justin Hartwig’s. Whereas Hartwig made a grave error in an otherwise solid starting career, David Tyree’s “Helmet Catch” magnified his stunning lack of previous production and importance. He was not a star. He did not become a star afterwards. Tyree appeared in 12 games for the Giants that season. He caught four passes for 35 yards. By his standards, he exploded in the Super Bowl for 43 yards and one touchdown on three receptions. The third down, 32-yard catch, pinned against Tyree’s helmet, shocked New England. Plaxico Burress scored the go-ahead touchdown four plays later. Tyree never made another catch in his NFL career. He retired after 10 games with the Ravens in 2009.
6 Gilbert Gardner LB – Indianapolis Colts (2006)
Peyton Manning silenced the critics and won his first Super Bowl under completely different circumstances than in his embarrassing farewell season. He carried the Colts to a championship with grit, intelligence and skill. He had to – the defense allowed more points (360) than any team to ever win the Super Bowl. They ranked dead last in rushing yards allowed per game (173.0), and it wasn’t even close. The 31st ranked team allowed nearly 30 yards per game less. Injuries played a role and the unit as a whole failed during the regular season, but one player must be singled out. The Colts chose to blame Gilbert Gardner. It makes sense to do the same. Gilbert started 13 games for the Colts and struggled mightily with 34 tackles. Tony Dungy replaced Gardner with linebacker Rob Morris in an effort to strengthen the run defense. It worked. Gardner was left inactive for all four of Indianapolis’ playoff games. He played 16 games for the Titans, Lions and Bears over the next two seasons, recording 11 total tackles.
5 Ben Roethlisberger QB – Pittsburgh Steelers (2005)
The backbone of the 2005 Steelers offense was a 1-2 punch of Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis. Their combination of pure speed and power made if difficult for defenses to adjust. Ben Roethlisberger, only in his second year, had been drafted into the best situation of the four first-round quarterbacks. He put up efficient, middle of the road numbers in 12 regular season games: 17 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. However, his performance in Super Bowl XL makes a legitimate case for the worst in history. Big Ben went 9-21 for 123 yards, two interceptions and one rushing touchdown, resulting in an abysmal quarterback rating of 22.6. The team won in spite of him – not because of him. The referees played better for the Steelers than their 11th overall pick. Early in the fourth quarter, a phantom holding call eliminated Matt Hasselbeck’s throw to the Steelers’ one-yard line. Hasselbeck tossed an interception shortly after and was called for a mysterious low block. Seahawks fans believe the officiating guaranteed Roethlisberger’s first Super Bowl ring. Jerome Bettis got to ride off into the sunset and Ben didn’t have to answer for his complete choke job.
4 Bethel Johnson WR – New England Patriots (2004)
The 2004 Patriots were a juggernaut on the brink of cementing a football dynasty. Winning the Super Bowl gave them three rings in four years and they did so with strength in all facets of the game. The biggest impediment to success involved injuries piling up. Both Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, the starting cornerbacks, missed most of the 2004 season. Asante Samuel and undrafted free agent Randall Gay filled in. Troy Brown, a wide receiver, played slot. Randall Gay would have made this list until he led the team in Super Bowl tackles. He stepped up with the rest of the defense. Instead, the title of “worst” goes to an offensive player – Bethel Johnson. Drafted in the second round of the 2003 draft, Johnson never proved himself an NFL talent. In 13 games during the 2004 season, Johnson tallied 10 catches for 174 yards and one touchdown. It was a regression in every category from his similarly lackluster rookie season. He caught only one ball in the playoffs. The final three years of his career culminated in 13 catches and one touchdown.
3 Jarvis Green DE – New England Patriots (2003)
Bethel Johnson and Jarvis Green are interchangeable concerning the worst player during the Patriots’ consecutive championship seasons. Neither made a solid contribution in either year. Jarvis Green appeared in all 16 games for New England during the 2003 campaign. He started seven, managing only eight tackles and two sacks. He played in all three playoff games as well, but his Super Bowl stat line is completely empty. His value stemmed from providing depth rather than game-changing performances. Jarvis Green continued to struggle for playing time with the Patriots until 2009. He never enjoyed more than 25 solo tackles in a season. His career ended after failing to appear in any games for the 2010 Houston Texans.
2 Brad Johnson QB – Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2002)
Tampa Bay’s first and only Super Bowl winning season produced the easiest inclusion on this list. Find any dictionary released in the early 2000s. Brad Johnson’s picture appears directly underneath the definition of game manager. He actually had a Pro Bowl season in 2002, but the ferocious defense was the true star. The Super Bowl matchup was a clash between the league’s best offense and the league’s best defense. Defense prevailed in a big way. The Buccaneers intercepted Rich Gannon five times and returned three of them for touchdowns. They recorded five sacks while holding the NFL’s most potent offense to 269 total yards. With that kind of brick wall defense, Johnson did not have to do much. He gave the performance the team needed: 18-34 for 215 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. No harm, no foul. Those in disagreement might point to his 22:6 touchdown to interception ratio for the 2002 season. Looking at his whole body of work, he retired with 166 touchdowns and 122 interceptions. Those are hardly numbers fans have come to expect from championship quarterbacks.
1 Jermaine Wiggins TE – New England Patriots (2001)
When the Patriots won their first Super Bowl, Tom Brady was not Tom Brady yet. He took over Drew Bledsoe’s team. Bill Belichick recognized his potential. Other than that, he threw 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in the regular season. He threw the same number of touchdowns (1) as he did interceptions during the playoffs. The suffocating defense carried New England to a championship, but Brady still provided the spark the team needed. Antowain Smith had a 1,000-yard rushing season. The wide receivers fulfilled their roles. This leaves Jermaine Wiggins. Those accustomed to Brady picking apart defenses with tight ends might be disappointed in Jermaine’s numbers. Although Wiggins scored four touchdowns, he ended the season with just 14 catches. He had a surprising 10-catch performance against the Oakland Raiders in the Tuck Rule Game, but did not add another touchdown in the postseason. The Patriots declined to re-sign Wiggins at the end of the year. He eventually found success with the Vikings, but still never surpassed the four-touchdown ceiling.
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