The Luckiest Fan Bases in Sports

February 1, 2011

It is no surprise that sports fans tend to be obsessed with tortured fan bases. After all, rooting for a team is inherently masochistic. At the end of every MLB, NBA, and NHL season, 29 of 30 teams’ fans are frustrated. That number jumps to 31 of 32 for the NFL.

Of course, all sports fans know this going in, so it’s hard to feel sorry for them. That doesn’t stop fans from complaining about how tortured they are. It’s a badge of honor for fans of crappy teams – sorta like how when my family complains about how cold it is in Omaha, I get to say “you know nothing about cold! NOTHING!”

You can’t really blame these fans for wearing the tortured franchise tag with pride. At least they’re first in something. Residents of no other major city in the US get to complain to me about how cold it is, just like how residents of any other major city can complain about their teams to Cleveland residents. This seems fair enough.

Many fans from Cleveland, Buffalo, Seattle, and (fill in the tortured sports city here) like to argue that theirs is the most tortured fan base. A Google search of “most tortured sports cities” brings up a whopping 247,000 results. Every crappy sports city wants in on the action.

But what about the luckiest fan bases (or whatever the opposite of a tortured fan base is)? I couldn’t seem to find any lists ranking these cities. Apparently no one cares…complaining about our failures is way more rewarding than gloating about our successes. So I set out to write my own list of the luckiest sports cities.

Two quick notes. First, overall city-wide performances are important since not every city resident likes each sport equally (i.e. the rule that keeps New York from being #1 just because of the Yankees). So while two Super Bowl championships are a good start, 1 Super Bowl championship and 1 World Series win ranks higher in my mind. Second, these numbers are skewed somewhat towards recent history. I think of lucky sports cities as a fluid concept. Sports are about what have you done for me lately – yes, history is important, but that Super Bowl III victory isn’t doing much for the Jets fans these days.

I started by looking through a few lists of the most tortured sports cities to eliminate these teams from consideration. The first six lists I looked at on said Google search named the following as “tortured”: Seattle, Atlanta, Phoenix, Buffalo, San Diego, Cleveland, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Kansas City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Houston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Cincinnati, Tampa, New Orleans, Calgary, Charlotte, Detroit, Denver, Milwaukee, Miami, Portland, Sacramento, Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, and Edmonton.

That leaves only 17 professional sports cities that are not tortured: New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area, Dallas, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Nashville, Orlando, San Antonio, Columbus, Salt Lake City, Raleigh, Jacksonville, Oklahoma City, Memphis, and Green Bay. And seven of those have had professional teams for less than twenty years, so we can’t really count them.

Now we have only ten cities that supposedly aren’t tortured: New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area, Dallas, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, San Antonio, Salt Lake City, and Green Bay. Of those, I’m going to toss out Green Bay, since it seems fair to group it in with Milwaukee as a city (and the Bucks and Brewers drag down the Packers’ three Super Bowl victories). Salt Lake City gets tossed too. Salt Lake’s only team is the NBA’s Jazz and while they’ve mostly been good for their entire existence, they have yet to win a championship. I just can’t name a city as a lucky fan base without a single title.

That leaves us with eight cities, but since the first of those lists came out in 2004, I went back to look at the champions in the four major sports since then to see if we should remove the tortured tag from those teams. Boston jumps back on the list because their teams’ performances in the 2000s might be the best run of a major sports city in recent history – certainly enough to erase 86 years of Red Sox misery. Chicago also gets back on the list, mostly because I’m not sure how they made it on in the first place for reasons I will explain later. Same with Miami.

I did not put Philadelphia and Detroit back on the list. Philadelphia, because one World Series win doesn’t quite erase all those years of sucktitude from the city’s other three teams. And Detroit stays off because, well, Detroit probably shouldn’t be on the list for luckiest anything.

So that leaves us with the eleven luckiest sports cities. In reverse order:

11. Indianapolis (1 Super Bowl win, 3-time ABA champion)

Talk about a city with major ups and downs. The ups tend to outweigh the downs, so Indy gets the #11 spot on this list. They fell ass backwards into not one, but two, professional sports franchises. And both franchises are fairly successful to boot.

The city’s first team was the ABA’s Indiana Pacers in 1967. The Pacers won an ABA-high three championships and made the finals on two more occasions. On the strength of their ABA performance, they fell into an NBA franchise when the ABA and NBA merged. They were unable to duplicate their success in the NBA, but did contend in the 1990s and early 2000s (and won one Eastern Conference final). Unfortunately, the Pacers’ down came in a nationally televised brawl when Ron Artest decided to charge into the stands and attack a doofy guy who didn’t throw a drink at him. That embarrassment alone knocks Indianapolis down a few spots on this list.

The Colts came to Indianapolis in an overnight move. They literally hijacked the team from Baltimore.* Really, the only shame of the whole situation is that it didn’t happen today, with our current 24-hour news cycle. The 15 Mayflower trucks that moved the Colts all took slightly different routes so that the state troopers couldn’t stop them…can you imagine the news helicopters above tracking these chases? Adam Schefter would spontaneously combust.

* Interesting sidebar: when the Baltimore Colts were flirting with a new home, Phoenix emerged as the favorite until owner Robert Irsay was blown away by a tour of the newly constructed RCA Dome. Instead, Phoenix got stuck with the Cardinal franchise five years later. Now that alone is enough to make Phoenix a tortured sports city.

After that, the Colts story in Indianapolis is pretty simple. They were terrible for their first ten years or so, then drafted Peyton Manning and have been one of the best teams in the league since then. The Colts won the Super Bowl in 2007, the first championship for the city in one of the four major sports leagues.

Indianapolis is the fifth smallest metropolitan area to have two or more sports franchises, and they are by far the most successful of the five. Milwaukee, Buffalo, and New Orleans are all named in the most tortured cities (Buffalo usually ranks near the top) and Nashville did not have a team until 1998. Buffalo’s NFL team and New Orleans’ NBA team are perpetually named in the list of franchises that might move. In short, the city has two moderately successful franchises when they barely have any business having two franchises period.

10. Dallas (5 Super Bowl titles, 1 Stanley Cup, 0 NBA titles, 0 World Series titles)

Tough call to have Dallas so low on this list with the Cowboys’ Super Bowl successes, but with the ineptitude of the other sports teams in the city, I couldn’t have them higher than #10. Dallas sports franchises really are the tale of two cities.

On one hand, we have the NFL Cowboys and their five Super Bowl titles. After the team won three Super Bowl titles in the 1990s, they held the record for most all-time Super Bowl titles until Pittsburgh passed them in 2009. ESPN.com ran a debate this week about which team really was “America’s team” – Pittsburgh, Green Bay, or Dallas. If someone can make an argument that your team is America’s team in America’s most popular sport, that’s a pretty good indication that your team is something special. Even if it hasn’t won a playoff game in over a decade.

But then we have the NBA’s Mavericks and MLB’s Rangers, two of the most historically inept franchises in their respective leagues. The run-and-gun Mavericks were actually decent in the 1980s, although they were beaten by the Showtime Lakers each of the three times that they made it out of the first round of the playoffs. And then they managed to make it through the entire 1990s without a winning season, including a staggeringly bad 11-71 1992-93 season. Mark Cuban’s money turned the team into a contender in the 2000s and they finally made it to their first NBA finals in 2006. They were promptly robbed of the title by the referees and the underdog Heat (or so Maverick fans say).

Historically, the Rangers are even worse. Prior to the 2010 season, the team had won one playoff game in their entire 40-year history (50 if you include ten years in Washington). That’s not one series win – that’s one game win. They were one of three franchises to never play a World Series game. In 2010, they finally broke through and won their first two playoff series and entered the World Series as the favorite against the Giants. They lost.

The NHL’s Stars have actually been fairly successful since they relocated from Minnesota in 1993. They won a Stanley Cup in 1999 and finished runner-up the next year. Of course, that doesn’t really count since no one in Dallas cares about hockey. Eventually someone will push Gary Bettman out and the Stars will move back to a northern city and everyone will forget about the Stanley Cup. Seriously, all seven of the warm weather cities that Bettman expanded to are in the bottom third of the league’s attendance. In twenty years we will all laugh about the time that someone thought it was a good idea to move an ice hockey team from Minneapolis to Dallas.

Aside from the Cowboys, Dallas is basically a warmer-weather Cleveland. Unfortunately for Cleveland, the Cowboys are the difference between the tenth luckiest sports city and the hands-down unluckiest sports city. Well that and “The Decision.”

9. Los Angeles (11 NBA championships, 6 World Series titles, 1 Super Bowl, 1 Stanley Cup)

Another city that gets on the luckiest city list based on the strength of one team. Fortunately for them, LA residents don’t have a problem jumping on a bandwagon, so the Lakers’ success is probably enough for all 12+ million of them.

Like the Cowboys, the Lakers are one of the few teams that can make a legitimate argument for the best team in their sport’s history. Unlike the Cowboys, the Lakers have never really had a bad stretch of seasons. Since they moved to Los Angeles in 1960, the Lakers have only missed the playoffs four times, won 11 NBA titles and 14 Western Conference titles. They have won the NBA title an unbelievable 22% of the time and won the Western Conference 50% of the time. Seven of Bill Simmons’ top 15 players of all-time played the majority of their careers with the Lakers. That’s lucky.

But the rest of the LA sports teams have been almost as bad as the Lakers have been good. By pretty much any measure, the NBA Clippers are the worst franchise in basketball. In 26 years in Los Angeles, the Clippers have three winning seasons and one playoff series win. They are the exact opposite of the Lakers, and it really bugs all 14 Clipper fans.

The Kings are the NHL’s answer to the Clippers. Since they entered the league in 1967, they have reached the final four in the playoffs only one time – in 1993, when they lost in the Stanley Cup final. And that includes eight seasons with the greatest hockey player who ever lived.

For their part, the Dodgers have won five World Series rings since they moved to Los Angeles in 1958. However, three of those came before 1965 and no Dodger fan younger than 22 has even seen the Dodgers make the World Series (11 different National League teams have made it since the last time the Dodgers did). On the plus side, they did get to witness Kirk Gibson hit the most famous home run of the past thirty-five years in the 1988 World Series. On the down side, that was the last time the Dodgers made a highlight reel.

The two Anaheim teams have done well recently for those Anaheim fans in the metropolitan area. The Ducks have somewhat unfairly made three conference finals (to the Kings’ one) since their expansion season in 1993. They won the 2007 Stanley Cup, although it’s unclear if anyone in LA actually cares. The Angels have the 2002 World Series ring to fall back on, but they were pretty terrible for the first forty years of their existence. I’d call it a wash though, since the Angels’ futility led to the Danny Glover/Tony Danza classic Angels in the Outfield.

But the biggest reason that Los Angeles is so low on the list is the lack of an NFL team. Both the Rams and Raiders moved following the 1994 season. Though seemingly every franchise in the NFL has flirted with moving to LA at one time or another, the city has been NFL-less since then. Eventually LA will get another NFL team and they will instantly shoot up a couple spots unless it’s the Cardinals that move. Pretty much any other franchise, including an expansion team, would be a trade-up from the Raiders and Rams.

8. Miami (2 World Series titles, 2 Super Bowl titles, 1 NBA title, 0 Stanley Cups)

How Miami made it on someone’s most tortured city list is beyond me. First, Miami fans live in Miami, so they can’t be that tortured. Second, as I’ve talked about before, no one in Miami cares about their sports teams. This season, the MLB Marlins finished 28th in attendance, the NFL Dolphins finished 16th, and the NHL Panthers are currently 23rd. Sure, the Heat are selling out their games, but it took Lebron James and Dwayne Wade to do that. With just D-Wade last season, the Heat finished 15th in attendance and averaged 300 more fans per game on the road than at home.

Miami is the opposite of tortured – their fans don’t really deserve any titles, let alone five. The Marlins have won two World Series titles in their first eleven seasons of existence. The Heat have one title in their 22 seasons and now have two of the three most popular players in the league. And in the year I lived in Miami, I met only one person who had ever attended a Panthers game, so the fact that they are consistently one of the worst teams in the NHL doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

Yeah, I admit that the Dolphins have come up empty since winning the 1973 and 1974 Super Bowls. They managed only one AFC Championship with Dan Marino at quarterback. But 14 of the 32 NFL teams have never won a Super Bowl; seven more have only won one. I’m sure it was frustrating for Dolphin fans during the Marino era, but the Dolphins probably don’t even crack the top half of long-suffering NFL fans.

Even if the Miami franchises weren’t all that good, I still wouldn’t call their fans tortured. If “The Decision” taught us anything, it’s that teams are only in Miami because that’s what players want. They get to live on South Beach and pay no state income taxes. Miami fans will ditch crappy teams in a heartbeat – they should never be mentioned in any tortured fan base discussion.

7. San Antonio (4 NBA titles)

San Antonio is this low because they have only one professional team. Yet no city comes anywhere close to winning titles at a percentage as high as the Spurs. They have won four NBA titles in 36 seasons – a solid 11% of the time. Sure, those titles have all come since 1999 and the Spurs perpetually came up short in the playoffs before that. But it’s still hard to feel sorry for a fan base that got to see three all-time greats in George Gervin, David Robinson, and Tim Duncan in their primes.

The Spurs have only missed the playoffs four times in 33 NBA seasons. Even in those seasons they got unbelievably lucky. They won the NBA Draft lottery twice. Those #1 picks? Robinson and Duncan. In the other two seasons, they drafted future All-Stars Alvin Robertson and Sean Elliott. That’s quite a track record.

6. Chicago (6 NBA titles, 5 World Series titles, 4 Stanley Cups, and 1 Super Bowl)

I know, I know, I can hear the Cubs fans whining too. Now I admit that just five years ago Chicago wouldn’t be anywhere close to the top of this list, but let’s start out with the good Chicago teams.

