We’re now in one of the quietest seasons of professional sports, as the NFL has concluded OTAs and the finals have just wrapped up for the NHL and NBA.
But that doesn’t mean the sports world is devoid of entertainment. Last week provided two of the most unique storylines to come out of their respective sports. An American team won the Stanley Cup. A Canadian team won the NBA finals. LeBron James watched on his couch, entire cities left their iPods on repeat. There’s not much of note in football land at the moment, so let’s dive in.
First up, the National Hockey League and the St. Louis Blues. On January 2nd, exactly 38% of the way through the season, the Blues held the worst record in their division of the Western Conference. They were one point ahead of the worst team in the NHL. Their defense was comparable to the 2018 Oakland Raiders, and their offense even worse. After promoting their fourth-string goalie from hockey’s equivalent of the minor leagues, St. Louis embarked on one of the more miraculous comebacks in hockey history. Not, Olympics miraculous, but still. They finished the season in third place in the Western Conference, good enough for a playoff invitation but no home court advantage.
Which, as it turns out, is exactly what the Blues needed. They pulled off an unthinkable accomplishment - winning their sport’s championship while maintaining a losing home record throughout the playoffs. If that seems hard to fathom, it’s even harder to pull off. St Louis won nearly every away game, while going 6-7 at home in the four rounds.
Meanwhile, up in Toronto, fans weren’t celebrating their own teams very often either. The NBA finals between the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors saw back-to-back-to-back-to-back…to-back home losses. That’s right, five in a row. The Warriors did not win a single game in Oakland during the finals, and Toronto only won once up North.
The Raptors also broke the script in a couple other ways. In the midst of an NBA culture led by “super-teams”, they emerged as champions with a more unknown roster. In February, they traded away three 2nd round picks in two days - and only one of them for an actual human being (Marc Gasol). For a team under a new head coach, having never made the NBA finals as a franchise, they certainly embraced a very risky “win-now” attitude this season. To complicate matters, Toronto’s finals MVP superstar is Kawhi Leonard, who played this season on the final guaranteed year of his deal. It’s significant because Toronto traded for Leonard last year but has yet to extend him, and to date his future is completely up in the air.
So many elements in both series were unprecedented. The wild home (dis?)advantage, the midseason turnaround, the lack of recently-traditional star power. Both Toronto and St. Louis are champions in their respective sports for the first time in their franchise’s history. It got me thinking, what would this look like in the NFL? Is it even possible? Many of the differences between leagues are apparent, but here’s some fun and interesting history regarding the likelihood of an NFL team doing something like the Blues or Raptors.
Things aren’t going well…
St Louis was 12-15-4 on January 2nd. That was good for worst in the conference after thirty-one of eighty-two total games. Thirty-one games marks 38% of the total NHL season. This would be the equivalent of being fourth in the division after game 6 of an NFL schedule.
In the NFL, a fast start is generally much more important. A bad couple of games can quickly sink a season. Currently, about one team per year starts 0-2 and makes the playoffs. Our very own Seattle Seahawks of a few months past are the most recent example. Get a little further, and the odds only get worse.
But it’s not unheard of. For the closest comparison to what the St. Louis Blues just accomplished I give you… the 1980 Oakland Raiders!
The Raiders started 2-3, finished 11-5, and won the Super Bowl over the heavily favored Philadelphia Eagles. Following their week five slow start, they won six games in a row at the hands of a new QB who had been previously riding the bench. His name was Jim Plunkett.
It’s not the largest mid-season fix in NFL history – though a 9-2 finish is nothing to sneeze at – but the Raiders are one of the extraordinarily rare teams with a losing record after game five to win the Super Bowl. Not only did they mirror this year’s Blues with a losing record at nearly 40% of the season, but the promotion of the legendary and nearly-washed-up Plunkett at the same point in the season is too good not to mention.
The 2013 Carolina Panthers completed an even more impressive in-season turnaround, reversing a 1-3 start into a 12-4 overall record. However, they petered out in their first playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers.
A rising but unsigned star
As far as I can tell there is no precedent for what Toronto did with Kawhi Leonard. Not in the NBA, the NFL, or anywhere else. Not at his skill level at least. There have been recent big-name trades, but always with confirmation of commitment. Most recently:
Odell Beckham – five-year contract.
Antonio Brown – okay, confirmation and commitment are probably the wrong words, but he’s signed for three more seasons.
Khalil Mack – six-year contract.
