by Scott Kacsmar
While the NFL would love to promote every team as having an equal opportunity of winning the Super Bowl, we know the odds are rarely ever 1-in-32. Recent history is a solid predictor of which teams have a much higher or much lower chance of going the distance this season.
The Oakland Raiders are a trendy dark horse in 2016, but should you really trust a team that went 7-9 in 2015 and has not had a winning season since 2002? In the DVOA era (since 1989), 39 of the 54 Super Bowl participants (72.2 percent) made the playoffs in the previous season. Only six teams (11.1 percent) followed a losing season with a Super Bowl appearance. This sounded good a day ago for the Minnesota Vikings, another trendy 2016 pick, but the terrible news about Teddy Bridgewater's torn ACL puts a real damper on their season before it even starts.
But even if Bridgewater was healthy, are the Vikings really great enough on either side of the ball to be a top contender? Last season, Minnesota finished 16th in offensive DVOA and 14th on defense. Strong special teams (ranked fourth) aside, that is average at worst and balanced at best.
Is balance really the best model for building a championship team? A look at all Super Bowl winners or the recent DVOA dynasty in Seattle would suggest an obvious answer. However, in the salary-cap era, building and sustaining a team with great players on both sides of the ball is tougher. Only 26 teams in the DVOA era have finished in the top five in both offense and defense. The first three teams to do so (1989 49ers, 1991 Redskins, and 1992 Cowboys) all won the Super Bowl, but the last dozen teams have compiled an 0-4 Super Bowl record.
While balance sounds great, the Broncos did just win Super Bowl 50 with the No. 25 offense and No. 1 defense. The only other champion since 1989 with that much imbalance also featured Peyton Manning at quarterback, but the 2006 Colts paired the No. 1 offense with the No. 25 defense.
So how should a team go about building a Super Bowl winner today? There may always be alternative methods, but over this three-part study we will identify the trends that were most significant in helping achieve the ultimate goal of every NFL team.
The Process: Growing from Good to Great
Last week, I created a Twitter poll about this topic. The character limit made things difficult, but the question was which type of team you would prefer if your goal was to win a Super Bowl. The first choice was a balanced team with a top-10 offense and defense. The second choice was an imbalanced team that was top two on only one side of the ball (voter's preference). That could mean the most imbalanced team in the league, but I generally was thinking the weaker unit would rank in the 11 to 25 range. Again, no team since 1989 has been able to win a Super Bowl with an offense or defense ranked worse than 25th in DVOA.
The results were 60 percent in favor of the balanced team, which sounds reasonable given the actual results in the DVOA era. There have been 12 Super Bowl winners that ranked in the top 10 (top eight actually) on both sides of the ball in DVOA. A total of 10 imbalanced teams have won the Super Bowl, so that is very close, and DVOA estimates for the 1988 49ers (balanced) and 1987 Redskins (offense-dependent) seem unlikely to give either side an advantage.
The following table shows where each Super Bowl winner and loser since 1989 ranked in the regular season in DVOA (total, offense, and defense). Top-three units have their rankings in bold, while those ranking outside of the top 12 (the playoff field, essentially) are in red. We also included a key note on how the team was performing coming into the season in question. True "surprise" teams are highlighted in red while teams that were only in their second season of relevancy (read: winning) are highlighted in green.