First we have the NBA’s Bulls. The Bulls were never good before Michael Jordan arrived and haven’t been that good since he left. Yet for those 13 seasons, Chicago won six titles (third most in NBA history) and saw some of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Every other city except Boston and LA would gladly trade their entire histories for those six seasons. I’d call that lucky.

The NFL’s Bears have only one Super Bowl win, but like the Bulls, what they lack in quantity they make up for in quality. Most analysts rank the 1985 Bears as the best Super Bowl champion in history. Granted, this is similar to the “what have you done for me lately” argument I made with the Dodgers, but the 1985 Bears were different. 25 years later, all football fans can name the cast of characters from the Super Bowl Shuffle – Jim McMahon, Walter Payton, The Fridge, Coach Ditka, and the like. The most recognizable Dodger from the ’80s is announcer Vin Scully.

MLB’s White Sox and NHL’s Blackhawks both ended long droughts of terribleness recently. The White Sox won their first World Series in 88 years in 2005 and the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years in 2010. Neither team was particularly good in the years between their titles – the White Sox last made the World Series in 1958 and the Blackhawks last made the Stanley Cup in 1992. But as I said above, recentness matters.

Finally we get to the Cubs. 102 years and counting. Blah blah blah. Have you ever actually met a Cubs fan? They are much more content talking about how long it has been since their last World Series title than about their current title chances. Which makes sense, because the last time they even made the World Series was 1945. It’s not that painful to lose if you always suck. Losing four World Series in Game 7 like the Red Sox did…now that’s painful. So I would argue that it’s even lucky to be a Cubs fan. The fans can wear their pink and green hats and complain about how hard things are as a Cubs fan, all while not really caring all that much.

5. San Francisco Bay Area (7 Super Bowl titles, 5 World Series titles, 1 NBA title, 0 NHL titles)

The best thing about the Bay Area? Remarkably little heartbreak. The NHL Sharks have yet to make a Stanley Cup despite being the #1 seed several times. The MLB A’s lost five of six playoff series in the 2000s. The Giants lost the 2002 World Series; three months later, the Raiders lost the 2003 Super Bowl. But that’s about it. If that’s the only heartbreak that comes with 13 titles, then the city can’t really complain about much, World Series earthquakes notwithstanding.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the 49ers had one of the best dynasties in NFL history. 49er fans witnessed two of the best quarterbacks in history (Joe Montana and Steve Young) and the best receiver in history by far (Jerry Rice). They went five for five in Super Bowls – the only franchise that has won more than one Super Bowl without losing one.

Before the 49ers were any good, the Raiders also had a solid team, winning two Super Bowls in 1977 and 1981. They had a brief affair with Los Angeles in the 1980s and early 1990s, but moved back in 1995. Now Raiders fans just have to wait for Al Davis to die.

Prior to the 2010 season, the MLB Giants were the only Bay Area franchise that could be considered tortured. But they finally won their first World Series since moving to San Francisco to go along with the four Oakland World Series championships.

The NBA Warriors and NHL Sharks drag the Bay Area down somewhat – if they didn’t exist, the Bay Area could have probably cracked the top couple spots on the strength of 12 World Series and Super Bowl titles in the last 38 years. A 1975 NBA title is pretty much the only thing separating the Warriors and the Clippers. Since 1977, the Warriors have only made the playoffs six times. Unfortunately for the Bay Area, their fans actually care about the team. While the Clippers have approximately 14 fans, the Bay Area continually supports the perennial loser Warriors.

In 18 seasons in the league, the NHL Sharks have only missed the playoffs five times. In their third season in the league, they burst on to the scene as a #8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. A year after finishing 11-71-2, they upset the #1 Red Wings in the first round (back when a #8 over a #1 meant something) and took the Maple Leafs to seven games before falling in the second round. Since then, their playoff appearances have been disappointing. They have five division titles and only eleven series wins. They have never made the Stanley Cup finals and have only made the Western Conference finals twice. Unlike the other expansion teams of the past twenty years, Sharks fans still care – they are one of only 12 teams to draw 100% attendance this season.

4. St. Louis (10 World Series titles, 1 Super Bowl title, 1 NBA title, 0 Stanley Cups)

St. Louis doesn’t have the multi-sport track record that the other teams on this list have. Instead, the city gets the #4 spot for its uncanny ability to buy low and sell high on sports teams.

The MLB Browns made only one World Series in the 53 years that they were in St. Louis (a loss in 1944). The city cut their losses and sent them to Baltimore in 1954. The Orioles did win three World Series titles…but let’s just say that being a Cardinal fan is significantly more rewarding than being an Oriole fan. For evidence, the Cardinals finished fourth in the MLB in attendance last year; the Orioles finished 24th.

The NBA Hawks were in St. Louis between 1955 and 1968. In those 13 years, they made four NBA finals and won one NBA title. The owners wanted to build a new arena (man, were they ahead of their time), but the city refused, so the team relocated to Atlanta. Since then, the Atlanta Hawks haven’t even made it back to the conference finals, let alone the NBA finals.

The NFL Cardinals were located in St. Louis between 1960 and 1987. Give the St. Louis fans credit – they supported the team for 27 years before attendance started to dwindle. This despite the fact that the Cardinals never won a single playoff game in St. Louis. The Cardinals moved to Phoenix; eight years later, the Los Angeles Rams moved to St. Louis. Four years after that, the Rams won the Super Bowl. Now that is a trade-up.

That would be enough luck alone to get St. Louis towards the top of the list. As an added bonus, the ten World Series titles for the Cardinals are the second most in baseball history. Although the Cardinals have never had a dominant dynasty, they tend to reward their fan base. Since they won their first World Series title in 1926, the longest they have gone without a title is 24 years (between 1982 and 2006). Every generation of baseball fans in St. Louis has experienced a World Series title. Only the Yankees can say the same among MLB franchises.

The NHL’s Blues keep St. Louis from breaking into the top three. No NHL team has toyed with their fans more than the Blues. Between 1979 and 2004, they made the playoffs 25 straight times. They qualified for exactly zero Stanley Cup finals. In fairness, Blues fans probably knew what they were in for: the team made the Stanley Cup finals in each of their first three seasons (1968-70). They were swept all three times. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make being a Blues fan any less painful.

3. New York (35 World Series titles, 8 Stanley Cups, 4 Super Bowls, 2 NBA championships)

Tough call on New York only finishing third, but for all the Yankees’ history, the other New York teams really haven’t done a whole lot. I’ve said before that every city has a second-class citizen when it comes to sports. Well, the New York area has two teams in each major league…they basically have a second-class citizen in every sport. So the problem with ranking New York is that New Yorkers can go one of two ways – a first-class route and a second-class route.

They could go the easy route and stick with the Yankees, Giants, Knicks, and Rangers. Those four teams have combined for 36 all-time championships. Although 27 of those came from the Yankees, the other three teams have each won at least two championships.

The significantly more difficult route leaves New Yorkers with the Mets, Jets, Nets, and Islanders. Those four teams have seven titles between them, four of which came when the Islanders won four consecutive titles between 1980 and 1983.

If we leave out NHL teams, it gets even worse. Both New York NHL teams have lackluster histories. The Rangers have won only one Stanley Cup (1994) in the last seventy years. Take away the years between 1980 and 1984, and the Islanders have never been to a Stanley Cup final. Even if you give the Islanders those titles, there’s no real evidence that there are any die-hard Islander fans – the team has finished in the bottom three in attendance in each of the last six years.

So that leaves 32 titles for the first-class citizens of the New York era and 3 for the second-class citizens. On the plus side for the second-class teams, the Mets’ last World Series title came in 1986 when they beat the city’s natural rival Boston with help from Bill Bucknor’s still-tough-to-watch error. On the down side, the Mets’ title was the only title for those teams in the last forty years.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to deal with New York because of this. Depending on which teams you root for, they could be the best sports city in the United States. They could also be one of the most tortured cities. I decided to split the difference and put them at #3 on the list.

2. Pittsburgh (6 Super Bowls, 5 World Series, 3 Stanley Cups)

As I mentioned earlier, the NFL Steelers are one of only three teams with a legitimate argument as “America’s Team” in America’s most popular sport. They have won an NFL-best six Super Bowls while losing only one. Their success to heartbreak ratio is probably the best in NFL history. Not a whole lot more to say about them.

The NHL’s Penguins one-upped the Spurs’ NBA Draft record. The Penguins have had the #1 draft pick three times in their franchise history. Two of their picks? Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux and future Hall of Famer Sidney Crosby. The third pick was goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who is now in his sixth season as the Penguins’ goaltender. Add three Stanley Cups in the last twenty years, and the Penguins have a pretty solid resume going.

Unfortunately, now we get to the MLB Pirates. The Pirates have actually won five World Series titles, although you wouldn’t guess it from their current state. In 1992, they were only 13 years removed from their last World Series title. They were the team of Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Ralph Kiner, and the Waner brothers. Second basemen Bill Maseroski hit the only Game 7 walk-off home run in World Series history in 1960. History was in their favor.

Then Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS happened. The Pirates led 2-0 heading into the ninth inning. A double, error, walk, sac fly, and single later and the Braves won 3-2 when the impossibly slow Sid Bream scored from second on David Justice’s single. Since then, the Pirates have had 18 consecutive losing seasons, the most ever in any sport. And it’s not getting any better: the Pirates clinched a losing season on August 21 this year.

Pittsburgh still gets the #2 spot on the list thanks to the Steelers and Penguins. In the words of Meat Loaf, “two outta three ain’t bad.”

1. Boston (17 NBA championships, 8 World Series titles, 5 Stanley Cups, 3 Super Bowls)

Who’d have thought this was possible ten years ago? At the end of the 20th century, the Red Sox had gone 82 years without a World Series title; the Patriots had never won a Super Bowl; the historically successful Celtics hadn’t won an NBA title in 13 years; and the Bruins hadn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1972.

And then Boston went on an unprecedented run of success in the past decade. The Red Sox turned into the Yankees with better PR. They spent a katrillion dollars on players and won the 2004 and 2007 World Series titles. Now the team is a perennial contender and the favorite to win the American League next season. With the Curse of the Bambino out of the picture, we can now focus our attention on the fact that the franchise has won the fourth most World Series titles in MLB history.

The Patriots built themselves into an improbable juggernaut in an era of NFL parity. Prior to 2001, the franchise did have two AFC Championships to their name. Aside from those, they were generally a team of losers. Besides the 1985 and 1996 championship seasons, they won only two playoff games in forty years. Amazingly, they then won nine straight between 2001 and 2004. The end result: three Super Bowl titles and one of the best four year runs in NFL history. Although Bostonians are still upset about the Tyree catch in the 2008 Super Bowl, they were the only team to have a winning record in every season in the 2000s.

Boston fans always had the glory days of the Celtics to fall back on – between 1957 and 1986, they won 16 of 30 possible titles. No other team in sports history even comes close to a run like that. But even that went dry for Boston sports fans in the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2007, that changed when the Celtics traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. They won the 2007-08 NBA title – their first in 24 years (their previous longest drought was seven years). They also narrowly lost the 2010 finals and are the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference this season.

As for the Bruins? They still suck. But three outta four is even better than two outta three.

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Fisher finally “fired”

January 31, 2011

The Tennessee Titans and head coach Jeff Fisher mutually agreed to part ways on Friday. Obviously, this either means that Fisher was fired or, like Jerry Seinfeld and his fiancée, this was the first mutual breakup of a coach and a team in history:

If the Titans without Jeff Fisher feels weird, that’s because it should – Fisher has been the franchise’s only coach since they moved to Tennessee before the 1997 season. Aside from that, this firing was surprising on many levels.

Fisher had only one year left on his contract. As I pointed out in this article, the Houston Texans chose not to fire Gary Kubiak and his 37-43 career record this offseason largely because owner Bob McNair didn’t want to pay two coaches for zero games if there is a lockout next season.

I suppose that we can commend Titans owner Bud Adams for his willingness to pay two coaches if he feels it’s the right move for the team. But unless the relationship between the two soured in the past month (after Adams announced in early January that Fisher would stay on next season), the firing seems out of place. The Titans finished 6-10 this season and had a very public falling out with quarterback Vince Young. They will enter the 2011 season with 38-year old Kerry Collins at quarterback. In short, their Super Bowl odds for next year won’t change if there is a lockout. And they certainly won’t change no matter who the coach is.

The Titans are a young team aside from Collins. They have the best young running back in the league (Chris Johnson) and one of the best young receivers (Kenny Britt). Maybe Adams wants to give a new coach a chance to get comfortable with these players to better prepare for a 2012 or 2013 Super Bowl run. If so, I commend him for the move.

But even that explanation might not make much sense. The leading candidate for the job is reportedly offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who will retain many of Fisher’s assistants. I’m just not sure what Adams is trying to gain by promoting an assistant and keeping the same basic coaching staff.

And then there’s the simple question: why this season? Sure, the Titans finished 6-10, but they did start a rookie named Rusty Smith at quarterback once this season. They are just two seasons removed from finishing an AFC-best 13-3. Why now and not, say, after Fisher went 32-38 in his first four and a half seasons (after the Oilers went 42-22 in the previous four seasons). Or when the Titans went 17-31 between 2004 and 2006. After sixteen mediocre seasons, why replace him with his assistant the year before a lockout? A curious decision, to say the least.

*****************

Here comes the 180. I’m genuinely confused about the timing of Fisher’s firing, but I’m more confused that he lasted so long with the Titans.

Fisher coached for one franchise for the seventh-longest period of time in NFL history. The six coaches ahead of him are Hall of Famers; Fisher is decidedly not a Hall of Famer. Here are those six coaches’ records, plus Fisher:

George Halas (Bears, 40 seasons): 318-148-31 (.682) (6 NFL championships, 2 runner-ups)
Tom Landry (Cowboys, 29 seasons): 250-162-6 (.607) (2-3 in Super Bowl)
Curly Lambeau (Packers, 29 seasons): 209-104-21 (.668) (6 NFL championships, 1 runner-up)
Don Shula (Dolphins, 26 seasons): 257-133-2 (.659) (2-3 in Super Bowl)
Chuck Noll (Steelers, 23 seasons): 193-148-1 (.566) (4-0 in Super Bowl)
Bud Grant (Vikings, 18 seasons): 158-96-5 (.622) (0-4 in Super Bowl)
Jeff Fisher (Titans, 16 seasons): 142-120-0 (.542) (0-1 in Super Bowl)

One of these things is not like the other ones.

