Anatomy of Super Bowl Winners Part I: Where Super Bowl Winning QBs Are Drafted

the soccer stadium with the bright lights
To Suck, Or Not To Suck is a series exploring whether franchises have a better chance of winning a Super Bowl by suffering through some terrible seasons to get higher draft choices, or whether winning begets more winning. Each article will look at this question from a different angle. All will be based on quantifiable data. Varying interpretations and debate are highly encouraged!

Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck will be the #1 pick in the 2012 draft, barring something unforeseeable happening. Many draft experts are calling him the best quarterback prospect to hit the NFL since Peyton Manning or John Elway, and some are saying there has never been a college quarterback prospect as good as Luck. Unsurprisingly, every team in the NFL would love to add a player of Luck’s caliber to their roster, but only a small handful can realistically accomplish the 2011 NFL season’s second-most sought after accomplishment, suck for Luck. The rest of the league will be left building their Super Bowl plans around either veteran quarterbacks, or a less-touted prospect. There have been past #1 overall picks at the quarterback position, like Peyton Manning or Troy Aikman, that have led their franchises to Super Bowl victories. It is easy for a fan to believe that is the best way to get to the promised land. Examining the reality of where all 45 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were drafted paints a different picture.

Strictly speaking, more Super Bowls have been won by quarterbacks drafted a #1 overall than at any other draft spot. There is no pattern that says quarterbacks drafted at #4 or #215 are destined for greatness. Fourteen Super Bowls (31.1%) have been won by quarterback drafted #1 overall. These quarterbacks did not always win their Super Bowls with the teams that made them the #1 pick. Players like Steve Young, Jim Plunkett, and John Elway were all drafted by different teams than the ones that they lifted the Lombardi trophy with. Those fourteen Super Bowls were won by a total of seven quarterbacks. In other words, the odds are good that if your team wins a Super Bowl with a quarterback drafted #1 overall, it is likely they will win another. Four out of the seven quarterbacks drafted #1 overall that have a Super Bowl have won multiple rings. Terry Bradshaw leads the pack with four, Aikman has three, Plunkett and Elway have two apiece. Only both Manning brothers and Steve Young are #1 overall picks who only won a single championship. The Manning’s clearly still have a chance to remedy that.

That feels like rather substantial evidence supporting the theory that franchises should figure out a way to get a great quarterback at that #1 overall spot in the draft. Look again, though. Nearly 70% (68.9%) of all Super Bowls have been won by quarterbacks not drafted #1 overall. Not only that, but more than half (56%) of all Super Bowls are won by quarterbacks not drafted in the top 10 picks of the first round. Further, a substantial 40% of Super Bowls have been won by quarterbacks drafted after the first round. To put it another way, more Super Bowls have been won by quarterbacks drafted after the first round than by quarterbacks drafted #1 overall.

Lots has changed since the days of the Ice Bowl when Bart Starr, drafted #199, won the first championships. Maybe scouting has gotten better. Perhaps, the growing importance of the passing game has added emphasis to the quarterback position. Think again. Only two of the past twelve Super Bowls have been won by a quarterback drafted #1 overall. In fact, there are as many quarterbacks with Super Bowl rings who were acquired *after* the 7th round (Kurt Warner (undrafted), Brad Johnson (#227)) in the last twelve seasons as there are quarterbacks who were taken with the top pick. Over 83% of Super Bowl winners since 1999 have featured a quarterback who was not taken #1.

It might just be a case of the long tail effect. In this context, the long tail refers to the fact that there can only be one player chosen each year as the top pick. That means there are hundreds of players each year, and probably 12-20 quarterbacks, who are not the top pick. As mentioned at the beginning, the #1 slot has yielded more championship-winning quarterbacks than any other single draft position, but it cannot stand up to the odds of facing dozens of players drafted elsewhere. Just like a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers-led team enters the season with the best odds of winning a Super Bowl, the larger odds are still that one of the 30 other starting quarterbacks will get the ring this season. The same can be said of quarterbacks drafted #1 overall vs. the field.

Dynasties do seem to come more from teams led by by top picks. Of the 21 quarterbacks drafted after the #1 selection who have won a Super Bowl, only six (29%) have won more than one ring. That, compared to 57% for the seven top picks. The field still comes out on top here in some ways. More quarterbacks selected after #1 have won multiple rings (six to four), led by Joe Montana with four (tied with Bradshaw), Brady with three, Roger Staubach, Starr, Bob Griese, and Ben Roethlisberger each have two. Only Griese was drafted in the top 10 of his draft class.

The best player in any given draft might not be a quarterback. Another explanation for these numbers could be that quarterbacks worthy of the top pick just don’t come along very often. If that is the case, there should still be a high percentage of quarterbacks taken #1 overall that end up winning a championship. Dating back to 1976 (35 drafts), 15 quarterbacks have been taken first overall (43%). Of those 15 players, four have won  the big game (27%). Go back five more, to 40 drafts, and that number grows to 17 quarterbacks taken, and five (29%) that have won Super Bowls. Those do not appear to be staggering odds proving the worth of quarterbacks taken #1 overall.

Luck may very well end up being the next great franchise quarterback. He could follow in the footsteps of players like Bradshaw, Aikman, and Elway to win multiple rings. History, however, shows that more Super Bowls will be won by quarterbacks drafted at a position lower than #1 overall. Luck may be great, but it is highly unlikely that he will beat the field more than the field beats him. 

List of draft position for every quarterback to win a Super Bowl