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The Seahawks, Repeating and Debunking the Super Bowl Winner's Curse

Nine is the number of liars.

Never. Never. Never gets old.
Never. Never. Never gets old.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Why nine and not 10? To paraphrase Nat X, because ten would make The Man nervous.

That is why goods cost $X.99. Even cars, which cost thousands, are marketed as costing $21,995. Five is what becomes of nine in a heavily contested market--a way to undersell competition by shaving pennies or dollars. But the essence of the dupe is retained.

99, 95 even 900 are all ersatz asymptotes: a way to endlessly approach the next whole number but avoid the psychological disadvantage of admitting the next whole number. And it works. How often have you heard someone, often a child, refer to something costing $9.99 as costing "nine dollars?"

Nine is a clumsy but effective con. Where one might expect savvy and circumspection to such obvious and repeated tricks, instead we find inurement past stupefaction to full-on cultural acceptance. The most simple and honest mom-and-pop store situated somewhere miles from competition will still mark a bag of Funyuns as $1.99, a Snickers at $0.99 and pack of 250 wax worms at $9.99. The proprietors may not consciously think they are tricking anyone. Only that the price would look weird written any other way.

But if we are to be honest and attuned, we must ask why nine and not 10? 10. A one and a placeholder. Like our fingers or toes. 10. The very foundation for mathematics.

We must ask ourselves why have the Seahawks been compared to the last nine Super Bowl Champions and not the last 10 Super Bowl Champions?

All through the offseason and into the season, the respective fates of the last nine Super Bowl Champions have been held up as proof that Super Bowl-winning teams face some formless yet malignant force the next season--colloquially a "curse." Something deriving from their victory, some set of circumstances, sometimes referred to as "complacency," which makes repeating for a Super Bowl Champion more difficult than competing for a former also-ran.

And why the last nine and not the last ten Super Bowl Champions? Because of narrative cohesiveness but moreover because people bought into the lie. Presented a sore thumb of an arbitrary endpoint, which by all rights could have been laughed off, Seahawks fans accepted the rule, the history, and maybe have even worried about its effects.

This is my attempt to purge at least one lying nine from the earth.

Ten

Ten Super Bowl Championships ago the New England Patriots repeated, winning their third title in four years. At that time had someone extended this same kind of analysis nine years back, that person would likely conclude that the NFL had more or less re-entered a period of dynasties. Or never left.

From 1997 to 2005, five of the nine championships were won by two teams: the Patriots and the Denver Broncos. Ten of eighteen conference championships were won by just four teams: Patriots, Broncos, St. Louis Rams and the Green Bay Packers.

And this following a run of dynasties which dominated the 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's: from 1967 and Super Bowl I to 1996 and Super Bowl 30, 26 of the 30 Super Bowls were won by the Cowboys (5), 49ers (5), Steelers (4), Raiders (3), Redskins (3), Dolphins (2), Giants (2) or Packers (2). And in fact over the 48 year history of the Super Bowl, the number of teams winning two or more championships, 12, approaches the number of teams to never win, 13. The relatively high total of both groupings would seemingly indicate a league of haves and have-nots.

In the past, so consistent has been the performance of teams, that not only have their been dynasties comprised of Super Bowl winners, but lesser dynasties comprised of Super Bowl losers. The Vikings lost four times between 1970 and 1977. The Broncos lost three times between 1987 and 1990 (and always in a rout). The Bills lost four consecutive Super Bowls from 1991 to 1994, and by a combined 11 touchdowns and 10 extra points.

The Parity Era

The NFL has countered this overwhelming evidence with one word: "parity." The NFL is supposedly the league of parity. Never mind the facts, whenever a bad team upsets a good team--which should happen frequently--we are reminded of "parity" and its sibling "any given Sunday."

Yet given the large amount of variability inherent within a 16 game season, the presence of repeat contenders and of teams mired in years-long streaks of losing suggests a yawning gap between good and bad teams. Even with much of the outcome of a whole season dependent on caroms, breaks, injuries and a single-elimination tournament, surprise contenders were once vanishingly rare.

The 1968 New York Jets were once standard bearers for improbable victory, and Weeb Eubank's team was 11-3 and had outscored opponents by 139 points in the regular season. In many ways, the great upset victory of the Jets over the Colts in Super III was an upset of perception and perception only.

