At Super Bowl 53, Tom Brady will be angling for his sixth NFL championship ring. If he fails, few people outside of the six states of New England will feel badly about it.
But there are 91 other players who take the field on Feb. 3 who will be in various stages of their first, last, or best chances to lift the Lombardi Trophy. Rising stars, sentimental favorites, and oft-overlooked journeymen will all have the chance to do what legends like Dan Marino, Randy Moss, and Junior Seau never did — claim their spot atop of the NFL and earn their spot drinking light beers and dancing top an open-roofed bus in a championship parade.
Even with the Patriots in the mix, majority of the athletes in this year’s Super Bowl have never won a league title. The range of experience for these ring-less wonders carries from undrafted rookies to 13-year veteran Andrew Whitworth. They’ll all be looking for the ultimate validation — a spot in a postgame shower of confetti, the opportunity to do happy Sunday night drinking instead of sad, and, months down the line, a ring so stuffed with jewels that wearing it for just 20 minutes would give mere mortals carpal tunnel syndrome.
There are several worthy candidates to earn their first Super Bowl title — but some are more worthy than others. So who do we want to see smiling and holding the Lombardi Trophy once the final whistle of the 2018 NFL season is blown?
Andrew Whitworth, OT, Rams
In 11 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, Whitworth got to the playoffs six times and couldn’t get a single win. In his first season with the Rams, the offensive tackle made his seventh trip to the postseason and made another immediate exit.
It wasn’t until his eighth trip to the playoffs, and 13th season in the NFL, that Whitworth finally got that elusive first postseason victory. It was a special moment for the 37-year old, who celebrated on the field with his kids.
“Name a guy who deserves it more,” Rams offensive lineman Rodger Saffold told ESPN after the game.
Whitworth was the Rams’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award and donated one of his game checks this season to victims of a November mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
He’s played over a decade at one of NFL’s most thankless positions and he’s been an all-around good guy every step of the way. Super Bowl 53 may be his last chance to win a ring and that seems like a perfect way to cap his career.
Jason McCourty, CB, Patriots
It’s no secret the world is sick of the Patriots on football’s grandest stage — and in general, it seems — that doesn’t mean there aren’t players on the New England roster who’ve earned our begrudging respect in their quest for a ring. McCourty, rescued from the Browns last summer, may be first and foremost among them.
After spending eight playoff-free years in Tennessee and then going winless in Cleveland, he’s finally getting his chance to shine. The 10-year veteran has stood watch while his identical twin Devin earned All-Pro honors and a pair of Super Bowl rings with the Patriots. Any championship parades he attended were strictly in a supporting role for his sibling.
McCourty barely made the team’s roster after a tumultuous preseason, but he’s had a resurgent season for a New England secondary that held opponents to an 86.6 passer rating in 2018 — the rough equivalent of crisis mode Andy Dalton. He rated out as Pro Football Focus’s 14th-rated cornerback, 43 spots higher than the man he was brought in to replace, Super Bowl 49 hero Malcolm Butler.
After nearly a decade of toiling away on teams that ranged from “mediocre” to “historically terrible,” he’s finally getting his chance to shine in the biggest game of the season. Sure, the rest of the Patriots may be hateable, but if you’re rooting against Jason McCourty you’ve probably also got an opinion on noise variances in the town of Whoville.
Todd Gurley, RB, Rams (and really, the rest of the Jeff Fisher era Rams)
Todd Gurley has developed into arguably the best running back in the league since Sean McVay was hired as the Rams head coach. Now it’s time for him to fully wash the stink of the Jeff Fisher era off of him with a Super Bowl.
Gurley had a tough 2016 season, averaging just 3.2 yards per carry in an offense that had minimal blocking and even less creativity. The Rams prehistoric offense was one of the worst in league history, making gameday extremely difficult for a talented player like Gurley.
Now, he’s free — along with several other Rams’ players that have gotten a chance to shine with a forward thinking head coach. Outside of Gurley we’ve seen Jared Goff, Rodger Saffold, Rob Havenstein, and Tyler Higbee develop into quality offensive players. That likely doesn’t happen without the change from Fisher to McVay.
It would feely awfully sweet for talented players that saw the lowest of the low with this organization get a championship ring. Todd Gurley is certainly one of those players.
John Fassel, special teams coordinator, Rams
Speaking of the Jeff Fisher stench, let’s give it up for John Fassel. Not only did Fassel have the most memeable reaction to Fisher’s firing:
But he even took over as interim coach in December 2016 — and then went 0-3. Here’s how good of a special teams coach “Bones” is: McVay still retained him, making him the only coach on the Rams left over from the Fisher ordeal.
Fassel’s unit is consistently one of the best in the NFL. They can even flawlessly execute gender reveals.
The Rams wouldn’t be in the Super Bowl without their reliable special teamers, either. Trailing 13-0 at the start of the second quarter, the Rams were lined up to punt again, another empty possession. But it was a fake! Punter Johnny Hekker completed a pass to Sam Shields, giving the Rams a first down and sparking a drive that ended in a field goal.
Later, Greg Zuerlein’s game-tying field goal sent the Rams to overtime against the Saints in the NFC Championship Game. Less than four minutes of game time later, his 57-yarder sent the Rams on to Atlanta.
Fassel has been around football his entire life, but like his father, he’s never won a Super Bowl. Jim Fassel was hired by the Giants as a quarterbacks coach right after they won Super Bowl 25. Several years later, Jim became the Giants head coach and even got them to a Super Bowl — with Kerry Collins! — during the 2000 season. They got crushed by the Ravens.
This is the closest John Fassel has gotten to a Super Bowl, but he’s earned it. Plus, he saved someone’s life once. Karma owes him one.
Obi Melifonwu, S, Patriots
2018 was the year Jon Gruden’s castoffs helped non-Raiders teams across the league. Khalil Mack was the driving force behind the Bears’ first NFC North title since 2010. Amari Cooper turned a 3-4 Cowboys team into the NFC East champions.
And those are just the guys he’s traded. C.J. Anderson got cut by Oakland in December and is now the leading rusher for the NFC champion Rams. Defensive tackle Treyvon Hester received his west coast walking papers before the start of the regular season, then came back to partially block Cody Parkey’s game-winning Wild Card field goal attempt to secure an upset playoff win for the Eagles.
Melifonwu can be the next link of this schadenfreude chain. The former second-round pick was released by Gruden after just five games with the Raiders, and while the raw, uber-athletic safety hasn’t done much with the Patriots, he may be needed in Super Bowl 53. The Rams boast one of the league’s top-five passing attacks, with two different wide receivers — Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods — who had more than 1,200 receiving yards this season.
The Patriots activated Melifonwu for last week’s AFC title game against the Chiefs — another high-impact passing offense. While he only had one tackle, he avoided major mistakes and did enough to justify a spot on the field in his first Super Bowl. And, if the past 21 weeks are any indication, he’ll do enough to make his former coach look stupid in the process.
If you can’t root for the Patriots, you can always root for Jon Gruden to look bad instead.