Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

From Obscurity to History: Playing Your Greatest on Football’s Super Stage

Posted on February 01, 2010 by Dean Hybl
Max McGee scored the first touchdown in Super Bowl history.

Max McGee scored the first touchdown in Super Bowl history.

Since the first Super Bowl was played in January 1967, the game has annually provided a stage for some of the best players of all-time to showcase their greatness in front of what is typically the largest television audience of the year.

All-time greats from Bart Starr, Roger Staubach, Franco Harris and Larry Csonka to John Elway, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Tom Brady have used the Super Bowl as a platform to confirm their greatness and cement a Hall of Fame career.

However, one of the charms of the Super Bowl has always been that in addition to being a showcase for all-time greats, it is also an annual opportunity for players with far less career pedigrees and no chance to get into the Hall of Fame without a ticket to also dazzle the world and forever put their name into the history books.

It all began with the first Super Bowl, when the initial touchdown was caught by 34-year old receiver Max McGee, who had caught four passes the entire regular season and was famously out carousing the night before the game.

Over the ensuing 43 years, the legacy of the Super Bowl has been built not just on the backs of all-time greats, but also on the backs of average players who chose the biggest stage of all to play their best.

Below we look at 10 players who had in most cases average or below average careers, but who played their best with the lights at their brightest.

Super Bowl I – Max McGee – Wide Receiver – Green Bay Packers

Once a solid starting receiver for the Packers, by the time the Packers reached the first Super Bowl following the 1966 season, McGee was a seldom used receiver getting ready for retirement. He caught only four passes during the 1966 regular season after making just 10 receptions the previous season. As legend goes, McGee was out on the town the night before the Super Bowl with his running mate Paul Hornung. When his name was called by Coach Lombardi early in the game, he thought he was about to get chewed out on national television. Instead, what McGee had not seen was that starting receiver Boyd Dowler had suffered a shoulder injury and was lost for the game. McGee entered the game and soon found himself as the focal point of Bart Starr’s passing attack. He caught seven passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns to help lead the Packers to a 35-10 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Super Bowl III – Matt Snell – Running Back – New York Jets
Arguably the most accomplished player on this list, Matt Snell was a three-time AFC Pro Bowl selection. However, by the time the Jets made Super Bowl III, Snell had registered only one 100 yard game over the last two seasons and didn’t seem to be the likely offensive star on a squad that included flamboyant quarterback Joe Namath and a stable of talented receivers. His chances for a big game also didn’t seem promising against a Baltimore Colts defense that allowed less than 100 yards per game during the 1968 season. But it turned out that the Colts couldn’t stop Snell’s power running. He carried the ball 30 times, for 121 yards and a touchdown as the Jets controlled the tempo and kept the Colts from establishing an offensive rhythm. The result was a shocking 16-7 upset that forever changed professional football and helped elevate the Super Bowl to a new level.

Clarence Davis (#28) rushed for a career-high 137 yards in Super Bowl XI.

Clarence Davis (#28) rushed for a career-high 137 yards in Super Bowl XI.

Super Bowl XI – Clarence Davis – Running Back – Oakland Raiders
One of a stable of running backs on the great Oakland Raider teams of the 1970s, before Super Bowl XI Clarence Davis was best known for his “See of Hands” catch to lift the Raiders over the Dolphins in the 1974 AFC Playoffs. Entering Super Bowl XI, Davis had only two 100-yard games in his six year NFL career and his career-high was 120 yards in 1975 against the Cleveland Browns. During the 1976 season, the highest yardage total for Davis in a game was 73 yards and he didn’t have more than 14 rushing attempts in a game. Facing the much-hyped Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl, Davis rushed 16 times for a career-high 137 yards, including a 35-yard run. Shockingly, Davis was not named the Super Bowl MVP as that honor went to Fred Biletnikoff, who caught four passes for 79 yards.

Super Bowl XV – Rod Martin – Linebacker –Oakland Raiders
Rod Martin played 165 games in the NFL as a linebacker for the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders. During that time, he had 14 regular season interceptions and never had more than one in a game. Martin started 10 games during the 1980 season and had two interceptions. In Super Bowl XV against the Philadelphia Eagles, Martin became the only player in Super Bowl history to intercept three passes in a single game.

Super Bowl XVI – Dan Ross – Tight End – Cincinnati Bengals

The only player on this list from the losing team, Dan Ross had the finest game of his career in Super Bowl XVI against the San Francisco 49ers. Prior to the Super Bowl, Ross had never caught more than eight passes in a game and had only two 100-yard receiving games in three seasons.  Against the 49ers, Ross was the primary target for Ken Anderson as the Bengals rallied to nearly pull off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. Ross caught a career-best 11 passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns. He had only one additional 100-yard receiving game in his NFL career and also spent time in the USFL.