From that time to 2007, the only team to win a Super Bowl that even flirted with mediocrity was the 1988 49ers, who finished 10-6. And that team was subject to all sorts of peculiarities, including a Steve Young-Joe Montana quarterback controversy, and a week 16 blowout loss after the 49ers had already secured the NFC West title. Controversy punted for the time being, Montana was San Francisco's only quarterback throughout the playoffs, and the 49ers marched through and won the Super Bowl, outscoring opponents 82-28.

In 2008 the 10-6 Giants beat the 16-0 Patriots to win Super Bowl 42, and if parity has ever existed in the NFL, it is from 2008 to the present. The argument is thin, mind you, but it's not baseless. Next season, Arizona at 9-7 made it to the Super Bowl and nearly beat the Steelers. The 10-6 Packers did beat the Steelers in 2011. The next season the 9-7 Giants beat the Patriots again. And in 2013, the 10-6 Ravens beat the 11-4-1 49ers.

This began the belief in "getting in and getting hot," or "peaking at the right time." Which belief largely carries over to today, but which belief has been reverse engineered into a widely hinted at "Super Bowl Winner's Curse." Because while underdogs were competing and even winning, Super Bowl Champions, erstwhile favorites, were not--or at least not winning. And, if you constrict your sample to the last nine years, often not even contending.

Why? Before we answer that, if we can answer that, let's create a more logically cohesive era to analyze.

Free Agency, a Salary Cap and a 12-team Playoff

Beginning in 1990, the NFL moved to a six team per conference playoff format. In 1992, the NFL's Plan B free agency was ruled in violation of antitrust laws, and real free agency began. And in 1994, a hard salary cap was introduced. If we wanted to create a logically cohesive "era" of NFL history, from which we can determine if Super Bowl winners do suffer some specific disadvantage, 1994 to the Present is probably the best we can do.

The first team that could repeat, the Dallas Cowboys, did not repeat. Another dynasty, the 49ers, won Super Bowl 29. The Cowboys won the next season. & c.

Why Winners Repeat and Why Winners Fail to Repeat

Trawling through the history of this 20-year period, I discovered that what makes a contender are great quarterbacks, great coaches and a core of great talent. No surprises. That Cowboys team, for instance, lost its head coach prior to the 1994 season. Jimmy Johnson, forever at odds with Jerry Jones, finally had enough and quit.

Altogether there are five common reasons Super Bowl winners do not repeat: Loss of coach, loss of quarterback, sudden decline of star talent, scandal, and a massive upset victory in the Super Bowl they did win.

To save some hundreds of words, here's a list which breaks down the Super Bowl winners and their various fortunes and misfortunes.

  • 1994 Cowboys: Lost head coach*
  • 1995 49ers: Quarterback decline, core decline
  • 1996 Cowboys: Quarterback decline, core decline, scandal**
  • 1997 Packers
  • 1998 Broncos
  • 1999 Broncos: Lost quarterback
  • 2000 Rams: Lost head coach
  • 2001 Ravens: Lost quarterback, core decline
  • 2002 Patriots: Massive upset
  • 2003 Bucs: Quarterback decline, core decline
  • 2004 Patriots:
  • 2005 Patriots: Core decline
  • 2006 Steelers: Quarterback decline***
  • 2007 Colts:
  • 2008 Giants: Massive upset
  • 2009 Steelers: Core decline
  • 2010 Saints: Quarterback decline****, core decline
  • 2011 Packers:
  • 2012 Giants: Massive upset*****
  • 2013 Ravens: Quarterback decline, core decline
  • 2014 Seahawks:

*Jimmy Johnson resigned after winning his second Super Bowl, because Jerry Jones is an undercutting, megalomaniac doof. Who, for instance, said after Johnson won his first Super Bowl that any coach could have won a Super Bowl with that roster. Which was proven true when Barry Switzer did just that a few seasons later. But you don't say it.

**Michael Irvin was suspended five games for failing a drug test, and in which five games the Cowboys went 2-3. Troy Aikman missed time due to injury. Following his return his interception rate more than doubled. And prior to their Division Round playoff game, Irvin and Erik Williams were charged with sexual assault. Irvin was injured early in that game. Deion Sanders was injured and missed much of the game. Dallas lost 27-16 to Carolina.

***This was the season Ben Roethlisberger motorcycled his face off. He missed game one because of an emergency appendectomy, and had his worst season as a pro.

****Drew Brees was good in 2011 but not nearly as great as he had been in 2010. Those Saints were anything but balanced, relying almost entirely on their offense to make them relevant, and when Brees slipped, the team was lost.

