“Special players make special plays on special days,” someone smarter than I once said. It’s an adage that has certainly held true in the Super Bowl. Even in our fancy-pants internet age where everyone overreacts to everything, no one was really surprised that Tom Brady threw a record 37 completions to go along with four touchdowns in Super Bowl XLIX; he is a glamorous, shining example of a “special player” sent down from the heavens.
But everybody was shocked when no-name Malcolm Butler intercepted the would-be game-winning pass with 20 seconds left. Could it be that he too is a “special player?”
The fact is, for every great player that etched his name in NFL history with a fantastic performance in the Super Bowl, there have been just as many guys who rolled out of bed and played their best game ever on Super Sunday (and then went back to their middling or non-existent careers).
Continuing our Super Bowl 50 series, this week we honor some of the most surprising big-game performances in NFL history, guys who showed up to the stadium as nobodies and left as legends.
7. Super Bowl XLVIII: Percy Harvin (Seattle)
While Harvin was a big name at the time, heading into a matchup with the favored Denver Broncos, it was unclear what impact he would have, simply because Seahawks fans had almost never seen him on the field. Acquired in a big offseason trade, Harvin spent almost the entire season on injured reserve, playing in just one regular season game and the Divisional Playoffs, also exiting that game with a concussion.
But when Super Sunday finally came, Harvin showed all the speed he was supposed to provide. He led the Hawks in rushing, totaled 50 yards from scrimmage, and put the game on ice with an electrifying 87-yard kick return TD to open the second half. Though Seattle gave up three draft picks to get the injured star, it must have seemed like a good deal in that moment.
However, that wasn’t even the most shocking Super Bowl performance from a Seattle receiver (the writer deftly foreshadowed).
6. Super Bowl XXXVIII: Jake Delhomme (Carolina)
Super Bowl 37 was one of the weirdest Super Bowls ever played. With the erratic Jake Delhomme leading Carolina’s run-heavy attack, the Panthers entered as seven-point underdogs against the Patriots. Given that Delhomme had 16 interceptions and six fumbles on the year, the Pats’ vaunted D was expected to feast on the 28-year-old first-time starter.
The game stuck to the script to begin with: Delhomme started just 1 of 9 for one yard, getting sacked three times, and fumbling once. But then, the Ragin’ Cajun flipped a switch and started bombing it. He finished the game with 323 yards and three touchdowns including a Super Bowl record 85-yarder to Muhsin Muhammad. He tied the game up with a 1:08 left to play, but unfortunately for Delhomme, we all know that’s too much time for the guy on the other side.
And of course, it doesn’t help when you send the kickoff out of bounds.
5. Super Bowl III: Randy Beverly (New York)
An undrafted free agent out of Colorado State, Beverly was considered “too small” for the NFL. So he took his game to the inferior AFL and the New York Jets. If you know football history, you have an idea where this one is going.
Beverly was a part of that magical “Joe Namath Guarantee” team that took on the Baltimore Colts as 18-point ‘dogs. And while Broadway Joe gets all the credit, it was the Jets’ D that won them the day.
With NFL MVP Earl Morrall throwing the ball, the Colts were confident they could pick apart the Jets’ secondary, particularly Beverly, who was in just his second season. But with the Colts threatening to score in the 2nd quarter, Beverly intercepted a pass in the end zone that bounced off the hands of Tom Mitchell, keeping the game scoreless. Then, after Johnny Unitas entered the game, with the Colts close to the end zone again and the Jets up two scores in the fourth quarter, Beverly stepped in front of a pass to become the first player with two interceptions in a Super Bowl.
Despite a promising beginning to his career, Beverly only played three more seasons in the NFL after that. But he’ll always live on in Jets lore, mostly because their current teams don’t win jack!
4. Super Bowl XLIX: Chris Matthews (Seattle)
We lauded Brady and Butler’s efforts from Super Bowl 49 at the top. Had the Seahawks pulled out the win, this would be the guy we couldn’t stop talking about. Matthews was a special-teamer who was playing in the CFL one year prior. The only reason anybody knew his name at all was that a few weeks prior he recovered a huge onside kick against the Packers that helped Seattle reach Glendale.
