I often think about an article Bill Simmons wrote at Grantland ten years ago about the NBA Playoffs.
Chicago Bulls star guard Derrick Rose had just torn his ACL. The Bulls were the top seed in the Eastern Conference that year and had a chance to win it all.
Simmons came up with the concept of the footnote championship.
When Derrick Rose’s knee injury ruined the spring of every Chicago fan, I tweeted that 2012 was suddenly an “asterisk title.” The more I’m thinking about it, “footnote title” makes more sense. A basketball season always features collateral damage, whether it’s injuries, lucky breaks or someone stupidly assaulting a fire extinguisher. Asterisks should be saved for fishier achievements like Bonds’s 73 homers, Roger Clemens’s last few Cy Youngs and Pia Zadora winning a Golden Globe. A “footnote title” respects the champion while also acknowledging that, “Look, SOMETHING funky happened and you can’t discuss that postseason in detail without mentioning that one funky thing.”
Of course, the ones usually applying that footnote are disgruntled fans of the team that “should have won.” That’s just the way sports work. For instance, my father still refuses to recognize the actual winner of the 1973 NBA title. It’s been almost 40 years. He doesn’t care.
I liked this. Whether fans want to believe it or not, just about every team that wins a championship gets has some fortune along the way. There are the things your team can control and the things it can’t. You usually don’t win a title unless both of these go your way.
On the same note, fans of a rival team can’t just dismiss championships because there was a bit of luck along the way.
Today I’d like to apply Simmons’ footnote championship concept to the NFL. Let’s look at every Super Bowl winner since 2000 and figure out whether their championship should have a footnote. In our first installment, I will look at the champions up to 2009.
What Happened: The Ravens rode Ray Lewis and one of the greatest defenses in the history of the league and solid if unspectacular quarterback play out of Trent Dilfer to a championship. After an inconsistent 5-4 start, the Ravens won their last seven regular season games to make the Playoffs as a 12-4 Wild Card. They then steamrolled through the Broncos, the top seeded Titans, the second seeded Raiders, and the NFC’s top seeded Giants to win Super Bowl XXXV.
Possible Footnote: The Minnesota Vikings didn’t show up in the NFC Championship Game against the Giants, getting humiliated 41-0. The Vikings had a passing attack anchored by Hall of Fame receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss. They likely would have presented the Ravens a more difficult matchup in the Super Bowl. While the Baltimore run defense was historic and the reason they are remembered as an iconic unit, their pass defense that year was merely very good.
The Verdict: The Vikings probably would have been a tougher matchup for the Ravens than the Giants, but that doesn’t mean they beat Baltimore. It took them about half the season to figure things out, but by the end of the year the Ravens were the best team in the league. The defense is rightly remembered, but during their eleven game winning streak they averaged 28 points a game. This was a team firing on all cylinders.
One thing people tend to forget is Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata weren’t a part of this team. They were only drafted in future seasons. While the 2000 Ravens are remembered as one of the great single season defenses in NFL history, the dominance continued, and more elite talent was added. The team’s inability to figure out the quarterback position between Dilfer and Joe Flacco might have cost them a dynasty and the Baltimore defense from this era a spot with the Steel Curtain as one of the most iconic defenses of all-time.
Still you can’t take away 2000. For this one I vote no footnote.
What Happened: The Patriots came out of absolutely nowhere to shock the world. It seemed like their season was over before it began as franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe was famously injured in a game against the Jets. In came unheralded sixth round pick Tom Brady. The rest is history. The Patriots won a surprising division title at 11-5. They then beat the Raiders in the Divisional round in a controversial game in the snow before upsetting the Steelers and Rams as double digit underdogs to win the championship. The Patriots had a distinct “team of destiny” feel that year.
Possible Footnotes: You'd have to start with the fact Brady entered the lineup by chance. There was also the controversial tuck rule play during the snow game that wiped out a fumble that would have clinched a Raiders victory. Beyond that, we never found out the full story behind whether the Patriots filmed a Rams walkthrough before Super Bowl XXXVI
because Roger Goodell swept Spygate under the rug.
The Verdict: I’m sure I’ll come off as a bitter Jets fans, but you can’t be a team of destiny without there being footnotes. There has to be one with this season.
To be fair I’ll say this. At the time the perception was that the Patriots were a bit of a fluke. They did finish top six in both scoring and points allowed, though. Combining that with the team’s subsequent success and the rise of Brady, I think in hindsight this team was a lot better than we realized at the time.
What Happened: After a long history of fielding great defense that were held back by an inept offense, the Bucs fired Tony Dungy after the 2001 season. They replaced him with Jon Gruden, whom they acquired from the Raiders for Draft picks. After winning the NFC Championship Game over an Eagles team that had eliminated them two straight years, Tampa Bay faced Gruden’s old Raiders team in the Super Bowl and crushed them 48-21.
Possible Footnotes: Raiders starting center Barret Robbins disappeared the day before the game and was deactivated for the game. Years later we learned that Robbins was dealing with some serious mental health issues. This likely impacted the Raiders team both in the tangible sense that they were without their starting center and in their focus on the game.