*****The Vegas line rated New York as slight underdogs--perhaps because of a psychological advantage (after upsetting the Patriots in 2008). However New York was 9-7, had been outscored by six points, and were rated poorly by advanced metrics.

Which Means What Exactly for the Seahawks?

If we had to pin down the nature of this so-called curse, it is that sometimes Super Bowl winning teams have maxed out, and because they have maxed out, coaches quit or retire, quarterbacks retire or regress, and core talent retires or regresses. Possibly, media scrutiny unearths scandals, and more money and more fame inspires bad behavior. Also, sometimes teams that win the Super Bowl, and especially recently, were not particularly good teams to begin with.

The Seattle Seahawks have not been free of scandal, and that scandal has taken a toll on the roster. While it doesn't seem like Marshawn Lynch is much worse off for all the buzzards circling him, Percy Harvin was traded mid-season. But one could counter, Harvin was a minor part of Seattle's Super Bowl run. His presence on the roster likely cost Seattle Golden Tate though, and Tate would qualify as part of Seattle's Super Bowl winning core of talent.

Seattle's coaching staff is intact. Its young quarterback has not declined. Nor has its young core of talent. The 2013 Seattle Seahawks were remarkably free of major contributors on the wrong side of 30. Which is very, very rare in a Super Bowl winning team. Though I do not want to imply players decline simply because they hit some specific age, it goes without saying that players past 30 often do decline suddenly and without clear reason.

What this means for the Seahawks, most basically, is what I could have written right away: the Super Bowl Winner's curse is nothing but a sloppy generalization, based on patternicity and superstitious reasoning.

Of But Not Defined By

The 2014 Seahawks are reigning Super Bowl Champions. So too were the 2008 New York Giants and the 1971 Baltimore Colts. Finding another meaningful connection between those three teams would take some creativity. We can be sure they do not share a collective fate. They have and had different coaches, different schemes, different talent and played under different rules. No sensible person would project the performance of the 2014 Seahawks based on the performance of the 1971 Colts or the 2008 New York Giants.

Without explicitly admitting to it, that's exactly what pundits, analysts and journalists did prior to this season. The wording usually went something like "The last nine Super Bowl Champions have failed to repeat, many failed even to make the playoffs, and so it is hard for a Super Bowl Champion to repeat." Well of course it's hard to repeat. It's hard to win a Super Bowl.

But unless some specific rule was instituted nine years ago, or some specific debility is saddled on Super Bowl winners by the league office, what very different (different from Seattle and different from each other) NFL teams did over an arbitrarily short period has no affect on Seattle.

In order to be sporting though, I thought through what might specifically harm Super Bowl winners. These are not meant as specific rebuttals, because most of what I've read and heard is little but insinuation. These are meant as straw man arguments. Made in order to be refuted.

Opponents Try Harder

Perhaps the most arrogant and self-serving of this set of arguments, this is often phrased as "facing Seattle is [whichever other team's] Super Bowl." It's arrogant because it assumes no other team wishes to compete for a Super Bowl, and is willing to settle for moral victories. And it is self-serving because it creates an inborn excuse for the Seahawks under-performing.

For most teams, trying harder against the Seahawks is nothing short of self-destructive. The implication is that professional football teams are not trying their best to win always, or at least while they are in contention. Now that Jim Mora is safely demoted to the NCAA, this is surely false.

Teams would like to beat the Seahawks. Teams would like to beat every opponent, and do max out against every opponent. If there were a way to play harder as if on demand, that ability would probably be tapped into when the outcome of a game matters most--like when facing a division opponent.

The Seahawks were last season's Super Bowl Champion. This season, they're just another opponent. And I'm sure that's what coaches say and think and what players say and think.

Other Teams Poach Talent

Seattle did lose a lot of talent over the off-season. This argument implies Seattle lost talent it would have otherwise kept. Specifically, it implies teams overvalue the Seahawks talent because of a halo effect imparted by the Seahawks being champions.

This may be true in general. Specifically, it's probably not true, or at least wasn't that damaging.

The Seahawks cut Red Bryant, and have not replaced him with another player of his type. Instead opting for a more traditional 4-3.

The Seahawks also cut Chris Clemons. Clemons was a year removed from an ACL tear, had a lengthy injury history prior to becoming a Seahawk, and turned 33 this season. Clemons signed with Jacksonville. It could be argued that if Gus Bradley had not become the coach of the Jaguars that perhaps Seattle would have been able to sign Clemons for cheap, but that's speculative, and Bradley became coach of the Jaguars before Seattle won its Super Bowl.

