In recognition of the golden anniversary of its championship game, the NFL asked those of us on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee to vote for what it billed as the Super Bowl 50 Golden Team.
The results follow, including my votes and the cases I made for each selection:
Quarterback: Joe Montana.
My vote: Montana.
My case: He led the San Francisco 49ers to victories in all four Super Bowls in which he played and was selected the MVP of three of them. In those four games, Montana completed 68 percent of his passes for 1,142 yards and 11 touchdowns, without throwing an interception. Younger fans – especially those with a rooting interest in the Patriots – might be inclined to go with Tom Brady, who legitimately challenges Montana for greatest quarterback the game has ever seen. But in terms of pure Super Bowl greatness, Montana was the biggest no-brainer of them all.
Running backs: Franco Harris and Emmitt Smith.
My votes: Smith and Larry Csonka.
My cases: Along with being the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Smith also left a huge mark on the Super Bowl with a record five rushing touchdowns combined in three Dallas Cowboys victories. He was MVP of the win against the Buffalo Bills in XXVIII with 30 carries for 132 yards and two touchdowns. It’s hard to argue with Harris, but what stands out to me about Csonka was his MVP performance in the Miami Dolphins’ win against Minnesota in VIII. He ran 33 times for 145 yards, a Super Bowl record at the time, and two touchdowns. Csonka led a running game so dominant that Hall-of-Famer Bob Griese attempted a mere seven passes.
Wide receivers: Jerry Rice and Lynn Swann.
My votes: Rice and Swann.
My cases: In four Super Bowls, Rice caught a combined 33 passes for 589 receiving yards and eight touchdowns, scoring in all four games and twice scoring three TDs. He was part of three victories and MVP of XXIII. Swann helped the Steelers win four Super Bowls with a combined 16 receptions for 364 yards and three touchdowns. Both are iconic Super Bowl figures at the receiver position, and easy choices for this roster.
Tight end: Jay Novacek.
My vote: Mark Bavaro.
My case: I understood what other voters saw in Novacek. In three Dallas Super Bowl victories, he had a combined 148 receiving yards and two touchdowns. But Bavaro was a more dominant all-around tight end. He was a devastating blocker to go along with his solid pass-catching skills. He had a combined 101 receiving yards and a touchdown in two New York Giants Super Bowl triumphs, and his blocking played a significant role in Ottis Anderson’s MVP performance against the Bills in XXV.
Offensive tackles: Art Shell and Forrest Gregg.
My votes: Shell and Jumbo Elliott.
My cases: As one of the larger and more powerful tackles of his era (he entered the NFL in 1968), the 6-foot-5, 265-pound Shell helped the Oakland Raiders win two Super Bowls by consistently overwhelming opposing defensive linemen with tremendous strength and agility. Gregg was a great choice for his contributions to the Green Bay Packers’ early Super Bowl dynasty, so I won’t put up any argument. But I just was very impressed with Elliott for his part in the physical, time-consuming approach the Giants’ offense took to get the better of the Bills, whose fast-paced K-Gun scheme was less effective when Jim Kelly was watching from the sidelines, in XXV.
Center: Mike Webster.
My vote: Webster.
My case: Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl dynasty was defined by the Steel Curtain Defense, but the offensive line played an equally vital role. And no one meant more to that group than Webster, a steady anchor who not only set a strong physical tone that allowed the running game to flourish but also did plenty to keep the Steelers’ entire offense on point with his considerable intelligence and instincts. He was and, in many ways still is, the gold standard when it comes to the center play in the NFL.
Guards: Gene Upshaw and Larry Allen.
My votes: Upshaw and Larry Little.
My cases: In helping the Raiders win two Super Bowls, Upshaw’s most impressive work came in XI, when he made great Minnesota defensive tackle Alan Page virtually disappear as Oakland piled up 266 rushing yards. Allen was a beast in helping the Cowboys win XXX, but so was Little in doing his part to allow the Dolphins win VII and VIII. Csonka, Mercury Morris and Jim Kiick would be the first to acknowledge their rushing success on football’s biggest stage largely resulted from Little’s blocking.
Ends: Reggie White and Charles Haley.
My votes: Haley and L.C. Greenwood.
