5 NFL Players Who Became LEGENDS At The Super Bowl…And 5 Who Went Down As Chokers

Total Pro Sports

As one of the biggest sporting events on the calendar in the entire world, the Super Bowl provides an opportunity for the NFL’s lesser-known players to go from zero to hero and take their place in NFL immortality.

On the flip side, however, we’ve seen several notable stars damage their legacies by choking on the grandest stage.

Here are five NFL players who became legends at the Super Bowl, and 5 who went down as all-time chokers.

Became A Legend: Eli Manning

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – OCTOBER 17: Former New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning walks onto the field carrying the Vince Lombardi Trophy during a ceremony honoring the 2011 Giants Super Bowl team at halftime during a game against the Los Angeles Rams at MetLife Stadium on October 17, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Manning earned four Pro Bowl nods and retired as a top-10 all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns. Even if he never won the Super Bowl rings, he would’ve gone down as a very good quarterback.

But let’s be real here. When you hear his name, you immediately think of a two-time Super Bowl champion. With ice water in his veins, he is one of the most clutch athletes of his generation, regardless of his inconsistent regular season play.

All Manning did was lead his New York Giants to a stunning Super Bowl 42 victory over Tom Brady and the previously undefeated New England Patriots. He was no longer just Peyton Manning’s younger brother. The legend of Eli Manning was born after he threw that game-winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress.

Proving it was no fluke, Manning and his Giants again faced the Patriots in Super Bowl 46. Once again, Manning pieced together a remarkable drive for the ages — highlighted by a picture-perfect deep-ball to Mario Manningham—which culminated in another game-winning touchdown to lift Big Blue past Brady, Bill Belichick and the evil Patriots’ empire.

Eli didn’t do it once. He did it twice. Two game-winning drives in two Super Bowl games vs. the greatest dynasty of them all. If that’s not becoming a legend on the grandest stage, what is?

Went Down As A Choker: Fran Tarkenton

HOUSTON, TX – JANUARY 13: Fran Tarkenton #10 of the Minnesota Vikings turns to hand the ball off to Chuck Foreman #44 against the Miami Dolphins during Super Bowl VIII at Rice Stadium January 13, 1974 in Houston, Texas. The Dolphins won the Super Bowl 24-7. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Tarkenton is among the greatest quarterbacks that never held the Lombardi Trophy. The Minnesota Vikings’ legend and Pro Football Hall Of Famer had not one, not two, but three cracks at winning the Super Bowl.

Tarkenton was coached by Hall of Famer Bud Grant. And even if Tarkenton had an off day, the Vikings could turn to their legendary “Purple People Eaters” defense — a nickname for the “big four” of Jim Marshall, Carl Eller, Gary Larsen and Alan Page.

Tarkenton and the Vikings went to three Super Bowls over a four-year span from 1973 to ‘76, but they lost them all by double-digit points. And Tarkenton’s poor play was a key reason for Minny’s shortcomings.

In three Super Bowl games, Tarkenon had just one touchdown against six interceptions with a passer rating of 43.7. Simply put, the greatest QB in franchise history just failed to show up when it mattered most. His Super Bowl shortcomings will aways be a part of his legacy.

Became A Legend: Joe Namath

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – SEPTEMBER 08: NFL Hall of Famer Joe Namath leaves the field during the first quarter at a game between the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills at MetLife Stadium on September 08, 2019 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)

Before the AFL-NFL merger, “Broadway Joe” was a household name in the football world. He earned four AFL All-Star nods, won the AFL MVP twice and led the league in passing yards on two occasions.

But make no mistake, Namath is a football legend because of one game — Super Bowl 3, from way-back-when on January 12, 1969. Namath and his New York Jets were 19.5-point underdogs against the star-studded Baltimore Colts, but Gang Green’s star quarterback had the guts to “guarantee” a victory for his club.

The Jets’ defense smothered the Colts’ high-powered offense, and Namath did just enough on offense to lead his team to a shocking 16-7 victory. The clip of Namath waving his finger in celebration after the game remains one of the most iconic in American sports history.

If Namath and the Jets didn’t win that game, he wouldn’t have become a cultural icon. He wouldn’t have been New York’s poster boy during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But Namath’s ability to talk-the-talk and walk-the-walk launched him into NFL greatness forever.

