The Most Valuable Steelers Players Ever
There are no NFL games bigger than the Super Bowl. To win one is a lifetime achievement, and to earn the MVP Award for your performance is a tremendous honor. Some of the greatest players in NFL history have won a Super Bowl MVP Award, but sometimes players we may not even think of as superstars earn this prestigious accolade. It all comes down to one game and how a player performs on the biggest Sunday in the sports world.
The Steelers have won six Super Bowls in franchise history, and five different Steelers have walked away with the MVP award:
- Franco Harris
- Lynn Swann
- Terry Bradshaw
- Hines Ward
- Santonio Holmes
This article will highlight their performances. While there is no official “MVP Runner-Up,” I’ll speculate on who else could have earned the trophy if not for the winner. I'll also consider who might have won from the other team.
How is the Super Bowl MVP chosen?
A panel of journalists determines who gets the Super Bowl MVP trophy. With only a few minutes left in the game, they each nominate a player from each of the opposing teams, understanding that they can change their minds later if a player does something dramatic in the closing minutes.
Since 2001, the fans have had their say, too, with fans’ votes counting for 20% of the total. The winner is the player who contributed most to their team’s victory, though it is not unprecedented for a member of the losing team to win the MVP.
MVP Super Bowl IX; Jan. 12, 1975
After decades of hardship and struggle, Pittsburgh finally became a Super Bowl contender with the hiring of head coach Chuck Noll in 1969. The Steelers won a playoff game for the first time in 1972 and by '74 were ready for their first-ever Super Bowl appearance.
Franco Harris was a big reason for the turn in Pittsburgh’s fortunes. He was a big fullback with surprising speed and quickness—the perfect back for the Steelers’ power-running game. Harris ran for over a thousand yards during the 1974 regular season, despite missing a few games. In Super Bowl IX against Minnesota, Pittsburgh was ready to hitch its fate to Harris and the dominant Steelers defense.
It is important to remember that quarterback Terry Bradshaw had not come into his own at this point in his career. Noll had benched him earlier in the year, and in Super Bowl IX, Bradshaw managed only a paltry 96 yards passing (though he threw a touchdown pass). Harris, along with halfback Rocky Bleier, accounted for the bulk of the Steelers’ offensive production during the game.
Harris plowed and galloped his way for 158 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries against the Vikings. The ability to control the ball on the ground was one of the deciding factors in a defensive struggle that resulted in Pittsburgh’s first Super Bowl win in franchise history.
Franco Harris's MVP Moment
Harris' nine-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter was the first touchdown of the game. Harris carried three times for 30 yards on the drive.
Super Bowl IX MVP Alternates
The Steelers' Rocky Bleier: Bleier toted the ball 17 times for a respectable 65 yards and caught two passes. In a defensive struggle where yards were scarce, Bleier’s performance played a major role in the Steelers’ win.
The Vikings' Alan Page: While Minnesota struggled to stop the Steelers' rushing attack, the Vikings' Purple People Eaters defense did a good job of keeping Bradshaw under wraps. Defensive end Page had nine tackles in the game, including a sack.
Franco Harris's Career Super Bowl Rushing Stats
Super Bowl X MVP; Jan. 18, 1976
We know Lynn Swann today as one of the best wide receivers in Steelers’ history, but in 1975, he was a second-year player who was only beginning to show his skill. He cracked the starting lineup that season and turned in a Pro Bowl–worthy performance where he caught 49 passes for 781 yards and 11 touchdowns. Those seem like small numbers today but were impressive by 1975 standards, especially on a team known for running the ball.
Only one year after their first Super Bowl, the Steelers returned, this time facing off against the Cowboys. The Cowboys were an established NFL power looking to slap down the upstart Steelers. It would be a tough, closely fought battle, and for Pittsburgh to win they would need to pull off a few big plays.
As the football world would learn during Super Bowl X, big plays were Lynn Swann’s specialty. He hauled in four passes for 161 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown. That’s over 40 yards per catch, an impressive average no matter the era.
