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15 Dec 2003

The Era of Unpredictability

by Michael David Smith

In early 1988, when the defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins signed linebacker Wilber Marshall away from the Chicago Bears, they were trying to improve their roster by taking a player from a conference rival. They didn't know they were ending the era of predictability in the NFL.

Until the Redskins made that move, no team had signed a free agent from another team. Although free agency had technically been permitted for a decade, the owners had a gentlemen's agreement not to sign each other's players. The Redskins broke that agreement, it wasn't long before a lawsuit led by Reggie White destroyed the remnants of the agreement, and that gave us the unpredictable game we have today.

With the Raiders already eliminated from the playoffs and the Bucs appearing likely to join them, we're headed toward a second straight season with the defending Super Bowl champion missing the postseason and a third straight season with the Super Bowl loser missing the postseason. This is unprecedented. And the 1999 Rams are the only Super Bowl team of the last six years to make the playoffs two straight seasons after playing in the Super Bowl. So it's certainly true that parity reigns in the NFL as it never has before.

I've examined how teams in the Super Bowl since 1987 fare the following year as well as two years out. For each year, I list the Super Bowl winner first, followed by the Super Bowl loser. Teams that missed the playoffs are in red.  The 1987 Redskins are only the first of many Super Bowl teams to fall from the playoffs the year after, even though they made the first big splash in the free agent pool.

YEAR TEAM One Year After Two Years After Team One Year After Two Years After
2002 TB 7-7 (two games left) N/A OAK 4-10 (two games left) N/A
2001 NE 9-7 12-2 (two games left) STL 7-9 11-3 (two games left)
2000 BAL 10-6 (lost divisional playoff) 7-9 NYG 7-9 10-6 (lost wild card playoff)
1999 STL 10-6 (lost wild card playoff) 14-2 (lost Super Bowl) TEN 13-3 (lost divisional playoff) 7-9
1998 DEN 6-10 11-5 (lost wild card playoff) ATL 5-11 4-12
1997 DEN 14-2 (won Super Bowl) 6-10 GB 11-5 (lost wild card playoff) 8-8
1996 GB 13-3 (lost Super Bowl) 11-5 (lost wild card playoff) NE 10-6 (lost divisional playoff) 9-7 (lost wild card playoff)
1995 DAL 10-6 (lost divisional playoff) 6-10 PIT 10-6 (lost divisional playoff) 11-5 (lost AFC Championship)
1994 SF 11-5 (lost divisional playoff) 12-4 (lost divisional playoff) SD 9-7 (lost wild card playoff) 8-8
1993 DAL 12-4 (lost NFC Championship) 12-4 (won Super Bowl) BUF 7-9 10-6 (lost divisional playoff)
1992 DAL 12-4 (won Super Bowl) 12-4 (lost NFC Championship) BUF 12-4 (lost Super Bowl) 7-9
1991 WAS 9-7 (lost divisional playoff) 4-12 BUF 11-5 (lost Super Bowl) 12-4 (lost Super Bowl)
1990 NYG 8-8 6-10 BUF 13-3 (lost Super Bowl) 11-5 (lost Super Bowl)
1989 SF 14-2 (lost NFC Championship) 10-6 (no playoffs) DEN 5-11 12-4 (lost AFC Championship)
1988 SF 14-2 (won Super Bowl) 14-2 (lost NFC Championship) CIN 8-8 9-7 (lost divisional playoff)
1987 WAS 7-9 10-6 DEN 8-8  11-5 (lost Super Bowl)

Of the winning teams in the 14 Super Bowls from the 1987 to 2000 seasons:

  • Three won the Super Bowl the next year.
  • One won the Super Bowl two years later.
  • One lost the Super Bowl the next year.
  • One lost the Super Bowl two years later.
  • Three missed the playoffs the next year.
  • Seven missed the playoffs two years later.
  • Seven made the playoffs, but not the Super Bowl, the next year.
  • Five made the playoffs, but not the Super Bowl, two years later.

Of the losing teams in the 14 Super Bowls from the 1987 to 2000 seasons:

  • Zero won the Super Bowl the next year.
  • Zero won the Super Bowl two years later.
  • Three lost the Super Bowl the next year.
  • Three lost the Super Bowl two years later.
  • Five missed the playoffs the next year.
  • Five missed the playoffs two years later.
  • Five made the playoffs, but not the Super Bowl, the next year.
  • Six made the playoffs, but not the Super Bowl, two years later.

It's worth noting that a number of teams, particularly recent teams, have fallen off in the year after a Super Bowl appearance and then bounced back the year after.  That includes both 2001 teams, the Patriots and Rams, as well as the 2000 Giants and 1998 Broncos.  And while the Rams made the playoffs both years after the 1999 team won the championship, the 2000 season was considered a disappointment after "only" a 10-6 record and a first-round exit.  Look at this list and have hope, Tampa and Oakland fans.

