Facing maybe the longest and most-questioned off-season in the history of any Super Bowl loser, you have to wonder if this year’s Atlanta Falcons are facing objects in their way of equal magnitude, both present and past.
Of course, it’s never fun getting that close to the pinnacle, and the Falcons would be forgiven if on Feb. 5 in Houston they started flash-forwarding in their collective minds toward certain images.
The final whistle.
The podium celebration.
Owner Arthur Blank passing the Lombardi Trophy to head coach Dan Quinn.
Matt Ryan being named Super Bowl MVP.
They’d be forgiven then, and they can be empathized with now.
After all, it WAS 28 to 3 with eight minutes and change to go in the third quarter. If we can’t forget all those details, how will the Falcons themselves be able to?
So does all that ended up happening the rest of the way in that game for the Falcons impact what Atlanta will do next Sunday when they open at Soldier Field against an underwhelming Chicago Bears team?
Let’s begin with the history and perception: I’m not a believer in curses, but I do think the Super Bowl-losing team has more obstacles in their way than other teams when all 32 start at 0-0.
The Super Bowl loser can have a good season coming back the next year, to be sure, but making the Super Bowl again? Write it off — it doesn’t happen anymore. It’s actually been 24 years since it’s happened, and that was the Buffalo Bills nucleus that went to four straight Super Bowls, only to fall short, at varying degrees obviously, in all of them.
In the same window of time, six NBA Finals losers have made it back to the Finals the next season (yes, Golden State and Cleveland meeting three straight years helps pad those numbers), two World Series losers have returned to the Series (Texas unsuccessfully in 2011, Kansas City successfully in 2015), and in the NHL, despite consistent success from the Red Wings, Bruins, Kings and Blackhawks, it’s only been the Penguins returning to the Stanley Cup Final as a loser, getting revenge on Detroit in 2009.
So to say it’s hard in the NFL is an understatement. In fact, the “Super Bowl Loser Curse” gained considerable prominence as a “thing” from 2000-2005 when for five seasons straight, the Super Bowl losing squad actually finished under .500 in their follow-up season. Given the amount of franchises in both conferences that consistently spin their wheels, that’s an awfully surprising anomaly.
Here are some of the stranger examples where the wheels fell off a Super Bowl runner-up the very next season:
2002 St. Louis Rams (7-9)
After suffering one of the most notable upsets in Super Bowl history to the seemingly just-happy-to-be-there New England Patriots, the Rams were still strong favourites to go back for the third time in four seasons. They started 0-5 and Kurt Warner was either inconsistent or injured, despite the passing weapons around him, and a hobbled Marshall Faulk missing three games didn’t help matters. The Rams actually won five straight after that 0-5 start, but the damage had been done.
2003 Oakland Raiders (4-12)
It’s still the worst follow-up season by a Super Bowl participant in the 16-game era. A wobbly 2-2 start was one thing, but the five-game losing skid that followed it in which both Rick Mirer and Marques Tuiasosopo were forced into starting QB duty for an injured 38-year-old Rich Gannon basically finished off their playoff hopes. It also ended the head coaching career of Bill Callahan and started an endless circus of head coaching changes for the Raiders organization until they finally found success with Jack Del Rio a couple years ago.
2008 New England Patriots (11-5)
The strangest one ever, maybe. After going 18-0 in 2007 leading up to Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots lose in Glendale in the last two minutes thanks to David Tyree’s miraculous Helmet Catch. Then in the first week of the season, they lose Tom Brady to a season-ending torn ACL against the Chiefs. With Matt Cassel in relief, they STILL finish 11-5, but lose the AFC East on a tiebreaker to Miami, led by Chad Pennington, who was only a Dolphin because the Jets chose to sign Brett Favre and start him in his first (and not last) non-Packers season and thus released Pennington. So many moving parts here, you might believe in curses, really.
2016 Carolina Panthers (5-11)
Yes, this one is still complicated and hard to figure out. Since much of the post-Super Bowl 50 assessment was more about how terrible the Panthers and Cam Newton were on offence instead of focusing on a transcendent and historic Broncos defence, especially their pass rush, expectations were, at worst, for Carolina to record a double-digit win season and an easy saunter to the NFC South title.
Even after a 3-5 start, many still thought the Panthers could put a run together and catch the then 5-3 Falcons. It never transpired. After being 4-6, the Panthers defence gave up a combined 75 points in road losses to Oakland and Seattle; they’d lose three of their next four in a dreadful follow-up year. The retirement of Jared Allen, and the losses in the secondary of Roman Harper and, especially, Josh Norman, was far too much to overcome, with Cam Newton’s inconsistent fourth-quarter efficiency not helping in the least.
So where will it go for Atlanta? They just watched their division rivals, the Panthers, suffer through a truly hellish season, yet with basically an extra month of rest compared to what Atlanta went through.
And then there’s the mental factor, and it can’t be pushed aside here. Those of us who’ve played sports even at the most minor and inconsequential competitive level can still remember vivid details of a hockey game at age 12, or a tennis match at age 15, and it sticks with us. What does blowing a 28-3 Super Bowl lead against Brady and Belichick in front of a billion people do to a person? When do you get over it, and is it better to go through stages of grieving it, or do you just ignore and attempt to push past?
Either way, history is far from being on the Falcons’ side here. In 17 NFL seasons this century, only seven Super Bowl losers have made the playoffs and only five have won playoff games. What will make them any different?