Swann and fellow wide receiver John Stallworth were favorite targets of Terry Bradshaw for the majority of the quarterback's career. The trio accounted for some of the most exciting plays in Super Bowl history, and it all started in Super Bowl X.
Lynn Swanns' MVP Moment
Lynn Swann's acrobatic, juggling 53-yard reception late in the second quarter was not only the most spectacular play of the game but is today regarded as one of the most amazing catches in NFL history.
Super Bowl X MVP Alternates
The Steelers' L.C. Greenwood: It is rare for a defensive player to win the Super Bowl MVP, but in this case, Greenwood would have been a great choice. He rang up four sacks during the game, including two that destroyed Cowboy drives at key points in the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys' Roger Staubach: Quarterback Roger Staubach passed for 204 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another 22 yards. Had his last-minute drive succeeded, the Cowboys would have won the game.
Lynn Swann's Career Super Bowl Receiving Stats
Super Bowl XIII MVP; Jan. 21, 1979
Thanks to the famed Steel Curtain defense and a tough running game featuring Franco Harris, quarterback Terry Bradshaw often played the role of game manager early in his career. He rarely put up big numbers, despite the ever-present possibility he might unleash a long bomb to Lynn Swann or John Stallworth on any play. Bradshaw only threw for over 2,000 yards in a season three times prior to 1978.
By the late 1970s, Terry Bradshaw had evolved into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. In 1978, he won the NFL MVP Award and the Bert Bell Award for Player of the Year. He won 14 of 16 games that season and threw for 2,915 yards and 28 touchdowns as he led the Steelers to yet another Super Bowl appearance against the Cowboys. It would be one for the ages.
Bradshaw completed 17 of 30 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns while only giving up one interception. His performance lifted the Steelers over the Cowboys in a 35–31 shootout that is today considered among the Steelers’ greatest wins of all-time. Swann caught one touchdown pass and Stallworth two as both wideouts gained over 100 receiving yards in the game.
In Super Bowl XIII, Bradshaw cemented his place as the greatest quarterback in Steelers’ history and the first NFL quarterback to win three Super Bowls.
Terry Bradshaw's MVP Moment
A 75-yard bomb from Bradshaw to wide receiver John Stallworth tied the game in the second quarter and set the tone. The Steelers would not trail again for the rest of the contest.
Super Bowl XIII MVP Alternates
The Steelers' Lynn Swann: The Cowboys must have hated seeing Lynn Swann in the 1970s. He earned the MVP for his play in Super Bowl X, and while Bradshaw won the MVP for Super Bowl XIII, Swann was a good candidate as well with seven catches for 124 yards and a score.
The Cowboys' Roger Staubach: Staubach again willed the Cowboys into position for a last-minute victory but couldn't quite pull it off. He finished the game with 228 passing yards and three touchdowns along with 37 rushing yards on four carries.
Terry Bradshaw's Career Super Bowl Passing Stats
Super Bowl XIV MVP; Jan. 20, 1980
The Steelers returned to the Super Bowl after the 1979 season, this time to butt heads with the NFC Champion Rams. Bradshaw had followed up on his MVP season with the best regular-season statistical performance of his career. He had thrown for 3,724 yards and 26 touchdowns while making the third Pro Bowl of his career and guiding the Steelers to a 12–4 record.
The Steelers had become a more balanced team by the end of the 1970s thanks to Bradshaw’s evolution as a passing quarterback. In 1979, they finished first in the NFL in scoring. However, they still prided themselves on winning with a tough defense and a powerful running attack.
Sports pundits guessed the Steelers would trounce the Rams on the way to Pittsburgh’s fourth Lombardi trophy. However, the Rams turned out to be more formidable than anyone outside of Los Angeles would have guessed. The Rams led the game at halftime and into the fourth quarter.
But Bradshaw’s legacy is one of a quarterback who performed his best when the lights were brightest. He guided the Steelers to two fourth-quarter touchdowns. The first was a 73-yard scoring strike from Bradshaw to John Stallworth that put the Steelers ahead. The second, which followed a Jack Lambert interception, culminated in a one-yard Franco Harris touchdown run that iced the game.