Perhaps even more amazingly, Fisher’s longevity came in the era of NFL parity. Throughout history, NFL head coaches have a notoriously low shelf life. 448 coaches have coached at least one season in the league; only 27 of them lasted fifteen or more years. Only nine of those 27 were contemporaries of Fisher’s – and the league now has far more teams than it did in the past.

Fisher has never really been a great coach. Sure, he became the first head coach to lead the Titans franchise to the Super Bowl. But he finished within two games of .500 nine times in his 16 seasons – pretty much what you’d expect any coach to be able to do in the era of parity.

And yet, Fisher kept hanging on to his job. Fisher’s firing leaves just four coaches who have coached eight years (half as long as Fisher). The four are: Andy Reid (11 seasons with Eagles, 1 NFC championship, perpetually deals with fans’ calling for his head); Bill Belichick (10 seasons with Patriots, has job for as long as he wants it); Marvin Lewis (8 seasons with Bengals, unclear how he still has his job); and Jack Del Rio (8 seasons with Jaguars, unclear how he still has his job).

Even among those coaches, Fisher was an outlier. Belichick’s three Super Bowl victories for the Patriots makes him coach for life or until he decides to retire, whichever comes first. Eagles fans keep calling for Reid to be fired, but he has never really been bad enough to justify firing him; although he has yet to win a Super Bowl, his .613 winning percentage is third among active coaches (behind Belichick and Mike Tomlin) with four or more years experience and he has missed the playoffs only three times in his eleven years with the team. Lewis and Del Rio have only one playoff win and four playoff appearances between the two of them, but they keep their jobs because their owners are too cheap to fire them or find a new coach.

Fisher never came close to Belichick’s level. He finished .500 or worse eight times, so unlike Reid, there were plenty of chances to fire him. And while he’s no Dan Snyder, Adams certainly isn’t cheap.

So I guess this is rapidly turning into a eulogy. Goodbye, Mr. Fisher – you certainly were one of a kind. You lasted sixteen seasons in a league in which the median length of service is 2.88 years. This despite never doing anything particularly noteworthy and having only six winning seasons. Not only are you the only head coach to last more than sixteen years with a team without compiling a Hall of Fame-resume, you didn’t even come particularly close.

Thank you for giving hope to mediocre people everywhere.


How Did NFL Experts Fare with their 2010 Predictions?

January 27, 2011

With this year’s Super Bowl already set, I wanted to look back at various NFL experts’ preseason predictions to see how accurate they were. This quickly escalated into an entire post to see which popular sports websites’ experts had the best season. I looked at FOXSports.com, CNNSI.com, ESPN.com, and USA Today. This seemed to be an accurate cross-representation of various experts.

Most of these experts picked four division winners, two wild card teams, two Super Bowl teams, and a Super Bowl winner. I used a completely arbitrary rating scheme – 2 points for correctly picking a division winner or wild card, 1 point for correctly picking a playoff team but incorrectly naming them a division winner or a wild card, 4 points for picking a conference championship team, and 6 points for picking a team to make the Super Bowl.* I also docked 2 points if a playoff pick missed the playoffs by two or more games, 4 points if a conference championship pick missed the playoffs, and 6 points if a Super Bowl pick missed the playoffs.

* Turns out that three of the four websites I looked at only gave an AFC or NFC champion and did not predict the championship game matchup. I left the numbers in for the CNNSI though because a) I’m too lazy to count again and b) if they’re going to pick them on their website, I might as well give them credit for their picks. That explains why the CNNSI scores are so high/low. The three sites with an asterisk below only picked the Super Bowl participants.

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FoxSports.com*

John Czarnecki (11 points)

The best FOX Sports expert didn’t fare particularly well, scoring 11 of a possible 28 points. Czarnecki nailed the AFC, correctly picking five of the six playoff teams, though he picked the Jets and Ravens to win their respective divisions and New England and Pittsburgh to win wild cards. Amazingly, Czarnecki was the only FOX Sports expert to pick the AFC champion Steelers to even make the playoffs, and even he picked them as the second wild card.

Roger Rotter (9 points)
Adam Schein (8 points, picked Green Bay as Super Bowl winner)
Alex Marvez (8 points)
Nancy Gay (4 points)

Nancy actually didn’t do so bad on her picks – she nailed seven of the 12 playoff teams. But when she missed, she missed badly. She picked the Chargers to win the Super Bowl and picked the 6-10 49ers, Cowboys, and Vikings and the 4-12 Bengals to make the playoffs.

Peter Schrager (2 points)

I actually liked Peter’s picks, even though he whiffed on most of them. He picked the Raiders would grab the second wild card. They did not, but were one of the league’s most improved teams, so he had the right idea. Unfortunately for him, he was the only FOX Sports analyst not to pick Green Bay to win the NFC (he went with New Orleans) and it hurt his total.

WhatIfSports.com (-5 points, picked Green Bay as Super Bowl winner)

FOX Sports partnered with WhatIfSports.com, which simulated the NFL season and churned out these outrageous predictions. They picked the Packers to make the Super Bowl, so they get six bonus points in my system. Without those points, they would have scored negative 11 points. They correctly picked only five of the twelve playoff teams and picked the Chargers to win the AFC Championship. Their playoff selections included Carolina (missed by eight wins), Tennessee, Houston, Minnesota, and Dallas (all missed by four wins). Unfortunately for them, they also put a more in-depth projection out there. Among their other hilarious picks were the Jets, Patriots, and Dolphins tying for the AFC East title at 8-8, the Chargers finishing 13-3 with actual division winner Kansas City finishing 5-11, the Cowboys finishing 11-5, and the Bears finishing 6-10. The four teams that received first round byes all missed the playoffs completely in their projection. Only one team (the Eagles at 10-6) actually finished the season with the record that WhatIfSports projected. Discounting ties, there are 17 possible records a team could have (16-1, 15-0, etc.); theoretically, then, just by throwing out random guesses, you should be able to get two teams right. I’m not so good with numbers, but I think it might be time for a few tweaks in their system.

The biggest problem with FOX Sports’s analysts is the apparent groupthink that was going on. Excluding the WhatIfSports.com predictions, the six analysts had extremely similar picks. All six picked the Packers, Saints, Ravens, Colts, and Chargers to win their divisions (none did). Five picked the 49ers and four picked the Cowboys (they didn’t win, either). Five picked Green Bay to win the NFC Championship (kudos). Perhaps it would have been best if they just got together and made one prediction between them.

CNNSI.com

Peter King (26 points, picked Pittsburgh to win Super Bowl)

For as much crap as Peter King takes for cozying up to players too much, the guy can pick a football season. He was the only expert anywhere to pick the Green Bay/Pittsburgh Super Bowl matchup. I’m sure he wishes that he had the Dallas and Carolina wild card picks back, but hey, if you pick the Super Bowl matchup in the preseason, anything else is a bonus.

Damon Hack (19 points)

Hack hit a high of eight playoff teams for the CNNSI crew (King only hit seven). He was one of only three analysts to pick Pittsburgh to make the playoffs (he had them falling in the AFC Championship Game). Unfortunately, he also picked the Cowboys to make the NFC Championship Game.

Jim Trotter (16 points, picked Green Bay to win Super Bowl)

Trotter is a guy who likes to live a little. He was the only analyst to pick the Falcons and the Dolphins to win their division. One of those picks turned out brilliant. So what that the Dolphins didn’t even come close – at least he added some value to the equation with the Falcons, and didn’t fall for the FOX Sports groupthink trap.

Don Banks (13 points)
Kerry J. Byrne (10 points, picked Green Bay to win Super Bowl)

Byrne is lucky I don’t take give out style points. The Green Bay Super Bowl pick looks pretty good…but the fact that he picked the Carolina Panthers to make it to the NFC Championship Game makes me think that he was guessing. The Texan and Redskin playoff picks didn’t work out so well either.

Did I miss something on the Carolina Panther bandwagon? Byrne is the third guy on the first two sites to pick the Panthers to make the playoffs. Um…weren’t they always going to suck? I can’t think of a logical argument for why they should even have been considered a contender. And if there was, I think the words “Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen” would have served as an effective rebuttal.

If anything, you can’t say the CNNSI team was afraid to pick terrible teams. The six worst teams in the NFC were the 2-14 Panthers (two picks), 5-11 Cardinals (zero), 6-10 49ers (nine), 6-10 Cowboys (nine), 6-10 Redskins (two), and 6-10 Vikings (three). Actual playoff teams Chicago, Philadelphia, and Seattle received zero picks combined.

Dominic Bonvissuto (2 points)

Dominic, if anyone makes fun of you for picking the Cowboys to win the Super Bowl or the Texans and Bengals to make the playoffs, just remember: you were the only analyst on any of the four sites that picked the Chiefs to win the AFC West. I call that a victory in my book.

Jerome Bettis (-3 points)
Tim Layden (-4 points, picked Green Bay to win Super Bowl)
Andrew Perloff (-6 points)

Bettis, Layden, and Perloff engaged in an epic battle to be the worst CNNSI predictor. Amazingly, Perloff tied with Hack with eight playoff teams picked correctly. Unfortunately for him, the Chargers Super Bowl pick and Cowboys NFC Championship pick didn’t work out so well.

Bettis and Layden’s picks were bigger train wrecks and were saved only by Green Bay. Bettis picked the Chargers to beat the Packers in the Super Bowl and whiffed on the Bengals, Texans, Vikings, and Cowboys – all of which missed the playoffs by four or more games. Layden also correctly picked the Packers to make the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, he picked the Chargers to win the AFC Championship and the Vikings and Cowboys to make the playoffs. He decided that the Titans, Dolphins, and Redskins were better picks than the Bengals and Texans. It’s just too bad that those teams performed just as poorly.

This trendy San Diego pick confuses me too. Unlike the Carolina pick, at least there’s some rationale behind this one: the Chargers did finish 13-3 last year and have a stud young quarterback in Phillip Rivers. But coming into the season, they had won the AFC West four consecutive years and made it to the conference championship game a grand total of one time. This wasn’t like the Packers pick in which many analysts predicted a young team to make the leap this season – the Chargers seem to have stagnated. They really gave us no indication that they were a Super Bowl team during that streak and unsurprisingly came crashing down this year.

ESPN.com*

Paul Kuharsky (15 points, picked Packers to win Super Bowl)
Adam Schefter (13 points, picked Packers to win Super Bowl)

Kuharsky and Schefter are the runaway winners for the best predictors among ESPN writers. They were among the six (of 17) ESPN analysts to pick the Steelers to make the playoffs and among the five to pick the Eagles. Both correctly picked the Packers to make the Super Bowl (Kuharsky picked the Ravens and Schefter picked the Colts to join them). Schefter gets kudos for being one of only three analysts to leave the Cowboys out of the playoffs. In retrospect, Kuharsky probably wants his Dolphin pick back and Schefter would like his Bengal and Texan picks back.

Matt Williamson (11 points)
Pat Yasinskas (8 points)

Finally, Yasinskas becomes the first analyst to pick someone other than the Packers to win the NFC North. Unfortunately, he went with the Vikings (he picked the Packers as a wild card). I can’t really fault any of these guys – the Packers are the Super Bowl representative from the NFC, so they clearly are one of the best teams in the conference. But in fairness, they didn’t actually win the division and didn’t even qualify for the playoffs until the very last week of the regular season.

Unfortunately, Yasinskas doesn’t join the top group because of his Chargers for the AFC Championship pick.

Tim Graham (8 points)

Graham was one of four analysts to pick the Bengals to win the AFC North. Um…why? It didn’t really take a rocket scientist to realize that Palmer, TO, and Ochocinco Johnson were washed up. I’m almost as puzzled by this pick as I was about the Panthers.

James Walker (8 points)
Bill Williamson (8 points)
Jeffri Chadiha (7 points, picked Packers to win Super Bowl)
KC Joyner (7 points)

Lot of in-the-box FOX Sports-like thinking here in the middle pack. These guys all seemed to like the Colts, Ravens, and Packers and fell in the Bengals, Chargers, Cowboys, and 49ers traps. And aside from Chadiha, they all liked either the Ravens or Colts to win the Super Bowl.

John Clayton (4 points)

Clayton would have fallen into the same category as above, except for his Cowboys to the Super Bowl pick. Clayton, Seifert, and Sando all picked the Cowboys to make the Super Bowl but lose to the Colts or Ravens. If you’re going to go with the Cowboys to win the NFC, don’t you have to pick them to win the Super Bowl? Did they really expect them to lose a home game for the championship? Seems odd.

Bill Simmons (4 points)
Unfortunately, I don’t have the conference championship picks for the rest of the ESPN staff, so I can’t take points away for Simmons’ outrageous Bengals to the AFC Championship pick. Simmons gets points for being one of the few to correctly pick the Falcons as NFC South champion – he even had the right idea and picked the Falcons to make it to the Super Bowl – and not drinking the Cowboys’ Kool-Aid. He loses points for the aforementioned Bengals pick and his 13-3 prediction for the 49ers and wild card berth for the Redskins.

Kevin Seifert (0 points)
Seth Wickersham (-1 points, picked Packers to win Super Bowl)

Wickersham gets the award for most off-the-wall pick – the Packers over the TEXANS in the Super Bowl. That’s bold. Particularly considering that he picked the Texans as the #6 seed. Shouldn’t he have waited until they made their first playoff appearance in franchise history before picking them to win the AFC with three straight road victories?