|DVOA Rankings for Super Bowl Teams, 1989-2015|
|1989||SF||1||1||5||7th-straight PO (repeat)||1989||DEN||4||13||4||3rd SB loss in 4 years|
|1990||NYG||1||7||4||3rd-straight 10-win year||1990||BUF||6||1||14||3rd-straight PO|
|1991||WAS||1||1||3||8-of-9 years w/10+ wins||1991||BUF||4||3||16||2nd-straight SB loss|
|1992||DAL||1||2||5||1991 NFC-DIV loss||1992||BUF||7||6||10||3rd-straight SB loss|
|1993||DAL||1||2||18||3rd-straight PO (repeat)||1993||BUF||12||13||8||4th-straight SB loss|
|1994||SF||3||1||7||12th-straight 10-win year||1994||SD||8||6||18||3rd-straight .500+ year|
|1995||DAL||2||1||13||5th-straight PO||1995||PIT||4||12||4||4th-straight PO|
|1996||GB||1||3||1||4th-straight PO||1996||NE||8||14||13||6-10 in 1995; PO in 1994|
|1997||DEN||2||2||8||1996 AFC-DIV loss||1997||GB||1||4||3||5th-straight PO|
|1998||DEN||1||1||20||3rd-straight PO (repeat)||1998||ATL||7||10||5||Last PO year: 1995|
|1999||STL||1||4||3||Last winning year: 1989||1999||TEN||5||3||20||8-8 in 1996-98|
|2000||BAL||3||22||2||8-8 in 1999||2000||NYG||11||8||12||Last PO year: 1997|
|2001||NE||11||11||13||Last PO year: 1998||2001||STL||2||2||5||3rd-straight PO|
|2002||TB||1||20||1||4th-straight PO||2002||OAK||2||2||7||3rd-straight PO|
|2003||NE||4||14||2||2nd SB in 3-year span||2003||CAR||16||18||10||Last winning year: 1996|
|2004||NE||2||3||7||3rd SB in 4-year span||2004||PHI||6||9||16||5th-straight PO|
|2005||PIT||4||8||3||4th PO in 5 years||2005||SEA||3||1||16||3rd-straight PO|
|2006||IND||7||1||25||5th-straight PO||2006||CHI||5||20||2||2005 NFC-DIV loss|
|2007||NYG||14||18||13||3rd-straight PO||2007||NE||1||1||11||5th-straight PO|
|2008||PIT||4||21||1||4th PO in 5 years||2008||ARI||21||15||21||Last winning year: 1998|
|2009||NO||6||2||17||Last PO year: 2006||2009||IND||8||6||16||8th-straight PO|
|2010||GB||4||7||2||3rd PO in 4 years||2010||PIT||2||5||1||.500+ for 7th year in a row|
|2011||NYG||12||7||19||.500+ for 7th year in a row||2011||NE||3||3||30||3rd-straight PO|
|2012||BAL||8||13||19||5th-straight PO||2012||SF||4||5||3||2011 NFC-CG loss|
|2013||SEA||1||7||1||3rd PO in 4 years||2013||DEN||2||1||15||3rd-straight PO|
|2014||NE||4||6||12||14th-straight winning year||2014||SEA||1||5||1||3rd-straight PO|
|2015||DEN||8||25||1||5th-straight PO||2015||CAR||4||8||2||3rd-straight PO|
We will get into the most fascinating results shortly, but for a general takeaway, it is hard to reach the Super Bowl without being a top-eight overall team in DVOA. Only three winners and four losers of the Super Bowl ranked outside of the top eight in DVOA. Not surprisingly, the winners were a little stronger overall than the losers, thanks mostly in part to an edge on defense.
As mentioned before, the 27 winners included 12 balanced teams, 10 imbalanced teams, and a handful of teams that did not fit either description. But when looking at the 27 losers, nine were balanced, four were imbalanced, and 14 would fall under an "other" category. Only one Super Bowl (XLI: Colts vs. Bears) matched two imbalanced teams. The only two matchups between "other" teams were both Giants-Patriots matchups, because DVOA was not impressed by those New England defenses, which twice allowed go-ahead touchdowns in the final minutes of what were generally low-scoring upsets for Eli Manning and company. The most common outcome was an "other" team losing six times each to balanced and imbalanced teams. Balanced teams were 3-3 against imbalanced teams.
Build a Dominant Unit
We have gotten used to the best overall team failing to win many championships in this era. Since 2000, only the 2002 Buccaneers and 2013 Seahawks won the Super Bowl after ranking No. 1 in total DVOA. But we have seen more instances of the No. 1 offense (six) or the No. 1 defense (five) coming through for a total of 11 rings. Ten more units ranked in the top three also finished the season on top, meaning 21 of the 27 Super Bowl winners fielded at least one top-three unit. For the losers, it was 15 teams, but that is still more than half.
