Every Super Bowl has its Primary Narrative: the downloadable storyline that writers and talking heads use to guide diehards and casual fans alike through the slog of two weeks of pre-Big Game chatter. The Quest for the Perfect Season (Giants-Patriots I, 2008). All-Time Offense vs. All-Time Defense (Seahawks-Broncos, 2014). Chucky vs. The Team That Dumped Him (Bucs-Raiders, 2002). Deflategate (2015).
To this illustrious list of journalistic oversimplifications, 2016 adds a Narrative (capital N, please) fit for a 50th Super Bowl: The Once and Future Quarterback. Peyton Manning—the aging legend, held together by duct tape and a dominant defense—versus Cam Newton—the brash young superstar entering the prime of his career. Precision Pocket Passer vs. Strong Armed, Strong Legged Superman. Glory Days vs. Glory Dabs.
As easy as it may be to spit up 800 words of Poetic Wax along these lines, someone has to test the validity of the Primary Narrative’s central tenet: that this Super Bowl’s quarterback matchup is very, very special. Certainly, this is no Trent Dilfer-Kerry Collins tango (yes, that Super Bowl actually happened), but the Big Game has seen plenty of firepower under center over the past half century. Where does Newton-Manning rank against, say, Montana-Elway? Or Elway-Favre? Or Brady-Warner?
Pro Football Reference gives us a great starting point for objectively evaluating 50 years of quarterbacks with its Approximate Value (AV) stat—essentially a Wins Above Replacement for football that estimates each player’s era-neutral contribution to his team. Thanks to AV, we have a quantitative basis to compare Manning (271 AV, most all-time) to 60s and 70s great Fran Tarkenton (236 AV, 4th). Simply rating the Super Bowls by the average career AV of the starting quarterbacks yielded the following results:Not bad for a one-variable model, but certainly not great. Sure, Drew Bledsoe was a good player, but no Big Game with him as one of the QB’s should rank third all-time. As it turns out, Bledsoe’s career AV was identical to Terry Bradshaw’s (137)—a clear travesty for any Super Bowl-related list.
A sizzling Super Bowl quarterback matchup has to incorporate more than sustained regular season success, which is why I added a second category: a mashup that awarded one point for each eventual Hall of Fame QB, one point if either QB was the league MVP in that particular season, and a half point for each additional Super Bowl won by either QB.
This properly recognizes players like Bradshaw and Montana: indelible championship icons who played relatively short careers. Behold, the new rankings:This seems to make a lot more sense. The Bledsoe game is out of the top 10, and virtually everyone on this list is a regular season and Super Bowl legend. But this year’s matchup dropping from 13th to 22nd —a fate shared by many recent matchups—seems unfair. What if we changed the scoring to give a point for surefire future Hall of Famers? To give additional consideration to this year’s participants, I also gave Newton the same career AV as Big Ben (145, a sensible comparison point): We’ve got a new number one, but honestly you can’t go wrong with any of the top four (common sense corroborated by the big score dropoff between #4 and #5). The real fun comes in playing the what-if game with active players. If Newton wins another Super Bowl and becomes a Hall of Famer, this year’s game jumps up to #9. Russell Wilson’s games take a similar leap with his future successes.
The key takeaway here is that any time you have a Super Bowl matchup with at least one QB in the beginning of his prime, there’s no way it can immediately make the cut of one of the greatest ever. At the time of Super Bowl XX in 1986, people thought Jim McMahon-Tony Eason was a pretty big-time duel; now it ranks dead last (behind even Dilfer-Collins). Give the players time to marinate into all-time greats (or duds), and the story changes.
In short: enjoy Newton-Manning for what it is now—and for what it could be down the road.
Martin Kleinbard is a fan of the Yankees, Nets, Islanders, and Raiders. He looks forward to telling his grandkids about the last time the Raiders had a winning record. Martin is also co-founder of The Bandwagn, a newsletter/website that allows non-sports diehards the chance to join the sports conversation. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The “Score” you see on the far right column is an average of the standardized (z-score) values of the two variables used—AV and the “bonus” category that combined HOF, MVP, and SB performance—to account for differences in scale.
In a completely unscientific approach, I gave the nod to Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner, Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb. Young stars like Newton and Russell Wilson are certainly on their way, but wouldn’t be voted in if they retired today.