The bright side for Wickersham is that no one will make fun of him for his Dolphins as AFC East champion pick.

Matt Mosley (-4 points)
Matthew Berry (-4 points)

Both of these guys were undone by their NFC Champion picks – the 49ers for Berry and the Giants for Mosley.

Berry was the first analyst to pick the 49ers to make the Super Bowl, even though 31 of 32 so far picked them to win the NFC West. That fits in with the general thought on the 49ers – that their division sucks and they would win it basically by default. Now I probably would have agreed with that at the start of the season…but if it was a crapshoot, shouldn’t someone have at least stepped out on a mini-limb and picked another team? 39 of 41 total analysts felt that strongly about Alex Smith and a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs in seven years. Yeah, the division sucks…but still – Alex Smith?

Mike Sando (-5 points)
Chris Harris (-6 points)

Sando and Harris finished neck-and-neck in the race for the worst ESPN predictor. Sando escapes the cellar by picking the Patriots to win the division; Harris went with the Jets. Pretty sure these guys shared picks. Their only other difference was the Texans (Harris) and Dolphins (Sando) as an AFC wild card. Both uncannily picked the Titans and Vikings to make the playoffs and picked the Cowboys to make it to the Super Bowl.

My biggest beef with the ESPN analysts: only four picked Ndamukong Suh as defensive rookie of the year. This was the easiest layup of any of the picks. I believe you call that overthinking.

USA Today*

Scott Zucker (9 points)

Zucker wins the USA Today award largely because he was the only analyst on any of the four sites I looked at to pick the Seahawks to win NFC West.

Nate Davis (8 points)
Tom Pedulla (7 points)
Jim Corbett (6 points)
Gary Mihoces (6 points)
Skip Wood (4 points)

If all of these scores looked bunched up, that’s because they are. There was some serious group think going on at USA Today. Five of the eight USA Today writers picked Green Bay to win the Super Bowl. Of the top six, only Corbett did not.

Six analysts picked the Ravens to win the AFC, but only Bell picked them to win the Super Bowl. Six picked the Vikings to grab a wild card, by far the most of any site.

Sean Leahy (0 points)
Jarrett Bell (-3 points)

Leahy and Bell both get a swing and a miss for their Cowboys’ NFC Championship pick. Bell became the fourth analyst to pick the Cowboys to make it to the Super Bowl and lose. Overall, seven people thought the Cowboys would make it to the big game, but only three thought they would actually win it in their home stadium.

Leahy gets the off-the-wall pick award for the USA Today as the only analyst on any of the four sites to pick the Raiders to win the AFC West.

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I thought this would be a lot easier to make fun of a few way-off analysts and applaud the ones that got it right. Instead, most of them seem to have a built-in defense mechanism: if they just pick the same picks as everyone else, they can’t stand out.

Check out these overall numbers (actual division winners and wild cards in bold):

AFC East: New York Jets 19, New England 18, Miami 3, Buffalo 0
AFC North: Baltimore 31, Cincinnati 7, Pittsburgh 3, Cleveland 0
AFC South: Indianapolis 39, Houston 2, Jacksonville 0, Tennessee 0
AFC West: San Diego 39, Kansas City 1, Oakland 1, Denver 0
NFC East: Dallas 31, New York Giants 8, Philadelphia 2, Washington 0
NFC North: Green Bay 40, Minnesota 1, Chicago 0, Detroit 0
NFC South: New Orleans 29, Atlanta 11, Carolina 1, Tampa Bay 0
NFC West: San Francisco 39, Arizona 1, Seattle 1, St. Louis 0
AFC Wild Card: New England 15, Houston 12, New York Jets 11, Pittsburgh 11, Cincinnati 9, Miami 8, Baltimore 6, Tennessee 6, Indianapolis 2, Oakland 2
NFC Wild Card: Minnesota 24, New Orleans 11, Atlanta 16, New York Giants 10, Philadelphia 7, Dallas 6, Washington 5, Carolina 2, Green Bay 1

AFC Champion: Baltimore 17, Indianapolis 12, San Diego 7, New York Jets 3, Houston 1, Pittsburgh 1
NFC Champion: Green Bay 27, Dallas 7, New Orleans 4, Atlanta 1, New York Giants 1, San Francisco 1
Super Bowl Champion: Green Bay 14, Indianapolis 9, Baltimore 8, Dallas 3, New Orleans 3, San Diego 2, New York Jets 1, Pittsburgh 1

The division winner picks are groupthink at its finest. Only the AFC East was a race even close. The other seven divisions had runaway favorites; the 21 teams picked to finish second through fourth in these divisions had 39 votes combined. And only one of these seven favorites even won its division. Three of them – San Diego, Dallas, and San Francisco – missed the playoffs entirely.

As much as we hear about NFL parity, it’s just bizarre that all of these experts picked the exact same teams over and over. All 41 used some variation of the same basic formula: pick the same division winners as everyone else, pick one off the wall pick, and make the Super Bowl Green Bay versus either Indy or Baltimore.

How else do you explain trendy, semi-off the wall picks Cincinnati (16) and Houston (14) getting as much support as eventual AFC Champion Pittsburgh (14 votes)? If someone approached you before the season and gave you 50 bucks that you had to put on one of those teams to win the Super Bowl, how long would you think before putting it on Pittsburgh? A minute? Fifteen seconds? Three seconds?

I suppose I learned two things from this exercise:

Experts aren’t going to make crazy predictions, lest hack bloggers like me make fun of them four months later.

And if you’ve read one expert, you’ve read them all.


Ranking the Best Quarterback Matchups in Super Bowl History

January 25, 2011

Heading into Super Bowl XLV, quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger will get the lion’s share of attention. And deservedly so – Roethlisberger is shooting for his third Super Bowl title at just 28 years old and Aaron Rodgers has already been anointed as the best young quarterback in the league.

With that in mind, I decided to see where this quarterback matchup ranked among Super Bowls of the past. For a challenge, I looked at how each quarterback was perceived at the time; after all, anyone can look at matchups like Favre/Elway, Montana/Elway, and Montana/Marino and say they were good in retrospect. Besides that, I really have no other methodology other than my own personal preference. In reverse order:

45. Super Bowl XXXV: Trent Dilfer (Ravens) vs. Kerry Collins (Giants)

Super Bowl 35 pitted the league’s 22nd best passing offense (Baltimore) versus the league’s 13th best passing offense (Collins). Both quarterbacks had had remarkably similar careers up to this point. Both were 28 years old. Dilfer was the sixth overall pick of the 1994 NFL Draft and Collins was the fifth pick in 1995. Neither had lived up to anything close to expectations; Dilfer was already on his second team and Collins was on his third.

The consensus coming into this game was that the winner would be the worst Super Bowl-winning quarterback in history. Dilfer had already lost his starting job in Tampa Bay the previous season and was slapped with the “game manager” tag.* Collins was an even bigger train wreck. This was his sixth season in the league for three different teams. The 2000 season was only the second time he finished with more touchdowns than interceptions. Even after a 22 touchdown and 13 interception season, he had still accumulated an ugly career line of 85 TDs and 98 INTs.

* I’ve watched football for twenty-six years and I’m not entirely sure what a game manager is. Best I can tell, game manager is code for “this guy sucks but he doesn’t have the arm strength to throw interceptions, so he won’t hurt you that much.”

Dilfer’s Ravens came out on top and you could still make a pretty convincing argument that Dilfer is the worst Super Bowl-winning quarterback ever. He bounced around the league for six more seasons with three different teams, starting only 29 more games before retiring in 2007. Collins actually became a solid NFL quarterback. As of the end of the 2010 season, he ranks eleventh on the career passing yards chart and 28th on the career passing touchdown list.

44. Super Bowl XVII: Joe Theismann (Redskins) vs. David Woodley (Dolphins)

Joe Theismann is one of those quarterbacks that is remembered as better than he actually was. As a 32-year old in the strike-shortened 1982 season, he made his first Pro Bowl and first All-Pro team. Judged by his whole career, Theismann would probably rank higher. However, at the time, he had never been considered an elite quarterback.

Woodley has a good argument for the worst quarterback ever to play in a Super Bowl. In nine games in the 1982 season, his third in the league, the 24-year old Woodley finished with only five touchdowns and eight interceptions. The Dolphin passing attack ranked 27th of 28 teams.

In short, there was a reason that the Dolphins drafted Dan Marino the next year. Woodley started only 18 more games in his career and was out of the league by the time he turned 27. Theismann went on to be named MVP of the NFL the next season and became one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks until Lawrence Taylor infamously sent him into early retirement by breaking his leg on Monday Night Football in 1985.

43. Super Bowl XXV: Jeff Hostetler (Giants) vs. Jim Kelly (Bills)

Hostetler is probably the only quarterback that could give Dilfer a run for his money for worst Super Bowl-winning quarterback. After Phil Simms got hurt late in the 1990 season, long-time backup Hostetler improbably led the Giants to the Super Bowl. Including the first two games in the playoffs, he entered the Super Bowl having started a grand total of six career games.

For his part, Kelly had already established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL by 1990. He made the 1987, 1988, and 1990 Pro Bowls. The 1990 season was the best of his career to that point, as he led the league in quarterback rating (101.2) and completion percentage (63.3%).

Kelly must still be kicking himself at the one that got away. He went on to lose the next three Super Bowls, all to more established quarterbacks. Hostetler parlayed his playoff success into a starting job for the next six years, but he only made the playoffs one more time, in 1993 with the Raiders.

42. Super Bowl XX: Jim McMahon (Bears) vs. Tony Eason (Patriots)

Talent-wise, this matchup could certainly be last on the list, but the media hype before the game gives it a few bonus points. At the time, this was billed as a quarterback matchup for the future – both McMahon and Eason were promising young former first round quarterbacks.

Yet for as much trash talking and beer chugging that McMahon did, his career was remarkably light on accomplishments. In his four seasons in the league, he missed 17 of 57 games with an injury and made his first and only Pro Bowl in the 1985 season.

Eason is known as one of the busts of the 1983 NFL Draft that included Jim Kelly, John Elway, and Dan Marino. His career actually started out better than Elway’s or Kelly’s. As a sophomore in the 1984 season, he had 23 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions. He took a step back in the 1985 season and was benched for veteran Steve Grogan. Still, he got the start in the Super Bowl. He promptly redefined “deer in headlights” and went 0-for-6 passing before being yanked for Grogan.

McMahon bounced around the league for the remaining eleven years of his career. He started only 57 more games for six teams and never won another playoff game. Eason had one more solid year for the Patriots, but never really recovered from his Super Bowl catastrophe. He was out of the league by 1990.

41. Super Bowl XXII: Doug Williams (Redskins) vs. John Elway (Broncos)

Doug Williams might be the most unlikely quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Williams was an average quarterback for the Tampa Bay Bucs between 1978 and 1982 before moving to the USFL to become an average quarterback for three more years. By 1986, he was a 31-year old backup quarterback for the Redskins. He saw little action with the team until starting QB Jay Schroeder went down with an injury halfway through the 1988 season. Williams was again average – he threw 15 TDs and 12 INTs in 10 regular season games. Still, it was good enough to make it to the Super Bowl. Conveniently, he had the best game of his career and was named MVP of the Redskins’ 42-10 romp over the Broncos.

At this point in his career, Elway had established himself as a very good quarterback, but was not quite the legend that he would later become. He made the Pro Bowl in both 1986 and 1987. This was his second chance at a Super Bowl after losing to the Giants the previous season.

The two quarterbacks took slightly different paths after this game. Williams started two more games before retiring following the 1989 season. Elway would go on to win two Super Bowls ten years later and pops up in every “greatest quarterback ever” discussion.

40. Super Bowl V: Johnny Unitas (Colts) vs. Craig Morton (Cowboys)

Another matchup that looks way better in name than it was at the time. Unitas and Morton both had fantastic careers, but the timing just didn’t align for the two.

The 1970 season was Unitas’s last full season as a starter and he simply wasn’t very good. In his last two full seasons with the Colts, he threw for only 26 touchdown passes and 38 interceptions. Morton was only in his second season as a starter with the Cowboys. Though he showed promise, he was not considered one of the top quarterbacks in the league – the Cowboys only finished 16th out of 26 teams in passing that season.

Perhaps it isn’t much of a surprise that this game is often considered the worst Super Bowl ever played. Morton went on to lose Super Bowl XII with the Broncos and had a solid 19-year NFL career. Unitas had three more forgettable seasons as a part-time quarterback before mercifully retiring.

39. Super Bowl XXXVII: Brad Johnson (Bucs) vs. Rich Gannon (Raiders)

Like Doug Williams, both of these quarterbacks were extremely unlikely candidates to lead their team to a Super Bowl. Johnson was the epitome of a “game manager.” By 2002, he was a 34-year old quarterback with nine years of NFL experience, only four of which were spent as a starter. He wasn’t terrible by any means; although he couldn’t throw the ball downfield because of poor arm strength, he at least seemed aware of his own shortcomings. He stuck to dink and dunk type passes and never finished a season with less than a 60% completion rate.

Gannon was an even more unlikely story. He joined the Oakland Raiders in 1999 as a 12-year NFL veteran with only 58 career starts. His career improbably took off, and he made four consecutive Pro Bowls between 1999 and 2002. In 2002, he led the league with 4,689 yards passing and was named MVP.

Neither Johnson or Gannon did much after the Super Bowl. Gannon only started 10 more games after two seasons before retiring due to injuries. Johnson hung around the league for six more years as a backup before retiring in 2008.

38. Super Bowl XXXVIII: Tom Brady (Patriots) vs. Jake Delhomme (Panthers)

In 2003, Tom Brady wasn’t quite the Tom Brady we now know. He won the Super Bowl in 2001 as an upstart rookie injury replacement with the Patriots, but had yet to put up the Madden-like numbers he later would. It wasn’t until after this Super Bowl victory that Brady joined the discussion of best quarterbacks in the league.