In all six cases where a team won with a unit ranked in the 20s, the other side of the ball was always a top-two dominant unit. Only five of the 54 Super Bowl teams ranked outside of the top 10 on both sides of the ball. Technically, a team ranking 12th on both sides of the ball would be above average and balanced, but that type of team does not have much playoff success. Since 1989, 29 teams ranked in the 11-to-16 range on both offense and defense. Only 13 made the playoffs, compiling a 12-12 record, with the Patriots of 1996 and 2001 being the only teams to reach the Super Bowl. (This has been part of the problem for Marvin Lewis in compiling a historically bad 0-7 playoff record in Cincinnati. The rankings of his average playoff teams have been 13.6 on offense and 13.0 on defense. The three top-five units he did bring to the playoffs failed to show up on game day in the postseason.)
That stronger top-10 balance sure feels ideal, but only two of the last 10 champions fit that definition (2010 Packers and 2013 Seahawks). Before the turn of the century, eight balanced teams won from 1989 to 1999. Having confidence that at least one of your units will show up in grand fashion is very appealing. Even though the imbalanced winners were split among offense and defense, most fans would probably still pick the great defense. "Defense wins championships" carries validity, and 2015 only served as a reminder.
Rome Wasn't Built in a Day Either
Most of the dominant units that carried teams to championships were not built in one season. It can take years to put that type of talent together. There is also the idea of "learning to win" in the playoffs, where the intensity and importance of each moment is intensified. There are often-cited examples of this in other sports. Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers needed five seasons to win their first title, advancing a step further each year and tasting defeat in the Stanley Cup Finals before finally winning the first of five titles in 1984. Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls needed seven postseasons to rise to the top of the Eastern Conference, finally vanquish the Detroit Pistons and go on to win six NBA titles in the 1990s.
Due to the NFL's shorter seasons and one-and-done playoff system, upsets and randomness are a lot more common. But there are still examples of teams that needed to overcome and learn from some heart-breaking defeats before realizing what it took to finish the job. The Ravens (2008-2012) and Broncos (2011-2015) just recently completed five-year journeys to rings. Were the 2012 Ravens and 2015 Broncos the strongest teams among those runs? No -- in fact, you could argue that the 2012 Ravens were John Harbaugh's weakest playoff team, and that the 2015 Broncos were the weakest Denver club since Manning arrived in 2012. But those were the years where things all worked out for both teams. Joe Flacco had a spotty playoff history early in his career, but led a very productive offense in those four games on his way to the richest contract in NFL history at the time. Denver learned a lot from the Super Bowl XLVIII ass-kicking to Seattle that a stronger defense was the way to go, and John Elway improved the roster accordingly over the next two seasons. Health at playoff time finally worked out for Denver and the rest is history. Much like Baltimore in 2013, the Broncos may fall off this year to 8-8 territory at best, but this is about winning one Super Bowl, not building a dynasty.
So it makes sense that most of these Super Bowl teams were relevant in previous seasons as well. Twenty-one of the winners and 18 of the losers were in the playoffs in the previous season. Most of the other teams were in that 7-9 or 8-8 range, and some even won nine or ten games but missed the playoffs. That's the NFL sometimes. The Giants missed the playoffs at 10-6 in 2010, but won the NFC East in 2011 with a 9-7 record. Only three teams reached the Super Bowl after losing 10-plus games the previous year: the 1996 Patriots, 1999 Rams, and 2001 Patriots.
Bill Belichick was on the coaching staff for the 1996 and 2001 New England teams, two of the 10 "surprise" Super Bowl teams in this study. The 1996 team, with Bill Parcells at head coach, was actually not that big of a surprise. New England made the playoffs at 10-6 in 1994 behind a young Drew Bledsoe, then added key players such as Ty Law, Curtis Martin, Ted Johnson, Terry Glenn, Lawyer Milloy, and Tedy Bruschi in the 1995 and 1996 drafts. Kicker Adam Vinatieri was an undrafted free agent in 1996. While the team disappointed with a 6-10 record in 1995, this was a young, talented roster with some of the best coaching in the league. Pete Carroll went 27-21 with New England from 1997-99 before Belichick took over the job in 2000, getting off to a slow 5-11 start. Everyone knows what happened in 2001 with Bledsoe and Tom Brady, and the rest is history. But a lot of the core of that team, including Willie McGinest, Troy Brown, and Otis Smith, was from the 1996 Super Bowl team.
