It’s Super Sunday, and as we think about what it would take for our Vikings to once again get back to the big game, it’s worth looking into what secret sauce allows teams to advance to the biggest game in American sports- and win it.
When we think about Super Bowl teams of the past, we often think of the quarterbacks of those teams. Sometimes of dominating defenses. But what can history show us in terms of the common elements to Super Bowl winning teams in the recent past?
Let’s take a look.
A Top 10 Passer-Rating Quarterback
Of the 22 quarterbacks playing in the last 11 Super Bowls, 18 were top ten in passer rating the year they played in the Super Bowl. Two others were ranked 11th, and one more 14th. Only a broken Payton Manning in 2015 was well out of the top ten, at 37th. If you take out Manning’s outlier, the average Super Bowl QB passer rating ranking for that season is 6th. Oddly, the top ranked quarterback in passer rating hasn’t won the Super Bowl in the past 11 seasons, and as often as not, the lower ranked QB beat the higher ranked one in the Super Bowl.
The point here is top ten- not top 3, not MVP- is sufficient to get to, and win, the Super Bowl in a given year. Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Jimmy Garoppolo, Carson Wentz/Nick Foles, Jared Goff, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, a broken Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson, Alex Smith/Colin Kaepernick, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning - these are the quarterbacks that have played for the Super Bowl teams the last 11 seasons. Most have been top 10 most of the time, some have been top 10 only a few times.
Beyond being top ten, there isn’t a demonstrable advantage for a team to have the best performing quarterback when it comes to getting to, and winning, the Super Bowl. Other factors tend to be more important. The fact that plenty of top ten quarterbacks that don’t make it to the Super Bowl every year is proof of that. Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson, and Drew Brees have basically been top ten every year since 2015, Deshaun Watson since 2018, and none of them have been to the Super Bowl in that time.
A top ten QB passer rating is usually at least 95 over the past ten years, but 100+ are more common for Super Bowl winning quarterbacks.
A Head Coach with 5+ Years of Experience
This is as common a trait of a Super Bowl winning team as having a top ten quarterback and top ten turnover margin. 10 of the past 11 Super Bowl winning teams had a head coach with at least 5 years experience as a head coach. The only head coach without 5 years experience to win the Super Bowl since 2010 was Doug Pederson.
Interestingly, of the 6 head coaches without five years experience when they coached in the Super Bowl since 2010, none have returned to the big game, and three have since been fired.
A Top 10 Tight End in Yards per Route Run (Y/RR)
A top receiving tight-end may be the most surprising common element in Super Bowl winning teams over the past ten years or so, but it’s about as common as a top ten quarterback. Rob Gronkowski with the Patriots is one that stands out the most, as does Travis Kelce the last two seasons. But there is also George Kittle, Zach Ertz, Greg Olson, Julius Thomas, Dennis Pitta, Jake Ballard, and Jermichael Finley. They haven’t always had top ten seasons, but they did the year they went to the Super Bowl. Every year since 2010 at least one Super Bowl team has had a top ten TE, often top five, as did 9 of the last 11 Super Bowl winning teams.
Interestingly, having a top ten tight end in Y/RR is more common among Super Bowl teams over the last decade than having a top ten wide receiver in Y/RR. The last time both Super Bowl teams had a top ten wide receiver in Y/RR was ten years ago, with Victor Cruz and Wes Welker. That may diminish the importance of having at least one pretty good receiver, even though they may not be top ten in terms of Y/RR, which is the most comprehensive wide receiver production metric. Over the past 11 seasons, the Super Bowl winning team’s best WR in Y/RR was ranked 20th, on average - five spots lower than the losing team’s best WR.
The overall take-away here is that a top TE and good/reliable wide receiver seems to be the preferred combination, rather than two good/top wide receivers, and a top TE seems to be the most important of all, based on recent Super Bowl team history. The top TE has won 3 Super Bowl rings since 2010, while the top QB hasn’t won any.
An 85%+ Efficient Pass Blocking Offensive Line
The average OL pass blocking efficiency, as measured by PFF, for Super Bowl teams over the past 11 years is 85.5%. For the most recent Super Bowl winning teams, that number is closer to 87.5%. The only significant outliers were the 2011 Giants, who were outliers in just about everything for a Super Bowl team, and the 2010 Steelers. Both teams had OL pass blocking efficiency of 80%. The last five Super Bowl winners had better pass blocking lines than the losers.
