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Terry Bradshaw & Joe Montana – Playoff Mortals to Playoff Gods

Posted by Scott Kacsmar on January 28, 2010

by guest blogger Scott Kacsmar

The only two QBs in NFL history to go 4-0 in the Super Bowl are looked at as two of the best playoff performers of all time.

They won multiple Super Bowl MVP awards. Joe Montana has the record with three, and Terry Bradshaw won two in his final two appearances.

They were both statistically great, putting up numbers better than what their regular season averages were. Montana threw 11 TDs and no INTs in 4 SBs. He is the highest rated SB passer of all time, and retired second all time in postseason passer rating (95.6) behind Bart Starr. Bradshaw threw 30 TD passes, the most in postseason history at the time of his retirement. His 83.0 rating was very good since most of his playoff games were played in the difficult passing decade of the 1970's.
They were big winners. Bradshaw was 14-5 as a playoff starter and his 14 wins were the record until Montana surpassed him with a 16-7 mark.

They produced great moments in NFL lore. Montana threw the winning TD ("The Catch") to Dwight Clark in the 1981 NFC-C. He outdueled Dan Marino three years later in the Super Bowl. Terry Bradshaw threw big TD passes in the 4th quarter of multiple Super Bowls. He also put the ball in play for the Immaculate Reception, one of the NFL's most memorable plays.

With career resumes like that in the postseason, these are two guys you can definitely count on year after year to give your team a good chance at the championship right? They were a perfect 8-0 in the biggest of games. They were not going to screw things up. Right?

But even Montana and Bradshaw were not models of playoff consistency, at least not until a similar point in their careers.

Their legacies paint them as unflappable field generals, but things were not always perfect for these two as they directed dynasties in the 70's and 80's. There were moments, or stretches, of inadequacy, that go undetected because of the remarkable final product they produced. There was a time where they were in fact playoff mortals.

Terry Bradshaw started 8 games as a rookie in 1970 and really struggled. His first full season as a starter was the following year, 1971. They reached the postseason in 1972 and the first playoff game played in Three Rivers stadium found the Steelers trailing in the final minute. Bradshaw dropped back on 4th down, fired a pass into a crowd, and thus we have the Immaculate Reception, arguably the luckiest play in NFL history. Even with the fortunate 60 yard TD pass, Bradshaw only finished the game with 12 completions and a 64.6 rating as the Steelers won 13-7. He would lose his following two playoff games, throwing 5 INTs in the progress, including a home loss to the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins. This was before the NFL adopted a seeding system and the championship game would alternate sites.

After a strong performance against Buffalo in 1974, Bradshaw could only complete 8 passes for 95 yards (1 TD, 1 INT) against the Raiders in the AFC-C. The Steelers won 24-13 thanks to a defense that intercepted Ken Stabler 3 times, and a running game that produced over 200 yards. Bradshaw played well in his first SB (108.0 PR), but only had to complete 8 passes for 96 yards as the Steelers won 16-6 over Minnesota behind another stingy defensive performance. The following year Bradshaw started the playoff run with 1 TD and 5 INTs in two games, but the Steelers allowed a total of 20 points in the games and they returned to the SB. Bradshaw threw for 209 yards and 2 TDs in his finest playoff performance to date, beating Dallas 21-17.

For the first time he strung together two great playoff games by having a perfect 158.3 rating against the Colts in the 1976 AFC-D. But without his healthy stable of RBs in the AFC Championship at Oakland, he was 14/35 with a pick (44.5 PR) and the Steelers could not pull off a potential three-peat. They were one and done the following year with a 3 INT (40.0 PR) performance by Bradshaw against the Broncos.

But that is where it all changed. In 1978 the "Blount rule" (no contact after five yards) was put into effect and Bradshaw shined, winning league MVP in a career year. In his next 6 playoff games, all wins leading to two rings and two SB MVPs in 1978-79, Bradshaw had ratings of 95.8, 89.7, 119.2, 111.0, 90.8 and 101.9. He threw 2 TDs in each of his last 7 playoff games, even having 4 TD passes in Super Bowl XIII against Dallas. The Steelers scored at least 27 points in all 7 of those games (5 games with 31+), putting their offense on the same elite level as the Steel Curtain defense.