In 2003, Jake Delhomme was still Jake Delhomme. This was his first year as a starter after four years as a backup for the Saints. Amazingly, he led the Panthers to the Super Bowl and actually had a very un-Delhomme-like performance in the big game as the Panthers almost pulled out the win. He went on to have a few more decent seasons before his name became synonymous with the TAINT.

37. Super Bowl XXXVI: Tom Brady (Patriots) vs. Kurt Warner (Rams)

If Tom Brady wasn’t quite Tom Brady in 2003, he certainly wasn’t in 2001. You’ve heard Brady’s story by now – a sixth round draft pick, he was forced into action when Drew Bledsoe got hurt in the Patriots’ second game of the season. He wasn’t great by any means, but got the job done and led the Patriots to the Super Bowl.

It’s easy to forget that Warner only played two and a half full seasons with the Rams…he was just that good in that short time period. In 2001, he was clearly the best quarterback in the league. He was named NFL MVP for the second time and led the league in most passing categories.

36. Super Bowl XLI: Peyton Manning (Colts) vs. Rex Grossman (Bears)

Talk about a matchup of polar opposites. Before this game, Manning was known as the great statistical quarterback who couldn’t win the big game. Grossman was known as the terrible quarterback who fell ass backwards into a Super Bowl appearance.

By 2006, Manning had an argument for best quarterback in the game – it really came down to whether you appreciated Brady’s three Super Bowl rings or Manning’s superior statistics. He was already a seven-time Pro Bowler, three-time First Team All-Pro, and two-time NFL MVP. The only knock on his resume was his 3-6 playoff record coming into the 2006 season. With Grossman’s help, he handled that one blemish with ease.

I seem to remember Grossman sucking for a lot longer than he actually did. In truth, the 2006 season was his only full season for the Bears. He wasn’t a complete train wreck – he started all 16 games and had 3,193 yards passing, 23 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions that season. But yeah…it was Rex Grossman.

35. Super Bowl XXXIV: Kurt Warner (Rams) vs. Steve McNair (Titans)

The first of many matchups that look much better after the fact. This game surely didn’t lack for storylines, but at the time, no one thought Warner and McNair were particularly great.

This was the 28-year old Warner’s first NFL season after he famously stocked shelves at a grocery store in Iowa while playing arena football. After starter Trent Green tore his ACL in the preseason, Warner emphatically stepped in. He led the league in completion percentage (65.1%), touchdowns (41), and quarterback rating (109.2) en route to winning the NFL MVP Award.

McNair was in his third season as a full-time starter but was not yet considered one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He led the Titans to two straight 8-8 seasons before his breakout 1999 season.

Warner and McNair both went on to have very good careers. They each made three Pro Bowls, threw for over 30,000 yards, and are considered potential future Hall of Famers.

34. Super Bowl IV: Len Dawson (Chiefs) vs. Joe Kapp (Vikings)

In 1969, Hall of Famer Dawson was at the tail end of his prime. He made his fourth consecutive AFL All-Star Game (and sixth overall), but actually had his worst statistical season and only started seven games due to injury. Prior to the 1969 season, he had led the AFL in completion percentage and quarterback rating for five years in a row. Despite the down season, it was safe to say that Dawson was the premier quarterback in the AFL (although Joe Namath certainly got more attention).

Joe Kapp is the surprising answer to the question “who was the Vikings quarterback in their first Super Bowl appearance?” Kapp was picked up from the Canadian Football League’s B.C. Lions in 1967 and started for three seasons for the Vikings while Fran Tarkenton was on his brief mid-career exodus to the New York Giants. Kapp led the Vikings to two consecutive division titles and the 1969 NFC Championship. He was one of the top quarterbacks in the league in 1969 and made the NFL All-Star Game.

After the 1969 season, Kapp was not resigned by the Vikings. He eventually signed a four-year deal with the Boston Patriots as the league’s highest paid player. After one horrendous season (three TDs, 17 interceptions), he was sent home at training camp the following season and never played in the league again. Dawson had six more productive years but the Chiefs have yet to make it back to the Super Bowl to this day.

33. Super Bowl XL: Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers) vs. Matt Hasselbeck (Seahawks)

Long before Ben Roethlisberger was an elite NFL quarterback and alleged rapist, he was a 23-year old stud sophomore in his first Super Bowl in 2005. In two seasons in the league, Big Ben compiled a stellar 22-3 regular season record, but he was still a relatively unknown commodity prior to this game.

Meanwhile, two-time Pro Bowler Hasselbeck was one of the many solid, but not great, quarterbacks that permeated the NFL in the suddenly pass-happy league of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Hasselbeck continually put together very good seasons but might just be the most boring quarterback of the decade. Not only was he trapped on the West Coast, but he was the epitome of the good at everything, great at nothing quarterback.

I feel like Hasselbeck probably deserves his own column one day – he’s basically on the Mendoza Line of quarterbacks good enough to keep a starting job for an entire career but never manage to become one of the best quarterbacks in the league.

32. Super Bowl XV: Jim Plunkett (Raiders) vs. Ron Jaworski (Eagles)

The list of quarterbacks that have won two or more Super Bowls consists of Hall of Famers Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Roger Staubach, John Elway, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, and Joe Montana; active players Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady; and Jim Plunkett. Plunkett was a 33-year old quarterback in 1980 primed to go down as another in the long list of journeyman quarterbacks. And then he got traded to the Raiders and won two Super Bowls in four years.

His career statistics: 52.5 completion percentage, 164 touchdowns, 198 interceptions, 2 Super Bowl wins, 0 Pro Bowls.

Jaworski was a solid quarterback for a long time. He is probably best known as the guy who held the consecutive games streak for a quarterback before Brett Favre broke it two decades later. In 1980, Jaworski had the best season of his career (257-451, 3,529 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions) and was selected to his only Pro Bowl.

31. Super Bowl XVIII: Jim Plunkett (Raiders) vs. Joe Theismann (Redskins)

Plunkett was an even more unlikely Super Bowl winner three years later at the age of 36. In 1983, he did have the best season of his career and set career highs in completion percentage (60.7%), touchdowns (20), and passing yards (2,935).

Theismann earned his only All-Pro First Team after the 1983 season but could not make it two Super Bowl wins in a row with a victory in this game.

30. Super Bowl XIV: Terry Bradshaw (Steelers) vs. Vince Ferragamo (Rams)

Terry Bradshaw was the first quarterback to win four Super Bowls. I knew that his statistics weren’t all that great, but they really are something else. He had more Super Bowl victories than Pro Bowl appearances (three). He ranks just below Chris Chandler, Trent Green, and Ron Jaworski on the career passing yards list. But the guy did what he was supposed to, and did it well.

The 1979 season was actually Bradshaw’s best statistical season. He passed for a career-high 3,729 yards and earned his third and final Pro Bowl appearance. However, his reputation was already set at this point in his career – he was an unspectacular winner. This game was the fourth and final Super Bowl that Bradshaw won.

Ferragamo drags this matchup down a little bit. He was a career backup and the 1979 season was one of only two in his career that he was a full-time starter. His stats were quite similar to Bradshaw’s on the season…but of course, it was still Terry Bradshaw versus Vince Ferragamo. After the season, Ferragamo was a backup for six more years in the league until he retired following the 1986 season.

29. Super Bowl XXIX: Steve Young (49ers) vs. Stan Humphries (Chargers)

How did the 49ers keep Young as a backup until he was 30 years old? Didn’t the other NFL teams have talent scouts? I mean, this is the same league in which the Houston Texans traded for Matt Schaub and named him their starter of the future after he started one game for the Falcons.

Whatever the reason, Young was immediately one of the best quarterbacks in the league after he took over the starting job in 1992. He made seven consecutive Pro Bowls and three consecutive All-Pro teams. In the 1994 season, he led the league in completion percentage, touchdown passes, and quarterback rating en route to his second MVP Award in three years. The Super Bowl victory over the Chargers cemented a Hall of Fame career that didn’t begin until after the age of 30.

Humphries was basically Hasselbeck, only if Hasselbeck’s career ended early because of concussions. He was a solid, but never spectacular, starter for the Chargers over his six-year career. He is still the only quarterback to lead the Chargers to the Super Bowl, so there’s that.

28. Super Bowl XXXIII: John Elway (Broncos) vs. Chris Chandler (Falcons)

John Elway was the anti-Brett Favre. Elway was a great performer all the way up until he retired following the 1998 season. He was selected to his ninth Pro Bowl in 1998 despite missing four games with injuries. Plus, he gets bonus points for making the last game of his prolific career in the Super Bowl. That’s the big dream for every kid…that’s exactly how I dreamt of retiring, but so far no NFL team has shown any interest in my abilities.

Poor Chris Chandler and the Falcons. They make it to the first Super Bowl in their history and their reward is a dominant Bronco team and 99% of the country rooting against them to give Elway a fairy tale send-off.

Chandler was the very definition of a journeyman quarterback. He played for seven teams over an eighteen-year career and was never very good. But he caught fire for the Falcons in 1998. He threw for career highs in every major passing category and led the Falcons to a 15-2 record in the 17 regular season and playoff games that he started. He promptly fell back to earth the following season and won a combined 19 games in six more NFL seasons.

27. Super Bowl VII: Bob Griese (Dolphins) vs. Billy Kilmer (Redskins)

Griese only started five games in the Dolphins’ historic undefeated season because of injury, but got the start over backup quarterback Earl Morrall in Super Bowl VII. At only 26 years old, Griese had already put together a fantastic career. He was already a four-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro.

Billy Kilmer was basically Chris Chandler. A career-long journeyman for three different teams in his career, he finally put it all together as a 33-year old for the Redskins in 1972. He earned his only Pro Bowl nod and led the league with 19 passing touchdowns.

Kilmer would go on to have six more decent seasons with the Redskins, while Griese won the next Super Bowl and clinch a place in the Hall of Fame by the time he was 27.

26. Super Bowl XXVI: Mark Rypien (Redskins) vs. Jim Kelly (Bills)

Mark Rypien had a strange career. He became a full-time starter partway through the 1988 season at the age of 26. He made the Pro Bowl in both 1989 and 1991 and threw 84 touchdowns and only 48 interceptions in his first three and a half seasons. The Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1991 when Rypien was only 29.

And…that was it. He fell apart in the 1992 season and was eventually benched by the Redskins halfway through the 1993 season after throwing only four touchdown passes in ten games. He was a backup for six teams before finally calling it a career in 2002.

This was the second of four consecutive Super Bowls for Jim Kelly. The 1991 season was arguably his best year – he made the Pro Bowl and earned his only All-Pro First Team selection.

25. Super Bowl XVI: Joe Montana (49ers) vs. Ken Anderson (Bengals)

The 1981 season was Joe Montana’s first as a full-time starter. I was born in 1984, so I probably don’t quite appreciate just how good Montana was. But I’ll try. By 1981, the 49ers were on an eight-year playoff drought. They finished below .500 in all but one year (8-6 in 1976). Then Montana comes in and leads them to a Super Bowl victory in his first season as a starter. In my lifetime, the only comparable season was Kurt Warner taking the Rams to the 1999 Super Bowl, only if Warner then led the Rams to three more Super Bowl titles.

But in 1981 Montana was still largely an unknown. He was a solid quarterback for Notre Dame, but fell all the way to the Niners in the third round of the 1979 NFL Draft. The 1981 playoffs were Montana’s coming-out party. His pass to Dwight Clark to win the NFC Championship Game is still shown 8,400 times each NFL season.

It feels weird to type it now, but Ken Anderson was the far more accomplished quarterback coming into this game. He was a three-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro, although he had never won a playoff game before the 1981 season. He was basically Matt Hasselbeck. Anderson had two more decent seasons in 1982 and 1983 but backed up Boomer Esiason for the last few years of his career.

24. Super Bowl XXX: Troy Aikman (Cowboys) vs. Neil O’Donnell (Steelers)

Troy Aikman came into Super Bowl XXX with two Super Bowl victories and five consecutive Pro Bowl selections under his belt. Aikman was never a statistically great quarterback, but like Bradshaw before him, he got the job done. His third Super Bowl victory over the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX all but assured he would be a Hall of Famer.

Neil O’Donnell was a slightly better Brad Johnson. Like Johnson, O’Donnell stayed in his own lane and stuck with what he was good at. He never threw more than 17 touchdown passes, but never threw more than nine interceptions in a season.

I remember O’Donnell as a pretty solid quarterback, but he loses points after the Steelers didn’t bother to resign him after the season, instead taking their chances with the immortal Mike Tomczak. He was a part-time starter for the Jets, Bengals, and Titans for the rest of his career.

23. Super Bowl XXI: Phil Simms (Giants) vs. John Elway (Broncos)

Simms is another quarterback that I remember as a lot better than he actually was. By 1986, he was a six-year veteran with only one Pro Bowl and only one more touchdown pass than interception (104 to 103). In the Giants’ 14-2 regular season, he actually threw more interceptions (22) than touchdown passes (21).

Meanwhile, Elway had his first breakout season with Denver in 1986 and earned his first Pro Bowl selection after the season. He led the Broncos to the Super Bowl with his first two playoff victories.

Simms had one more Pro Bowl appearance in seven injury-prone seasons with the Giants. He also won a second ring with the Giants in 1990, though he was injured for the Super Bowl itself.

22. Super Bowl XII: Roger Staubach (Cowboys) vs. Craig Morton (Broncos)

Though he was already 35 by 1977, Staubach was still in the prime of his career. He already had one Super Bowl title and became the fourth quarterback to win multiple titles with the Cowboys victory in this game. The Cowboys finished the season at 12-2, the best record of Staubach’s career. He was selected to his fourth Pro Bowl following the season.

The Denver Broncos started former Staubach backup Craig Morton. The 34-year old Morton led the Broncos to a 12-2 record in his first season with the team. Unfortunately, he came up short in his second try at a Super Bowl title.

