While scrolling Twitter the other day, I came across a post from the official page of the Los Angeles Rams. They tweeted a video clip showing a field-level view of Matthew Stafford’s no-look pass to Cooper Kupp on L.A.’s final drive of last Sunday’s Super Bowl against Cincinnati. The incredible throw put the Rams in position to score the go-ahead touchdown with 1:25 remaining, and they went on to win, 23-20.
After watching the video several times, I came to a conclusion. Given the situation, the stakes, and the degree of difficulty, Stafford’s pass had to rank among the best all-time Super Bowl throws. That got me thinking on the topic, and of how other great throws compared to Stafford’s. Soon enough, I had myself an article.
Here it is, then — one writer’s list of the 5 greatest throws in Super Bowl history. The Pittsburgh Steelers, as you might expect, are well represented.
5. Montana-to-Taylor, Super Bowl 23
In what is often referred to as “The John Candy Drive,” Joe Montana took San Francisco 92 yards in 12 plays to score with 0:34 remaining to beat Cincinnati, 20-16, in 1989.
Trailing 16-13, the 49ers gained possession at their own 8-yard line with just over 3:00 to play. As Montana trotted onto the field, he spotted actor John Candy in the stands. In the huddle, he said to his teammates, “There, in the stands, standing near the exit ramp — isn’t that John Candy?” The levity loosened everyone up, and the Niners promptly marched down the field to score.
The ultimate throw came on a 2nd and 2 play from the 10-yard line. San Francisco lined up in a creative formation where they put receiver John Taylor in a three-point stance as a tight end. They then brought Jerry Rice in motion across the formation to widen the corner, allowing Taylor to operate against a safety. In an age before Bill Belichick had assumed the mantle as the G.O.A.T. of creative scheming, Walsh was a king.
At the snap, Rice ran to the flat while Taylor widened like he was heading for the corner. This stretched the defense, allowing Taylor to then burst back inside towards the post. Montana hit him with a perfect strike, and Taylor celebrated with a leap for the ages:
While Montana’s throw was right on the mark, and it did win the game for San Francisco, it was not nearly as difficult as some of the others on this list. It also came in a situation where the 49ers, trailing by three points, did not need to score a touchdown. A field goal would have sent the contest to overtime. Still, with just 0:34 remaining, it is the latest point in any Super Bowl where a touchdown pass resulted in a lead change. For that, and the fact it culminated one of the all-time great Super Bowl drives, Montana-to-Taylor lands on our list.
4. The Stafford “No-Look” Pass, Super Bowl 56
The throw that served as the impetus for this article began with L.A. facing a 2nd and 7 from Cincinnati’s 46-yard line with 3:06 remaining. The Bengals led, 20-16, meaning L.A. could not tie the game with a field goal. It was touchdown or bust for the Rams.
They aligned in a 2x2 set, with Kupp set wide to Stafford’s right. They ran a hitch inside of Kupp and brought Kupp on a shallow post behind it. Stafford’s eyes were initially downfield, where he was likely diagnosing coverage. He then shifted to his right, went through his progression and hit Kupp for a nice gain:
On the surface, it merely looks like an accurate throw from Stafford. The tweet the Rams sent out, however, provides a much greater appreciation for the play. We’ll get to that in a second. First, though, let’s look at what prompted Stafford’s “no-look” to begin with.
As he worked through his progression, Stafford saw that safety Vonn Bell, circled in the photo below, was sitting in the alley in which Kupp was about to break. The hitch in front of Kupp was open, but Stafford knew the defender who was trailing Kupp would pick it up. This meant Stafford either had to force the ball to the hitch, which would be a minimal gain at best, or move Bell to open a window for Kupp:
He chose the latter. The tweet from @RamsNFL shows how Stafford sold Bell on the hitch. Stafford moved his eyes and hips there, and stepped that way in preparation to throw. Bell took the bait. Then, Stafford adjusted his arm angle to throw across his body without re-setting his feet or turning his head towards Kupp. The throw eluded Bell’s outstretched arm by inches and hit Kupp in stride:
This angle of Matthew Stafford's no-look pass. pic.twitter.com/vwWRUsMekn— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) February 14, 2022
It’s a remarkable throw for many reasons. Stafford did not locate Bell pre-snap. He had to do so while going through his progression. He then had to make the decision to manipulate Bell with a no-look move and execute the pass. He also had to trust that Kupp would be in a certain spot, since the no-look meant Stafford was not following Kupp with his eyes. He did all of this in about two seconds. Again, remarkable.
Stafford’s throw ranks ahead of Montana’s because, while Montana’s provided the winning points, Stafford’s was much harder to execute. It also required incredible nerve and confidence (can you imagine the criticism if he’d thrown an interception?). This was a tough ball to locate under normal circumstances. As a no-look throw, it was incredible.