That is the Bradshaw people remember, not the inconsistent playoff QB that struggled to string together two good performances in his first 12 playoff games. Not the QB that could have easily lost his first three playoff games if not for a fluke play. Bradshaw had more games with a passer rating under 65.0 (7) than he did games over 100.0 (4) in that part of his career. But he turned it around, perhaps with some help from a rule change spurred by his own teammate's style, and that is all that is remembered today.
Prior to Bradshaw's final playoff hurrah with the win over the Rams, Joe Montana had just completed his rookie season in the NFL. He started 7 games in 1980, then became the full-time starter in 1981 (his third season in the league). He immediately had success, winning the SB that year. The moment he's best remembered for early in his career is the winning TD drive in the 1981 NFC Championship against Dallas, capped off by Dwight Clark's catch in the back of the end zone.

But how many people even know Montana threw 3 picks in that game and the 49ers had 6 turnovers overall? Any time you turn it over 6 times and win you have to feel pretty fortunate. Throwing exactly 3 INTs in the playoffs has historically led to a 19-83 record. There are just 3 QBs that have won two playoff games with 3 INTs, and they just so happen to be Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Tom Brady (3 rings). The difference is that Brady's games did not result in any titles, while those four games for Bradshaw & Montana did result in a title each time.

Montana reportedly was hit with a death threat prior to the game, which very well may have influenced his performance. After the clock expired Montana quickly sprinted off the field to avoid any potential danger. He played the Bengals in his first SB. Though he only had to throw for 157 yards as the 49ers built a 20-0 halftime lead, Montana was named SB MVP for the first time.

A year later the 49ers went 3-6 in the strike season. In 1983 they found themselves down late at home to the Detroit Lions in the NFC-D. Montana threw the winning TD pass to Freddie Solomon, but still had a fairly mediocre day (201 yards, 74.8 PR). In the NFC Championship at Washington he threw 3 TD passes in the 4th quarter to rally from 21 points down, but the 49ers still lost 24-21. Montana started the 1984 playoffs with a 3 TD/3 INT game against the Giants in a 21-10 win. Harry Carson returned one of those INTs for a TD, so the 49er defense only gave up 3 points. Montana threw 2 INTs (60.0 PR) at home in the NFC-C against the Bears, but they won the game easily with a 23-0 shut out. The Bears could not even muster 200 yards of offense. Montana shook these games off with a huge performance against Marino's Dolphins in a 38-16 victory, earning his second SB MVP. So things were looking just fine after two rings in four years as a starter, then came the dark period. The rarely talked about dark period for the 49ers and Montana. From 1985-87 the 49ers made the playoffs all three seasons, and each time they lost the first playoff game. They played at the New York Giants in both 1985 and 1986, scored one FG each game, losing 17-3, and then 49-3. In the two games Montana threw 3 INTs combined and had ratings of just 65.6 and 34.2. Montana had to come back from a serious back injury in 1986 to even finish the season for San Francisco.

In 1987 Montana had one of his finest seasons as he threw for 31 TDs in 13 games. The 49ers had the best record in the league at 13-2 and were hosting a mediocre 8-7 Minnesota Vikings team in the NFC-D playoff game. But the Vikings pulled off one of the biggest playoff upsets in NFL history, winning 36-24. Montana had just 109 yards passing, threw an interception for a TD, and had a rating of 42.0. When he was replaced by Steve Young in the 3rd quarter, the 49ers had scored just one FG again on offense and trailed by 17 points.

How many QBs playing today could possibly escape the critics for a three-year stretch of three one-and-dones, a total of three FGs scored on offense, no TD passes, 4 INTs, and a cumulative 50.5 rating? Any heat he received back then would likely be tenfold today.