Timmy Smith rushed for 204 yards and two touchdowns in Super Bowl XXII.

Timmy Smith rushed for 204 yards and two touchdowns in Super Bowl XXII.

Super Bowl XXII – Timmy Smith – Running Back – Washington Redskins
No Super Bowl hero has had a less distinguished total NFL career than Timmy Smith. A rookie in 1987, Smith rushed for 126 yards in four games during the regular season. He began seeing extensive action during the playoffs and rushed for 138 yards to help lead the Redskins to the Super Bowl. In the Super Bowl, Smith carried the ball 22 times and gained a career-high 204 yards with two rushing touchdowns. The next season, he started the year as the feature back for the Redskins, but after two 100-yard performances early in the season he soon lost his starting job and was eventually released. He played in one game for the Dallas Cowboys in 1990. He gained 602 yards in the regular season during his career and added 342 yards in three playoff games. His 204 yards in Super Bowl XXII are still a Super Bowl record.

Super Bowl XXXVII – Michael Pittman – Running Back – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Michael Pittman was the leading rusher for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the 2002 season with 718 yards on the ground, but his biggest rushing total had been 90 yards in the regular season finale against Chicago. Dating back to his days with the Arizona Cardinals, Pittman had only two career games with 100 or more yards rushing. The last of those had come during the fifth week of the 2000 season. In the 2002 NFC Playoffs, Pittman rushed the ball 17 times for 41 yards in the opening round against the 49ers and then eight times for 17 yards against Philadelphia. So, it was certainly a surprise that Pittman carried the ball 29 times against the Oakland Raiders for 124 yards. His 24 yard run in the game was his longest of the season.

Super Bowl XXXVIII and Super Bowl XXXIX – Deion Branch – Wide Receiver – New England Patriots
It is one thing for a player to have the finest performance of his career in the Super Bowl, but what are the odds that a player could strike lightning twice and have the two best games of his career in back-to-back Super Bowls? Deion Branch has been a solid player during his eight NFL seasons, but he has never been a consistent superstar. The only exception to that was during Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX when Branch channeled his best Jerry Rice impression into consecutive amazing performances. Branch had 10 catches for 143 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers. The next year, he caught 11 passes for 133 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles and was the Super Bowl MVP. Branch had caught 13 passes in his fourth NFL game in 2002, but that was the only double-digit reception game of his career entering the Super Bowl and he had only one other 100-yard game to that point in his career. After his two Super Bowl performances, Branch has had only four more 100-yard receiving games in five seasons and never caught more than eight passes in a game.

Super Bowl XLI – Dominic Rhodes – Running Back – Indianapolis Colts
Dominic Rhodes replaced injured superstar Edgerrin James during his rookie season of 2001 and rushed for 1104 yards. Over the next five years, he gained a total of 1,170 yards on the ground and never eclipsed 100 yards in a game. A majority of that total, 644 yards, came in 2006 when he split time with rookie Joseph Addai. However, Rhodes never gained more than 84 yards in a game during the regular season or playoffs. In Super Bowl XLI, Rhodes carried the ball a season-high 21 times for 113 yards and a touchdown to help the Colts defeat the Chicago Bears. He parlayed that game into a free agent contract with the Oakland Raiders, but gained only 302 yards for the Raiders before returning to Indianapolis for one more season in 2008.

David Tyree's catch in Super Bowl XLII is considered one of the greatest in Super Bowl history. It also could be the final catch of Tyree's NFL career.

David Tyree's catch in Super Bowl XLII is considered one of the greatest in Super Bowl history. It also could be the final catch of Tyree's NFL career.

Super Bowl XLII – David Tyree – Wide Receiver – New York Giants
Known more for his special teams play, David Tyree didn’t have the great statistical Super Bowl performance enjoyed by others on this list. However, with the game on the line, Tyree made one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history to help lead to one of the most improbably upsets in Super Bowl history. Tyree caught only four passes during the 2007 regular season, but in Super Bowl XLII he caught a touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. With the Giants trailing 14-10 and driving late in the contest, Eli Manning somehow managed to avoid what seemed like a sure sack and find Tyree in the middle of the field. Despite having a defender draped around him, Tyree used his helmet to make a 32-yard catch on a key third down play. The catch has been called by many the greatest single play in Super Bowl history and, ironically, to this point has been the last NFL catch for Tyree. He missed the entire 2008 season due to injuries and then after being cut by the Giants saw only limited duty as a special teams player for the Baltimore Ravens in 2009. Including post season, Tyree has only 58 career catches, but his last one will go down in NFL history and makes him a perfect fit for this list of players who saved their best for football’s grandest stage.

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