There’s how most teams do it. And then there’s how Denver does it.
In the NFL, winning the Super Bowl is The Goal. And quarterback is by far the most important position on an NFL football team. Therefore, Step 1 in any plan to go win a Super Bowl is most often pretty simple: Go find The Guy. The franchise guy. The Super Bowl winning quarterback. Accomplish that, and the rest of the steps become a whole lot easier.
Caveat: It’s worth acknowledging that having top end quarterback play is not necessarily an absolute requirement to win the Super Bowl. That said, it’s literally a once every fifteen years kind of thing: 1985 Bears, 2000 Ravens, 2015 Broncos. So while it’s possible, it’s not a very good bet.
With that out of the way, our main question: How do teams get their Super Bowl winning quarterbacks?
30 different quarterbacks have led their team to victory in the 51 Super Bowls played so far. As you might expect, the clear majority of those 51 championships went to quarterbacks drafted by the team they were playing for. It’s happened 34 times, or exactly 66.67% of the time. So 1⁄3 of Super Bowl wins, so far, have gone to QBs playing for their 2nd or 3rd or #th team.
But is that all there is to it? Not quite.
1993 brought about a major shift in the NFL landscape: the advent of modern free agency. During the 27 Super Bowls from 1967 through 1992, 21 of the victorious QBs were drafted by their teams. Only one QB, the Redskins’ Joe Theismann (SB XVII), was Traded to the team he won with. And four QBs were signed by their teams off the street after having been previously cut by their original teams. The Raiders won two Super Bowls with Jim Plunkett, bringing us to the total 27.
How about after the era of free agency began? There’s actually a very sharp difference. Out of 24 Super Bowls from 1994 through 2017, only 13 were won by QBs playing for the team that drafted them. So a lot more free agent QBs started winning the big game, proportionally, right?
Actually, no. Only 4 of those remaining 11 Super Bowl victories were by teams playing with a free agent quarterback. Instead, the number of Super Bowls won by QBs who were traded has spiked from just one prior to the 1993 season to a whopping seven in the time since. And the reason for that is another major shift in the NFL landscape that happened in 1994: the institution of the salary cap. Suddenly it’s better for teams to trade a highly capable backup, especially for draft picks, than it is to have and pay multiple QBs. That has changed the landscape of the NFL in major ways.
In the end, the modern trend comes out to this: drafting a QB vs picking one up via trade or free agency seems to be about a 50/50 shot.
A quick caveat to this, though: four of the Super Bowls won by previously traded QBs since 1993 were won by players traded long before 1993. Steve Young (SB XXIX) was sent to the 49ers by the Buccaneers in 1987. Brett Favre (SB XXXI) was traded by the Falcons to the Packers in 1992. And John Elway (SB XXXII & XXXIII) famously forced his way out of the Baltimore Colts organization before ever having to don their jersey all the way back in 1983. So make of it what you will.
In the end, the modern trend comes out to this: drafting a QB vs picking one up via trade or free agency seems to be about a 50/50 shot. At least as it comes to the guys who are leading their teams to Super Bowl victories. That’s honestly surprising.
I have a big excel chart of all the teams, QBs, and acquisition methods year by year, but it’s too unwieldy to include and doesn’t lend itself to graphs. I may post it in the comments section if you guys are interested.
Some other notes and observations about QBs who’ve earned Super Bowl rings and their teams:
- Every NFC division has at least one team who has won a SB with a QB acquired via trade.
- The AFCW is the only AFC division with a team that has won a SB with a QB acquired via trade. John Elway with the Broncos, of course.
- The Broncos and Giants are the only teams to have won multiple SBs with a QB acquired via trade.
- The Chargers traded away two future SB winning QBs: Drew Brees and Eli Manning, who have a combined 3 SB victories.
On Free Agents
- The AFC East and NFC North are the only two divisions whose teams have never won a SB with a free agent quarterback.
- The AFC West dominates all other divisions in winning SBs with free agent quarterbacks, with 4 such championships. No other division in the NFL has had more than one SB win with a free agent quarterback.
- The Raiders are the only team to have won multiple Super Bowls with a free agent quarterback: Jim Plunkett.
The Most Generous Teams
- The Buccaneers are the most generous team in the NFL when it comes to sharing their QBs. They’ve traded away or cut three different QBs who have gone on to win championships with other teams.
- The Bucs traded away Steve Young, who later had a great run and a SB win with the 49ers.
- They also cut Doug Williams, who became the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl (and Super Bowl MVP) later with the Redskins.
- Last and certainly least, the Bucs also cut loose Trent Dilfer who would end up getting dragged to Super Bowl glory by the 2000 Ravens’ beastly defense.
- The Colts and Chargers are nearly as generous with their QBs. Both teams have traded away or cut two QBs who went on to win three Super Bowls between them.
- The Colts are love to share with the Broncos, as they traded John Elway (2 SB Wins) to Denver and cut Peyton Manning (1 SB win) who landed with the Broncos too.
- The Chargers have incredible QB luck, and terrible postseason luck. They traded away Drew Brees (1 SB win) and Eli Manning (2 SB wins) after drafting them, and also acquired Philip Rivers… but have yet to win a Super Bowl.
- The longest streak of teams winning with QBs they drafted was 9 seasons in a row, from 1971 to 1979. And the Steelers, Cowboys, and Dolphins split 8 of those 9 championships between them with Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, and Bob Griese at the helm respectively.
- The longest streak of teams winning with quarterbacks they acquired via trade or free agency was five seasons, from 1996 to 2000. It included the Packers with Brett Favre, the Broncos twice with John Elway, the Rams with Kurt Warner, and the Ravens with Trent Dilfer.
- Five teams have won Super Bowls with free agent or traded quarterbacks, but never with a quarterback they’ve drafted: the Chiefs, the Rams, the Buccaneers, the Saints, and the Broncos.
- The other four teams have only won one Super Bowl with those quarterbacks each, while the Broncos have won three.
- Likewise, though the Raiders, Redskins, and Giants have all won two Super Bowls with non-drafted QBs, the Broncos stand alone as the only franchise that has won three.
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