This time three years ago, I wrote a column about the eight quarterbacks who remained in the playoff field. I was struck by the collection of future Hall of Famers, first overall picks, Heisman Trophy winners and MVPs set to square off on the weekend commonly considered the NFL’s best.
As I said then: I know QB wins (or #QBwinz, as they’re lovingly known in certain circles) is a flawed stat that’s often derided. We all know the quarterback gets too much credit for wins and too much blame for losses in an 11-on-11 game with defense and special teams.
But let’s face it: We also know quarterback legacies are often judged on wins and Super Bowls.
This past June I expanded on this topic when I wrote about Ringz Culture and the way we talk about championships.
But there are plenty of places on the MMQB to read smart breakdowns of the playoff slate, so let’s have a little fun with quarterback legacy takes.
As I did before Super Bowl 50, I’ll take the eight remaining quarterbacks and rank them based on how much a victory in Super Bowl LIII would boost their legacy.
8) Tom Brady, Patriots
OK, we’re off to a strange start. I didn’t expect Brady to be dead last, but as I went through the list it just didn’t feel right putting anyone below him.
Clearly another Super Bowl win would do tremendous things for Brady’s legacy. And the last time I did this, Brady ranked high on the list. But that was when we were looking at the difference between a tie with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana’s four Super Bowl titles and a record-setting five. Now Brady already owns the most Super Bowls, and we’re considering the difference between an unprecedented fifth and an unprecedented sixth.
He does stand to gain plenty though. Another win would set the bar higher for the next Tom Brady who comes along. And while he’s already the oldest QB to start a Super Bowl, a win would make him the oldest to actually win one. Plus, after his third Super Bowl loss, this would be his first time turning around and winning the next year. (It also gives him a great opportunity to retire and walk out on top, if he so chooses.)
But Brady is already considered by many to be the greatest ever, and the difference between five and six is relatively slight compared to what a Super Bowl would do for his counterparts in the field. Consider this last-place ranking a high compliment.
7) Dak Prescott, Cowboys
6) Jared Goff, Rams
These two quarterbacks, whose teams play each other Saturday night in Los Angeles, are almost impossible to separate.
Both third-year QBs would be winning their first Super Bowl, but I have the other potential first-timers ahead of them on the list because I feel like they would get more credit for leading their respective teams to the title. Neither Prescott nor Goff finished in the top 15 in the MMQB’s MVP voting, though both of their starting running backs did.
But, again, ranking relatively low on this doesn’t mean that a Super Bowl wouldn’t forever change the way we think about them.
Goff would join a prestigious list of quarterbacks to be drafted No. 1 and go on to win a Super Bowl. There are only six: Terry Bradshaw, Jim Plunkett, John Elway, Troy Aikman, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning. Some list.
Prescott would join the similarly exclusive club of Cowboys quarterbacks to win the Super Bowl. Like it or not, people talk about the Cowboys franchise a certain way, and the title of Super Bowl champion Cowboys quarterback would come with cachet. (And—we can assume—a future plush broadcasting gig!) Sorry, I don’t make those rules.
But after Prescott won Rookie of the Year in 2016, Goff is the one who made the Pro Bowl in each of the last two seasons. He has better passing numbers across the board this year and was also at the helm of the second-highest scoring offense in the league, so I put him slightly ahead.
5) Drew Brees, Saints
Drew Brees’s legacy is secure. He’s an all-time great, with more regular season passing yards than anyone who has ever thrown a football, and a slew of other records. Still, it is an ultimate “first world problem” when your career has been so statistically great that some people voice dismay that you’ve only won one Super Bowl. But that’s the case right now for Brees, just as it was for Peyton Manning late in his career.
To win a second would tie Brees with Manning and Elway, and move him above Brett Favre. This is all a simplistic way to compare their careers, but it’s a component of how people dissect that group of players who exist in the upper reaches of most NFL leaderboards.
If Brees could tie Peyton, Eli and Ben Roethlisberger, it would make Brady his only contemporary with more championships. Winning two Super Bowls 12 years apart would be a crowning achievement in the career of a no-doubt Hall of Famer.
