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Most Valuable Football Rookie Cards Come of Age in Playoffs

Stars–and star cards–are born in the post-season.

by: Mike Stack

The NFL Playoffs can make or break a player. Many have become icons after a string of great post-season performances. For others, regular season heroics are overlooked if the effort doesn’t carry over when the season is really on the line.

Perhaps the greatest play of NFL history was the “Immaculate Reception”–Raiders vs Steelers on December 23rd, 1972. It had been a hard-fought defensive struggle that saw the Raiders holding a lead of 7-6 with 22 seconds left in the game.The Steelers were faced with fourth down on their own 40-yard line. After avoiding a strong rush their quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, threw a pass to Frenchy Fuqua that was broken up by a hit from Jack Tatum. The football, however, bounced in the direction of Franco Harris who caught it inches before it would have hit the ground and ended the game. Harris proceeded to run for the winning touchdown and became a hero in Pittsburgh. Over the next seven years he would have a series of great playoff performances in leading the Steelers to four Super Bowl championships.

1973 Topps Franco Harris rookie card Harris’ rookie card has enjoyed inflated value from his playoff performances and memories of the Immaculate Reception. It is in the 1973 Topps set and has a book value of $50. It would likely sell for less than $20 if the Steelers hadn’t enjoyed such a successful run.

The other participant in the Immaculate Reception also made his fame through the NFL playoffs. If you look at his statistics alone, Terry Bradshaw was a solid NFL quarterback–but not in the company of all-time greats. Without his playoff successes, it’s questionable whether he would even have made the Hall of Fame. In the playoffs, however, Bradshaw was often sensational. He led the Steelers to four Super Bowl wins. Twice he was voted the game’s Most Valuable Player. He retired holding many playoff and Super Bowl records. It was those performances that made him a Hall of Fame member.

Bart Starr is another player whose performance in the NFL Playoffs made his career. He led the Packers to numerous playoff victories but is best known for winning the first two Super Bowl games and scoring the winning touchdown in the “Ice Bowl”. The Packers had the ball on the Dallas one yard line and were down by three points. Rather than try to tie the game with a field goal, Starr conversed with Vince Lombardi and snuck into the end zone to win the game. The steady effort of Starr in the mind-numbing sub zero temperatures did as much for his enduring popularity than the rest of his career combined.Starr’s 1957 Topps rookie card is one of the most desirable vintage football cards ever issued.

One can look at the careers of Joe Montana and Dan Fouts to see the importance of the NFL Playoffs to a player’s popularity. Fouts played in an era when teams like the Steelers and the Cowboys dominated the Super Bowl. He set many passing records in the regular season but had trouble in the playoffs. His Chargers lost games to the Oilers, Bengals and Raiders in the playoffs in successive years. Coming up short didn’t help Fouts on the road to superstar status with collectors.

Joe Montana, on the other hand, thrived in the playoffs. He led the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl titles. Montana’s clutch play turned him into a revered athlete with some believing he’s the greatest quarterback of all time.

The influence of football player’s playoff performances can be measured by the values of his cards. Bradshaw’s 1971 Topps rookie card has a book value of $200. Fouts’ rookie card, a 1975 Topps, books for $35. Joe Montana’s 1981 Topps rookie card books for $150, an extremely high value for a card from the modern era.

Sometimes it is one playoff game that make a player popular, other times it can be either an entire playoff career or as little as one play. Kellen Winslow is defined in a big part by his tremendous performance in a 1982 overtime playoff win. In addition to dominating the game from his tight end position he also blocked a kick on special teams to help secure the victory. Ironically, Fouts played well, but was overshadowed by his tight end Kellen Winslow. That was the story of Fouts’ career, never good enough, even in one of his best games.

Tom Brady and Jim Kelly offer another example of the influence of playoff Tom Brady Super Bowl card performance on popularity. Kelly led Buffalo to four Super Bowls, but the Bills lost all of them. In the most famous game the Bills won during this time frame, Kelly was injured and gave way to backup Frank Reich who led the team to victory over the Oilers in the greatest comeback in playoff history.

Tom Brady, on the other hand, has been stellar in leading the New England Patriots to three Super Bowl titles. If you take away the playoffs and look only at the regular season there is not much difference between these two players. The NFL playoff performance of each of them has made one an icon and the other a merely very good player with flaws.

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