There are Super Bowl MVPs and then there are Super Bowl MVPs who are still remembered decades later.
Fifty Super Bowls have been played, and these individual performances stand out as the top 10.
No. 10: Lynn Swann
Only seven wide receivers have been named Super Bowl MVP. Three of them have been Steelers, and of the five Steelers to be named Super Bowl MVP, Lynn Swann sticks in the memory bank the most for his performance in Super Bowl X.
Swann caught just four passes in the game, but those receptions added up to 161 yards. That was a Super Bowl record at the time and is still fourth all-time.
Three of Swann’s catches in the Steelers’ 21-17 win over the Cowboys at Miami forever live in Super Bowl highlight shows. The first came in the first quarter against double coverage along the sideline, a 32-yard catch that helped set up Terry Bradshaw’s seven-yard touchdown pass to Randy Grossman that tied the score at 7-7.
Swann’s best catch in that game was his second catch. He tried leaping for the ball, but Cowboys cornerback Mark Washington knocked it out of his hands. The ball was still in the air, however, and Swann caught it as he fell to the ground for a 53-yard gain. That play came on third down from the Steelers’ 10-yard line with less than three minutes left in the first half. It didn’t lead to points, but had Swann not caught the pass, the Steelers would have had to punt and the Cowboys would have had favorable field position to add to their 10-7 lead.
Other catches have moved ahead of that one in the all-time rankings, but it should be noted that Swann’s catch was made without gloves.
Swann’s longest play of the day was his 64-yard touchdown catch that increased the Steelers’ lead to 21-10 with 3:31 left in the game. It turned out the Steelers needed that score because the Cowboys came right back and cut their deficit to 21-17. The Steelers held on, and won their second straight Super Bowl.
No. 9: Doug Williams
Four decades after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, Doug Williams became the first black quarterback not only to win a Super Bowl but to start in one.
Those kinds of milestones don’t come easily, and the first quarter of Super Bowl XXII was of symbolic of those struggles.
The Redskins fell behind John Elway and the Broncos 10-0. Williams completed just four of 10 passes for 68 yards in the period and had to leave the game with an injury. He missed two plays and returned in the second quarter.
It was the most dominating quarter in Super Bowl history.
Williams completed nine of 11 passes for 228 yards and touchdown passes of 80, 27, 50 and eight yards. The Redskins also ran for a touchdown and scored 35 points in the quarter on their way to a 42-10 win.
Williams, who was nearly traded to the Raiders that season, completed 18 of 29 passes for 340 yards in leading the Redskins to their second Super Bowl title.
No. 8: John Riggins
One of the most memorable images in Super Bowl history came on one of the more daring play calls in Super Bowl history.
John Riggins ran for what was then a Super Bowl-record 166 yards and one touchdown, earning MVP honors in the Redskins’ 27-17 win over the Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII. Those 166 yards are still third on the all-time Super Bowl list, and his 38 carries in that game still stands as the Super Bowl record.
The Redskins trailed 17-13 with less than 11 minutes left. On fourth-and-1 from the Dolphins’ 43, Joe Theismann handed the ball to Riggins. Not only did Riggins get the first down, he went all the way for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.
Dolphins cornerback Don McNeal, all 5’11”, 190 pounds of him, tried to bring down the 6’2″, 230-pound Riggins. He didn’t have much luck, tugging at Riggins’ jersey before Riggins broke free. That futile attempt at a tackle is pretty much guaranteed to be shown during Super Bowl highlight marathons at this time of year.
No. 7: Marcus Allen
John Riggins’ Super Bowl rushing record stood for a year. Then Marcus Allen obliterated it, and the Raiders knocked the Redskins from their championship throne with a 38-9 victory in Super Bowl XVIII.
Riggins, who had his moment in the sun a year earlier, ran for just 64 yards on 26 carries while Allen set a new mark with 191 rushing yards. Just like he did in the previous Super Bowl at roughly the same point in the game, Riggins took the ball on fourth-and-1. This time, however, the situation was much more dire for the Redskins. They were down 28-9 with a minute left in the third quarter. Going for it on fourth down was no gutsy move. They didn’t have much of a choice, especially in the days before the 2-point conversion.