With Steve Young looking good for the 49ers, one of the most infamous QB rivalries began with fans wondering if Montana should still be the starter for 1988 over Young. Well 1988 was his 10th year in the league, and just like 1978 for Bradshaw, this year changed things for Montana. The 49ers were 10-6 overall, and 8-5 when Montana started. After three straight playoff defeats, expectations were not as high as usual for the 49ers. To make matters worse the first playoff game opponent for the 49ers was the Minnesota Vikings, this time with an 11-5 record and an offense & defense both ranked in the top 4. Little did fans know this game would begin a stretch of the greatest postseason QB play in NFL history.

Montana quickly got his revenge on the Vikings with 3 TD passes in the first half as the 49ers won 34-9. This set up a NFC Championship game in Chicago against the top-ranked defense of the 12-4 Bears. Montana passed for 288 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs and had a 136.0 rating in a 28-3 win. Then against the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl, Montana outdueled league MVP Boomer Esiason, passed for 357 yards and the winning TD to John Taylor in the final minute. He even found time to spot John Candy in the crowd before the final drive started. It was a MVP worthy performance, but 215 receiving yards and a TD won the award for Jerry Rice.

Montana was far from done. He had his best regular season ever in 1989, won his first league MVP, then kept it going with his best postseason. He shredded the Vikings again (1987 must have really hurt his feelings), this time with a 4 TD, 142.5 PR performance. He completed 26 out of 30 passes in the NFC Championship against the Rams. Then he set a SB record with 5 TD passes in a 55-10 rout of the Denver Broncos and their statistically #1 ranked defense. The 49ers outscored their opponents 126-26 in that postseason. Montana had 11 TD passes and no picks in the 3 games.

A year later Montana kept it rolling with a second straight league MVP award. He had another 100.0+ rating game in the playoffs against the Redskins, a 28-10 victory. Then after playing well against the Giants' top-ranked defense in the NFC Championship, he watched from the sidelines with a 4th quarter injury as Roger Craig fumbled the ball late and the Giants got the game winning FG, ending a chance at the three-peat.

It ended a three year stretch where Montana had 8 straight playoff games with a passer rating over 100.0. Most QBs are fortunate to start 8 playoff games in their career. Only Brett Favre (10) and Troy Aikman (9) have as many games with a rating over 100.0 in the playoffs in their whole career as Montana had in three consecutive seasons. In fact the closest run to Montana's would be what Aikman did from 1992-95 (4 seasons), when Dallas won three SB titles. Then Aikman finished with four duds the rest of his career. Montana's postseason stats from 1988-90 (8 games): 161/230 (70.0%), 2087 yards, 9.07 YPA, 22 TDs, 2 INTs, 126.5 rating

Staggering numbers. Also consider these were games played against scoring defenses that ranked 1st, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 6th, 8th, 17th and 19th in defensive points allowed. Montana still had some more playoff magic left in him. After another injury and full transition to Steve Young in San Francisco, Montana returned with the Chiefs in 1993 and led playoff comebacks (at age 37) against the Steelers and Oilers before struggling in the AFC Championship at Buffalo. He played one last playoff game in 1994, throwing for 314 yards (102.8 PR) in a loss to Marino's Dolphins.

When people say Montana is the greatest QB of all time, it's what he did in seasons 10-12 that really put him in that category. Because prior to that, he was a QB with 2 rings already, but also three straight playoff failures and question marks over his future with the 49ers. He washed all of that away with a run of excellent play in the postseason that no QB has ever matched. That was seasons 10-12. Bradshaw's were 9 & 10. What's the point there? That you cannot truly measure a "good playoff QB" or "bad playoff QB" until you have a finished product. People throw the choker/clutch labels out there way too fast. Like John Elway proved, by winning titles in his 15th & 16th seasons, you almost have to give a quality QB the full length of his career to demonstrate whether or not he is championship caliber. Of course it takes a ton of help and usually some luck to win a title in any season.