21. Super Bowl III: Joe Namath (Jets) vs. Earl Morrall (Colts)

I probably have this one on the list a lot higher than most. Namath tends to be one of the most polarizing quarterbacks in NFL history. There seems to be two camps with Namath. On one hand, there is the believers in the legend of Broadway Joe. On the other, there are the cynics who point out that he had 173 TDs, 220 INTs, and only completed 50% of his passes.

I ranked Namath high on this list because most people that seem to fall for the Broadway Joe romanticism are from the era. Since I’m ranking quarterbacks based on how the quarterback matchup was viewed at the time, I’ll go with their thoughts.

Earl Morrall had a fascinating career. He played for six teams over 22 seasons, mostly as a backup. Yet as a starter, he went 63-37-3, so he must have been doing something right. In today’s NFL, there’s no doubt that a team like the Texans would have signed him to an outrageous contract.

As a 34-year old in the 1968 season, he was named to the All-Pro First Team when he stepped in for an injured Johnny Unitas and led the Colts to a 13-1 record. Morrall later won a Super Bowl and went 9-0 as a fill-in starter for Bob Griese for the 1972 Miami Dolphins.

20. Super Bowl VI: Roger Staubach (Cowboys) vs. Bob Griese (Dolphins)

This is another matchup that looks quite a bit better in retrospect than it did at the time. The two future Hall of Famers were relatively unaccomplished quarterbacks when they met after the 1971 season.

Staubach was a 29-year old first-time starter. He joined the Cowboys after a five-year tour in the Navy in 1969, where he backed up Craig Morton for two years. In 1971, coach Tom Landry benched Morton after a couple early season losses. Staubach promptly went 10-0 as a starter and led the league with a 104.8 passer rating. He threw 15 touchdown passes and only four interceptions in leading the Cowboys to their first ever Super Bowl appearance.

Griese was a solid starter for five years, but the 1971 season was the first season that he was considered a star quarterback. He was the NFL Newspapers Association MVP and earned his first All-Pro nod and second straight Pro Bowl selection. Although he lost this Super Bowl, he would go on to win the next two and cement his legacy.

19. Super Bowl XLV: Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers) vs. Aaron Rodgers (Packers)

This seems about right for the upcoming matchup between the Steelers and Packers. Roethlisberger is the only active quarterback not named Tom Brady with multiple Super Bowl rings. Rodgers is only in his third year as a starter, but has already been named the Next Big Thing among future quarterbacks.

18. Super Bowl II: Bart Starr (Packers) vs. Daryle Lamonica (Raiders)

Starr gets a spot this high based mostly on his reputation. In the Packers’ first Super Bowl season in 1966, he was probably the best quarterback in the league. In the 1967 season, he was just bad. He set career lows in passing yards (1,823) and touchdowns (9) and set a career high in interceptions (17). The Packers won in spite of him. Still, Starr was one of the most popular quarterbacksh in the NFL at the time.

Daryle Lamonica finally started for the Raiders in the 1967 season after he was stuck on the Buffalo Bills’ bench for four seasons. In his first season with the Raiders, he was the best quarterback in the AFL. He led the league with 30 touchdown passes and was named to the First Team All-AFL squad.

Starr never again had a winning season for the Packers and retired four years later. Lamonica put together several more solid seasons for the Raiders but never made it back to the Super Bowl.

17. Super Bowl XXXI: Brett Favre (Packers) vs. Drew Bledsoe (Patriots)

1996 was only Brett Favre’s fifth year as a starter, but he was already one of the elite quarterbacks in the league. He had already been selected to four Pro Bowls and two All-Pro First Teams. In 1996, he won his second of three consecutive MVP Awards and led the league in touchdown passes all three of those years.

The Super Bowl was the culmination of Favre’s progress. He missed the playoffs in his first season, then got knocked out in the divisional round two years in a row, then made the conference championship before finally making it to the Super Bowl. In short, the media had plenty of stories ready.

Drew Bledsoe  was one of the most underrated quarterbacks of the 1990s. The guy retired seventh on the NFL’s career passing yardage list (now eighth) and his middle name is McQueen – that’s a solid career right there. By 1996, he was already a two-time Pro Bowler, but like the rest of his career, was underrated.

16. Super Bowl XLII: Eli Manning (Giants) vs. Tom Brady (Patriots)

With a couple more bad seasons, Eli Manning is falling dangerously close to Trent Dilfer territory for the worst quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Eli was never considered elite, or even particularly good, before the Giants’ playoff run in 2007. Before 2007, he had never even won a playoff game. In the regular season, he threw a league-high 20 interceptions and finished 25th in the league with a 73.9 passer rating. The four quarterbacks immediately ahead of him? Kyle Boller, Brian Griese, Damon Huard, and Joey Harrington. So, yeah, he was justPeyton’s little brother.

Of course the real reason that this matchup is so high on the list is Tom Brady. Prior to the 2007 season, three-time Super Bowl champion Brady was this generation’s Terry Bradshaw – a sound, but not statistically great “winner.” Then he decided to make the 2007 season his own Madden experience. He easily won the MVP Award after throwing for an NFL-record 50 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. He led the league in completion percentage, passing yards, and passer rating and single-handedly carries Eli Manning to the #17 spot on this list with his historically great season.

15. Super Bowl IX: Terry Bradshaw (Steelers) vs. Fran Tarkenton (Vikings)

In 1974, Terry Bradshaw was on the verge of being called a bust. Drafted by the Steelers with the first overall pick in 1970, Bradshaw was erratic – he threw only 41 touchdown passes to go along with 63 interceptions in his first four seasons. He was benched partway through the 1974 Super Bowl season in favor of the immortal Joe Gilliam. Luckily for Steelers fans, Gilliam proved to be quite a bit worse and Bradshaw “earned” the starting job back before the postseason. He won his first Super Bowl against the Vikings and the rest is history.

Fran Tarkenton was 33 years old when he made his first Super Bowl in 1973; this was his second consecutive trip to the big game. He was a seven-time Pro Bowler with the Vikings and Giants and had a reputation as one of the best quarterbacks in the league, despite never winning a playoff game before 1973. Tarkenton got better with age – he peaked in the three-year period between 1973 and 1975, and won the NFL MVP in 1975 after leading the league in completion percentage and touchdown passes. There was no doubt that he was the far superior quarterback in this game.

14. Super Bowl XXXIX: Tom Brady (Patriots) vs. Donovan McNabb (Eagles)

I already covered Brady above, but this was the year he really cemented his legacy. In just his fourth year as a starter, he already played in his third Super Bowl. I suppose a sixth round pick that already has a Hall of Fame-worthy career by age 27 isn’t a bad story, even if the media shoved it down our throats for most of the lead-up to this game.

McNabb was a six-year veteran in 2004, and owned the title for best active quarterback never to reach the Super Bowl not named Peyton Manning. He made his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl in 2004 and was one of the premier quarterbacks in the league, along with Brady, Manning, and (gasp!) Daunte Culpepper.

13. Super Bowl XXVII: Troy Aikman (Cowboys) vs. Jim Kelly (Bills)

In 1992, Aikman was not yet the Hall of Fame quarterback he would later become. He was thrown into the fire as a rookie in 1989 for a terrible 1-15 Cowboys team. Predictably, he was a train wreck for his first couple of seasons before slowly turning into a star. He was selected to his second straight Pro Bowl in 1992 and led the Cowboys to a 13-3 record.

Poor Jim Kelly. There’s not much more to say about him that hasn’t already been said already. The guy made four Super Bowls, but somehow got progressively farther away from winning the title each season. Against the Giants in 1990, they were 7 point favorites and lost. Against the Redskins the next season, they were 7 point underdogs and lost. They were 6 1/2 point underdogs in this game and 10 1/2 point underdogs the following season. And lost them both.

12. Super Bowl XLIII: Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers) vs. Kurt Warner (Cardinals)

Fun stat: only four times in history have two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks met in the Super Bowl. Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach met twice. Jim Plunkett and Joe Theismann – neither of whom was particularly good – met once. And then there was Roethlisberger and Warner.

Roethlisberger clinched his reputation as a big game quarterback by making it to the Super Bowl this season. Although he had previously won a Super Bowl title, he was not generally considered an elite quarterback. He had only made one Pro Bowl and actually had his second worst statistical season in 2008.

Warner came out of nowhere to make the Super Bowl with the upstart Cardinals this season. The 2008 season was the first full season he made it through as starter since 2001 due to a combination of injuries and teams thinking he was washed up. As a 37 year old this season, he made his fourth Pro Bowl and proved that he was far from washed up, throwing for 3,583 yards and 30 touchdowns.

11. Super Bowl XI: Ken Stabler (Raiders) vs. Fran Tarkenton (Vikings)

Now the rankings are starting to get difficult. Ken Stabler did not become a full-time starter until he turned 28, but quickly became one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The 1976 season was his fourth full season as a starter and he had already compiled a stellar 40-8-1 regular season record. He earned his third Pro Bowl nod this season after leading the league in touchdown passes and completion percentage. He was also the 1974 NFL MVP.

Tarkenton turned 36 in 1976 and had his last productive season. He earned his ninth Pro Bowl selection but came up short in his third and final try at a Super Bowl title.

Somewhat surprisingly, Stabler never again reached the highs of this season. He was known as a partier and the Raiders quickly grew tired of his antics after his performance dropped off in the next few seasons. He was traded to Houston before the 1980 season and had five more unsuccessful years with the Oilers and Saints before retiring in 1984.

10. Super Bowl VIII: Bob Griese (Dolphins) vs. Fran Tarkenton (Vikings)

Griese won his second consecutive Super Bowl in the 1973 season, his seventh in the league. He was considered one of the best quarterbacks in the league after adding the Super Bowl victory to his resume the previous season. He earned his fifth Pro Bowl selection in 1973 after leading the Dolphins to a 12-1 record in the regular season.

Tarkenton finished the 1973 season with a 12-2 record with the Vikings. He turned 33 in 1973, and the Super Bowl nod was fairly important for his legacy. Although he already had six Pro Bowl nods to his name, he only played for a winning team twice in his first 13 seasons. The 1973 season was the first time he made the playoffs. Basically, he was the Carson Palmer of his generation – good enough to put up solid stats, but not good enough to be a winner.

9. Super Bowl XXVIII: Troy Aikman (Cowboys) vs. Jim Kelly (Bills)

See #13 above. This is the only time in NFL history that two quarterbacks met in back-to-back Super Bowls and Aikman once again came out on top. This matchup ranks four spots ahead of their first game on account of Aikman making the leap from very good to elite quarterback with his Super Bowl victory the previous season.

Aikman would go on to win one more Super Bowl to become only the third quarterback to win at least three Super Bowls. Kelly never again reached the Super Bowl and retired three years later.

8. Super Bowl XLIV: Drew Brees (Saints) vs. Peyton Manning (Colts)

This might be high for a game between two quarterbacks that had one Super Bowl victory between the two of them. However, it is amazing how infrequently the best quarterbacks in the AFC and NFC meet in the Super Bowl. In this season, that was the case. Brees was considered the best quarterback in the NFC a year after throwing for 5,069 yards for the Saints. In 2009, he led the league in completion percentage, touchdown passes, and passer rating, and won the 2009 Bert Bell Award for Most Valuable Player.

Manning gained the upper hand over Tom Brady and was considered the best quarterback in the AFC this season. He led the Colts to a 14-0 start en route to winning the NFL MVP Award.

Manning and Brees were indisputably the two most popular players in the league that year. More American households (53.6 million) watched the Super Bowl than any other television program in history (only the M*A*S*H* series finale also drew more than 50 million). It was the best rated Super Bowl since 1985, despite the fact that Indy and New Orleans are two of the smaller markets in the league. I’d call that a hyped quarterback matchup.

7. Super Bowl X: Terry Bradshaw (Steelers) vs. Roger Staubach (Cowboys)

The first matchup between former Super Bowl winners gets the number 7 spot on the list. Bradshaw led the Steelers to their second consecutive Super Bowl in 1975. In 1974, he was an erratic potential bust that was the Steelers quarterback mostly by default. By 1975, the Super Bowl victory must have given him renewed confidence – for the first time, he had more touchdown passes (18) than interceptions (9) and earned his first Pro Bowl bid.

Staubach took the leap from solid starter to elite quarterback in the 1975 season. He separated his shoulder and missed most of the 1972 season and struggled through much of the next two seasons. In 1975, he made his second Pro Bowl to began a stretch of five straight Pro Bowl selections.

6. Super Bowl XXVIII: Joe Montana (49ers) vs. Boomer Esiason (Bengals)

Like the Manning/Brees matchup, this game pitted the best quarterback from the AFC against the best quarterback from the NFC. Montana was already a 2-time Super Bowl winner and 4-time Pro Bowler before the 1987 season. The 1987 season was the best of Montana’s career up to that point – he led the NFL in completion percentage (66.8%), touchdown passes (31), and quarterback rating (102.8) and was named First Team All-Pro for the first time. Although Montana actually had a down season (for him) in 1988, he was still the most popular quarterback in the NFC.

Meanwhile, Boomer made the leap to superstardom in the 1988 season. For one year at least, Esiason was the big story in the NFL. He led the Bengals to a stunning turnaround from 4-11 in 1987 to 12-4 in 1988. He won the NFL MVP Award and was named to the All-Pro First Team. Plus, his name was Boomer, so that didn’t hurt things.

Montana would go on to win this game to join Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks to win three Super Bowls. Esiason never again reached the heights of the 1988 season; although he was a starter for nine more seasons, he never finished better than 9-7 and won only one more playoff game.

5. Super Bowl XIX: Joe Montana (49ers) vs. Dan Marino (Dolphins)

The 1984 season was the year that Montana made the jump from very good quarterback to superstar quarterback. Montana led the 49ers to their second Super Bowl and a 14-2 regular season record. Although he already owned a Super Bowl ring, he was not yet the elite player that he would later become. Still, he earned his third Pro Bowl appearance in 1984 and set career highs in every major passing category. With a second Super Bowl title in this game, he sealed a position as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.

