With Matt Ryan set to make his Super Bowl debut, we look at the best quarterback debuts in the Big Game in history.
On Feb. 5 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons will become the 59th different starting quarterback in Super Bowl history. Meanwhile, New England Patriots veteran Tom Brady will play in his seventh Super Bowl, an NFL record regardless of position, and seeks to become only the second player with five Super Bowl championship rings.
But here this is more about Ryan than Brady. That’s because 15 years ago, the then-second-year pro led his team to a stunning 20-17 upset of the St. Louis Rams at the Superdome in Game XXXVI. In that contest, the young quarterback completed 16-of-27 passes for 145 yards and one score and led his team downfield in position for Adam Vinatieri’s 48-yard game-winning field goal in the closing minutes.
With all due respect to Brady, it was an okay debut on the big stage. Of course, Hall of Famers such as Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, among others, didn’t put up electrifying numbers in their first tries on Super Sunday. However, their teams came up victorious and those start quarterbacks would play big parts in those wins.
So here are what we feel are the top starting debut performances when it comes to the quarterback position. It was tough leaving off examples such as Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (XLV), Oakland Jim Plunkett (XV) and even Carolina’s Jake Delhomme (XXXVIII) – the latter in a losing effort to the Patriots and Brady.
It’s probably also hard to argue with the five enclosed selections. But all opinions are indeed welcome.
5. Drew Brees – New Orleans Saints (Super Bowl XLIV)
You may recall that it took 21 seasons for the New Orleans Saints to finally enjoy a winning campaign. Born out of expansion in 1967, head coach Jim Mora led the franchise to a 12-3 record during the strike-marred 1987 campaign and the team was also headed to the playoffs for the first time.
Fast forward to 2006 and the hiring of head coach Sean Payton and the signing of free-agent quarterback Drew Brees. The duo has now been at it for more than a decade and while success has eluded them as of late, the Saints came up big back in 2009.
And it was Brees who was at his best when his Saints clashed with the Indianapolis Colts in South Florida in Super Bowl XLIV. New Orleans would fall behind, 10-0, in the first quarter and Peyton Manning and his team appeared to be headed towards a second NFL title in four seasons. But it was the other Payton who helped rally his team and Brees was the main catalyst. The experienced signal-caller saw his club outscore the Colts 25-7 in the second half. The prolific passer threw for a pair of second-half scores, connecting with running back Pierre Thomas (16 yards) and tight end Jeremy Shockey (two yards) for touchdowns.
All told, Brees would capture game MVP honors after throwing for 288 yards in the 31-17 victory. The accurate quarterback completed 32 of his 39 throws, a scintillating 82.1 percent topped only by New York Giants’ Phil Simms (88.0) in Super Bowl XXI.
The Dallas Cowboys were back in the Super Bowl for the first time in more than a decade when they clashed with the Buffalo Bills at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. A franchise that hit rock bottom in 1989 with a one-win season was back in the Big Game three years later.
Jimmy Johnson’s club was built on defense and a sturdy offensive line. It paved the way for future Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith and enabled quarterback Troy Aikman to find Michael Irvin, Alvin Harper and Jay Novacek on a regular basis. But the accurate signal-caller rarely put up big passing numbers in terms of yards and scores thanks to Smith’s nose for the end zone.
Super Bowl XXVII, the first of three titles in four years for the Cowboys, was arguably Aikman’s finest hour in the biggest of spots, however. After spotting the Bills a 7-0 first-quarter lead, Dallas got on the board when the quarterback connected with Novacek in the end zone from 23 yards out.
Late in the first half, Aikman found Irvin for a 19-yard score with 1:54 before intermission. A mere 18 second later, he found the fellow future Hall of Famer for an 18-yard touchdown. Early in the fourth quarter, he found Harper down the right sidelines for a 45-yard score, giving his team a 38-17 lead in their way to a 52-17 triumph.
Aikman’s debut was super indeed. He missed on only eight of his 30 throws and wasn’t picked off. He threw for 273 yards and four scores and Dallas was on its way to its dynasty days of the ‘90s.