Quickly here, if you want my definition of a good playoff QB, you can't judge it by just by his number of rings, or just by stats, or just by record. There are many factors to consider. First give me a guy that plays well enough in the regular season to get his team into the tournament every year so they have a chance to catch a break or two and go all the way. Then when you get there, just play well enough to give the team a chance to win more often than not. What more can you ask for? Playing well in the playoffs is no different than doing the things you need to do well in the regular season: converting 3rd downs to sustain drives, getting more TDs in the red zone instead of FGs, and ball security.

Halfway to those 4 rings Bradshaw and Montana each have, there were a lot of bumps in the road. Their performances were up and down. They played on great teams which allowed them to still have early success. It was not until much later in their careers where they peaked individually and that is when the other half of those titles were won. That is when they started racking up great performance after great performance, which is what they are remembered best for.

QB A: 136/257 (52.9%), 1960 yards, 7.63 YPA, 14 TDs, 16 INTs, 70.2 PR, 8-4 record, 2 titles
QB B: 125/199 (62.8%), 1873 yards, 9.41 YPA, 16 TDs, 10 INTs, 99.5 PR, 6-1 record, 2 titles
QB C: 214/363 (59.0%), 2671 yards, 7.36 YPA, 17 TDs, 15 INTs, 80.3 PR, 7-4 record, 2 titles
QB D: 246/371 (66.3%), 3101 yards, 8.36 YPA, 28 TDs, 6 INTs, 110.6 PR, 9-3 record, 2 titles
QB E: 44/69 (63.8%), 613 yards, 8.88 YPA, 3 TDs, 1 INT, 100.7 PR, 2-0 record, 2 titles
QB F: 76/157 (48.4%), 1050 yards, 6.69 YPA, 4 TDs, 9 INTs, 54.9 PR, 4-3 record, 1 title
QB G: 50/105 (47.6%), 558 yards, 5.31 YPA, 1 TD, 2 INTs, 59.1 PR, 0-3 record, 0 titles
QB H: 354/542 (65.3%), 4273 yards, 7.88 YPA, 26 TDs, 16 INTs, 93.1 PR, 9-5 record, 1 title

If I told you those were 8 different QBs, then you would probably believe me. In a way, they are 8 different QBs there. But there are actually only 4 QBs represented with their playoff careers broken up into two parts. And some of that results in drastic changes for the player.

Remember for a short window when Jake Delhomme was this unbelievably "clutch" playoff QB based on his 5-1 record, 108.4 passer rating, road dominance and that great performance in a losing effort against New England in SB 38? Well in the two playoff games he's played since that point he threw 2 TDs to 8 INTs in blowout losses and fans are calling for Matt Moore to be the starter in Carolina. That might be one of the fastest cases of playoff immortal falling to playoff mortal.

So if you are an Eagles fan and think after 11 seasons that Donovan McNabb has no chance of ever getting it done, well you are probably right. Or....or, he just may shock everyone, have the right things fall into place (like getting home playoff games against an 8-8 team with no defense and a weak #2 seed with Michael Vick at QB), and with just enough luck and plays from his teammates, McNabb can hoist that Lombardi trophy one day after putting up big stats in three straight wins.

And if you are still one of the people out there that thinks Peyton Manning is not a good playoff QB (have they started an endangered species list yet for that type of person?), well consider that the 4x MVP winning QB from 2003-09, that has a chance at putting up a strong statistical game against the Saints to win his second title and second SB MVP award in his 12th season, is QB H from above.

QB A: Terry Bradshaw 1972-77
QB B: Terry Bradshaw 1978-82
QB C: Joe Montana 1981-87
QB D: Joe Montana 1988-94
QB E: Johnny Unitas 1958-59
QB F: Johnny Unitas 1964-71
QB G: Peyton Manning 1999-02
QB H: Peyton Manning 2003-09

Never underestimate the ability of a QB to go from playoff god to playoff fraud or vice versa throughout their career. There is a reason most players do not get the accolades or respect they truly deserve until their career is over.

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 28th, 2010 at 12:42 pm and is filed under History, Player articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.