3. The Knockout Throw, Super Bowl 10
Midway through the 4th quarter of Super Bowl 10, the Steelers led the Dallas Cowboys, 15-10. Pittsburgh had the football and faced a 3rd and 5 at its own 36-yard line when quarterback Terry Bradshaw dropped to pass. He avoided linebacker D.D. Lewis, coming off the edge to his blind-side, stepped up in the pocket and uncorked a bomb in the direction of receiver Lynn Swann. The football traveled 65 yards in the air and nestled into Swann’s arms as though Bradshaw had walked it down and placed it there. Swann pulled out of the tackle of defensive back Mark Washington and hopped into the end zone for what proved to be the deciding score. The Steelers held on to win, 21-17, earning the second of their six Super Bowl titles.
Why is this throw so special? For starters, it was a beautiful deep ball, one of many Bradshaw threw to Swann that day. Swann caught 4 passes for 161 yards and 2 touchdowns, averaging 40 yards per catch. While several of his catches bordered on miraculous, this was his easiest, made so by Bradshaw’s perfectly-placed throw.
The thing that really separates this play from others like it is what happened just after Bradshaw released the football. Defensive tackle Larry Cole barreled in and leveled Bradshaw with a viscous shot to the head. In today’s game, Cole would have been hit with a personal foul penalty, ejected from the contest and sentenced to 2-3 years of hard labor on a prison chain gang. In Super Bowl 10, it didn’t even draw a flag.
Bradshaw never saw the touchdown. He was momentarily knocked unconscious from the shot and had to be helped to the sideline by his teammates:
The fact that Bradshaw stood in the pocket, never flinching, with his eyes downfield, and delivered a perfect throw as Cole bore down on him is a testament to his toughness. Younger Steelers fans likely remember how Ben Roethlisberger’s willingness to play through injuries earned him a reputation as a warrior. Before him, there was Bradshaw, every bit as tough. His throw against Dallas that day is a perfect representation of the player he was: talented, resilient, willing to do whatever it took to win. He absorbed plenty of shots in his career, literal and otherwise, and kept getting back up. This one produced one of the most spectacular plays in Super Bowl history while helping to bury the Cowboys.
2. Manning-to-Manningham, Super Bowl 46
While Eli Manning’s throw to David Tyree in Super Bowl 42 has a nickname (“The Helmet Catch”) and a permanent place in football lore, there was little about the actual throw that was spectacular. It was more of a desperation heave than anything, made famous by Tyree’s ridiculous effort to corral it:
Four years later, in Super Bowl 46, Manning made a throw that was far superior. It came late in the 4th quarter of their contest against the Patriots, the same team they had bested in the Helmet Catch affair. Trailing 17-15, with his back to his own goal line, Manning kick-started a game-winning 88-yard touchdown drive with this missile to receiver Mario Manningham, who caught the ball against the New England sideline between two Patriots’ defenders in a window no bigger than a shoe box:
The placement of Manning’s throw was remarkable. The ball traveled over 40 yards in the air before settling down over Manningham’s outside shoulder. This was the only place it could have been located to keep New England’s defenders from disrupting it. Had it been a foot shorter, the trailing corner would have broken it up. A foot inside, the safety would have done the same:
There’s no telling how New York’s drive would have turned out were this throw to have fallen incomplete. The fact Manning fit it in, however, provided the momentum for a touchdown that, for the second time in four years, allowed an underdog New York team to slay the mighty Patriots. That, and the exceptional degree of difficulty, makes Manning’s dime the second-greatest throw in Super Bowl history.
1. Big Ben-to-Santonio, Super Bowl 43
The undisputed king of all Super Bowl throws is one that is near and dear to the hearts of Steelers’ fans. Those of us who watched the game live know the details like the back of our hand. For those with hazier memories, here’s a refresher:
Pittsburgh led 20-16 late in the 4th quarter when Arizona took the lead on a stunning 64-yard catch-and-run by Larry Fitzgerald (strange side note: the score 20-16 was involved in three of these five scenarios). With just 2:47 remaining, the Steelers took possession deep in their own territory needing a field goal to tie or a touchdown to win. In vintage Big Ben fashion, Roethlisberger moved the offense down the field. He extended plays, pumped-faked the defense and improvised the Steelers into a goal-to-go situation. Then, on 2nd down, he did this:
Thirteen years later, it still gives me goose-bumps. Roethlisberger’s poise in the pocket was remarkable. Three different times, he cocked his arm to throw and then reset, all the while moving his head and his feet, scanning the field, seeking out a target. He wanted Santonio Holmes, who was breaking towards the right corner of the end zone, early. But Holmes was covered. Roethlisberger came back to the middle of the field, where he had a high-low with Heath Miller and Nate Washington. Neither route looked good, so he returned to Holmes, who now had three defenders around him. Undaunted, Roethlisberger threaded the ball into an impossibly small space above their outstretched arms and onto Holmes’s fingertips. Holmes did a magical job of cradling the throw while keeping his toes glued to the turf, then held on as he was hammered to the ground:
The photo below says it all. How Roethlisberger managed to fit the ball into that space, at that moment, is incredible. Credit the offensive line for providing him the time to find Holmes in the corner. Credit Holmes for a ridiculous catch. Most of all, though, credit Roethlisberger for having the guts and the ability to pull it off. Of the thousands of throws to have been launched in our 56 Super Bowls, this is the greatest.