Of course, the Patriots turned into a dynasty, but some of the role reversals on the above table are very interesting. The Rams were Cinderella in 1999, then Goliath in 2001 when losing to New England's David. Six years later the Evil Empire Patriots were the huge favorites, but the Little Giants took care of them, then did it again four years later. You almost want to thank Bill Belichick, the Patriots, and those resilient Giants for playing so many close Super Bowls since 1990.
The other person to thank is Kurt Warner. Out of the 54 teams on that table, two should really qualify as batshit crazy for being there: the 1999 Rams and 2008 Cardinals. This is a huge part of Warner's Hall of Fame argument. The Rams had nine consecutive losing seasons from 1990 to 1998. After Trent Green was lost in the preseason, an unknown Warner stepped into the starting role and led one of the greatest offensive attacks in NFL history over the next three seasons, playing at his very best in 1999. After some injuries derailed him and teams tried to replace him with younger quarterbacks, Warner took the starting job back from Matt Leinart in Arizona during the 2007 season. In 2008, he did the unthinkable and led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl, taking a last-minute lead before Pittsburgh's Santonio Holmes made an incredible touchdown catch. Arizona had not had a winning season from 1999 to 2007, but Warner led all three of his teams to the Super Bowl in the seasons where he started all 16 games. The 2008 Cardinals (21st) are the only team to rank worse than 16th in DVOA to reach the Super Bowl, but that just adds to Warner's incredible legacy.
While Warner and Larry Fitzgerald almost brought the Cardinals a ring, we cannot forget the 2003 Panthers, with Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith put on similar heroics. At 16th in DVOA, the 2003 Panthers are the second-lowest ranked team in DVOA to reach the Super Bowl, and they too lost a heart-breaking Super Bowl. John Fox was hired in 2002 to turn around a 1-15 mess, and after a 7-9 finish, he benched Rodney Peete in the 2003 opener for Delhomme, who promptly led a comeback win. It was the first of eight game-winning drives for Delhomme that season, which is still tied for the NFL record.
When predicting teams for Super Bowl LI, it is best to focus on recent success and stable coach/quarterback situations. That means New England, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Kansas City in the AFC, and Seattle, Arizona, Carolina, and Green Bay in the NFC. Can the other 24 teams crash the party? Sure, but that would be betting on things like Ben McAdoo fixing a defense better than Tom Coughlin could, Chuck Pagano getting a clue, or that Dak Prescott and Trevor Siemian are the next Warner and Brady. Stick with known quantities.
Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, but three times is a pattern. Nearly three-quarters of these Super Bowl teams were relevant for three-plus seasons. While some teams may be able to catch lightning in a bottle, getting to the Super Bowl is usually just a great achievement for a team that has already done good things in past seasons.
Breaking Points and the Value of DVOA
Now comes the part where I aggravate several fan bases (and depress several more) by pointing out just how lucky they are to have these rings. But this was really one of the most interesting findings from the data, because it shows the benefits of using DVOA as a predictive tool.
Among the 27 Super Bowl winners, we noted that 21 had a top-three dominant unit. The six winners without a dominant unit -- the 1990 Giants, 2001 Patriots, 2007 Giants, 2011 Giants, 2012 Ravens, and 2014 Patriots -- are quite arguably the six most fortunate champions since 1989, winning by razor-thin margins in the postseason. I introduced the concept of "breaking points" in solving the Peyton Manning playoff puzzle earlier this year. A breaking point in a team context would be that one play late in the game where, had things gone the other way, the outcome would almost certainly reverse as well.
These six teams were pushed hard to the brink of elimination. Consider these facts:
- Fifteen of the 27 champions needed a fourth-quarter comeback in the playoffs. Only the 1990 Giants, 2007 Giants, 2011 Giants, and 2014 Patriots needed two of them.
- Seven champions trailed in the final two minutes of a playoff game: the 2006 Colts, the 2008 Steelers, and five members of our group of six, the 2014 Patriots excluded. And those 2006 Colts were already at the 11-yard line in a 34-31 game after the two-minute warning.