Terry Bradshaw's MVP Moment
Bradshaw's 73-yard touchdown pass to Stallworth gave Pittsburgh the lead in the fourth quarter.
Super Bowl XIV MVP Alternates
The Steelers' John Stallworth: Stallworth caught three passes for 121 yards, including the 73-yard bomb that put the Steelers ahead in the game. While we often consider Swann as the big-play receiver of the duo, John Stallworth had his share of highlights too.
The Rams' Vince Ferragamo: The Rams' backup quarterback earned his chance to shine in Super Bowl XIV. He threw for 212 yards but couldn't get the ball into the end zone.
Super Bowl XL MVP; Feb. 5, 2006
The Pittsburgh Steelers lost the 2004 AFC Championship to the Patriots, crushing the hope that running back Jerome Bettis would win a Super Bowl in his Hall of Fame career. An aging Bettis was considering retiring but, as Steelers lore has it, a teary-eyed Hines Ward and rookie Ben Roethlisberger convinced him they could win a championship if he stayed for one more season. The young quarterback even promised a Super Bowl victory if Bettis came back.
Bettis stuck around, and Roethlisberger and Ward made good on their word. The 2005 season turned out to be one of the most exciting in Steelers history. It was a season that saw Pittsburgh claw their way through the playoffs as a Wildcard team by defeating the three best teams in the AFC. In Super Bowl XL they faced the Seahawks, the best team in the NFC.
The 2005 Steelers were magical thanks to wide receiver Hines Ward. Ward was a multi-tool receiver who could run like a halfback and throw like a quarterback, and he was responsible for many electric plays. Along with fellow receiver Antwaan Randle El, he presented a list of problems for opposing defenses, who always needed to be wary of a crazy trick play from the mind of offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt.
Ward carried the ball once for 18 yards and hauled in five passes for 123 yards, including a 43-yard scoring strike from Randle El on a gadget play. The Steelers defeated the Seahawks by a score of 21–10.
Hines Ward's MVP Moment
Ward's 43-yard touchdown catch on a trick play showcased the brilliance and athleticism that earned the 2005 Steelers an NFL championship.
Super Bowl XL MVP Alternates
The Steelers' Jerome Bettis: While running back Willie Parker had more yards and set a record for the longest touchdown run in Super Bowl history, it was Bettis the Steelers turned to in the fourth quarter. Showing the power that made him one of the greatest Steelers running backs in franchise history, Bettis and the Steelers chewed up the clock with short gains on the ground and short passes. He carried seven times on the Steelers' final drive, and by the time the Seahawks got the ball back, they were down two scores with only two minutes left on the clock.
The Seahawks' Matt Hasselbeck: The Seahawks quarterback threw for 273 yards and a touchdown and ran for 35 yards on three carries. (Running back Shaun Alexander would have been another good choice for MVP. He carried 20 times for 95 yards.)
Hines Ward's Career Super Bowl Receiving Stats
Super Bowl XLIII MVP; Feb. 1, 2009
Hines Ward remained the Steelers No. 1 receiver through the 2008 season, but another young wide receiver was on the rise. The Steelers had drafted Santonio Holmes in 2006, and he’d established himself as a solid No. 2 next to Ward. When they played the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, Pittsburgh would need to call upon Holmes to win their sixth Lombardi trophy.
The Steelers came into Super Bowl XIII with the No. 1 defense in points allowed during the 2008 season and a high-powered offense led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner helmed the Cardinals, and Arizona featured a trio of star wide receivers who had each accounted for over 1,000 yards during the regular season.
The game turned out to be one of the most exciting Steelers victories of all time, and Pittsburgh earned their win the hard way. Though the Steelers took an early lead, as fate would have it, the Cardinals stormed back. With Arizona leading 23–20 and with 2:30 on the clock, Pittsburgh took possession of the football.
Roethlisberger connected with Holmes four times on the ensuing game-winning drive, including a 40-yarder that put the ball on the Cardinals' six-yard line and a circus-catch touchdown reception. Holmes ended the game with nine catches for 131 yards and a score. He left the Steelers after the 2009 season, but Steeler Nation will forever remember his performance in Super Bowl XLIII.
