You see that slogan all the time when it comes to the NFL — “Any given Sunday.”
I mean, you get the concept. Regardless of talent, coaching, pedigree, location, atmosphere or history, you’d better tune in to this game because it could go the exact opposite way you think it’s going to.
But does it make sense when you apply the theory to whole seasons?
Well, yes and no.
Whereas “Any given Sunday” does work as a slogan, and many of us are awfully frustrated current (or former) wagerers or humiliated Survivor Pool contestants eliminated in Week 2 or 3, I’m not so sure the claims of “You just never know” work once all 16 games have been played out by each team and playoff seeds distributed accordingly.
While early-season results can seem topsy-turvy (see Thursday night’s Patriots-Chiefs game), there are currently great franchises who have been incredibly immune to what we’d label down seasons. There are also several other franchises that seem incapable of pulling themselves out of utter mediocrity, let alone the humiliation of consistently drafting in the top 10 every April or May — that is, providing they haven’t traded that pick for magic beans to “get better quicker.”
Let’s start with the premise that success in the NFL is cyclical, and even the non-pantheon teams can occasionally rise up and provide success and joy for their fans.
As of this season’s open, six NFL teams are sporting playoff droughts of at least eight seasons. The Buffalo Bills are currently mired in a 17-year drought. Yes, the Music City Miracle was their last appearance way back in 1999. Quite the long way from winning 10 playoff games in a six-season span, including the four Kelly/Thomas/Reed Super Bowl runs.
But if only the Bills had no company in perennial futility. Of course, they do. For Cleveland, it’s been 14 seasons. The Browns rose up in their fourth season back in the league with a 9-7 record and a wild-card game appearance. Since then, the Browns are 90 games under .500 in a 14-season span.
The Rams franchise had it all working for them at the turn of the millennium, winning six playoff games and a Super Bowl from 1999 to 2004. Since then, nothing.
And is there something in the water in Florida? Both Jacksonville and Tampa Bay have gone nine straight seasons each without playoff football, and though the Dolphins have snuck into the wild card a couple times this century, the once-proud franchise has missed the playoffs in 13 of 15 seasons, and have been pounded by a combined 77–24 score in their past three playoff games.
Let’s contrast that with the excellence of four franchises — New England, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Green Bay. The Patriots have a right to be insulted when the likes of the Chicago Blackhawks, San Antonio Spurs or San Francisco Giants are compared to them. None of those teams have five league championships, two other “finalist” appearances, have won their division 13 of the past 14 seasons or are a mind-bending 25-9 in their 34 playoff games since 2003.
The Steelers? Out of a very competitive AFC North, they can boast a 2-1 Super Bowl record, playoff appearances in 11 of the past 16 seasons, and as impressively, they’ve won a playoff game in eight of those years. And yet, all we point out sometimes is, “They’re not the Patriots.”
Green Bay? Well, yes, it helps that they’ve had either Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers under centre consistently since 1992. The Packers are, somehow quietly, trying to make the playoffs for the ninth straight campaign not too far removed from a six-season streak in Favre’s heyday from 1993–1999. Quite the contrast from the Packers winning only one playoff game between 1968 and 1992.
And then we have the Seahawks. After winning three playoff games in their first 26 seasons, Seattle’s been a playoff team in nine of the past 12 years. Few doubt they’ll be playing January games again this year, and they’ve won at least a playoff game in each of the past five seasons.
Now, is there quite a fleshy midsection of teams who ride up and down the elevator of between 6-10 wins a year? Sure — always has been, always will be. There’s almost always a division winner who will finish last the next season, and the opposite is often true.
But it goes to show that while we may love the NFL because of it’s unpredictability in individual games, we grow to love greatness. And even if we don’t love the great franchises, they compel us because we know how we feel about them.
Success, it’s often said, is what polarizes. Being average and uninteresting doesn’t usually create a rush of emotions.
It’s hard to find a football fan with a real emotional reaction to the
San Diego Los Angeles Chargers. But ask them how they feel about the Patriots, Packers or Steelers (and recently again, the Dallas Cowboys) and you’ll get the passion.
But in a league that lets the worst teams take the best NCAA players, and where strength of schedule also punishes success and rewards the lack of it, you’d think there’d be fewer franchises able to sustain greatness, and a few more who could figure out how to accomplish achieving it — even for a season.