Stanford vs. Cal: Which school has produced the greatest NFL players?

Nov. 16, 2022, 12:54 a.m.

This weekend marks the 125th year of the oldest football rivalry on the West Coast, between the Stanford Cardinal (3-7, 1-7 Pac-12) and California Golden Bears (3-7, 1-6 Pac-12). Their first meeting occurred on March 19, 1892, where Stanford won 14-10. And their latest matchup materialized on Nov. 20, 2021, where Cal won an astounding 41-11. Still, the Stanford Cardinal hold an all-time 65–48–11 record over the California Golden Bears.

Through all these years, Berkeley has won more national titles while Stanford has won more conference titles. Although Stanford has a greater winning percentage, Cal has more victories overall. Cal has more first-round draft picks, while Stanford has produced more NFL draft picks. Thus, both schools have produced NFL talent and the Big Game has featured some of the most well-known players and moments in the history of football.

This competitive nature of the school’s football rivalry extends past NFL success. It is ingrained into school cultures. Any long-standing fan of the Cardinal remembers what has become known as “The Play,” which occurred in 1982 at the 85th Big Game. On the game’s last play, Cal returned a kickoff for a score by running past the Stanford band and utilizing numerous laterals, as Cal beat John Elway’s ‘83 Cardinal 25-20. Further, since 1911, Stanford has produced a student-run play the week of the Big Game in order to taunt the Golden Bears and pump students up for the Big Game. The LSJUMB, Stanford’s marching band, also performs the “BEARIAL” every year, which is a stabbing of the Golden Bear at White Plaza.

With such a culture surrounding this singular game, it is only fair to analyze which school has produced the greatest NFL prospects since the rivalry began, as well as the NFL careers of those players. From Stanford, we will look at Jim Plunkett ‘70, James Lofton ‘77, John Elway ‘83, John Lynch ‘93, Andrew Luck ‘11 and Christian McCaffrey ‘17. From Cal, we will look at Steve Bartowski ‘74, Tony Gonzalez ‘96, Cameron Jordan ‘10, Aaron Rodgers ‘04 and Marshawn Lynch ‘06.

These are just some of the great NFL players that have come out of both Berkeley and Stanford, and we are likely to see both universities produce even greater NFL talent in the years to come. For instance, we must recognize the talents of Berkeley’s Keenan Allen ‘12 and likewise Stanford’s Toby Gerhart ‘09 and Richard Sherman ‘10. As we look forward to the game this weekend , it is significant to reflect on how these Big Game players have transformed football. They have paved the path for many youth players, inspiring them on their journey to the NFL, and moreover, they have helped shape the way the game is played today.

Stanford and Berkeley in the NFL

We begin by looking at two quarterbacks who dominated the league in the early 1980s, Stanford’s Jim Plunkett and Berkeley’s Steve Bartowski. The Patriots selected Jim Plunkett with the first overall pick in the 1971 NFL Draft. Plunkett played five seasons for the Patriots before being traded to San Francisco and then released due to injuries. He then signed with the Raiders in 1979, and that is where his career finally took off.

In Week 5 of the 1980 season, the Raiders’ first string quarterback, Dan Pastorini, broke his leg, and Plunkett secured the starting job. That year, he led the Raiders to win a Super Bowl (first Wild Card team to ever win a Super Bowl) and secured Super Bowl MVP. He then led the Raiders to another Super Bowl victory in 1983.

Similarly, the Atlanta Falcons selected Steve Bartkowski with the first overall pick in the 1975 NFL Draft, and he proved himself immediately by winning the Rookie of the Year award. In both the 1980 and 1981 NFL seasons, he recorded 30+ touchdowns, becoming one of only nine quarterbacks in NFL history to do so. He even set the record for the most back-to-back home games with at least three touchdown passes during the 1980-1981 NFL season. These breakout performances enabled him to be selected for the Pro Bowl in both these years.

During the same period, Stanford wide receiver James Lofton was dominating the league. Lofton was selected as the first overall choice in the 1978 draft by the Green Bay Packers and proceeded to have a 16-year career. Over the course of 16 seasons, Lofton caught 764 passes for over 14,000 yards, and in nine of those seasons, he made over 50 receptions. Thus, by his retirement, he led the league in career receiving yards. Lofton was so effective throughout his career due to his toughness and durability; he became the first NFL player to score a touchdown in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. In 1991, at the age of 35, he became the oldest receiver to amass 1,000 receiving yards. Lofton played in eight Pro Bowls during his career and in 13 playoff games, including for the Bills in Super Bowl XXVI.

Speaking of durability, we must reminisce about Stanford quarterback John Elway, who many consider as Stanford’s greatest NFL player ever. During his 16 year NFL career (1993-1998), Elway led his team to six AFC championship games and two Super Bowl victories. This included the Denver Broncos’ first-ever Super Bowl victory, defeating the favored Green Bay Packers 31-24. But, Elway is renowned for his record 47 fourth-quarter drives that either won or tied games. His most memorable fourth quarter comeback is remembered as “The Drive,” where he led a 98-yard touchdown drive in five minutes to tie the Cleveland Browns during the 1986 AFC championship game.

Elway is the only quarterback to have completed more than 3,000 passing yards and 200+ rushing yards in seven consecutive seasons. Moreover, at the time of his retirement, he finished second all-time in passing yards with 51,475 and second all-time in completions with 4,123. And during his 16 year career, Elway threw 300 touchdowns to produce 4,771 of the 5,806 points scored by the Broncos. He was chosen to participate in nine Pro Bowl contests and was honored as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1987.