Went Down As A Choker: Wes Welker

NEW ORLEANS – NOVEMBER 30: Wes Welker #83 of the New England Patriots looks on against the New Orleans Saints at Louisana Superdome on November 30, 2009 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

During his tenure with the New England Patriots, which spanned from 2007 to 2012, Welker was among the game’s most prolific wide receivers. He had five seasons of 100-plus catches and over 1,000 receiving yards, helping the Pats to Super Bowl 42 and 46 appearances.

Welker had an MVP-like performance in the Super Bowl 42 loss to the Giants, recording 11 receptions for 103 yards in the 17-14 loss. Sadly, Welker blew a golden opportunity to redeem himself in a rematch four years later against the G-Men.

The Patriots were clinging to a 17-15 lead with four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Facing a 2nd-and-11 situation, Brady found a wide-open Welker for what should have been a first down near the Giants’ 20. It was a costly drop with New York only having one timeout left, as the Patriots would’ve been able to melt valuable clock time.

New England wound up having to punt, and Eli would execute the game-winning drive moments later. Welker caught seven passes for 60 yards, but that drop right there turned out to be a career-defining mistake.

If that wasn’t painful enough for Welker, his Denver Broncos were clobbered by the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl 48 two years later.

You gotta feel for the guy. Three gut-wrenching Super Bowl losses? If only he caught that one pass in Super Bowl 46…

Became A Legend: Timmy Smith

SAN DIEGO, CA- JANUARY 31: Timmy Smith #36 of the Washington Redskins carries the ball against the Denver Broncos during Super Bowl XXII on January 31, 1988 at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, California. The Redskins won the Super Bowl 42-10. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Smith’s NFL career lasted three seasons. He played in 22 regular season games, finishing with an unspectacular total of 602 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 190 carries.

But nobody remembers any of those statistics. All we remember about Smith is his heroics in Super Bowl 22, when his Washington team met the three-point favorite Denver Broncos and John Elway.

Doug Williams was named Super Bowl MVP of that game, but Smith was just as instrumental in Washington’s 42-10 blowout victory. In that game, Smith rushed for 204 yards and two touchdowns – leading Washington to what would be the second of three Super Bowls under Joe Gibbs.

Smith’s 204 yards remain a Super Bowl single-game record more than a quarter-century later. That’s one way to ensure no one ever forgets your name!

Went Down As A Choker: Rich Gannon

OAKLAND, CA – SEPTEMBER 19: Quaterback Rich Gannon #12 of the Oakland Raiders passes the ball against the Buffalo Bills during the game at Network Associates Coliseum on September 19, 2004 in Oakland, California. The Raiders defeated the Bills 13-10. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

The veteran signal-caller had a career year for the Oakland Raiders at the age of 37 in 2002. That year, Gannon completed 67.6 percent of his pass attempts for 4,689 yards and 26 touchdowns en route to NFL MVP honors.

The Raiders advanced to Super Bowl 37, where they met old friend Jon Gruden — who was traded away less than a year earlier — and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Though the Bucs’ had a historically good defense that year, the Raiders were actually the four-point favorites coming into Qualcomm Stadium.

Gannon had a chance to complete his legacy by winning a Super Bowl. Instead, he imploded at the worst possible time. He threw five interceptions — THREE OF THEM returned four touchdowns, by the way! — and took five sacks.

The Raiders were no match for the Bucs, who cruised to a 48-21 victory. Instead of remembering Gannon’s late-career renaissance with the Raiders, we all just remember him for unraveling during the biggest game of his life.

Became A Legend: Malcolm Butler

Image via Getty

Butler joined the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2014. The West Alabama product made just one start in his rookie year, playing behind a stacked Patriots secondary that featured Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Logan Ryan.

Veteran corner Kyle Arrington had been struggling in Super Bowl 49 against the defending champion Seattle Seahawks, so Bill Belichick and company decided to bench him in favor of the little-known Butler.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

The Patriots led 28-24 with just over a minute remaining, when Jermaine Kearse’s 33-yard circus catch set up a first-and-goal situation for Seattle at New England’s five-yard line. On the ensuing play, Marshawn Lynch took the handoff and was tackled half a yard shy of the end zone.

On the next play, just when it looked like the Seahawks would take the lead, Russell Wilson tried throwing a slant to Ricardo Lockette, and Butler read the play perfectly and made a jump on the ball — intercepting it right at the goal line to seal the deal for the Patriots in one of the craziest Super Bowl endings ever.

Butler would go on to have a decent career from there, earning a Pro Bowl nod in 2015 as well as a Second-team all-Pro selection in 2016 — but he’d be largely fogotten if not for that game-saving interception from Super Bowl 49.