- Eight champions trailed by at least four points in the fourth quarter of a playoff game: this group of six, the 2006 Colts (down 28-21 to New England, tied game with 13:24 left), and the 2013 Seahawks (who took the lead for good against San Francisco with 13:44 left).
- Only two champions trailed by at least four points in the final minute: the 2007 Giants (who took the lead with 35 seconds left) and 2012 Ravens (who tied the game against Denver with 31 seconds left).
- The 2001 Patriots and 2014 Patriots are the only champions to trail by two scores in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. New England trailed Oakland 13-3 in 2001 and trailed Seattle 24-14 in Super Bowl XLIX.
Let's take a closer look at each of these six teams:
1990 Giants (No. 7 offense, No. 4 defense): New York actually finished No. 1 overall in DVOA with a boost from its second-ranked special teams. In the NFC Championship Game in San Francisco, the 49ers had a first down at the New York 40, leading 13-12. Roger Craig fumbled and the Giants recovered with 2:36 left. Matt Bahr's 42-yard field goal with no time left gave the Giants a 15-13 win. In Super Bowl XXV, the Giants kicked a short field goal to take a 20-19 lead over Buffalo with 7:20 left. Scott Norwood infamously missed the 47-yard field goal wide right with four seconds left, the only do-or-die missed field goal in Super Bowl history. A Buffalo win would have given another No. 1 offense a championship, but the Bills never got closer than this play.
2001 Patriots (No. 11 offense, No. 13 defense): In the first playoff game of the Belichick era, Tom Brady's apparent season-ending fumble against Oakland was overturned by the now-discarded Tuck Rule, but the Patriots still needed Adam Vinatieri to deliver the greatest field goal in NFL history. He did, from 45 yards away in the snow, to force overtime, then won it with another field goal on the opening possession, which is another thing that would no longer be possible today. The Patriots then blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams before winning with a walk-off 48-yard field goal by Vinatieri. The 2001 Patriots still have the smallest postseason margin of victory (4.3 points per game) among the 50 Super Bowl winners. The 2001 Rams would have made for an elite champion, with two top-five units.
2007 Giants (No. 18 offense, No. 13 defense): The second-smallest margin of victory for a Super Bowl winner belongs to the 2007 Giants (5.0), the only team to register three game-winning drives in one postseason. After picking off Tony Romo in the end zone in Dallas, the Giants survived the cold and overtime at Lambeau Field, and authored a massive upset by beating the 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Eli Manning's broken sack and throw to David Tyree should go down as the greatest play in the first 50 Super Bowls. It is hard to see the Giants winning without that one. The 2007 Patriots were another No. 1 offense that flopped in the big game.
2011 Giants (No. 7 offense, No. 19 defense): These two New York wins may confuse people for decades, but it's not that hard to figure out. The Giants were generally a competitive team under Tom Coughlin, and often finished close games well with Manning at quarterback while featuring a strong pass rush. They were just inconsistent in the second halves of seasons, but put it all together for two title runs, even if they failed to win any other playoff games. Both Giants teams drew fairly weak opponents in the wild-card round (2007 Buccaneers, 2011 Falcons), then took down some juggernauts that they challenged well in the regular season. Yes, all six of those games were rematches from the regular season, with the Cowboys, Packers, and Patriots in 2007and the Packers, 49ers, and Patriots in 2011. That had to help immensely in gameplanning.
The playoff breaking points were not overly strong for the 2011 Giants, but they may have been the most fortunate team on the list just to make the playoffs. They are the only Super Bowl champion in 50 years to be outscored during the regular season. Manning had to lead six game-winning drives in the regular season alone to get to 9-7, including an epic 12-point comeback in Dallas in Week 14. Remember Miles Austin losing the ball in the lights and Dan Bailey, the most accurate kicker in history, having his 47-yard kick blocked at the end? Those Giants lived on the edge all year.
