Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Stories of the Superbowl Contenders

With this weekend’s two match-ups staring us down, begging for sides to be chosen, smack to be talked, and eventually beer to be cried in; I think we have a unique opportunity to choose which side we’re rooting for not because of the love of the team, but rather the love of the story that the team will become.

Each of these four teams has an “amazing story” (as it will undoubtedly be called by media pundits) to be told. And should they win this weekend, their reward shall not only be a trip to a place where you want Florida, you want it all, and you only want to unpack once, it will be to have this story hung round their neck like an anvil for two weeks. For 14 days, the media will beat it into our heads as though it is the most amazing story in sports. They will drive it into our souls. And they will make us think that these stories are so unbelievable, that it’s not possible that any such amazing story has ever happened before. After all, what is the probability that two teams would have made it to the Superbowl???

Anyway, I’m going to beat the media to the punch. I’m going to tell their stories up front, before the media gets a chance to sink their teeth into them like a leech. Get ready…you’re going to half get a preview of your next two weeks, and half get a preview of what would have been, but never will become…..

Arizona Cardinals
There are actually two stories to this team’s improbable run to the Superbowl, and they both bleed nicely together. First, you have the lowly Cardinals, the definition of dismal, the lovable losers. It’s a franchise almost 90 years old, and they’ve had seven (7) playoff appearances. This Superbowl will be their eleventh (11) playoff game in franchise history. For perspective, this is close to the number of prefixes their franchise has held (Chicago, St Louis, Phoenix, Arizona). For some additional perspective, Tom Brady has been playing this game one tenth the number of seasons the Cardinals have, and has played 17 playoff games.

I mean, really, what’s happening here? This is a franchise that hasn’t simply made a job of losing, they’ve perfected it. Prior to this year, only once in the last 20 years have the Cardinals finished with a winning record. Combine the regular season records of their two winning seasons, they were 18-14…four games over .500! And it took two seasons to do it! You know how many times they were four games (or more) under .500 in those 20 years? Thirteen. And now here they are in the Superbowl!

The second story is that really, this franchise really should have continued their losing ways this season. The “reality” is that this is a crappy team that was just lucky to be in a division that makes “crappy” look like the 2007 New England Patriots. The Cardinals were 6-0 in a division that featured three teams with a combined 13 wins. They were 3-7 against the rest of the NFL. It’s the team Don Banks called the worst NFL playoff team in recent history.

Yeah, well, what does Don Banks know, anyway?

Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles Superbowl appearance is virtually the opposite of the Cardinals. This is a perennial winner. This team has had one losing season under the Reid/McNabb watch. But that’s not the story. No, the story is that just two months ago, Reid and McNabb, arguably the two guys most important to this franchise on the field on game days, were a stone’s throw away from being tarred, feathered, driven up to New York, and dropped off at the Meadowlands in the hopes of ruining a divisional rival.

That’s right, the same Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb that have shown up in the playoffs seven of the last nine years. Note please that’s the same as the Cards all-time playoff appearances. Not once in those seven appearances have they gone one-and-done. They’re 11-6 in the playoffs coming into this Superbowl. McNabb has played in five Conference Championship games, and is about to play in his second Superbowl.

To say the city of Philadelphia suffers from multiple-personality disorder might be the understatement of the century. I wonder how it is that McNabb’s jersey isn’t by a country mile the top selling jersey in the NFL. Every year, it seems Eagles fans must buy his jersey, proudly display it until his first poor game, burn it, then go buy another one as he begins to play well again, repeat cycle ad infinitum.

You can be certain that anything less than a Superbowl win will once again bring the mutterings calling for a change.

Baltimore Ravens
Joe Cooooooool. The city is Wacko for Flacco! Three months ago, Baltimoreans had to pinch themselves to be sure they weren’t just dreaming. Could it be? Could the QB carousel the Ravens have ridden for so long finally be over?

This is a story of a rookie quarterback. Quite possibly the best rookie quarterback ever. Not because of what he did in the regular season, although his regular season is maybe the fourth best in the last 25 years or so for rookie QBs (behind Marino, Roethlisberger, and Matt Ryan, in that order).

But because he’s doing something that no other rookie quarterback has ever done: He’s led his team to the Superbowl, and he’s done it by winning three games on the road.

This game is too complex for rookie QBs to grasp. This game moves too much faster than the college level for rookie QBs to handle. The playoffs are simply too big for a rookie QB. Certainly a D1-AA QB wouldn’t be the one to buck the trend…would he?

Hey, he’s not a rookie anymore.

Pittsburgh Steelers
With their second Superbowl appearance this decade, it makes one wonder if we have somehow flashed back into the ‘70s. I, for one, certainly hope not, since the only truly great thing that the decade gave us was the Steel Curtain. Has there ever been a picture that more clearly defines the dynasty than Jack Lambert's scowl?