Riggins couldn’t move the chains. This was Allen’s day, and on the next play he ran for a touchdown even more iconic in Super Bowl history than Riggins’ a year earlier. He started running outside to the left, but reversed field and decided instead to just run it up the gut for 74 yards to close out the third quarter.
That was Allen’s second touchdown. His first gave the Raiders that 28-9 lead earlier in the third quarter, answering the Redskins’ touchdown on the first possession of the second half.
Allen’s 74-yard touchdown run was the longest rushing touchdown in Super Bowl history until the Steelers’ Willie Parker ran for 75 in Super Bowl XL.
It would be 13 years before an AFC team won the Super Bowl again, and it would take another MVP performance from a running back for that to happen.
No. 6: Joe Montana
Joe Montana was the first player to be named Super Bowl MVP three times, and he’s had his share of dramatic Super Bowl moments.
His best Super Bowl performance, however, came in perhaps the dullest Super Bowl. He threw five touchdown passes, a Super Bowl record at the time, in the 49ers’ 55-10 win over the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV at New Orleans.
Montana, who didn’t throw an interception in any of his four Super Bowls, completed 22 of 29 passes for 297 yards. His 147.6 passer rating is the second-best in Super Bowl history. He got off to a lukewarm start in that game and after a 49ers punt in the first quarter the Broncos had the ball at their own 49 down 7-3.
But Bobby Humphery fumbled, and Montana made him pay. He completed 17 of his last 19 passes, including a seven-yard touchdown pass to Brent Jones that made it 13-3. The 49ers had a 27-3 lead at halftime, and any advertiser that paid $700,000 for a 30-second spot in the second half got burned.
No. 5: Steve Young
Joe Montana had more Super Bowl success overall, but none of his individual performances matched what his successor did in Super Bowl XXIX.
Steve Young became the first quarterback to throw six touchdown passes in a Super Bowl and the 49ers became the first team to win five Super Bowls with a 49-26 victory over the Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX.
Other teams have won their fifth Super Bowl since that 1994 season, and the Steelers even won a sixth, but no other quarterback has thrown six touchdown passes in a Super Bowl.
Young broke Montana’s record of five touchdown passes in a Super Bowl. He completed 24 of 36 passes for 325 yards with no interceptions against the helpless Chargers. Young’s second pass of the game was a 44-yard touchdown strike to Jerry Rice less than two minutes in. He threw four of his TD passes before halftime as the 49ers took a 28-10 lead into the locker room.
After two years of not being able to get past the Cowboys in the NFC championship game, Young finally got the monkey off his back.
No. 4: Phil Simms
Phil Simms’ career didn’t have a pleasant beginning or end.
The Giants’ starting quarterback frequently was booed early in his career, and his career ended when he was stunningly released in 1994.
But Simms will be remembered forever for what he did in Super Bowl XXI.
He completed 22 of 25 passes for 268 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in the Giants’ 39-20 win over the Broncos at the Rose Bowl.
Simms became the first quarterback to complete 10 straight passes in a Super Bowl. He completed 88 percent of his passes and his passer rating was 150.92, still a Super Bowl record 30 years later.
That 1986 Giants team pioneered a couple of sports traditions. They were the first team to dunk their coach with Gatorade after big wins, and Simms became the first Super Bowl MVP to do an “I’m going to Disney World” commercial.
No. 3: Terrell Davis
This sure didn’t look like the season that the NFC’s 13-year Super Bowl winning streak would end.
The defending-champion Packers were 11-point favorites over the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII. The Broncos were 0-4 in Super Bowls, with John Elway losing three of those games by an average margin of 32 points.
But this time, Elway had Terrell Davis.
Davis led the NFL with 15 rushing touchdowns in the 1997 season, and his Super Bowl record of three rushing touchdowns in this game still stands.
