The best performances by players on losing Super Bowl teams

Profile Picture: Jeremy Balan

January 28th, 2021

The adage "history is written by the victors" applies to many spheres of life, but it is particularly applicable to football.

The story of the Super Bowl is almost always told through the perspective of the winner, unless one side chokes the game away (see: Jackie Smith, Scott Norwood, 28-3, Pete Carroll/Marshawn Lynch, etc.).

Throughout Super Bowl history there have been performances from players that would be considered heroic if their team had a few more things go their way.

Here are the five best performances by players on losing Super Bowl teams.

5. Chuck Howley, linebacker, Dallas Cowboys (Super Bowl V)

There are a few players from losing teams who probably should have won Super Bowl MVP, but Howley actually won the award, after the Cowboys’ 16-13 loss to the Baltimore Colts.

The linebacker intercepted one pass from Johnny Unitas and another from Earl Morrall and also forced a fumble. The Dallas defense forced an unimaginable seven turnovers, but the Cowboys turned it back over four times and lost on Jim O’Brien’s 32-yard field goal with nine seconds left.

Fifty years later, Howley is still the only player from a losing team to win Super Bowl MVP.

4. Ken Anderson, quarterback, Cincinnati Bengals (Super Bowl XVI)

If not for a goal-line stand by the 49ers late in the third quarter, as the Bengals tried to rally back from a 20-0 halftime deficit, Anderson might have been portrayed as the gunslinging hero. Even after the stop, he nearly led the Bengals all the way back, but Cincinnati ultimately fell, 26-21.

Anderson threw two interceptions, but completed 25 of his 34 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns, and he ran in another score. A young Joe Montana was named Super Bowl MVP, but he only threw for 157 yards and one touchdown. Montana saved his best Super Bowl performances for later.

3. Tom Brady, quarterback, New England Patriots (Super Bowl LII)

Brady’s fumble late in the fourth quarter hurt, but can you really hold it against him, considering he set a Super Bowl record for passing yards (505) and the Patriots didn’t punt once?

Brady threw two touchdowns to Rob Gronkowski and another to Chris Hogan, and shouldered almost all the offensive load, with a receiving corps that will not go down as one of the best of the New England dynasty.

The six Super Bowls Brady won in New England are impressive enough, but the Patriots came so close to winning three more during the Brady era, which would have sent the franchise into the stratosphere of professional sports.

2. Terrell Owens, wide receiver, Philadelphia Eagles (Super Bowl XXXIX)

Owens’ stats alone — nine receptions for 122 yards — probably wouldn’t put him on this list, but his performance against the Patriots comes with some significant context.

He wasn’t supposed to play, and he probably shouldn't have played.

Owens did plenty during his career to draw criticism, but his toughness should never be questioned.

Seven weeks before the Super Bowl, he broke his leg, tore a ligament in his ankle, and was supposed to miss the rest of the season. But he played in the Super Bowl, against his doctor’s orders, with two screws and a metal plate still in his ankle from a surgery.

1. Thurman Thomas, running back, Buffalo Bills (Super Bowl XXV)

Howley deserved Super Bowl MVP in 1971, but no losing player deserved the award more than Thomas in 1991.

He rushed for 135 yards and a touchdown on just 15 carries, added 55 yards on five receptions, and accounted for 51% of the Bills’ yards from scrimmage. Compare his stats to Super Bowl MVP Ottis Anderson (102 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries), and I don’t see a good reason why Thomas didn’t receive the award.

But I’d guess that isn’t what stings Buffalo fans most.

If the Bills got Thomas the ball more, they might have been able to defeat the Giants, instead of beginning an infamous four-peat of Super Bowl disappointments. Thomas had significantly more touches in the first two playoff games that season — 32 carries for 117 yards and three receptions for 38 yards against the Dolphins, and 25 carries for 138 yards and five receptions for 61 yards against the Raiders.

Honorable mention: Tom Matte (Super Bowl III), Vance Johnson (Super Bowl XXI), Andre Reed (Super Bowl XXVII), Jake Delhomme (Super Bowl XXXVIII), Kurt Warner (Super Bowl XLIII)