Only five of the 72 teams that played in the first 36 Super Bowls failed to make the playoffs in each of the following two years. For an explanation, let's take them chronologically (including the teams before 1987):

1967 Packers: I don't want to be too simplistic here, but I can explain it in two words: Vince Lombardi. The Packers were losers before he got there, champions while he was there, and losers again when he left.

1979 Steelers: After the era of dynasties in the 1970s, the Steelers were the first team in 10 years to miss the playoffs after playing in the Super Bowl. John Stallworth missed 14 games in 1980; Franco Harris and Lynn Swann missed three apiece. Linemen Jon Kolb and Steve Courson missed eight games each. After winning four of their first five in 1980, the Steelers finally seemed to get old all at once. I think older teams tend to wear down toward the end of the season. The 1980 Steelers lost three of their last five and the 1981 Steelers lost their last three. But the Steelers were probably better than their record would suggest -- in 1980 they outscored their opponents by 39 points but finished 9-7 and in 1981 they outscored their opponents by 59 points but finished 8-8.

1987 Redskins: The biggest problem for the Redskins after their Super Bowl win was the running game. Only two teams had fewer rushing yards in 1988, and Washington averaged only 3.5 yards a carry. I attribute the team's failure in 1988 and 1989 in large part to its lack of top young players. Bobby Beathard loved to trade first-round picks and stock up on second-round picks, and while the strategy had worked for several years, here are the first players the Redskins took in the draft from 1984 to 1990: Bob Slater, Tory Nixon, Markus Koch, Brian Davis, Chip Lohmiller, Tracy Rocker and Andre Collins. When the Redskins managed to win the Super Bowl again in 1991, they showed that a franchise can return to glory quickly with a radically different team. In 1987 Doug Williams and Jay Schroeder split time at quarterback; in 1991 Mark Rypien was the starter. In 1987 Art Monk was a complementary receiver; in 1991 he led the team with 71 catches. Not a single running back from the 1987 team was on the 1991 team. Jim Lachey was the team's top lineman in 1991; he wasn't on the team in 1987. The two Super Bowl teams had different punters, kickers, punt returners and kickoff returners. The top players on the defense in 1987 (Charles Mann, Dexter Manley and Barry Wilburn) were all gone by 1991.

1990 Giants: Once again, the coaching change is key. Bill Parcells doesn't make quite as big a difference with his teams as Lombardi did, but I don't think I'll get any arguments when I say that the Giants had better coaching with Parcells in 1990 than they had with Ray Handley in 1991 and 1992.

1998 Falcons: A healthy Jamal Anderson had 1,846 yards in 1998; an injured Jamal Anderson had 1,083 combined yards in 1999 and 2000. Quarterback Chris Chandler suffered through injuries, too, and the rush defense was a mess. In 1998 the defense was led by Jessie Tuggle and Eugene Robinson. Robinson was gone in 1999 and Tuggle bgan to show signs of age in 1999 and missed most of 2000 with injuries. Still, there's no good explanation for how an NFC Champion could become absolutely dreadful overnight.

As for the seven teams that repeated as Super Bowl champions, they each remained essentially the same team. All seven returned their starting quarterback and leader in receiving yards. Six of the seven returned their head coach (all but the 1988 49ers, who replaced Bill Walsh with George Seifert). Six of the seven returned their leading rusher (all but the 1966 Packers, who replaced Jim Taylor with Jim Grabowski). And all seven teams returned their top three defensive players, at least from my (admittedly subjective) judgment of the top three defensive players on each team.

The 1970s ought to be called the era of predictability. From 1970 to 1979, all 20 defending Super Bowl teams had a winning record, and all but the 1979 Steelers made the playoffs the following year. Every team that had a winning record in the NFC in 1974 also had a winning record in 1975; every team that had a losing record in the NFC in 1974 also had a losing record in 1975, and the one team that played .500 ball in the NFC in 1974 was the one team that played .500 ball in the NFC in 1975. Minnesota won the NFC Central 10 times from 1968 to 1978. San Francisco won the NFC West in 1970, 1971 and 1972; Los Angeles won the West for the rest of the decade. Dallas and Oakland had winning records every year in the 1970s; New Orleans never did. Neither New York team ever made the playoffs in the 1970s.

If there's anything we can learn from recent years, it's that the era of predictability is over. Some people say the current era of parity in the NFL is nothing but mediocrity. I happen to like it. Either way, it makes for interesting debate, and it doesn't figure to stop any time soon. Nine teams in the postseason last year figure to miss it this year, which would be the most ever. We're likely to continue being surprised when a team comes from nowhere to win the Super Bowl. And we're likely to be surprised again when that team sinks the next year. The biggest question remaining is, how many more years will we have to see it until it ceases to surprise us?

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 15 Dec 2003