Here are the defensive ranks from the ’72-’79 Steelers, and the ’01-’08 Steelers. They may not be in that particular order. You see if you can guess which is which…
8, 4, 1, 4, 1, 7, 3, 2 (average = 3.75)
1, 7, 9, 1, 4, 9, 1, 1 (average = 4.13)

Does it even matter which was which? One was never worse than 8th, and averaged better than 4th overall. One was 1st half the years in that stretch. The difference is that from ’72 to ’79, the Steelers never missed the playoffs and won four Superbowls; while the ’01 to ’08 Steelers missed the playoffs twice and only won one (maybe now two?) Superbowls.

But then again, back in the ‘70s, you didn’t have free agency to deal with. Their roster didn’t suffer anything close to the turnover that this version of the Steel Curtain has suffered. So which accomplishment is more impressive? Asserting defensive dominance to the tune of four Superbowl wins in eight seasons? Or one/two Superbowl wins in that span in an era where nearly the entire roster has turned over?

Have there been better defenses to play in any given year? Sure, a few. Have there been other teams known for a strong span of defensive dominance? Baltimore recently and Chicago in the mid-80s come immediately to mind.

But Pittsburgh has truly built a new dynasty out of the same foundation they laid three decades ago. Many franchises in the major sports are synonymous with winning tradition. A very precious few have their greatness that so clearly defines an aspect of the game. When someone thinks of defining defense in the NFL, there can be no other franchise they think of first than the Pittsburgh Steelers.


  1. The answer to the question of which Steel Curtain ranks were which: The first was the '70s, the second was the '00s...

  2. Joe Cool is part of the Ravens story. The other part is the old defensive heroes, great studs but so often hamstrung by the terrible offense, strapping it up one more time with this new hope on offense. Unspoken undertones of changing the guard.

  3. Flacco is A story but I fail to see how he is The story at all. He isn't as good as McNair, nor the team as good as in '06. Either way, this team goes nowhere without that defense. A long-snapper could have a great, feel-good story too but ultimately he would only be the long-snapper.

    But then, I am curious what criteria makes Flacco the fourth best rookie quarterback since '82, so what do I know?

  4. The Ravens defense will be a big story as well of course, but I think there's gonna be a ton of talk about Flacco and the first rookie QB ever to go to the Superbowl. Besides, I'm telling the defensive story about the Steelers. I didn't particularly feel like cut & pasting most of that for the Ravens...boring.....

    Patrick, who's been better? Manning's the only one that stands out in my mind. But while he had bigger stats, on a per attempt basis he most certainly was not better than Flacco. He had Flacco in TDs per att, and every other stat leans Flacco's way. I can't really use the argument that Manning didn't take his team to the post-season, since the team around him was horrible. But that Flacco is the first rookie ever to win two post-season games also has to be taken into strong consideration.

  5. I roll my eyes at the credit that Flacco is getting. He was coincidently the quarterback of a team who won two playoff games. He contributed less than nothing to either victory, and that isn't to say he couldn't have been worse, of course he could have. It is to say though that his decisions have been poor, his statistics poor, he's kept eggregious mistakes to a minimum which has allowed the Ravens to compete.

    But how do you compare rookie quarterbacks? I don't really know. So few play sixteen games that it seems that while it is a consideration, it really do more than shade things one way or another.

    I'd put him behind Manning in a heartbeat. Manning was so much more important to that offense than Flacco has been to Baltimore's. It really isn't right to look at ratios as being all that definitive. Manning passed for almost 30 TDs as a rookie, that's just absurd.

    Vince Young as well. Regardless of how well you like his stats, he made the Pro-Bowl as a part-time rookie starter.

    Jim Kelly had a great rookie year, much better than Flacco, but he had a couple of pro seasons in the USFL so maybe he doesn't count.

    Others? As I mentioned, somewhat difficult to compare. Carr, Collins and Bledsoe were more important to their teams as rookies than Flacco was to his. Tim Couch had a much better rookie year, considering he was with an expansion team. Rick Mirer was ROY, and Flacco was no better than third this year. Charlie Batch had better stats as a rookie. Chris Chandler, Don Majkowski.

    The point isn't that all of these guys had better rookie years than Flacco. I'd but him in the upper third of this group for sure. The point in part is to discuss how difficult to compare rookie quarterbacks given their widely disparate playing time and team compositions. In terms of raw stats, what Couch did with his expansion team and what Collins did with his expansion team was much more impressive than what Flacco did with his veteran team.

    You guys get excited about the team having a young quarterback with some potential, but looking at his body of work for the season and really, he was just a guy.

  6. "A long-snapper could have a great, feel-good story too but ultimately he would only be the long-snapper" ??

    A QB is as much a bysteander to a team's success as a long snapper? Really?

  7. we all know the steelers won the superbowl in 05/06 in spite of toothlessburger (look at his SB rating.) I want it out there right now when the ravens lose this weekend its not because of suggs or rolle arent in there. all teams have injuries.


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