Thursday, February 01, 2007

The real Super Bowl Loser's Curse


Well, OK, so it turns out Peyton Manning can beat the Patriots in the playoffs after all. So those who despise him will have to come up with a new knee-jerk putdown. How about that old Dan Marino standby, "He's never won the Super Bowl"? Of course, if Manning's Colts beat the Bears on Sunday, that one won't apply either. But if the Colts lose, not only will it apply for this year, it'll probably apply for the rest of his career. Harsh, I admit, but true. Think winning three Super Bowls in four years is difficult? That's easy compared with the challenge of winning just one Super Bowl after you've made it to the big game and lost.

The now-defunct "Super Bowl Loser's Curse" held that the team that lost the NFL title game would miss the playoffs the next year. It wasn't a curse, of course, it was a coincidence, an accident of events, and it was based on all of five years' worth of Super Bowl losers:
The 2001 New York Giants simply fell back to earth a year after finishing first by default in a ridiculously weak NFC.

The 2002 St. Louis Rams lost their first- and second-string quarterbacks to injury.

The 2003 Oakland Raiders finally succumbed to advanced age.

The 2004 Carolina Panthers suffered a catastrophic string of injuries.

The 2005 Philadelphia Eagles were reduced to a shell by injuries to Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook, among others, then Terrell Owens smashed that shell with a hammer called ME ME ME.
That "curse" ended this year when the Seattle Seahawks limped into the playoffs in an NFC only slightly less dismal than 2000's. But there's another hex on Super Bowl losers, one that has gripped the league for more than a decade. Forget that business about returning to the playoffs the next year; three of the teams above did return within two years, and a fourth was back in the postseason three years later. (The Raiders may never return.) But none of them has returned to the Super Bowl.

That's the real Super Bowl Loser's Curse.

We hear so often how hard it is to win back-to-back Super Bowls. And it certainly is difficult -- but it's not all that unusual. Eight teams have repeated: the 1966-67 Packers, 1972-73 Dolphins, 1974-75 Steelers, 1978-79 Steelers, 1988-89 49ers, 1992-93 Cowboys, 1997-98 Broncos and 2003-04 Patriots. Thus sixteen of the 40 champions through 2006 -- 40% -- have been repeaters. Further, three teams won the Super Bowl and returned to the title game the next year but lost: the 1977-78 Cowboys, 1982-83 Redskins and 1996-97 Packers.

Now, how many teams have lost the Super Bowl and returned the next year? Seven, but pay close attention to when these teams accomplished this: the 1970-71 Cowboys and 1971-72 Dolphins, both of whom won in their return trip; the 1973-74 Vikings; the 1986-87 Broncos; and the 1990-93 Bills, who lost four straight Super Bowls (thus counting as three losers returning to the title game). What's significant about the dates is that all were before the NFL free-agency and salary-cap system as we know it today came into full effect. No Super Bowl loser in the free-agency, salary-cap era has returned to the title game the next year.

But so what, right? It's hard to get to the Super Bowl in back-to-back years. As we saw above, only three winners have even done so since '93. Well, let's expand our time frame. How many teams -- winners or losers -- have made it back to the Super Bowl within two years?


Back in
2 years?

Back in
2 years?
1993 Cowboys Yes, 1995 Bills No*
1994 49ers No Chargers No
1995 Cowboys No* Steelers No
1996 Packers Yes, 1997 Patriots No
1997 Broncos Yes, 1998 Packers No*
1998 Broncos No* Falcons No
1999 Rams Yes, 2001 Titans No
2000 Ravens No Giants No
2001 Patriots Yes, 2003 Rams No*
2002 Bucs No Raiders No
2003 Patriots Yes, 2004 Panthers No
2004 Patriots No* Eagles No
2005 Steelers n/a Seahawks n/a

Not including the '05 Steelers, who still have another year on the clock, six of the 12 NFL champions in the free agency era have returned within two years; two others (marked with asterisks) were themselves returnees. Among losers, however, none was back in the Super Bowl within two years, though three (also marked with asterisks) were returnees. Twelve years, twelve teams (13, including Seattle), and not one returned to the Super Bowl within two years -- or even three years or four years. In fact, only two of them have returned to the Super Bowl at all: the Patriots, after five years, and the Steelers, after 10. However, the 2001 Patriots had a different coach and only a handful of players remaining from the 1996 team. And coach Bill Cowher was the only thing the 1995 and 2005 Pittsburgh teams had in common. For all intents and purposes, these weren't even the same teams.

This curse -- the real curse -- doesn't seem to make a lot of sense on its face. Though some championship teams do leap suddenly from near-worst to first (1999 Rams, 2001 Patriots), many more make steady, incremental improvements all the way up to the Super Bowl. The Packers, for example, reached the divisional playoffs in 1993 and 1994 and the championship game in 1995 and won the Super Bowl in 1996. Look at the Bucs leading up to 2002 or the Steelers up to 2005. Each of these took the proverbial next step, going to the Super Bowl and winning.

And every year after the Super Bowl, the losing team tells its welcome-home rally that next season it's going to take the next step, too, and bring home the Lombardi Trophy. And no team ever takes that step. In fact, they fall off the staircase completely. Why has it been easier in the past dozen years to go from conference championship game loser to Super Bowl winner than it is to go from Super Bowl loser to Super Bowl winner?

