Every superlative people apply to star players applied to Bart Starr.
Winner? Check. Leader? Check. Clutch? You bet.
Beyond all that, Starr, who died Sunday at the age of 85, was the on-field face of the most successful team of all time. But what about his stats?
That's precisely where one of the greatest players to ever lace 'em up loses a lot of arm-chair historians -- the idea that he doesn't have the numbers. And it's true that the quarterback for Vince Lombardi's powerful Green Bay Packer teams never threw for 4,000 yards or 40 touchdowns in a season, or for 400 yards in a game. But there is one number that puts more holes in that line of thinking than there are in a cheesehead hat: .900.
Highest QB postseason winning percentage since 1950 (minimum of 10 starts)
1) Bart Starr: .900 (9-1)
2) Jim Plunkett: .800 (8-2)
3) Tom Brady: .750 (30-10)
4) Terry Bradshaw: .737 (14-5)
5) Troy Aikman: .733 (11-4)
If we are to celebrate Peyton Manning's records to the hilt, then perhaps it is time to fully recognize Starr's accomplishment. He lost one playoff game out of 10. And they were all big ones. All but two of them -- divisional playoff matches in 1965 and '67 -- were NFL championship matchups of some sort. That includes the first two Super Bowls ever played. And here's a not-so-small footnote: Starr was the MVP of both Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II.
The one loss was Starr's first postseason affair, a defeat to the Eagles in the 1960 NFL Championship Game. If your only playoff "failure" was the first such start of your career, and it came on the road against a Hall of Fame quarterback, then you were probably a pretty damn good quarterback yourself. And with apologies to Norm Van Brocklin, Starr's legendary run with the Lombardi Packers shone a bit brighter than that of any signal-caller in his era.
Green Bay rode the embarrassment of that 1960 loss to an unprecedented -- and still unmatched -- five championships in seven years. Those Packers never faltered in January or late December. And make no mistake: When it came to what happened on the field, Starr was their unquestioned leader.
Sure, Vince Lombardi was able to forge great players out of many underachieving and never-will-be guys. And while Starr might have been a star at Alabama, he was a 17th-round pick in 1956 whose first three years in the NFL -- before Lombardi arrived -- were middling, at best. Yet, when it was time for Starr to answer the bell, he did -- and that carried into Lombardi's office.
The man whose name is on professional sports' most important trophy often let his players know who was the most important figure on the practice field, communicating precisely who was making mistakes. If that meant chewing out his young quarterback, then you can bet Starr would get an earful. But after this happened a few times, Starr had the gumption -- combined with just the right touch of humility -- to let Lombardi know that if he was to be the man between the sidelines, then getting yelled at in front of the team time and again would not exactly be conducive to success.
Lombardi obliged Starr's request, and together, the future Hall of Famers thrived, with Starr serving as a milder-mannered extension of the coach. The former 200th overall pick became a household name across America, synonymous with winning. Kind of like Tom Brady -- himself a 199th overall pick -- Starr carried out the plan of a coach who was more famous than he, and he did it in such a fashion that made it look easy.
Unlike Brady, however, Starr soared above his contemporaries in the playoffs. Actually, given the historical record, he soared higher than Brady, too. And John Elway. And Joe Montana. Another rejoinder to those who might want to call Starr a game manager? His postseason passer rating of 104.8 is also the best in NFL history.
Highest postseason passer rating since 1950 (min. 150 attempts)
1) Bart Starr: 104.8
2) Kurt Warner: 102.8
3) Matt Ryan: 100.8
4) Drew Brees: 100.0
5) Aaron Rodgers: 99.4
Bill Parcells once labeled game managers "bus drivers." But if Starr was merely driving the Packers' bus, well, it was cruising through traffic.
A game manager doesn't throw for 300-plus yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions, like Starr did in the 1966 NFL Championship Game. That performance -- on the road, no less -- was no fluke. I have a copy of that contest, and I know Starr was the difference, the reason the Packers went to the first ever Super Bowl rather than watching the Cowboys play the Chiefs.
A game manager doesn't tell his head coach which play he wants to run on fourth-and-goal with seconds left in the 1967 NFL Championship Game before -- without notifying his teammates -- keeping the ball and scoring on the most famous 1-yard plunge ever. That moment sent the Packers to Super Bowl II.
A game manager does not become known for taking chances deep on third-and-1 when the defense isn't expecting it -- something Starr did on numerous occasions.
What an all-time quarterback does do is perform at his best when the stakes are highest.
It's worth noting that, as many call for filmmaker Steve Sabol to enter the Hall of Fame, Starr was a leading figure in many of NFL Films' early productions. That, too, was a byproduct of both his clutch play in big moments and the overarching success of the most significant team in pro football's past.
Being underrated can take on many forms. In this case, you can throw that oft-used adjective in with all the other superlatives uttered about the Packers legend. Because when you are so good that people don't see you fail enough, that everything looks easy, the appreciation due frequently becomes overdue.
Perhaps Starr just managed success even better than he did games.