Went Down As A Choker: Jackie Smith

Dallas Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith dropped a sure touchdown pass in the end zone during Super Bowl XIII. The Pittsburgh Steelers won 35-31. (Photo by ? Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Verne Lundquist’s memorable call says it all:

“Oh bless his heart, he’s got to be the sickest man in America.”

The Dallas Cowboys met the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl 13, and Roger Staubach vs. Terry Bradshaw more than lived up to the hype. Unfortunately, many mostly remember this all-time classic for one brutal drop that defined Jackie Smith’s career.

Smith was a lovable, first-class Hall of Fame tight end who joined the Cowboys to pursue a Super Bowl championship after never coming close with the St. Louis Cardinals. Trailing by a touchdown on 3rd-and-goal late in the third quarter, Staubach spotted a WIDE-OPEN Smith for what should have been the game-tying score.

But Smith failed to corral the easiest catch of his life, and the Cowboys had to settle for a field goal. The Steelers went on to win 35-31, so Smith’s drop was essentially, and tragically, the deciding factor.

It went on to be a mistake that overshadowed his Hall of Fame career. It’s hard not to feel sorry for him all these years later.

Became A Legend: Nick Foles

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – FEBRUARY 04: Nick Foles #9 of the Philadelphia Eagles celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after his teams 41-33 victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium on February 4, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New England Patriots 41-33. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Foles turned heads in 2013 when he saved the Philadelphia Eagles from another disappointing season under Michael Vick. Foles won eight of 10 starts, tossing 27 touchdowns against only two interceptions — helping the Eagles to a surprise NFC East division title.

But an injury cut Foles’ 2014 season short, and then he had a forgettable 2015 season with the St. Louis Rams. Foles was a backup for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2016 and later pondered retirement, but the Eagles convinced him to return in 2017.

The Eagles’ Super Bowl 52 dreams were seemingly dashed when starting QB and MVP front-runner Carson Wentz suffered a season-ending ACL tear against the Rams in Week 14.

Doug Pederson and the Eagles had no choice but to turn to Foles the rest of the way, but fortunately, the veteran journeyman was up for the challenge. Foles helped Philly past Atlanta in the Divisional Round and soundly beat Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game.

The Eagles met Tom Brady and the defending champion Patriots in Super Bowl 52. And in that game, against the GOAT himself, Foles looked nothing like a journeyman backup. He completed 28 passes for 373 yards and three touchdowns —including a game-winning 11-yard TD pass to Zach Ertz ahead of the 2-minute warning — leading the Eagles to a 41-33 upset victory.

Foles was rightfully named Super Bowl MVP for his efforts after leading the Eagles to their first-ever Super Bowl. And now he’s a Philadelphia sports legend forever. All thanks to that one big game.

Went Down As A Choker: Matt Ryan

TAMPA, FLORIDA – DECEMBER 29: Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons warms up during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Matty Ice cruised to 2016 NFL MVP honors, completing 69.9 percent of his pass attempts for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns against only seven interceptions. He continued that all-world play in the postseason and helped Atlanta to a Super Bowl 51 berth— only the second big-game appearance in franchise history.

Ryan and the Falcons jumped out to a 28-3 lead in the third-quarter over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Regardless of what the defense did, Atlanta just needed to play mistake-free football on offense and the game was theirs.

But Ryan and the Atlanta offense simply choked. They recovered an onside kick with a 28-9 lead late in the third quarter. But facing a 2nd-and-1, Jake Matthews took a holding penalty — that eventually forced Atlanta to punt.

Leading by 16 with 8-and-a-half minutes to go, Ryan was strip-sacked on a 3rd-and-1 play — and New England recovered at the Atlanta 25. A touchdown and 2-point conversion cut the lead to eight.

Atlanta seemingly ended it when Ryan threw a jaw-dropping 27-yard pass to Julio Jones at the New England 22. Run the ball three times, kick a field goal and it’s basically game over.

But nope. Ryan lost 12 yards on a sack, and then Matthews took another holding penalty. Atlanta had to punt, and the Patriots would drive down the field to tie the game. New England won the coin toss in overtime and finished off the comeback on a James White two-yard rushing score.

With that, the Falcons had completed the biggest Super Bowl chokejob ever. Ryan never redeemed himself, winning just one more playoff game in Atlanta.

Ryan’s probably a Hall of Famer if Atlanta wins that game. But like the rest of his teammates, he imploded when it mattered most.

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