In the 2011 NFC Championship Game in San Francisco, it was déjà vu with more big 49ers fumbles. New York punted on 10 of its 12 second-half possessions, but scored twice on drives that covered 40 total yards and were set up by a pair of Kyle Williams fumbles. Williams' muffed punt led to a Giants touchdown, and his fumble on a punt return in overtime basically gifted the Giants a game-winning field goal. In the Super Bowl rematch with New England, Brady and Wes Welker could not connect on a big pass, but Manning and Mario Manningham did to set up New York's eighth game-winning drive of the season. Rob Gronkowski could not get to a Hail Mary in the end zone as time expired. The 2011 Patriots would have made some history with the 30th-ranked defense winning the Super Bowl, but the reality is that a unit that bad should have surrendered back-to-back game-winning drives in the final minutes. Our next team would certainly agree.
2012 Ravens (No. 13 offense, No. 19 defense): One annoying piece of revisionist history about this team is that people pretend the Week 12 San Diego game was a breaking point for Baltimore making the playoffs. Recall a dump pass by Joe Flacco to Ray Rice going for 30 yards on fourth-and-29, a stab in the heart to ALEX. Even with a loss, though, Baltimore still would have been 8-3 and in good shape. But the Ravens did slump a little before getting hot at the right time. Of course, the huge breaking point in the playoffs came in Denver in the AFC divisional round with the Ravens trailing 35-28 in the final minute. Flacco stepped up on a third down to deliver a bomb and Rahim Moore took his place in history with one of the worst misjudgments on a pass you'll ever see. A 70-yard touchdown to Jacoby Jones was the result, and the game was tied with 31 seconds left. Flacco had an interception dropped in overtime, but the Ravens held onto Manning's pick to set up Justin Tucker for a tough 47-yard field goal. This was redemption for the previous year when Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff failed the Ravens in New England at the end of the 2011 AFC Championship Game. Jones and Tucker came through, and the Ravens passed their toughest challenge that postseason with an unforgettable play. In Super Bowl XLVII, San Francisco had top-five balance, but needed a better throw to Michael Crabtree in the end zone. (They also needed one in 2013).
2014 Patriots (No. 6 offense, No. 12 defense): This era has featured the greatest comeback attempts in Super Bowl history, but most still went for naught as the other team usually won at the end. New England negated comebacks by both St. Louis (XXXVI) and Carolina (XXXVIII). Now on the other side of the coin, the Patriots had to come back from a 24-14 deficit against Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX. They did, but left 2:02 on the clock, an eternity for Russell Wilson. A ridiculous tipped catch by Jermaine Kearse down to the 5-yard line may have been Seattle's undoing, as it led to a second timeout taken and affected the endgame strategy. I stand by what I said the night of the game. If I'm Pete Carroll, once the ball got to the 1-yard line, I am running Marshawn Lynch three times in a row if I have to for that touchdown. The decision to throw a quick pass in congestion to Ricardo Lockette is unforgivable. The result was the costliest interception in NFL history as Malcolm Butler etched his name in NFL lore. In the beginning I mentioned 26 teams since 1989 with a top-five unit on both offense and defense. That includes three Seattle teams, but not the 2013 version, which was only seventh in offense but great at closing games on defense. Go figure that the 2013 team is the only Seahawks club with a ring to this point.
Most of these teams were not No. 1 seeds, so it was not surprising to see them struggle against some really strong teams. But I was just floored by how many of the closest calls were highlighted by the DVOA deficiencies. (Again, these DVOA ranks only account for regular-season games.) Some of those non-dominant units obviously made huge contributions in the playoff run, but the margin of victory was still so thin with these teams.
When I flipped things around and looked at which Super Bowl losers deserved better fates, I really did not find anything different from the examples already mentioned. Focusing on team strength, some of the stronger losers had really poor Super Bowl performances, including the 1992 Bills, 1998 Falcons and 2002 Raiders. Of course, I thought about the 32-point comeback Buffalo needed from backup Frank Reich in 1992 to keep the Super Bowl streak alive. I still get mad over Gary Anderson missing that field goal against Atlanta to deny the 1998 super matchup between Denver and Minnesota. And I still marvel at the 2003 Panthers and 2008 Cardinals, the weakest Super Bowl teams on paper, playing as well as they did in the postseason. The 2004 Eagles are a bit of a special case, ranking ninth on offense and 16th on defense for the season, but this was because they sat most of their starters in both Week 16 and Week 17. Going into those games, the Eagles ranked second in overall DVOA (fourth on offense and 12th on defense) before putting up DVOA ratings of -52.9% and -77.8% in big losses to the Rams and Bengals, both of whom finished 8-8 that year.
