An improbable player is one who, before that season, was never considered a strong candidate to earn Super Bowl MVP.
Many of the winners were players already considered among the best over a long period of time. San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana had unquestionably been one of the elite players in the league when he received the award after his five-touchdown-pass clinic in Super Bowl XXIV (Jan. 28th, 1990, San Francisco 55, Denver Broncos 10).
These Super Bowl MVPs were those who didn’t enter the season nearly as prominent.
1. Super Bowl XXII – Doug Williams
Back In 1979, quarterback Doug Williams would’ve made a fantastic Super Bowl MVP candidate. He and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hosted the NFC title game that season. The Bucs were 9-0 losers to the Los Angeles Rams.
Williams and the Buccaneers then had an acrimonious dispute (is there a non-acrimonious one?). He sat out a year, signing with the new USFL and Oklahoma Outlaws. So, after the league folded, he joined the Washington then-Redskins and his former Bucs’ offensive coordinator, Washington coach Joe Gibbs. In 1986, he only attempted one pass while sitting on the sidelines. He understudied Jay Schroeder in 1987 as well.
Williams subbed at quarterback at a few points throughout the season, with Schroeder having a hard time staying healthy. Gibbs turned the team over to Williams, and the result made history. Despite suffering a knee injury early in Super Bowl XXII (Jan. 31, 1988), Williams ended his day by throwing four touchdown passes, all in the second quarter. Washington finished with 35 second-quarter points en route to crushing Denver, 42-10.
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2. Super Bowl XV – Jim Plunkett
Who didn’t love quarterback Jim Plunkett coming out of Stanford? He was the 1970 winner of the Heisman, the first choice of the ‘71 draft by the New England Patriots. Things weren’t pleasant, however. Plunkett had a generally-dreadful offensive line (excepting Hall of Famer guard John Hannah), often failing to give him protection. Plunkett bottomed out in New England (five seasons), and not much better with the San Francisco 49ers (two seasons).
When Plunkett joined the Oakland Raiders in 1978, he sat behind Ken Stabler on the bench. However, once Stabler was traded to the Houston Oilers in 1980, Plunkett was given the job. He hadn’t played in ‘78, attempted just 15 passes in ‘79. He and the Raiders made the postseason as a wild-card team, where it caught fire.
Ahead of Super Bowl XV (Jan. 15th 1981), the Philadelphia Eagles were field-goal favorites. It was all Silver and Black, however.
Plunkett only completed 13 passes, but had three touchdowns as the Raiders trounced the Eagles, 27-10. Linebacker Rod Martin and his record three interceptions would’ve been a surprise winner (see criteria) as well.
3. Super Bowl XXX – Larry Brown
Dallas Cowboys’ cornerback Deion Sanders was signed as a premier free agent prior to the 1995 season. Larry Brown, the “other” cornerback, had been selected in the 12th round (TCU), and wasn’t nearly as noticeable that season. Furthermore, with Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and a plethora of other skilled players on that roster, it was highly improbable that Brown would win Super Bowl MVP honors.
Brown did see a lot of passes coming his way as opposition quarterbacks avoided challenging Sanders. Brown had six interceptions, tying as the team leader in that category, with two of the interceptions as pick-sixes.
A few days after the Cowboys’ Week 11 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Brown suffered a deep personal loss as his prematurely-born son, Christopher, passed away at just 10 weeks. ‘
Dallas opposed the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX, favored by nearly two touchdowns, The Cowboys won their third Super Bowl (Jan, 28th, 1996) in four seasons, 27-17. Brown’s two interceptions (Pittsburgh quarterback Neil O’Donnell essentially handed both to him) punctuated the performance. Brown then parlayed those picks into a fat, free-agent contract with the Oakland Raiders (playing just 16 games over three non-descript seasons).
4. Super Bowl XXXI – Desmond Howard
Desmond Howard was another winner of the Heisman, doing so with the Michigan Wolverines in 1991. In the ‘92 draft, the Washington then-Redskins took Howard at No. 4, using him as a wide receiver. Throughout his three seasons in Washington, Howard saw his numbers increase to 40 receptions (72 yards, five touchdowns) in 1994, though not spectacular.
He wasn’t very effective in 1995 with the Jacksonville Jaguars, having finished with 26 receptions. However, after the Green Bay Packers signed him as a return specialist in 1996, he flourished. He was the league leader in punt returns (58), return yards (875) and return touchdowns (three). Continuing that threat in the postseason, Howard victimized the San Francisco 49ers with a 71-yard punt return.
Then, in Super Bowl XXXI (Jan. 26th, 1997), Howard was instrumental as the Green Bay Packers won their first championship in nearly three decades, 35-21. Returning a kickoff 99 yards in the third quarter after the New England Patriots had closed to within six points. Howard is the only player to receive the Super Bowl MVP award solely on a special-teams play. He ended with four kickoff returns (154 yards) and six punt returns (90 yards).