Santonio Holmes's MVP Moment
No matter how many times you watch it, the final touchdown reception that gave the Steelers the lead seems impossible. Somehow Holmes made the catch and kept his feet in bounds for the winning score.
Super Bowl XLIII MVP Alternates
The Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald: If not for Holmes' performance, Super Bowl XL might have been a rare case where it made sense to award the MVP to a player on the losing side. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald caught seven passes for 127 yards and two scores. This included a 64-yard touchdown reception that would have won the game for the Cardinals were it not for Holmes’s heroics.
The Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger: If I were to give it to another Steeler, it would have to be Roethlisberger. While Big Ben’s stats were decent (21/30, 256 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), his ability to lead the team downfield decided the game. He could not have placed his final pass to Holmes any better. If it were shorter, the Cardinals defenders would have intercepted the football, and if it were longer, it would have been out of reach.
Super Bowl MVP FAQs and Trivia
The Super Bowl and the accompanying MVP Award have a long and storied history. Here are a few interesting facts.
Which player has the most Super Bowl MVP Awards?
- Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has the most Super Bowl MVP trophies with four.
- 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, who has three, follows him.
- Bart Star of the Packers, Terry Bradshaw of the Steelers, and Eli Manning of the Giants each have two.
Which position has won the most Super Bowl MVPs?
By far, the quarterback position has won the most MVP awards with 30. The next closest is the wide receiver position and the running back position with seven each.
Which defensive players have won a Super Bowl MVP Award?
- Chuck Howley, Super Bowl V, Linebacker, Cowboys
- Jake Scott, Super Bowl VII, Safety, Dolphins
- Randy White, Super Bowl XII, Defensive Tackle, Cowboys
- Harvey Martin, Super Bowl XII, Defensive End, Cowboys
- Larry Brown, Super Bowl XXX, Cornerback, Cowboys
- Ray Lewis, Super Bowl XXXV, Linebacker, Ravens
- Dexter Jackson, Super Bowl XXXVII, Safety, Buccaneers
- Malcolm Smith, Super Bowl XLVIII, Linebacker, Seahawks
- Von Miller, Super Bowl L, Linebacker, Broncos
Has a player on the losing team ever been Super Bowl MVP?
Yes. Linebacker Chuck Howley was MVP of Super Bowl V despite his Cowboys losing to the Colts.
Which team has the most Super Bowl MVPs?
The Cowboys have seven Super Bowl MVPs, the most in the NFL, despite not having the most Super Bowl wins. This is because Howley won in a losing effort in Super Bowl V and Harvey Martin and Randy White were co-winners in Super Bowl XII.
The Magic of Super Bowl Sunday
Going into every Super Bowl, the fans know which players to watch. There is always a quarterback we expect to pass for big yardage, a running back we think will take control of the game or a receiver we can’t wait to see make big plays. But there are also surprises, those players who come from out of nowhere and etch their names in NFL history with an incredible performance on Super Bowl Sunday.
Following the 1986 season, Giants quarterback Phil Simms won the Super Bowl XXI MVP award by completing 22 of 25 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns. This calculates to a mind-blowing quarterback rating of 150.9, a record that stands today.
After the 1996 season, journeyman kick and punt returner Desmond Howard became the first and only return specialist to win the Super Bowl MVP award when his Packers won Super Bowl XXXI.
In Super Bowl LII, backup Eagles quarterback Nick Foles earned the MVP award when he upset the heavily favored Patriots by passing for 373 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught a touchdown pass on a gadget play.
During the 2001 season, a backup quarterback and 6th-round draft pick named Tom Brady led the Patriots to an unlikely Super Bowl victory over the powerful Rams. It was the first Super Bowl MVP and championship for one of the greatest quarterbacks and dynasties in NFL history.
Amazing things can happen in any football game, but when they happen in the Super Bowl, they are something special. You never know which player will step up and give an MVP performance.