Matthews entered the Super Sunday without a catch in the NFL and exited as the game’s leading receiver. Posting 109 yards and a touchdown, Matthews was hotter than a Katy Perry halftime show. If only Seattle had run the ball … Matthews would probably be higher on this list.
3. Super Bowl I: Max McGee (Green Bay)
Nobody was more surprised by McGee’s Super Bowl impact than Max, himself. As an aging receiver in the twilight of his career, McGee didn’t even expect to play. And, in those days, if you weren’t going to play, you stayed out late and tore up the town.
McGee violated curfew and showed up to the inaugural Super Bowl with a hangover for the ages. Apparently he was so out of it he didn’t even remember to bring his helmet out of the locker room. Unfortunately for McGee, starter Boyd Dowler got hurt early in the game, meaning he had to borrow a dome and “get his ass in there!”
While most of us have a hard enough time swallowing McDonald’s breakfast when we’re hungover, McGee gobbled up seven catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns, including a beautiful one handed grab for the first score in Super Bowl history. Bart Starr ended up getting MVP honors (typical), but had voters known the pain McGee was playing through, I’m sure they’d have made the right choice.
2. Super Bowl XLII: David Tyree (New York)
To Tyree’s credit, he wasn’t a complete nobody heading into Super Bowl XLII. He had 54 catches and four TDs in six NFL seasons, making the 2005 Pro Bowl as a special-teamer. But this wasn’t just any old game for the third-team wide out; the Giants were taking on a previously undefeated New England Patriots team that was favored by 12. To make the story even more unlikely, David Tyree had a terrible practice the Friday before the game, dropping virtually everything that was thrown his way.
But when it mattered most, Tyree had hands of glue. He kicked off the fourth quarter with the Giants first touchdown of the game and you know what happens next. It’s inarguably the greatest play in Super Bowl history: the “Helmet Catch”!
Tyree finished with three catches for 43 yards and a TD, which aren’t mind blowing numbers, but on the strength of that one play alone, he deserves a spot. You could pick five of the best receivers in the NFL today and I don’t know that any of them can replicate that effort. Tyree’s best game ever led to one of the most shocking upsets in sports.
But surprise! There was one effort that came as a bigger blind side than that …
1. Super Bowl XXII: Timmy Smith (Washington)
Who? This generically named running back, who sounds like a character created in Madden to round out roster spots, turned in one of the greatest Super Bowl performances for an individual, period. And two years later, he wasn’t in the league. The NFL’s biggest stage gaveth, and it tooketh away just as quickly.
In 1987, Smith was a rookie out of Texas Tech, sparsely used in a stacked Washington offense. But in the NFC Championship Game, starting running back George Rogers got hurt. Head coach Joe Gibbs, worried about Smith’s nerves if he found out his first career start was going to be the Super Bowl, pretended Rogers was good to go, and didn’t tell Smith he was starting until the last minute.
Perhaps the strategy was brilliant, perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered anyways. All we know is that Smith went out and rushed for a Super Bowl-record 204 yards (a record that will likely stand for all-time) and two touchdowns as the Redskins crushed Denver, 42-10. You can credit Washington’s Hall-of-Fame o-line for much of Smith’s nine yards per carry average. But that didn’t stop fans from turning Timmy into an instant star, one that burned bright and, thus, burned out quickly.
The fame went to his head and, before you know it, drugs and poor performance led to his release just a year after. He ended up spending two years in prison last decade.
So there you have it, the most unexpectedly spectacular Super Bowl performances of the past 50 years. Did we miss one? Over-rate one? Or maybe you just need feel the need to cuss someone out on the internet. Well, feel free to do all of those in the comments below.
(Photo Credit: Adam Rifkin (Originally posted to Flickr)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/])
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