4) Nick Foles, Eagles
Nick Foles probably authored the most unlikely Super Bowl victory of any quarterback in history last year. Nobody will ever be able to take that away from him. The only thing more unlikely than a quarterback changing his mind about retirement to return as a backup, being thrust into the spotlight as the late-season starter for a contender and then winning three straight playoff games as an underdog, including a Super Bowl shootout with the winningest quarterback ever… would be to return the next year, be relegated to the backup role again, take back over for a sub-.500 team late in the season, win three straight must-win games to end the regular season, then win three straight road games as an underdog in the playoffs and then another Super Bowl on top of it.
Foles will already be a folk hero forever. Another Super Bowl would be like taking an unrealistic sports movie and then writing an even more unrealistic sequel.
It seems tough for any quarterback who has already won a Super Bowl (Brees and Foles) to be higher on this list than any quarterbacks who haven’t (Prescott and Goff), but these are special circumstances. Nick Foles already owns an all-time legacy, and will forever be synonymous with the Super Bowl LII run. Nobody will hold it against him if he never sniffs another Super Bowl. But if he were to do it again for the second straight season, it would be one of the greatest feats in the history of sports.
3) Andrew Luck, Colts
Andrew Luck entered the league as one of the most hyped draft prospects in the history of mock drafts. He’s another No. 1 pick, so you can roll back that list from the Jared Goff section. He also immediately delivered on that promise, opening his career with three straight trips to both the playoffs and the Pro Bowl. In 2014 he led the league in touchdown passes and took his team to the AFC Championship Game. He seemed on track to live up to his potential.
And then his injuries—and the mysterious slow-motion drip of bad news surrounding them—were so bad that there were points where people wondered if he would ever even play again.
Luck is back on track, as good as ever, and [thankfully] seems to have a long career still ahead of him. Winning a Super Bowl would keep him on that path to all-time greatness that many ticketed him for early in his career. And whether he reaches those nearly impossible expectations or not, at least he’d always be a Super Bowl champion and wouldn’t have to go through the rest of his career dogged by questions about whether or not he can win the big one. He also won’t be an all-time “what if” with regard to his injuries. And finally, let’s not forget that the Colts did release Peyton Manning largely because they had the chance to draft Luck. They don’t really need a Super Bowl win with Luck to justify the move, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
If he won a Super Bowl this year, staying healthy through the rest of his prime would likely be the only obstacle between Luck and the Hall of Fame.
2) Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
Mahomes, like Luck, would win his first. The reason I place Mahomes over Luck is simply because this would cement his 2018 as an all-time great and memorable season. He is a first-team All-Pro, and will almost certainly be MVP, in just his first season as a starting quarterback. He has also been the top story in the league all year, thanks to his team’s No. 1 offense, and the cool factor that comes with his highlight plays, no-look passes and our culture’s obsession with the next new thing.
A Super Bowl win would make Mahomes a superstar. He’d become a household name with endorsement deals all over the place. And no football fan would ever forget Mahomes’s historic breakout 2018 season, with his 5,000 yards, 50 touchdown passes, No. 1 seed and a Super Bowl trophy for a long-suffering franchise that typically comes up short.
He still has so much of his career left ahead of him, but this would be about as perfect a start as you could dream up.
1) Philip Rivers, Chargers
Rivers has the most to gain because he has the most on the line. To date, he has had a very good, very long career, however he’s missing one key thing. At 37, he is also running out of chances to get it.
Rivers is eighth on the all-time career passing yards list, and Dan Marino is the only QB above him who never won the big one. Marino at least played in a Super Bowl and three AFC Championship Games. Rivers has one AFC title game appearance and last week was just his fifth career playoff win. His lack of playoff success is an indictment on the whole team and not just him (as I tried to make clear in my intro), but winning in the playoffs remains such a crucial part of how we talk about quarterbacks and Rivers’s playoff resume is so noticeably thin compared to his peers.
A win this year would change everything for Rivers. He would still be behind his fellow 2004 draft classmates Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger in Super Bowl victories, but at least he wouldn’t be empty-handed.
Every team has a lot on the line these next three rounds. Plenty of coaches and players at other positions will rewrite their stories based on what we see unfold. But arguably nobody stands more to gain from getting to be the guy holding the Lombardi Trophy in a cloud of confetti than Philip Rivers.
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