There have also always been questions about whether the Raiders did enough to change their signals and audibles before the game since the opposing coach had installed their system. Tim Brown and Jerry Rice have even accused then-Raiders coach Bill Callahan of sabotaging the team in the game.
The Verdict: I can’t put a footnote on this one. The Robbins situation was tragic, but teams have had to deal with last minute lineup changes frequently in Super Bowl history. And maybe Callahan should have done more to mix things up, but these are the Raiders. One of their most important rules in the Al Davis years was, “Cheating is encouraged.” Outside of New England, there’s probably no team that has less of a legitimate complaint about another team having its signals. This was a great Bucs defense, and they finally got their title.
What Happened: After the controversial release of team captain Lawyer Milloy days before the season began, the Patriots were blown out in their opener in Buffalo by Milloy’s new team. New England lost a few weeks later to Washington to fall to 2-2. That was their final defeat of the season. They won their final twelve regular season games and three Playoff games, capped by a Super Bowl winning last second field goal by Adam Vinatieri which clinched a win over Carolina.
Possible Footnote: The Panthers scored to tie the Super Bowl with 1:08 left in the fourth quarter. Carolina kicker John Kasay then mishit the kickoff, putting it out of bounds. The Patriots started at their own 40 and needed to drive only 37 yards to set up the field goal.
The Verdict: I think no matter where New England started, Tom Brady was going to drive them into field goal range so no footnote here. This was a Patriots team that didn’t lose after the calendar turned to October. They were just dominant.
I was tempted to put an additional that they drew a fairly weak Super Bowl opponent in this Panthers team quarterbacked by Jake Delhomme, but decided against it after considering the alternatives. The other contenders in the NFC that year were an Eagles team that always came up small in big moments, a worse version of the Rams team the Patriots beat two years earlier, and the Packers when Brett Favre was at the stage of his career where he was a lock to hit the self-destruct button at a key moment.
What Happened: New England went back to back with a 14-2 regular season. In the Playoffs they dominated a Colts team led by Peyton Manning who was having a record breaking season. In the AFC Championship Game they avenged one of their two regular season losses by handling the 15-1 Steelers with ease. Then they knocked off the NFC’s top seeded 13-3 Eagles in the Super Bowl.
Possible Footnotes: New England benefitted from some questionable coaching decisions in the Playoffs that year. Down 34-20 early in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game, Bill Cowher opted for a field goal on fourth and goal at the 2 rather than go for a touchdown that could have cut the game to a score. Pittsburgh never got the game closer than 11. Then in the Super Bowl the Eagles showed no urgency on a drive down by 10 with under 6:00 left in the game, huddling and winding down the play clock before snapping the ball. They scored a touchdown but took up so much time that they had no chance of getting the other score they needed.
The Verdict: For my money, this was the best of the six New England championship teams. They handled three really good teams in the Playoffs. These possible footnotes aren’t compelling at all. I mean the opponents were down multiple scores in the fourth quarter when these decisions were made. The games were probably already decided. No footnote here.
One real footnote could have involved Terrell Owens. The Hall of Fame receiver was having arguably the finest season of his career when he sprained his ankle and broke his leg on a horse collar tackle by Roy Williams in a December game against Dallas. That play perhaps more than any other led to horse collar tackles being outlawed. At the time it sounded like Owens’ season was over. However, he returned for the Super Bowl and was arguably the best player on either team, posting 9 catches for 122 yards. Even if he wasn’t 100%, it’s difficult to imagine him playing better so the only possible footnote isn’t really a footnote.
What Happened: The Steelers finally broke through after more than a decade of coming close and falling just short. A year after going 15-1 and losing the AFC Championship Game at home to New England (their fourth home loss in the AFC Championship Game in eleven years), Pittsburgh won its last four regular season games to get into the Playoffs. Then the Steelers swept through their four Playoff games. Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis, a role player by this point in his career, capped off his final season by winning the Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit.
Possible Footnotes: Where do I even begin?
- In their first Playoff game, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer suffered a torn ACL after a low hit on his first passing attempt of the game (a 66 yard completion no less).
- In the Divisional Round, the Steelers jumped out to a 21-3 lead when the Colts mounted a furious fourth quarter comeback. After a Bettis fumble gave them one last chance, Indianapolis drove into field goal range for a chance to send the game into overtime. Mike Vanderjagt missed so badly he didn’t even hit the net. Missed kicks happen, especially in pressure spots, but this was such a ridiculous miss that I have to include it. The Steelers were reeling, and they probably lose if that game gets to overtime.
- In the Divisional Round, the Broncos knocked out the Patriots. Pittsburgh got to play Denver in the AFC Championship Game instead of a Patriots team that always beat them when the stakes were high.
- Super Bowl XL was one of the worst officiated games in NFL history, and the bad calls almost all benefited the Steelers, allowing them to win despite Ben Roethlisberger only completing 9 of 21 passes.
The Verdict: The only question is whether this one has a giant footnote or several separate footnotes.