There might not be that one Marcus Allen-like “Wow” moment, but Davis’ performance was more impressive because of what he had to overcome in that game. He missed most of the second quarter with a migraine after running for 64 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter.
Davis’ headache was so bad, according to NFL.com, that he said he couldn’t see. But with the Broncos at the Packers’ 1-yard line, coach Mike Shanahan put Davis out there as a decoy. Despite his ailment, Davis moved convincingly enough for the Packers to believe he was getting the ball, end Elway brought it in from a yard out to give the Broncos a 14-7 lead at the start of the second quarter.
The second half didn’t start well for Davis. He lost a fumble on his first carry, and that set the Packers up for a game-tying field goal. But Davis ran for 93 of his 157 yards and two of his touchdowns after halftime. The Broncos regained the lead on his second touchdown, a 1-yard run late in the third quarter that was set up by Elway’s famous 8-yard helicopter run on third-and-6 from the Green Bay 12.
Davis scored the deciding points on a one-yard run with 1:47 left in the game. Any chance the Packers had to hold the Broncos to a field goal was pretty much squashed when Davis took it 17 yards to the 1 on the previous play.
Davis is the last running back to be named Super Bowl MVP. The following year, he led the NFL with 2,008 rushing yards, the fifth-highest single-season total in NFL history. That effort helped the Broncos repeat as champs. Davis suffered a knee injury in 1999, however, and was never the same. His career was over before he turned 30. But his performance in Super Bowl XXXII makes him immortal in NFL lore.
No. 2: Tom Brady
Tom Brady is one of two players to be named Super Bowl MVP three times. His performance in Super Bowl XLIX stands out among the three.
For one thing, Brady had to overcome a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter, leading the Patriots to a 28-24 win over the Seahawks at Glendale, Arizona.
Brady’s game-winning drives against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI and the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII were nice, and it’s even more impressive that as a fresh-faced 24-year-old Brady didn’t do what John Madden would have done with 1:21 left against the Rams. But it’s one thing if the score is tied. There’s a little more pressure in the fourth quarter when you’re down two scores against the Legion of Boom and when you’re facing third-and-14 with less than 11 minutes left.
Brady completed that third down pass for 21 yards to Julian Edelman. He set a Super Bowl record with 37 completions in the game and completed his last 10 passes. The first of those passes was a four-yard touchdown to Danny Amendola with eight minutes left to narrow the Patriots’ deficit to 24-21. The last was a three-yard touchdown pass to Edelman, Brady’s fourth of the game, that gave the Patriots a 28-24 lead with two minutes left.
Thanks to Malcolm Butler, the Patriots hung on to that lead and Brady became the third quarterback with four Super Bowl rings.
No. 1: Jerry Rice
Five players are tied for second in Super Bowl history with 11 receptions. But none of them caught those 11 passes for a record 215 yards like Jerry Rice did in Super Bowl XXIII.
And no Super Bowl MVP loaded so much of his impact into the fourth quarter as Rice.
The 49ers and Bengals played the only two Super Bowls in the 1980s that were decided by less than a touchdown. Super Bowl XXIII was the more memorable of the two largely because of Rice’s performance.
Six of Rice’s catches and 140 of his receiving yards came in the final 15:14 of the game, the first of which was a 31-yard reception at the end of the third quarter to set up his 14-yard touchdown catch from Joe Montana that tied the score 13-13 with 14:09 left in the game.
Jim Breech kicked a 40-yard field goal to give the Bengals a 16-13 lead with 3:44 left.
The problem was that Rice was going back on the field. He caught three more passes on the 49ers’ game-winning drive, including a 27-yarder that brought the 49ers to the Bengals’ 18 with 39 seconds left. With Rice such a concern for the Bengals, John Taylor was open for the game-winning 10-yard touchdown pass with 34 second left in the 49ers’ 20-16 victory.
That season, 1988, was the only year between 1986 and 1991 that Rice didn’t lead the NFL in receiving touchdowns. Getting one of his three Super Bowl rings that season more than made up for it.