(Ed. Note: The 2004 Eagles are the toughest example of judging a team that sat starters, I have written multiple times in the past about why we can't simply drop these games from regular-season DVOA. First of all, we've actually found that DVOA is more predictive of future performance if we incorporate these "sit starters" games. Second, it's difficult to define what exactly counts as "sitting starters." Just the quarterback? Half the starters? What if the starters only play the first half? What if they come out after three quarters? What if they are playing but don't try very hard, which some people feel was the case with the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17 of last season? Where do we draw the lines? -- Aaron Schatz)
1996-2003: The NFL's Twilight Zone
Lastly, I wanted to draw attention to the cluster of weird results from the period of 1996 to 2003. Eight of the 10 surprise Super Bowl teams happened in this most unusual era of NFL history. These years may have given a false sense of parity gone wild in a new salary-capped NFL.
Prior to this period, the NFC had the best teams and dominated the Super Bowl matchups, while the AFC had many of the best quarterbacks, albeit on flawed teams. After the salary cap started in 1994, there was more significant player movement around the league and rosters could be reconstructed more quickly. The older Hall of Fame quarterbacks also eventually started to decline and/or retire, including Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, John Elway, Steve Young, Dan Marino, Warren Moon, and Troy Aikman. This is why we started to see quarterbacks coming out of grocery stores, NFL Europe, the XFL, Canada, and the later rounds of the draft to fill those spots. The quarterback market is nothing like that today.
The 1995 season also brought expansion for the first time in two decades, and the Jaguars and Panthers both shocked the world by reaching their Conference Championship Games in 1996. We said goodbye to the Browns, hello to the Ravens, and hello again to the Browns in 1999. That expansion team was a nightmare, as were the early years of football's return to Houston with the Texans in 2002. Things soon normalized with the current setup of 32 teams spread out across eight divisions.
This wild era did not continue once the passing game took over again starting in 2004. It was that year when the NFL reinforced illegal contact and there was a great draft class with Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. Drew Brees broke out in San Diego while Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Donovan McNabb, and Daunte Culpepper all had the best seasons of their careers up to that point. The only "surprise" Super Bowl teams since then had Kurt Warner and Drew Brees at quarterback, so in hindsight they shouldn't really have been surprises. New Orleans quickly rebuilt in 2006 a year after Hurricane Katrina by bringing Sean Payton, Brees, Reggie Bush, Marques Colston, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans, etc. to town.
While the last decade has produced huge Super Bowl upsets and unprecedented title runs by sixth seeds, the types of teams getting to the big game look more in line with those of the pre-cap era. They are talented and usually have a dominant unit and stability at quarterback, and likely got close in a previous tournament.
Winning the Super Bowl is a process, and most teams will not succeed by skipping steps. Signing a bunch of free agents is not likely to turn your 6-10 finish into hoisting the Lombardi Trophy the next year -- though it might in a couple of years, if you continue to build in the draft and make some other good choices. When I start to write a team's essay in Football Outsiders Almanac, I first consider what kind of team we are looking at. If it's a Jeff Fisher special that is always stuck near 8-8, then I focus on what the team needs to do to make the playoffs. Don't worry about the Super Bowl. Advance one tier and make the playoffs. If I was writing about Marvin Lewis, who can get Cincinnati to the playoffs but never win there, then I would focus on finishing games in January against the better competition. Take one step at a time. Respect the process.
So much has to go right for a team to win one Super Bowl, including health and some good luck or fortuitous bounces of the football. But the teams that win have already put in a lot of work to get to the point where they have a shot at the championship.
In Part II of this series, later this week, we will look at the offensive units of Super Bowl teams. How long does it take to become a great offense, and how do you best build one? Can an offense significantly improve in one year despite few changes to personnel or coaching? We will then conclude with a similar study on defenses in Part III next week.