It’s funny how it works, though. The Steelers had so many dominant teams in this era that didn’t win it all. The team that finally got them their fifth championship wasn’t as good but got the necessary breaks. Sometimes that’s what you need.
What Happened: Peyton Manning finally got his championship shedding the “Can’t win the big one” label. Safety Bob Sanders’ return to the lineup for the Playoffs after only playing 4 regular season games helped to fortify a defense that had been awful, especially against the run. The Colts beat Kansas City easily in the first round. They won a field goal contest at Baltimore in the Divisional Playoffs. In the AFC Championship Game, they overcame an 18 point first half deficit to beat a Patriots team that had become their roadblock. Then they beat the Bears in the Super Bowl.
Possible Footnote: This was the year a contract dispute led the Patriots to trade their top receiver Deion Branch to Seattle. New England was forced to rely on Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney, and a past his prime Troy Brown. This group made several costly blunders in key moments of the second half of the AFC Championship Game. There’s a strong case to be made that Bill Belichick playing hardball with Branch cost the Patriots this game and the Super Bowl.
The Verdict: Even so, I’m not putting a footnote here. Even with their receiver issues, the Patriots jumped out to an 18 point lead and scored 34 in the AFC Championship Game. This was really about Peyton finally slaying the dragon that was Belichick’s defense.
What Happened: The Giants stopped history and shocked the world by beating the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. New England entered the game 18-0 and had the chance to become just the second team to win the Super Bowl with an undefeated record. The Giants got hot at the right time, arguably coming out of a late season swoon in a loss to the Patriots in the final regular season game. Even though New England won, the Giants stood toe to toe with the Pats, which gave them momentum they used to win three road postseason games prior to the rematch. With the game and history on the line, Eli Manning engineered an 83 yard touchdown drive, capped by a 13 yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 39 seconds left to win the game.
Possible Footnotes: If you were a football fan at this time, I don’t need to tell you. The pivotal play of the drive was a 32 yard completion from Manning to David Tyree, which Tyree miraculously trapped against his helmet. Prior to the pass, Manning appeared to be sacked but somehow broke free of a defender’s grasp. The play easily could have been whistled dead. On the drive Manning got away with two passes that could have been intercepted, one of which hit Asante Samuel in the hands. The Patriots were that close to immortality.
The Verdict: I don’t know how you beat a team like the 2007 Patriots without there being a footnote. The Giants simply needed some luck to win that game. Their best chance was to keep it close with their pass rush, which they did, and hope they got a few lucky bounces, which they also did. There’s no shame in a footnote.
What Happened: The Steelers went 12-4 in the regular season with the league’s top defense led by Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison. They beat the Chargers in the Divisional Round. In the AFC Championship Game they knocked off their bitter rivals, the Baltimore Ravens. Then in the Super Bowl they edged the upstart Arizona Cardinals behind a spectacular 100 yard touchdown return by Harrison on an interception and an equally spectacular game-winning touchdown catch by Santonio Holmes in the final minute.
Possible Footnotes: The top competition in both conferences were taken out of the equation. Tom Brady tore his ACL in New England’s opener, ending his season. The Patriots still had the core of a team that had gone 16-0 the prior year in the regular season and was extremely motivated after their Super Bowl loss to the Giants. Even with Matt Cassel at quarterback, that group still went 11-5. In the NFC, the defending champion Giants were rolling at 10-1 when top receiver Plaxico Burress suffered an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound at a nightclub in November. Burress’ season was over. He was eventually charged and served prison time for the incident. The Giants were never the same, losing three of their last four regular season games and getting upset by the Eagles in their opening Playoff game.
The Verdict: Steelers fans are probably going to think I am picking on them, but this one has an enormous footnote. When you combine everything I just mentioned with a few other upsets, Pittsburgh had to win a grand total of one Playoff game against teams with at least 10 regular season wins to take the title. And even then they wouldn’t have won the Super Bowl without two spectacular plays.
What Happened: The Saints won their first thirteen games to take the top spot in the NFC Playoffs. After a three game losing streak to end the regular season, they blew out Arizona in the Divisional Round, beat the Vikings in an overtime classic in the NFC Championship Game, and defeated Peyton Manning’s Colts to claim the first title in franchise history.
Possible Footnote: That NFC Championship Game stands out. It was later at the center of the Bountygate controversy. Saints defenders leveled a number of borderline hits on Brett Favre. The Vikings also made a number of unforced errors. A botched red zone handoff from Favre to Adrian Peterson in the first half cost them points. Then in the last moments of regulation with the Vikings on the fringes of field goal range, Favre made an inexplicable decision to throw across his body into traffic instead of hitting a running lane that would have put the Vikings within makable field goal range. These plays were about the Vikings failing, not what the Saints did. Then in overtime
The Verdict: Even so, I’m not putting a footnote here. At most, the bounty scandal had a tangental impact on the actual outcome of this game. And as mentioned earlier, self-destruction in key moments was part of Favre’s brand by this point. There was a clear top team in each conference this season. The Saints were the cream of the NFC, and they beat the AFC best Colts.
In Part 2 of the series, we will look at the champions from 2010 to the present.