The ultimate Cinderella story could have quite the storybook ending on Super Bowl eve if quarterback Kurt Warner gains entrance into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The well-traveled signal-caller is one of 15 finalists awaiting an answer from Canton, Ohio.
But it wasn’t easy for the productive performer, who took his lumps in NFL Europe, the Arena Football League and a grocery store before landing with the St. Louis Rams in 1998. One year later, he was head coach Dick Vermeil’s quarterback after starter Trent Green went down with a knee injury in the preseason.
Warner had gotten his chance and it’s safe to say he took full advantage of the opportunity. He threw for 4,353 yards, 41 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions. He led the Rams to a 13-3 record the NFC West title after the team went a combined 9-23 the previous two seasons combined. Warner was named the NFL’s MVP and would help lead the club to its first Super Bowl appearance in 20 years.
The team’s 23-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans at the Georgia Dome had its ebbs and flows. While Warner “only” completed 24 of his 45 throws, he put up a Super Bowl record 414 yards. He staked Vermeil’s team to a 16-0 third-quarter advantage only to see Tennessee finally tie the game with 2:15 to play. And just 21 seconds later, he found wide receiver Isaac Bruce for a 73-yard score in what proved to be the difference in the game. The franchise captured its first NFL title since 1951 thanks to the surprising play of a one-time undrafted quarterback.
The 1987 NFL season was a strange one indeed. We saw no football for one week. Then we saw rosters either filled or semi-filled with “replacement” players. And no, there wasn’t a Keanu Reeves sighting on any of the 28 clubs.
It was also one year after the Washington Redskins had lost, 17-0, in the NFC title game to the New York Giants. The quarterback for Joe Gibbs’ team that game was Jay Schroeder. He was also the club’s starting signal-caller for the vast majority of ’87. But veteran Doug Williams would appear in five contests and made two starts. And neither resulted in a victory.
But the one-time Tampa Bay Buccaneers standout and former USFL signal-caller was the starter for playoff wins over the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings. Williams was far from spectacular in both contests and that’s an understatement. While he combined to thrown three touchdown passes and only one interception, the erratic quarterback completed less than half of his passes in each outing.
Then came Super Bowl XXII against the Denver Broncos. And Williams and his team got off to a very slow start. Washington trailed, 10-0, after one quarter and the Redskins’ quarterback left the game for one play after apparently twisting his knee.
And then came an unprecedented offensive explosion. In the second quarter along, Gibbs’ club rolled up 35 points and 356 total yards. Williams threw four touchdown passes and finished the game with 340 yards through the air (1 interception) on the way to game MVP honors. And the Redskins won their second Super Bowl thanks to an amazing performance from the talented Williams.
To be honest, Super Bowl XXIX appeared to be over just when it appeared to be just getting start. By game’s end, the San Francisco 49ers symbolically put 49 points on the board opposed to the San Diego Chargers’ 26.
And less than five minutes into this contest, Niners’ quarterback Steve Young had already thrown a pair of touchdown passes to wide receiver Jerry Rice (44) and running back Ricky Watters (51). However, the Bolts did score late in the first quarter to cut the deficit to 14-7.
But Bobby Ross’ club would not put a dent into destiny. This was Young’s day and Young’s game. He had waited some time to get the “monkey off his back” of not leading his team to a championship. He added two more touchdown tosses in the second quarter and George Seifert’s club owned a 28-10 advantage at intermission.
There would be two more scoring passes in the rout. Young finished with a record six TD tosses, completing 24-of-36 passes for 325 yards without an interception. For good measure, he also led the team with 49 rushing yards on five carries. San Francisco rolled up 455 total yards in the contest.
Yes, Young did have a smidge of Super Bowl playing time before this tilt in South Florida. He saw some mop-up action for the Niners five years earlier against the Broncos at the Superdome (XXIV). But this was a much different story for the current Pro Football Hall of Famer as he wiped the floor with the San Diego defense.