My cases: It doesn’t get more open and shut for any player on this squad than it does for Haley. He was a significant contributor to five Super Bowl victories (making him the only player to win that many Super Bowls) with two teams: two with the 49ers and three with the Cowboys. Haley was a factor in all five games, making a combined 4½ sacks. How could there be any disputing White’s selection? He had three sacks in helping the Packers beat New England in XXXI. However, Greenwood had four sacks in the Steelers’ triumph against Dallas in X, and had a role in four Pittsburgh Super Bowl wins.
Interior linemen: Joe Greene and Randy White.
My votes: Greene and Manny Fernandez.
My cases: Greene personified the dominance of the Steel Curtain, and his play in the Super Bowl was no exception. He had an interception and a fumble recovery in the Steelers’ IX victory against Minnesota, and was generally a disruptive force in the middle. So was White, who had two sacks in the Cowboys’ loss against Pittsburgh in X and another in their win against Denver in XII. I went with Fernandez because he had three combined sacks as a member of Miami’s “No Name Defense” that was such a huge part of the Dolphins’ dynasty of the 1970s.
Outside linebackers: Lawrence Taylor and Jack Ham.
My votes: Taylor and Ted Hendricks.
My cases: To appreciate Taylor’s Super Bowl impact, you have to go beyond the numbers because he didn’t have a single sack in either of the two (both Giants victories) in which he played: XXI against Denver and XXV against the Bills. But Taylor made his presence felt by drawing extra blocking attention and prompting opponents to do what they always did when he was on the field: contour their offensive game plans accordingly. That helped open things up for others. Ham was the cerebral leader of the Pittsburgh defense, a rangy athlete who not only made plays but also make sure others were properly aligned. Hendricks was my pick because, like Ham, he was a steadying force for the Raider defense and had exceptional size that made him extremely difficult to block from his outside linebacker position.
Inside linebackers: Jack Lambert and Ray Lewis.
My votes: Mike Singletary and Nick Buoniconti.
My cases: It’s hard to go against Lambert or pretty much any member of that ultra-dominant Pittsburgh defense. He did plenty to provide it with not only the ability to make plays, but also the nasty disposition that spread throughout the unit. Singletary was a true middle linebacker and the heart and soul of the 1985 Chicago defense recognized as the best the NFL has ever seen. That defense’s defining moment came in the Bears’ 46-10 humiliation of the Patriots in XX, a performance highlighted by a pair of Singletary fumble recoveries. Lewis had a similar impact for a similar defense, the one the Baltimore Ravens fielded in 2000 on the way to winning XXXV against the Giants, and ended his career on a high note in a win against San Francisco in XLVII. Buoniconti, another true middle linebacker, was the catalyst for Miami’s “No Name” D. He had an interception to help the Dolphins beat Washington in VII, and in the days before coaches relayed signals from the sidelines, he did a masterful job of consistently winning the chess match against the opposing quarterback.
Cornerbacks: Mel Blount and Deion Sanders.
My votes: Blount and Sanders.
My cases: Not a whole lot to think about here. The 6-3 Blount used every bit of his towering size and considerable strength at a time when cornerbacks could manhandle receivers with no fear of drawing a yellow flag. He was every bit the punishing force in the Steelers’ Super Bowl wins as he was at any other time, and also chipped in a pair of interceptions. Sanders was a part of two Super Bowl wins with two teams (XXIX with the 49ers and XXX with the Cowboys) and provided his typical blanket coverage in both.
Safeties: Ronnie Lott and Jake Scott.
My votes: Lott and Scott.
My cases: Lott is the best safety to ever play the game, period. He established that with back-to-back 49er Super Bowl victories (XXIII against Cincinnati and XXIV against Denver) after helping them win two Super Bowls as a cornerback. Scott had two interceptions against Washington in VII and two fumble recoveries against Minnesota in VIII.
Kicker: Adam Vinatieri.
My vote: Vinatieri.
My case: He was money in the clutch, booting the Patriots to last-second Super Bowl wins against St. Louis and Carolina. He also had three field goals in Indianapolis’ victory against Chicago in XLI.
Punter: Ray Guy.
My vote: Guy.
My case: He’s the only punter in the Hall of Fame, and his Super Bowl performances were substantial portions of that great body of work.
Return specialist: Desmond Howard.
My vote: Howard.
My case: His 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to seal the Packers’ 35-21 win against New England in XXXI. Howard also ran back six punts for 90 yards, an average of 15 yards per return.
My vote: Bill Walsh.
My case: You could close your eyes and point to any of the following names and few people would argue with the result: Noll, Walsh, Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Don Shula or Bill Belichick.