However, Kawhi Leonard is now a two-time finals MVP, and generally regarded as one of the three best players in the NBA. As good as players like Mack and Beckham are, Leonard has proved his talent is more akin to an elite NFL quarterback. For this, there truly is no comparison. QB trades happen all the time, but good QBs? Not so much. In 1957 the Detroit Lions traded their best player Bobby Layne, after he led them to a third straight championship (yes, championship. This was ten years before Super Bowl I). The Lions haven’t won the big game since.
NFL legend Fran Tarkenton was once traded for two 1s and two 2s, which feels more like this week’s Anthony Davis trade than anything else, but that’s a whole different topic. Besides, he remained on the Minnesota Vikings for five years after that deal.
The point is, there is no NFL comparison for acquiring top-shelf, league-altering talent, giving up significant resources to get him, with no guarantee of keeping him for the next year. Even if there was, Leonard actually said he was going to leave after the year is up.
This would be almost equivalent to the Chicago Bears trading two first round picks to the Oakland Raiders last year for Khalil Mack, who at the time was under contract for the 2019 season, but not giving him the six-year extension that they immediately did. It helped; Chicago made the playoffs, but it would have left this year completely unknown.
Home field advantage. Or court. Or ice.
Now to be fair, the American brand of football is the only major sport that exhibits a one-and-done playoff system. I mean, soccer plays two games and even golf gives four days to do the same thing over and over. So in one sense, this part of the comparison could be thrown out the window. But the Seahawks have nothing to do until July 25th, so I asked the following question:
Did the Super Bowl teams have home-field advantage in the playoffs?
*By this I mean did they win more home games than away games en route to the Super Bowl.
2018 New England Patriots push (1-1) Los Angeles Rams yes
2017 Pats yes Philadelphia Eagles yes
2016 Pats yes Atlanta Falcons yes
2015 Denver Broncos yes Carolina Panthers yes
2014 Pats yes Seattle yes
2013 Seattle yes Denver yes
2012 Baltimore Ravens yes San Francisco 49ers push (1-1)
2011 I’m sick of writing this word —> Pats yes NY Giants no.
NY won two road games and the Super Bowl in the most satisfying upset of New England’s history.
2010 Pittsburgh Steelers yes Green Bay Packers no.
GB won three road games and the Super Bowl In Aaron Rodger’s ascension to fame.
Dating back to 2008, eighteen Super Bowl teams had enjoyed home field advantage while two did not. Two teams with first-round byes got to the big dance with one home and road game apiece.
Fascinating that from 2010-11, the two Super Bowl champions essentially pulled the NFL equivalent of what the Blues did this year, and to a lesser extent the Raptors. With those two glaring exceptions, it sure looks like it’s really helpful to have home field advantage in the NFL playoffs. About 82% helpful.
Granted, NFL teams don’t have the luxury of losing a game and regrouping for the next contest. But we’re talking about multiple consecutive years multiple times where the two Super Bowl teams had home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
All below information courtesy of per Sport Trac.
- This year’s NHL cap was $83 million. The Blues were $18.7 million short.
- The NBA was $101 million, and the Raptors came in at $35 million over because the NBA cap is a soft cap, and also one of the biggest jokes in professional sports.
- The NFL last season topped out at $188 million. The Patriots were $4 million under. Before that, SB champion Eagles came in at $2.5 million under the cap.
In 2017 the Seattle Seahawks had the second-lowest salary total in the league at $149.7 million, which was still within $6mil of the salary cap. NFL teams simply do not approach a season with anywhere near the 19 million that St Louis had left over. The Blues became champs with 22% of their available funds unspent.
You’re new here, right?
Toronto’s Nick Nurse won the title in his first year as head coach. St Louis’ Craig Berube won in his first seven months. He was named interim head coach in November after the team’s first nineteen games. Seriously, both new coaches. You can’t make this stuff up.
Guys that have done that in the NFL ever? 2. Don McCafferty in 1970, and George Seifert for the 49ers in 1989. That year, a high school JV positional coach could have won the Super Bowl with that roster, but I suppose it still counts.
That first time is something special
As mentioned before, both Blues and Raptors won their franchise’s first title. I think every team has special memories about their first time. After all, Seattle held the record-setting world-beating Broncos offense to eight points in one of the most lopsided Super Bowls in NFL history. These types of stories are what make sports truly great. After we’ve seen and seen it all, there’s still something new. For reasons aplenty, the NFL will never be able to replicate much of the excitement of June, 2019. But eventually Bill Belichick will go away, and something new will happen in the NFL, and we won’t have seen it coming, and it will be awesome.