In most of the past 11 seasons, 85%+ pass blocking efficiency was top half in the league.
A Sub-85 Passer Rating Allowed
On defense, Super Bowl winning teams prior to this year have allowed opposing quarterbacks an average passer rating of no more than 85.2, and an average of 79.5, since 2010. For Super Bowl losing teams, the average is 84.7.
There is a debate whether coverage or pass rush is more important in overall pass defense, and clearly both are important to some degree. When it comes to Super Bowl teams, the answer is both. What varies, to some degree is whether their coverage units or pass rush units were stronger.
What is clear is that pressure rates are more important than sack rates up front, and not having a clear weak link in the secondary is more important than having a shut-down corner. Super Bowl winning teams typically generate pressure on 40%+ of drop backs, and typically have two pass rushers with pass rush productivity rates of 7% or better, but team sack rates are not much better than league average.
Above all, the ability to generate takeaways, whether interceptions or fumbles, is paramount. Super Bowl winning teams generate roughly two takeaways per game, on average.
A Kicker with a 90%+ Field Goal Conversion Rate - Basically Top Ten
Beginning with the 2012 Super Bowl, the Super Bowl winning team has made 90% of their field goal attempts, on average. For both Super Bowl teams since 2010, the average field goal conversion rate has been 86%. Only one of the 22 Super Bowl teams since 2010 had a field goal conversion rate below 76% - the 2012 49ers.
So, field goals need to be pretty near automatic for a Super Bowl team, especially a Super Bowl winning team.
All Around Good - But Not Necessarily Tops in Everything
Having the above elements typically leads to an all-round good football team, one that executes well with a high degree of consistency on both sides of the ball, and that shows up in their general, overall stats.
What is also good to have, but not as common an element in Super Bowl winning teams in recent years is a top running back or a top wide receiver, leading the league in sacks, a top run defense, or even being among the best teams on 3rd down or in the red zone, or lowest in penalty yards per game. These are not bad things, but just not as highly correlated to winning the Super Bowl.
Top 10 in Turnover Margin
Only one Super Bowl winning team since the 2010 Super Bowl has been outside the top 8 in turnover margin per game, once again the outlying 2015 Broncos. Even the otherwise outlying 2011 Giants were 5th in turnover margin. The average rank for a Super Bowl team since 2010 in turnover margin is 6th. Both the extent of its being a common element in Super Bowl winning teams, and the very high rank suggest it’s a very important factor- at least as important as a Top 10 quarterback. If you eliminate the outlying Broncos again, as with QB passer rating, the average rank in turnover margin for Super Bowl winning teams since 2010 is 4.6. That equates to 11 more takeaways than giveaways over the course of the regular season, or +0.70 per game turnover margin.
A Top Ten Offense & Defense in Points / Points Allowed
This may not be particularly surprising, but it dispels any notion that a team can make it to the Super Bowl by being good on only one side of the ball, and just adequate on the other.
The maxim that defense wins championships is sometimes questioned and thought a bit old-fashioned in today’s NFL, but 12 of the last 14 teams playing on Super Sunday had a top ten defense in points allowed, and the better defense has won the last five Super Bowls. And of the last 22 teams to play in a Super Bowl, 17 of them had a top ten defense.
But, a top ten offense has proven to be slightly more important in getting to the Super Bowl, as 15 of the last 16 teams to play in the Super Bowl had a top ten offense in points scored during the regular season. However, the NFL’s #1 ranked defense has won the Super Bowl twice in the past 11 seasons, but the #1 offense has never won the Super Bowl in over that same period.
And, of the last eight Super Bowl winners, seven were top ten on both sides of the ball. The 2015 Broncos were the lone exception. Since then, every Super Bowl winner has had a top ten offense and defense.
Super Bowl winning teams are almost always among the best teams on both sides of the ball. They’re also tops in generating takeaways and in turnover margin. They have top quarterbacks, tight ends, and kickers. They have offensive lines in the top half in pass protection, and a defensive without a clear weak link in the secondary. They usually have two good pass rushers, and a head coach with at least five years’ experience in the job.
How close are the Vikings to a Super Winning team?
This poll is closed
A long way to go
Hard to tell