As Elway’s career was coming to an end, Berkeley tight end Tony Gonzales entered the league, being drafted in the first round of the 1997 NFL draft by the Kansas City Chiefs. Through his 17 seasons, Gonzales redefined the importance of a tight end to an NFL team, and today, he is considered the greatest tight end to ever play the game of football. He is the all-time leader for tight ends in catches with 1,325 receptions, receiving yards with 15,127 and touchdowns with 111, and therefore, similar to John Elway, he is considered Berkeley’s greatest NFL player ever.

In three of 17 seasons, Gonzalez recorded 10 or more touchdowns, surpassed 900 receiving yards in nine of 17 seasons, and never caught less than 59 passes in 16 of 17 seasons. His breakout started during his third season (1999), where he led the Chiefs with 76 receptions for 849 yards and 11 touchdowns, earning him his first of 14 Pro Bowl selections and first of seven All-Pro selections. And after that, his numbers continue to grow. Most importantly, Gonzalez only missed a single game through his career, both regular season and playoffs included.

Turning to the defensive side, just years before Tony Gonzales entered the league, Stanford’s John Lynch was selected in the third round of the 1993 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He began to tyrannize the league during his fourth season (1997), when he completed more than 100 tackles, made three interceptions and was voted to his first pro bowl. He proceeded to have 90+ tackle seasons in nine of the 11 remaining seasons of his career.

Additionally, Lynch’s greatest impact came during the 2002 season, where he helped lead the Buccaneers to their first ever Super Bowl victory. During the Buccaneers’ 12-win regular season, Lynch made 50 solo tackles, 46 assisted tackles, 12 pass deflections and three interceptions. He continued with high production through the playoffs, leading to the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl XXXVII victory. In 2004, Lynch signed with the Broncos, and even though he was 33 years of age, he recorded a career-high four sacks and forced four fumbles and made 69 tackles. 

We now turn to the modern era.

Berkeley has also produced some defensive talent, namely defensive end Cameron Jordan. Through 12 NFL seasons and 176 games, Jordan has recorded 419 solo tackles, 248 assisted tackles, 107 sacks (second most in Saints’ history), 58 passes deflected, two interceptions, 13 forced fumbles and 10 fumble recoveries.

Through his 11 playoff games, he has recorded 32 solo tackles and 5.5 sacks. These numbers are largely due to his explosive speed and physical strength which have allowed him to register 7.5 sacks in 10 consecutive seasons, record 1.5 or more sacks in 25 games in his career and become the fourth player in Saints’ history to record double-digit sacks in more than six seasons. With such production, he had been selected to seven pro bowls, including the 2021 season, where he recorded 59 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 22 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles.

Berkeley seems to have Stanford beat in the modern-day quarterback battle with Aaron Rodgers, but we must not forget Luck’s legendary career. In 2008, Rodgers took over as the Packers’ starting quarterback, and soon after, he won the Super Bowl MVP in 2010, leading the Packers to victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Also, Rodgers is the first quarterback to ever record a career passer rating over 100 and is third all time NFL’s all-time regular-season passer ratings.

Throughout the entire 2010s, he has had the highest passer rating, the best touchdown-to-interception ratio, and the lowest passing interception percentage, and thus he is one of few NFL players to win MVP multiple times in a row.

Andrew Luck finished his NFL career with 23,671 yards, 2,000 completions and 171 touchdowns. In the 2012 NFL draft, he was selected as the first overall by the Colts, and he immediately had an impact. He set the record for the most passing yards in a season by a rookie quarterback, leading the Colts to an 11-win season and a playoff run. Just the year before, the Colts finished with just two wins. And in 2014, he helped the Colts reach the 2014 AFC Championship Game and led the league in passing touchdowns. He had transformed the team with his performance, earning Pro Bowl selections during his first three seasons in the NFL.

However, his career turned downhill due to injuries, and he was sidelined for all of the 2017 season. After a comeback year in 2018, where he earned the Comeback Player of the Year award, Luck retired ahead of the 2019 season. 

Now for a critical question for the readers. Who is the greater overall player, running back Christian McCaffrey or running back Marshawn Lynch? 

It is difficult to say. The 49ers defeated the Rams 31-14 in Week 8 of this NFL season, and McCaffrey became just the fourth player since 1970 to score a rushing, receiving and passing touchdown in the same contest. He was targeted 27 times over the course of 42 snaps and carried the ball 18 times for 94 yards and a touchdown.

Throughout his career, McCaffrey has set multiple records. He became the second player ever to record 50 yards rushing, 50 yards receiving and 50 yards passing all in the same game. And in 2019, he became the third NFL player to record 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in one season. Plus, we cannot forget the 2015 Seahawks debacle. With less than a minute left in the Super Bowl, the Seahawks were one yard from a score and a lead, the ideal time to use Marshawn Lynch. But they didn’t, a lack of trust perhaps, costing the Seahawks the Super Bowl against the Patriots.

Bringing it back to the Big Game

Throughout this piece, we have analyzed NFL prospects who became successful NFL players. Similarly, we can look forward to the performance to a number of NFL prospects this weekend. Though Cardinal is a heavy underdog heading into Saturday after losing to Washington State 52-14 this past weekend, these players will bring Stanford the victory. Moreover, we hope to see these players thrive in the NFL, becoming players who transform the game of football. These players include quarterback Tanner McKee ‘23, cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly ‘23, offensive tackle Miles Hilton ‘23, wide receiver Elijah Higgins ‘23, running back EJ Smith ‘23, tight end Benjamin Yurosek ‘23, center Drake Nurgent ‘23, safety Patrick Fields ‘23 and offensive tackle Walter Rouse ‘23.

We will bring home the win this weekend. GO STANFORD!

Amsal Ali is a writer for the sports section. He is from Los Angeles and studies economics, political science and data science. His favorite sports are basketball, football, soccer and water polo. Contact him at [email protected]

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