Three theories:

The Missing Piece of the Puzzle
Often as not, the difference between the Super Bowl winner and the Super Bowl loser is minuscule. Last year's Super Bowl was decided either by a couple big plays (if you're partial to the Steelers) or a couple bad calls (for the Seahawks fans in the audience). The Patriots won three titles by a total of nine points. The Titans came up one yard short against the Rams. Denver-Green Bay went down to the final drive. The difference in Green Bay-New England was a couple kick returns. By virtue of a bounce of the ball or one missed block, one team takes home the trophy and one goes home to try to figure out what went wrong -- and how to fix it. The problem is, what if there isn't anything to fix? What if the team had the right players, the right coaches, the right scheme? They did get to the Super Bowl, after all. Any attempt to fix what went wrong will just muck up what had been a winning formula.

There's a problem with this theory, however: I can't prove it. Oh, it's a wonderful concept: Free agency has made it easier than ever to fix what isn't broken, fooling teams into thinking that changing personnel or strategy will get them over the top when in fact all they need is better execution. I think I'm drawn to this theory because the team I grew up watching, the Mike Lynn-era Minnesota Vikings, and the team I'm forced to pay attention to now, Dan Snyder's Washington Redskins, followed this strategy in spirit and in deed year after year, though neither ever made the Super Bowl. In 1989, the Vikings seemingly had the makings of a championship team. The one thing they were missing was a big, powerful back. So they made a deal with Dallas. The Vikings got their big back, Herschel Walker. The Cowboys got everything else. The Vikes would go 21-22 with Walker in the lineup. The Redskins, meanwhile, have made the playoffs twice since Snyder bought the team -- in 1999 and 2005. Both times, Washington followed up by adding a mess of overpaid (Deion Sanders, 2000), underqualified (Christian Fauria, 2006), over-the-hill (Mark Carrier, 2000), underutilized (T.J. Duckett, 2006), ill-considered (Adam Archuleta, 2006) or flat-out useless (Andre Reed, 2000) free agents.

As I said, I can't think of a Super Bowl loser that was obviously laid low by this strategy. I can, however, point to a Super Bowl winner who opted to fix what wasn't broken and paid the price. After winning it all in 2000, the Baltimore Ravens thanked quarterback Trent Dilfer, who'd done everything they'd asked, by cutting his bargain basement ass and all but begging Elvis Grbac to take $11 million to come play one lousy season. Genius.

My Big, Fat Obnoxious Laurels
I can make a stronger case for the exact opposite effect, in which an otherwise solid team's weakness is exposed, but it doesn't make any effort to correct that weakness going forward. Take the 2001 Rams. Their offense was based on speed and timing. The Patriots came out in Super Bowl XXXVI determined to knock the St. Louis receivers on their asses as long as the refs would let them get away with it. New England came away with the victory, and the Rams came away seemingly unaware that anything had changed for them. The Greatest Show on Turf saw its tent collapse that day, but the Rams would spend the next several years trying to prop it back up, abetted by announcers gushing over St. Louis' high-octane offense long after it had ceased to be anything of the sort.

Other instances: The Raiders wheezed into the Super Bowl in 2002 with an ancient quarterback; receivers who were at the end of their rope; running backs who had been in the league 8, 8, 9 and 10 years; and a defense anchored by two 15-year veterans, Bill Romanowski and Rod Woodson. After getting blown out by Tampa Bay, the Raiders went into the 2003 season with the same core of players, plus additional fossil like Dana Stubblefield and Sean Gilbert. Similarly, the Seahawks finished 13-3 in 2005 with an ingenious strategy of playing in the weakest division in NFL history; having made no improvements this year, they slumped to 9-7, a decline explained almost entirely by their division record going from 6-0 to 3-3. And the Panthers allowed themselved to believe Jake Delhomme was a superstar quarterback rather than a guy who got hot at just the right time in 2003.

They Just Weren't That Good to Start With
Finally, there's this category. In the NFL, Cinderella might make it to the dance, but she's bound to get her head kicked in by security at the door. The 1994 Chargers had every right to be in the Super Bowl, but they had no business being on the same field with the 49ers. (Here's how good Stan Humphries turned out to be: In the 10 years after he took the Chargers to the Super Bowl, San Diego drafted three franchise QBs in Ryan Leaf, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers.) The 2000 Giants were possibly the worst Super Bowl team in the free agency era. (If you think it's funny that Trent Dilfer has a ring, remember that if he'd lost, Kerry Collins would have one.) And the 1998 Atlanta Falcons might go down as the most insignificant 14-2 team of all time, even after beating the offensive juggernaut Vikings in the NFC title game.

So what's to make of all this?

First, free agency tempts you every year to overhaul your team, even after successful seasons. Dive in recklessly, and you spoil the very chemistry that brought you that success. At the same time, free agency can pull away your best players, and it gives your competitors the opportunity to get much better much more quickly. Stand pat, and the pack soon catches up to you.

Free agency and the salary cap require you to constantly be upgrading and adjusting your team. You can't hold onto a player too long. You can't devote too many resources to the top five guys on your roster, because the difference between winning and losing is just as often Guys No. 36 through 40. You can't assume that, because you were good enough this year, you'll be good enough next year. Teams that can't make the necessary adjustments from year to year, that misallocate their cap dollars, that make foolish assumptions -- well, those aren't the kind of teams that can make it back to the Super Bowl after a tough loss.

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