Walter Thurmond III signed a one-year contract with the Giants, and is now on injured reserve. Seattle may have retained Thurmond if he were cheap enough, but in trading for Marcus Burley, have found a better, more reliable player.

Brandon Browner had already been replaced by Byron Maxwell. Browner signed with New England. I do not see why his value would be inflated by the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl without him.

Breno Giacomini signed with the Jets. I can see no reason to sign Breno Giacomini to a free agent contract. His value was almost entirely found in his relative cheapness. Justin Britt is a better run blocker, and just as capable as Breno of whiffing on pass blocks.

Paul McQuistan signed with the Browns and has started one game. His contract skirts the league minimum.

Clinton McDonald starts for the Tampa Bay Bucs. His presence is missed. But it's hard to know how much his contract was inflated (if at all) by the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl.

And of course ... Golden Tate. Reportedly, Seattle low-balled Tate. He signed with the Lions. His contract, five years $31 million guaranteed is comparable to the contract the New York Jets gave to Eric Decker. Decker had the better counting stats in 2013, but is also older and arguably less talented. One would guess the general manager of a professional football team can pro rate stats too, and see that much of what separates Decker and Tate was the nature of their respective offenses.

My point? It doesn't seem like anyone was paid substantially more because of their affiliation with the Super Bowl Champions. Seattle lost talent in free agency because Seattle had talent to lose in free agency, and much better, more valuable talent to re-sign.

And it won't help Seattle win this coming Super Bowl, but all those minor pieces scattered to the four winds should yield a mother lode of compensatory picks.

Opponents Copy, Dilute and/or Counter Seattle's Scheme

The NFL is a copycat league, yes. What is copied, though, is what works. Not merely which team won, but whatever idea, scheme, personnel, grouping, trick play, etc. that works. This is hardly unique to football or even sport. One of the best explanations of how success is copied I found in Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading.

When you start searching for 'pure elements' in literature you will find that literature has been created by the following classes of persons:

1

Inventors. Men who found a new process, or whose extant work gives us the first known example of a process.

2

The masters. Men who combined a number of such processes, and who used them as well as or better than the inventors.

3

The diluters. Men who came after the first two kinds of writer, and couldn't do the job quite as well.

There's more, but that'll do. Likewise, in the NFL, there are a very small number of real inventors, some more masters, and a crap ton of diluters. (Aside: I consider Pete Carroll a "master.")

Seattle has been somewhat hurt by assimilation of some of their once strange ideas. That Browner signed a nice free agent contract and didn't have to return to the CFL is evidence of that. But how much Seattle has been hurt is debatable. And the process of copying ideas from Seattle, many of which Seattle itself copied (such as the read option,) started when those ideas proved fruitful. Not when Seattle won the Super Bowl.

The counter measures also started when those measures seemed necessary, not only after Seattle won a Super Bowl.

The demarcation of pre- and post-Super Bowl mostly matters to fans. As players and coaches so habitually say, in the NFL it's one week at a time, one opponent at a time. The Seahawks are Super Bowl Champions, but beating them only counts as one win. Losing only counts as one loss.

How Super Bowl Winners Repeat

If we expand our range to include all Super Bowl Champions since the 12-team playoff was introduced, three teams have repeated. Every one of those teams achieved a first-round bye. Is that necessary? No. But it never hurts to have one fewer chance of being eliminated.

Apart from that, Super Bowl Champions repeat just as they won. For all intents and purposes, the Seattle Seahawks are just another team, neither aided nor cursed by their win. Win, never stop winning, and soon there will be nothing more to win--just like every season.

...

On a final note: to some, this season was destined to be a letdown. Seattle could not roll the Broncos forever, however endlessly fun that was. Eventually the team had to start 0-0 again. Eventually the team had to lose again. Eventually the team had to be just another team again, subject to the vicissitudes of football, the nonsense of power rankings, the trash talk of rival fans. But, win or lose, Champion or Raider, it's foolish to worry, to suffer the unknown. Michael Montaigne has a great aphorism I repeat quite a bit.

"He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears."

This is the greatest time to be a Seahawks fan in all my years, in all anyone's years. Even battling suspect curses is kind of thrilling. Maybe Seattle doesn't win the Super Bowl this season. Maybe. And in that "maybe," the very soul of being a sports fan.

John Morgan wrote and re-wrote a book about the Seahawks. It is called 100 Things Seahawks Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. The writer I am ripping off is not David Foster Wallace but Henry Miller.