Wide receivers are responsible for many of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl lore. However, they rarely earn MVP honors, even if they make their quarterbacks look like geniuses with acrobatic catches that push the limits of athleticism. Teams without great wide receivers typically have difficulty spreading the defense of their opponents, reducing the odds of winning the Super Bowl drastically.
For Super Bowl LI, Julian Edelman leads the New England Patriots receiver corps while Julio Jones promises to pick apart the Patriots secondary on behalf of the Atlanta Falcons. There’s a good chance that one of these two stars will make a huge difference in the final score, perhaps surpassing the excellence of the five best wide receivers in Super Bowl history.
5. Michael Irvin
Michael Irvin didn’t win a Super Bowl MVP, but he was one of the most consistent wide receivers during the Dallas Cowboys three championships during the 1990s. His first appearance in the big game was his best, catching six passes for 114 yards, including a pair of touchdown receptions. Irvin’s back-to-back TDs in the second quarter boosted Dallas out of reach against the Bills during Super Bowl XXVII, putting the Cowboys up by 18 at the end of the first half.
Irvin also lead the Cowboys in yards gained during Super Bowl XXX versus the Pittsburg Steelers, gaining 76 yards on five receptions. In Super Bowl XXVIII, Irwin helped to keep Dallas competitive long enough for running back Emmitt Smith to take over in the second half of the game. The combination of Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin drove opposing secondaries nuts during the 90s, opening space for the entire Cowboys offense. In three Super Bowl appearances, Irvin earned 256 yards on 16 receptions, scoring a pair of touchdowns on the path to three championship rings.
4. Deion Branch
As one of Tom Brady’s favorite targets during the first decade of the millennium, Deion Branch was the best wide receiver during Super Bowl XXXVIII and XXXIX, gaining the most yards in both games. He was named MVP for Super Bowl XXXIX, the only time Tom Brady hasn’t earned this honor for a New England Patriots championship. Branch’s contributions were crucial – these Super Bowls were determined by a field goal, and Branch was instrumental in setting up both winning kicks.
During his MVP performance, Branch started the second half with four catches on New England’s first drive, earning 71 yards and setting up a two-yard touchdown pass to Mike Vrabel. The Patriots would remain ahead for the rest of the game, and he managed to earn the MVP nod without scoring a touchdown. In fact, during his three Super Bowl appearances, he scored only a single touchdown, despite earning 321 yards on 24 receptions. His ability to find space in close games helped to drive New England during two of their first three championships during the Brady era.
3. John Stallworth
Part of perhaps the best wide receiver duo in NFL history along with Lynn Swann, John Stallworth was a member of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty which won four Super Bowls in six years, including two back-to-back championships. Stallworth didn’t see an abnormally high number of passes thrown his way during his four appearances, but his impact on Super Bowl XIII and XIV was undeniable.
Against the Dallas Cowboys, Terry Bradshaw linked with Stallworth for a pair of touchdowns, including a 75-yard score that changed the momentum of the game after a fumble cost the Steelers a touchdown to begin the second quarter. After catching a quick toss from Bradshaw, Stallworth spun away from his assignment and split between a pair of defenders for the TD.
In the next Super Bowl against Los Angeles, he repeated the feat by scoring another clutch touchdown, this time to put the Steelers ahead for good in the fourth quarter with a 73-yard score. His over-the-shoulder catch is considered one of the finest in Super Bowl history, performed at full speed with defensive back Rod Perry in his grill. During his last two Super Bowls, he earned 236 of his 268 yards in his championship game career, scoring three touchdowns, two of which are the longest in Super Bowl history.
2. Lynn Swann
“The kangaroo catch” and the “levitating leap” – Lynn Swann’s the only Super Bowl wide receiver with two catches in one game that have their own name. The first wide receiver to earn an MVP award in the championship game did so through a pair of the most legendary catches in league history. He also caught a 64-yard pass for the winning touchdown. In Super Bowl X, Swann had four receptions for 161 yards, catching 77% of Terry Bradshaw’s 209 passing yards. The difficulty of these three catches, and the fact that the Steelers beat the Cowboys by four points, makes Lynn Swann’s performance among the most clutch in the sport.
Swann was also instrumental in the Steelers second Super Bowl win over the Cowboys, snagging seven receptions for 124 yards. This included another game-winning touchdown grab, putting Dallas far enough out of reach to prevent a comeback. Pittsburgh’s Swann and Stallworth were the catalysts for three of the four Super Bowls victories, helping Bradshaw collect a pair of Super Bowl MVPs in the process.
Swann’s athleticism was ahead of his time, without an offensive system that could leverage his speed, grace and leaping power. Nevertheless, he set a Super Bowl standard of excellence, surpassed only by the best wide receiver in history.
1. Jerry Rice
One of the best athletes in all of professional sport, and the best wide receiver in NFL history, Jerry Rice somehow managed to last 20 years in the NFL without becoming a casualty. He owns career receiving records that are unlikely to be touched, including 1,549 pass receptions, 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns. His single season record of 1,848 yards gained in 1995 will also be tough to match.
Jerry Rice happens to own numerous pass receiving records in the Super Bowl as well. In four games, he caught 33 receptions, gained 589 yards and scored 8 touchdowns. Similar to his regular season records, his Super Bowl records are likely to remain safe for a long time.
In his first three Super Bowl games with the San Francisco 49ers, he caught 29 passes for 512 yards, including a 215-yard, 148-yard and 149-yard performance. He caught three TD passes in consecutive appearances, once with Joe Montana, the other time paired with Steve Young.
Rice’s record of 215 yards was so amazing that he was named Super Bowl XXIII MVP over Joe Montana, despite Montana’s famous final touchdown pass to John Taylor. Most people don’t talk much about the fact that Rice caught 51 yards during that famous drive, including a 27-yard grab on second and twenty to set up the final sequence.