Marino’s 1984 season was the best statistical season in NFL history. Although he was only in his second year in the league, Marino put up ridiculous numbers. His 5,084 passing yards are still an NFL record and his 48 touchdown passes was the record for over twenty years. He was the runaway winner of the NFL MVP Award and was already a superstar in his second year in the league.

Unfortunately, Marino went on to lose this game and never again made the Super Bowl. Although as a bonus, his statistical supremacy later led to this exchange, perhaps the best in the history of NFL pregame shows:

4. Super Bowl XXXII: John Elway (Broncos) vs. Brett Favre (Packers)

I had trouble separating places 6 through 11. Then there was a bit of a gap between five and six. And then it got even harder – really, any one of the top five could be the best matchup in Super Bowl history.

Super Bowl XXXII had pretty much every story you could want. On one side, there was defending Super Bowl champion Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers. Favre was the young stud of the league and won his third consecutive MVP Award in the 1997 season. He led the league in touchdown passes for the third consecutive year and was probably the most famous quarterback in the league.

Meanwhile, John Elway returned to the Super Bowl for the first time in almost a decade. He turned 37 in 1997 and many felt that this was his last chance to win a Super Bowl after failing to win on his first three chances. Basically, he was football’s Phil Mickelson.

Surprisingly, Elway went on to win one more Super Bowl at age 38 and 28-year old Favre never again made it back to the Super Bowl.

3. Super Bowl XXIV: Joe Montana (49ers) vs. John Elway (Broncos)

In 1989, Montana had his best season to date…and that’s saying something for a three-time Super Bowl winner that was already a sure Hall of Famer. He won his only MVP Award after finishing the season with 26 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and a ridiculous 70.2% completion percentage. The 49ers finished 14-2 this season; although they won three Super Bowls in the 1980s, this was probably the only season that they were truly a juggernaut. They won their three playoff games by an insane combined score of 126-26 to win their fourth Super Bowl of the 80s.

Elway was at his peak in the 1989 season, but the Broncos were trounced in the Super Bowl for the third time in four years. He made his third Pro Bowl following the season, although with Elway, statistics never really told the whole story. Fortunately for him, Jim Kelly came along the next season to lose four consecutive Super Bowls and take some of the heat off of the Broncos.

2. Super Bowl I: Bart Starr (Packers) vs. Len Dawson (Chiefs)

Visa has been playing these commercials with the four guys that have gone to every Super Bowl. One guy’s line is: “We thought this might turn into something big.” And that seems to be the general thought on the early Super Bowls – no one knew what to expect, but aw shucks, it worked out. I wasn’t there, but I’m a bit skeptical.

The first Super Bowl was shown on both CBS and NBC and an estimated 51 million viewers watched on the two channels combined. 79% of American TVs watched the game. And yes, I know that there were only three channels – that’s still a ridiculous number. TV commercials cost $32,000 ($210,000 in today’s money). Keeping in mind that there were twice as many commercials because the game was on two different channels, that’s a pretty penny for a game that supposedly was just a crazy experiment.

Anyway, the NFL and AFL probably lucked out somewhat with this quarterback matchup. Dawson was the AFL’s best quarterback and Starr was the NFL’s best quarterback. Dawson led the league in passer rating for five of the previous six years and was twice named to the All-AFL First Team. The 1966 season was the second time he led the Chiefs franchise to the AFL title.

Starr earned his fourth NFL All-Star Game appearance in 1966 as the Packers won their fourth NFL title in six years. He led the NFL in passer rating in three of the previous five years and owned a 5-1 career playoff record heading into the game.

1. Super Bowl XIII: Terry Bradshaw (Steelers) vs. Roger Staubach (Cowboys)

Finally we reach the end of this exhausting list. Bradshaw and Staubach had five Super Bowl victories between the two of them – by far the most for a quarterback matchup in history.

Bradshaw had his best statistical season in 1978, earning the NFL MVP Award and only All-Pro First Team selection. He led the Steelers to a 14-2 regular season record, their best record in any of their four Super Bowl seasons.

Staubach also had one of the best seasons of his career. He earned his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance and set career highs in touchdowns (25) and passing yards (3,190).

Unlike many of the games on this list, this one actually lived up to its billing. The Steelers won 35-31 in a game that many consider to be one of the best in Super Bowl history.


Conference Championship Thoughts

January 24, 2011

Rooting for a professional sports team is completely irrational.

By the end of every NFL season, there’s a 31 out of 32 chance that you will be unhappy as a fan (32 out of 32 if you root for the Vikings or Lions). I know going into the start of every single season, that there’s a 97% chance that I’m going to be unhappy at the end of it. That’s borderline masochism.

But there’s always that 3% chance, and well…I’ll be doing this move for the better part of the next two weeks:

Unless you’re also a Packer (or Steeler) fan, you don’t care about that. And I certainly don’t want to jinx the Packers by writing about my own feelings. I also can’t really write a coherent article without sounding like a homer, so instead I’ll go with a few stray thoughts from the weekend.

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#1. Aaron Rodgers picked up right where he left off last Saturday. Rodgers was 4-4 for 76 yards on the opening drive as the Packers drove right down the field against the Bears defense to take a quick 7-0 lead. Every Packer fan breathed a sigh of relief after this drive, because the team had been able to move the ball on the Bears this year, but just couldn’t score. In the first two games against the Bears, the Packers offense had 663 total yards but could only muster 27 points combined. So the opening touchdown was a very good sign.

Rodgers scored on a bootleg from the one yard line. I always find it strange that teams think the best way to score from inside the 2 is by running the ball up the middle four times. Why would anyone think running it right at all eleven players on the other team is the best way to go? Especially considering that two goal line plays – the fake hand-off/quarterback bootleg and the tight end fake block/release into the end zone – work something like 114% of the time.

I think it goes back to my theory that all coaches are scared of getting fired all the time. If a team calls a run up the middle four times and it fails, the coach won’t get called out for it because that’s what every team does. But if they try something off the wall and it fails, then the fans will be calling for the coach’s head. This is reason #2,943 that an NFL team needs to hire Les Miles. The entire league will open up, because every coach will be able to say “at least I’m not as crazy as that guy.”

#2. I love when NFL announcers latch on to a talking point that bares little, if any, relation to reality. The ongoing theme about why the Packers offense has been so good in the playoffs is the emergence of James Starks at running back.

Starks stats for the playoffs: 70 carries, 263 yards, 3.8 yards per carry, 1 touchdown
Packers running backs in the regular season: 421 carries, 1,606 yards per carry, 3.8 yards per carry, 11 touchdowns

And it’s not like Starks has been going against the best rushing defenses in the league. In yards per rushing attempt allowed in the regular season, the Bears ranked 6th, the Eagles 14th, and the Falcons 27th.

But I suppose “the sixth round draft pick out of Buffalo suddenly emerging in the playoffs after rushing for only 101 yards in the regular season” is a fun story, even if we have to ignore statistics.

#3. I don’t know how hurt Jay Cutler was, so far be it for me to question his toughness. In fact, I’m an anti-tough it out guy. The outrage at Cutler not going back in the game is an example of the biggest obstacle to player safety. It’s nice to crack down on the helmet-to-helmet hits, but those are small potatoes compared to the “Durrr…get out there and tough it out” mentality that both fans and players have. If it turns out that Cutler has a mild sprain, by all means, go to town on his toughness. But until we know the extent of his injury, there should be no questioning his toughness.

The more interesting story is Cutler’s reaction on the sidelines. Prior to the game, he was already the least self-aware person in the league. This is a guy who complained on the bench that the other team’s quarterback was getting too much screen time on the Jumbotron during a game that he was wearing an NFL Network microphone for their Mic’ed up segment. That’s just ballsy. I personally wouldn’t want the entire world to know that I was jealous of my Jumbotron screen time, but that’s just me.

Apparently Cutler just doesn’t have that off switch that the rest of us have. Most people have that little voice in their head that says things like “maybe I shouldn’t be standing up on the sidelines if I don’t want people to question my knee injury.” Not Cutler. It’s actually admirable in a way. He not only doesn’t care about what other people think – he seems to actively try to be the biggest jerk he can be.

#4. Thank you Lovie Smith for giving us two series of Todd Collins before putting Caleb Hanie in the game. Apparently Collins’ two appearances in the regular season didn’t show Lovie that Collins was a washed-up 39-year old quarterback. In two games, Collins threw 27 passes. He completed 15 of those 27 passes, but five of those 15 were caught by the other team. Predictably, he went 0-for-4 in this game. Unfortunately for the Packers, they couldn’t intercept any of the four passes because none were in the vicinity of anyone.

Meanwhile, Caleb Hanie wasn’t terrible. Raji’s interception looked bad, but I give him a break there. Raji had only dropped into coverage a total of five times all season – hard to fault a third-string quarterback for missing that read. He only played in one quarter, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a crappy team brought him in to compete for a starting job.

#5. Why, oh why, can’t the Packers just put a team away? It’s inconsiderate to your fan base. Don’t they understand how many brats and beers were consumed by Wisconsinites yesterday? Talk about a heart attack waiting to happen.

The Packers were thirty yards away from one of the more epic collapses in football history. How the Packers almost blew that game is beyond me. They were up 21-7 with six minutes left and the Bears had their third-string quarterback in.

I think it goes back to the conservative coach syndrome that I explained above. Every other NFL coach would have gone with the prevent defense/run the ball up the middle and punt. So that’s what McCarthy called…never mind that the Packers can’t run the ball and that it might be a good idea to put pressure on the guy with eight career passes.

#6. I somehow nailed the Steelers/Jets pick. From now on, I’m going to throw out random theories when I pick games and hope one of them sticks. Yesterday, I predicted a Steelers win because of Roethlisberger, the potential letdown for the Jets, and home field advantage.

I was way off on Roethlisberger. He went 10 for 19 with two picks and one fumbled snap in the end zone that led to a safety. Sanchez went 20 for 33 with two touchdowns. The Steelers were completely unable to move the ball in the second half as they almost let the Jets comeback to win the game. Sanchez, while not exactly brilliant, probably had the best performance for a quarterback this weekend.

#7. The home field advantage probably helped some, but the real reason the Jets won was the emotional letdown. They came out flat and could never recover.

The Steelers coaching staff came out with a brilliant game plan. The first drive was a 15 play, 92 yard scoring drive that ate up 9:06 off the clock. That was the game. The drive was perfect – the Jets were demoralized right off the bat. The Steelers converted all three third downs.

Roethlisberger made the play of the game on third and 12 from the Jets 25. Finding no one open, he scrambled 13 yards for the first down. Not only did that keep the eventual touchdown scoring drive going, but a 42-yard field goal try on the Heinz Field grass is no gimme.

#8. Speaking of conservative coaches, Rex Ryan probably should have been conservative at the end of the half. What was he expecting to happen on third and 17 on their own 26 with 1:20 to go in the half? Do the right thing – dump the ball off to your running back, pick up some yards, pin Pittsburgh in their own territory with no timeouts left, and go into the half down 17-0.

Instead, Sanchez dropped back to pass and was stripped of the ball. The Steelers’ William Gay picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown. The Jets lost the game in the last minutes of the first half. They were just two minutes away from going into the half down 10-0. Instead, because Ryan got greedy, they entered the half down 24-3. Game over.

#9. The Jets blew their chance to get back in the game late in the fourth quarter. Down 24-10, they had first and goal at the two-yard line. They ran the ball for a yard on first down. On second down, for one of the few times ever, the tight end release play didn’t work. After another incompletion on third down, the Jets faced fourth and goal from the 1.

Up to this point, I applaud Ryan for not falling into the conservative coach trap. But why in the world would you run up the middle on fourth down? That might be worse than running it up the middle four straight times. If that’s how you want to score, isn’t it better to try it four times instead of two? Just a dumb play call.

#10. I loved Mike Tomlin’s play call on the last drive of the game as much as I hated Ryan’s fourth down call. Facing third and six on the Jets 40 at the two minute warning, the safe move would have been to run up the middle, punt, and leave Sanchez to drive at least eighty yards in 1:10 with no timeouts.

Brilliantly, Tomlin put the ball in Roethlisberger’s hands on a rollout play. First, the ball is in the hands of the team’s best player – that seems like a good thing to me. Second, the rollout is a great call here. It gives Roethlisberger the option to pass to an open receiver or take it himself if nothing is there. This isn’t really any riskier than a run up the middle and the potential payoff is huge.

As it turns out, rookie receiver Antonio Brown was open, Roethlisberger’s throw was on the money, and the Steelers moved on to the Super Bowl, where they will hopefully lose to the Packers.


Conference Championship Games Preview

January 23, 2011

I haven’t been this excited for a set of conference championship games in years. This is largely due to the Packers’ appearance in the NFC championship, only their second appearance since 1998.

The Packers’ last NFC Championship appearance was in 2008, when they lost in overtime to the Giants. The AFC game that year was the undefeated Patriots against the Chargers. It seemed like a mere formality that the Patriots would win the Super Bowl at the time, so it was hard to be excited about that game. This time around, the Jets and Steelers are virtually dead even and should have a great game. Of course, if the Packers lose on Sunday, I’ll probably pass out angrily and miss the whole thing, but I’ll read the recap later.

The great thing about this year is that you could put forth a pretty good argument for any of the four teams. If you have to put your life on the line for one team to win this weekend, who do you even feel most comfortable with? Each year, it seems that there’s one obvious favorite – last year it was Indy over the Jets; the year before it was the Steelers over the Ravens; and so on. This year, it’s unclear.

So I suppose this year we’re not going to get a true underdog story. But at least we should get two highly competitive games.

AFC Championship Game: Jets (13-5) at Steelers (13-4, -3.5)

This is a rematch of a game that took place a month ago under almost exactly the same situations. The Steelers were also 3.5 point favorites in that game, but the Jets prevailed 22-17.

