I've always been fascinated by the stories of NFL teams that finally reached the top of the mountain after so many futile attempts. One team that comes to mind is the Oakland Raiders of the late 60's and early 70's. They came up short in the postseason time and time again--most notably three times to the Steelers--before finally exorcising their demons and knocking off Pittsburgh on the way to winning Super Bowl XI following the 1976 season.
Other examples include the '71 Dallas Cowboys, who finally won Super Bowl VI after many years of being called "Next Year's Champions"; the Denver Broncos of the John Elway era, who upset the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII to claim their first World title after many sub-par Super Bowl performances in the 80's; and most recently, the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, who were finally able to slay the New England Patriots on the way to winning Super Bowl XLI after so many years of coming up short to the Pats in the big games.
These are fascinating stories because as fans, I think we can identify with the struggle of a team finally getting that monkey off of its back. In the 2010 book "Badasses" that chronicles the Oakland Raiders of the John Madden era and their quest to finally get a ring, the players from those teams talk about how relieved they were to finally get over the hump and win a championship. One has to wonder what their lives would be like today had they not been able to win a Super Bowl.
Winning a Super Bowl does so much for the legacies of certain players and teams. The Steelers are now an institution in Pittsburgh, and it's based solely on winning those four Super Bowls in the 1970's. In an interview with Steve Sabol back in 2003, Terry Bradshaw said that the only thing that mattered to him, and the thing that he was most proud of, was that he never lost a Super Bowl in his career.
Joe Namath has said that he probably wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame today if it wasn't for the Jets upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
We need only look to recent Steelers history to see what winning Super Bowl XL did for people like Bill Cowher and Jerome Bettis. How might they be perceived today without their Super Bowl rings?Sadly, however, some teams just never make it over the hump.
The Minnesota Vikings of the 60's and 70's are a team that comes to mind; a team that made four Super Bowls in eight seasons but lost very badly in every one of them.
Other examples include the Houston Oilers of the late 70's, who made back-to-back AFC Championship games but lost to the Steelers both times; the San Diego Chargers of the early 80's, who were considered by many to be the most talented team in football, but lost back-to-back AFC Championship games in '80 and '81; and the Cleveland Browns of the 1980's, who were defeated in the AFC Championship game by the Denver Broncos three times in four seasons--including two straight gut-wrenching losses in '86 and '87.
How would people like Jim Marshall, Fran Tarkenton, Marty Schottenheimer, Earl Campbell, Dan Pastorini and Don Coryell be viewed today if they had been able to add a Lombardi to their resumes?
You have to feel bad for those teams and their fans. I can imagine what it must feel like to re-live those agonizing games over and over again, knowing that there was never a fairy tale ending. I can certainly relate thanks to the Pirates of the early 90's, who lost in the NLCS three straight times. It was a great era of Pirates baseball, but the team was just never able to complete the task and win a championship.
Maybe the most obvious example in recent times of a great team not winning a championship is that of the Buffalo Bills of the early 90's, who amazingly made four-straight Super Bowls from 1990-1993. Unfortunately, the Bills lost every single one of them, with the last three being lopsided affairs.
I always thought what those Bills team did was pretty incredible. Yet, the sports world has always looked down on them because they were never able to win it all.
You talk about legacies changing. Just imagine how some of the players on those Bills teams would be treated today had they been able to win one or two of those Super Bowls.
Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas are in the Hall of Fame, but they're never in the discussions of the all-time greats at their respective positions. Would a Super Bowl victory or two have changed that?
Defensive end Bruce Smith is obviously considered one of the greats at his position--he's the all-time leader in sacks with 200--but it just seems like something is missing because he doesn't have a ring.
Would Andre Reed still be struggling to get into the Hall of Fame today had the Bills been able to win at least one Super Bowl?
When you think of the all-time great NFL head coaches, Marv Levy certainly doesn't come to mind. Yet, he's a Hall of Famer and the only coach to ever take a team to four-straight Super Bowls.
I always just assumed that the members of those Bills teams walked around with regret and sadness for never winning a Super Bowl. I mean, after all, that's what the sporting world says they're supposed to do. Nobody cares about the runner-ups, right?
However, not long ago, I stumbled upon an article in the USA Today about those Bills teams, and I was surprised to discover that some key members look back on those days with fondness.
Bill Polian, the general manager of those Bills teams, said, "It's not likely to be repeated. It's a standalone accomplishment."
It was nice to read that, because it actually is an accomplishment. I know we live in a society where even the teams that come up short in the championship round are considered "losers," but making it to four-straight Super Bowls is pretty damn remarkable.
You would think the Bills players have regrets, and maybe they do, but according to Kelly, he and his teammates appreciate what they were able to do: "As time went by, people started realizing how hard it was to go back year after year, and lose. If you talk to any player about that, I guarantee 99% of the players would say that would never be done again, and probably say they don't know how we did it."
It's so hard to even get to one Super Bowl, but somehow, the Bills were able to make it four-straight times. They say one of the hardest things to overcome in sports is losing a championship, so that team must have had pretty high character in-order to make it back after each loss.
"They'll always hurt a little but. But we'll remember the good times more," said Levy of losing the four-straight Super Bowls. "That team has stayed very close personally through the years. Those guys I directed, they're my friends....There's one way to assure you'll never lose a Super Bowl. Don't go."
Awesome quote from a great coach.
How about you out there in Steeler Nation. What would you rather have? One Super Bowl victory followed by a period of irrelevance or an era of several Super Bowl appearances but no Lombardi trophies?
Would the feeling of being number one just one time be enough to sustain you through the years of bad football, or would you rather have several wonderful journeys that never ultimately end in a championship?