Pittsburgh dominated large stretches of that game; in fact, the difference was now-injured Brad Smith’s return touchdown on the opening kickoff. The Jets couldn’t really move the ball – the Steelers out-gained them 377 to 276. And that’s without Troy Polamalu in the lineup; he’s back for this game.

There seems to be little doubt that the Steelers will be able to move the ball more efficiently than the Jets. The Jets will try to win this game ugly. That’s what they are good at and that’s how they pulled off the first victory versus the Steelers. So the only question is whether they will be able to do it again.

I don’t think they can, for a few reasons.

#1. I’m sticking with Roethlisberger. In my prediction column last week, I said that you always go with the better quarterback when two teams are otherwise equal. Roethlisberger is now 9-2 in the playoffs with two Super Bowl victories. The guy just makes big plays.

At some point, Mark Sanchez is going to make a believer out of me. He’s now 5-1 in the playoffs and all five of those victories have come on the road. I know this, and I give him credit for it.

And then I actually watch him play. His stats really aren’t that bad, but unlike the rest of the quarterbacks still left in the playoffs, I find myself abnormally impressed whenever he makes a routine 10-yard completion. I am well aware I shouldn’t feel that way based on his track record, but I can’t shake the feeling. I’m also well aware that Sanchez just beat Manning and Brady in consecutive weeks. Call me foolish.

#2. The Jets are due for a letdown. Emotionally, I don’t know how the Jets keep this up. In consecutive weeks, they avenged their loss against the Colts in a game they spent an entire year preparing for. Then they backed up a week of trash talk by upsetting their arch rival Patriots. At some point, the streak has to end.

#3. Pittsburgh has one of the biggest home field advantages in sports in the mud bowl known as Heinz Field. Do you really expect them to lose twice to the same opponent at home in the same season? I sure don’t.

Those are my three theories and I’m sticking with them. As always, I really have no idea what’s going on in this game.

However, before you go put all your money on the Jets, I’ve been on quite the hot streak on games that I guess at; it’s only when I have a good idea about who’s going to win that I lose. The Steelers win this one 24-17. Take that to the bank.

NFC Championship Game: Packers (12-6, -4) at Bears (12-5)

Oh come on, you didn’t think I would break my streak of not thinking about Packers games, did you? If this keeps on working, I might just tune out all pre-game Packer news for the rest of my life. Packers win 24-14.


Beware of the Sixth Seed (Or How I Learned that the NFL Needs More Playoffs)

January 21, 2011

Playoffs are a tricky thing.

My favorite sporting event is the NCAA Basketball Tournament and I think an NCAA Football Tournament is long overdue. The NBA and NHL both have way too many teams in their playoffs (16 of 30) but it works because of the best-of-seven series. I don’t like the MLB playoffs because it seems odd to play 162 games and then tell a team they have to win a best-of-five series to advance.

I generally like the setup of the NFL playoffs. Single-elimination tournaments are sometimes unfair, but they are necessary for the NFL. Do the best teams make the Super Bowl every year? Of course not – both #1 seeds were eliminated before the championship games just this season. But the Super Bowl is the biggest yearly sporting event in the entire world, and that’s for a sport that is played nearly exclusively in the United States. So the NFL must be doing something right.

Prior to this season, I thought a twelve team playoff was just about right; if anything, it was too many. But I had a semi-epiphany during this year’s postseason: the NFL needs to expand its playoffs.

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The NFL expanded the playoffs to include twelve teams in 1990. At the time, there were three divisions and 28 teams; the three division winners earned the top three seeds and three wild-cards earned the fourth, fifth, and sixth seeds. The top two teams were given a bye into the second round and the #3 seed (the worst division winner) played the #6 seed (the worst wild card) and the #4 and #5 seeds squared off in the first round.

Between 1990 and 2001, playoff upsets were fairly rare. Here are each seeds’ record in those twelve seasons:

#1 seed: 38-17 (.691, 7-5 in Super Bowl)
#2 seed: 29-21 (.580, 3-4)
#3 seed: 20-24 (.455)
#4 seed: 28-22 (.560, 2-2)
#5 seed: 8-24 (.250)
#6 seed: 7-24 (.226)

Each seed performed progressively worse, with the exception of the #3 and #4 seeds. This makes some sense. In many seasons, the three division winners aren’t necessarily the three best teams in the conference. The best wild card team is often better than the worst division winner.

In 2002, the NFL expanded to 32 teams by adding the expansion Houston Texans and split into four divisions. The NFL kept the playoffs at twelve teams, adding one division winner and getting rid of one wild card berth. The four division winners received the top four seeds and two wild cards received the #5 and #6 seeds. As of the 2011 divisional playoffs, the records of each seeds are:

#1 seed: 21-16 (.568, 2-6 in Super Bowl)
#2 seed: 17-13 (.567, 3-0)
#3 seed: 14-17 (.452, 1-1)
#4 seed: 13-18 (.419, 0-1)
#5 seed: 13-17 (.433, 1-0)
#6 seed: 16-15 (.516, 1-0)

And now things have gotten weird. The #5 and #6 seeds have won two Super Bowls after never even making it to the Super Bowl in the previous twelve years. #6 seeds are the third best seed. #4 seeds are the worst. But the most striking thing is how similar the records of each seed are.

There are two obvious reasons behind this.

First, with four divisions and only two wild cards, the chances are exponentially greater that one or both of the wild card teams will be better than the weakest division winners. In this season, the four wild card teams were: Baltimore (12-4), New York Jets (11-5), New Orleans (11-5), and Green Bay (10-6). They respectively played division winners Kansas City (10-6), Indianapolis (10-6), Seattle (7-9), and Philadelphia (10-6). Only Philadelphia and Green Bay even had the same record, and the Packers owned a victory over the Eagles during the season.

In the 18 matchups between #4 and #5 seeds since 2002, the #4 seed had a better record four times, the same record four times, and a worse record ten times. The #4 seed receives home field advantage, but it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that they are only 10-8 against #5 seeds since 2002. In many seasons, the #5 seed is simply a better team.

Second, the NFL is serious about parity. For years, the NFL has been hellbent on creating parity in the league. They have largely succeeded, as this graph that made the rounds on the Internet two months ago shows.

As the league expanded from 26 teams in 1970 to 32 teams in 2002, it made a concerted effort to make it fair for every team. The salary cap*, draft structure, and schedule structure all make it extremely hard for a team to start a dynasty. In the 2000s, 15 teams made it to at least one Super Bowl; in the 1990s, 13 teams made it; in the 1980s, 10 teams did; and in the 1970s, 9 teams made it.

* The salary cap discourages owners from spending like the Yankees and Red Sox by a) giving them only a certain amount to spend and b) disincentivizing big-money moves. Unfortunately for owners like the Redskins’ Daniel Snyder, this second part isn’t always clear. The current salary structure in the NFL simply isn’t set up for owners to spend a large sum of money on only one of 53 players, no matter how good that one player is.

We can debate the merits of this parity for hours. On the one hand, my old roommate from Tampa was a fan of parity when the Buccaneers won the 2003 Super Bowl after almost thirty years of pure torture for their fanbase. I’m sure all 264 Arizona Cardinals fans were a fan of parity when the Cardinals finally made their first Super Bowl two years ago. And I actually enjoyed the Saints’ first Super Bowl run last year, mostly because unlike many of these traditionally terrible teams, their fanbase is extremely dedicated and passionate.

But I think there’s something to be said for dynasties. Part of the fun of the MLB playoffs is us non-Yankee fans rooting against the Yankees, which makes Yankee fans root for their team harder, which makes us hate them more, and so on. The NFL has sorely lacked one of these teams since the Cowboys of the 1990s.

Oh, you could argue that the Patriots fit that role now, but I’m not so sure. They won three Super Bowls in four years between 2002 and 2005, but they were a product of NFL parity in the first place. The 2002 win was their first Super Bowl and they did that with a rookie quarterback in a true underdog story. Most fans didn’t get around to hating them until after their third Super Bowl win in 2005; since then, thanks to parity, they had the Super Bowl loss to the Giants to ruin their perfect 2007-08 season and…well, that’s about it.

The Colts and Steelers have both qualified for two Super Bowls since 2005 (one more than the Patriots), but they don’t really qualify as dynasties either. In those four Super Bowls, only once (the Colts’ 2010 season) was one of those teams the #1 seed in the conference. They simply were teams that got hot at the right time.

The NFC is even worse – nine NFC teams have qualified for the Super Bowl in the last nine years. If the Packers pull off a win on Sunday, they will make it ten for ten. Think about that: there are 16 teams in the NFC, and it’s possible that ten of them could win the NFC championship before any team wins a second title. And amazingly, the Atlanta Falcons, this year’s #1 seed, isn’t one of those ten. They will likely be the favorite to win the conference before next season, so it is plausible that they make it 11 for 11.

One more stat to pile on. The seven NFC teams that have not made it to the Super Bowl since 2001 (Packers, Falcons, Cowboys, Redskins, 49ers, Vikings, and Lions) combined for 27 of the NFC’s first 32 Super Bowl appearances.* This is parity taken to the extreme.

* This doesn’t include Super Bowl III, when the Baltimore Colts won the pre-merger NFL before moving to the post-merger AFC two years later.

So there is good and bad that comes with parity. Those stats are fun to look at, but they are relatively meaningless – this is the route that the NFL wants to go down, so we might as well just deal with it.

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Wow…already 1,300 words in to this article and all I’ve told you is that division winners get an unfair advantage over better wild card teams and that the NFL is focused on parity – two things you were already well aware of. Thankfully, we’re about to get to my ephiphany.

The NFL needs to expand the playoffs.

If the NFL wants to go with the whole parity thing, that’s fine. But we are getting screwed out of meaningful football because of the current playoff structure.

Thanks to parity, the first round bye for the top two teams in each conference has been rendered fairly useless. I’m sure that the week off is a nice break, but it does not provide a significant advantage. Since 2002, teams with a first round bye are only 22-14 in the divisional round (and only 12-12 since 2005). Between 1990 and 2001, they went 35-9.

Parity has essentially turned the playoffs into a crapshoot. If it is already a crapshoot, why not expand to eight teams for each conference? If we kept the current seeding structure, expanding to eight teams would have given us additional first round matchups of Atlanta vs. Tampa Bay, Chicago vs. New York Giants, Pittsburgh vs. San Diego, and New England vs. Jacksonville. All but the Patriots/Jaguars game would have been fantastic games.

By doing this, we would be getting rid of whatever advantage the top two seeds have with their bye. But really, who would care? I didn’t hear anyone complaining that the regular season is a farce after both #6 seeds beat the #1 seeds in the divisional round this year; I can’t imagine that people are going to be upset when an #8 seed beats a #1 or a #7 beats a #2.

But the current playoff structure doesn’t just screw us out of good extra playoff games. With the way the playoffs are set up now, week 17 is completely meaningless for most teams. Of the 16 games in Week 17 this season, exactly one – St. Louis vs. Seattle – had an impact on the playoffs no matter what the outcome of the game. Only nine other games (Panthers vs. Falcons, Raiders vs. Chiefs, Bucs vs. Saints, Steelers vs. Browns, Bengals vs. Ravens, Packers vs. Bears, Titans vs. Colts, Jaguars vs. Texans, and Giants vs. Redskins) might have had an impact on playoff qualifying or seeding and only one of two teams would be impacted in each of those games. That’s six completely meaningless games, plus several others that only would have mattered if things fell just right.

Let’s say the NFL expands the playoffs to eight teams in each conference and then changes the structure to remove home field advantage for division winners. The division winners still get an automatic bid into the playoffs, but teams are seeded strictly according to record. This will simultaneously get rid of the #4/#5 seed problem I described above and also reward the top two teams by having them play the two worst playoff-qualifying teams.

All of a sudden, week 17 becomes a lot more meaningful. Now three games (St. Louis vs. Seattle, Tampa Bay vs. New Orleans, and Chicago vs. Green Bay) have an impact on both teams regardless of other results. Eleven more games (those listed above, plus Miami vs. New England, Buffalo vs. the Jets, Dallas vs. Philadelphia, and San Diego vs. Denver) have an impact on at least one team. Only the Lions/Vikings and 49ers/Cardinals game would be meaningless.

That’s two simple tweaks to the playoff format, and we have created ten more exciting football games over Week 17 and the first round of the playoffs. And that doesn’t even include the teams that were eliminated early in the AFC this season. Teams like San Diego, Oakland, and Miami were eliminated before Week 16 because the conference happened to have two great wild card teams in the Ravens and the Colts.

The only two objections that I can think of to this plan are a) we want to reward the top two teams in each conference with a bye; and b) we don’t want the playoffs to be any more watered down/the regular season to be less important.* As to the reward, I already showed that the bye simply doesn’t matter any more because parity has brought teams ridiculously close together.

* Related to this, there’s the always fun argument that “Why don’t we just include all teams if playoffs are so great? Where does it end?” My answer: it ends with sixteen teams – I already told you that.

I can’t buy the watered down playoffs argument either. Just look at the NFC this season – there is one game separating the #2 seed in my plan (11-5 Chicago) and the #7 seed (10-6 Tampa Bay). In the AFC last season, the #3 seed would have gone to 10-6 New England and the #8 seed would have gone to 9-7 Houston. In the 2008 NFC, the #3 seed would have gone to 11-5 Atlanta and 9-7 Tampa Bay would have been left out of the playoffs completely.* And so on. I’m a big fan of meaningful regular seasons, but since the NFL is so concerned with parity, the regular season is fairly meaningless to begin with.

* Coincidentally, 9-7 Arizona actually made the Super Bowl from the NFC in 2008.

Whew…now we’re up to a 2,100 word rant in something I can sum up in one sentence. That sentence: “Dear NFL, if you insist on shoving this parity down our throats, the least you can do is give us some more football.”

Hey, no one ever accused me of being concise.