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Your Team Might Soon Be Headed For the Super Bowl

But, in all probability, not.

by James Leroy Wilson
January 30, 2004

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Your Team Might Soon Be Headed For the Super Bowl_James Leroy Wilson-But, In All Probability, Not This Sunday we will see Super Bowl 38 played. The game debuted in January, 1967, and the first four games were played between the champion of the National Football League, established in 1920 (though almost all of its current teams were substantially younger than that), and the upstart American Football League, established in 1960.

But the AFL let itself be absorbed intact - that is, the league didn’t fold but merged with - the National Football League. Three NFL teams, the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steeleers, and Baltimore Colts, joined the AFL teams to form the American Football Conference, while the remaining NFL teams formed the National Football Conference. There was inter-conference play that counted in the standings beginning with the !970 season, with old NFL team Baltimore Colts representing the AFC defeating the NFC’s Dallas Cowboys with a last-second field goal.

In the NFL-AFL match-ups, the NFL’s Green Bay Packers dominated the first two Super Bowls, but the AFL’s Jets and then Chiefs surprisingly dominated the next two games. The AFC dominated the 1970’s Super Bowls, winning eight, and the NFC dominated the 1980’s and 1990’s, winning eight times both decades. The 00’s sees the AFC with a 2-1 advantage, so in the 33 AFC-NFC Super Bowls thus far, the NFC has a 19-14 advantage.

We don’t yet know the outcome of the Patriots-Panthers Super Bowl. But 38 Super Bowls means 76 slots. In a 32-team league, that would average 2.4 Super Bowl appearances on average. But, to be fair, there were basically just 22 teams at the beginning of the Super Bowl era. The Dolphins and Bengals joined the AFL, and the Saints and Falcons joined the NFL in the 1966 and 1967 seasons. The Seahawks (a longtime AFC member recently transferred to the NFC) and the Buccaneers joined in 1976. The Panthers and Jaguars joined in 1995, and the new Cleveland Browns in 1999 (the former Browns became the Baltimore Ravens in 1996), and the Texans in 2002.

What is odd about all of these “newest” franchises is the relative infrequency of their Super Bowl appearances, and that the success of the Dolphins proves that there isn’t an excuse for it. If we throw in the Jets into this mix, a franchise that replaced the New York Titans in mid-sixties, we’re talking about the eleven “newest” teams (though many of them have been around for a while) accounting for exactly eleven Super Bowl appearances, with a record to date of 4-6 (Panthers’ outcome pending). Take away the Dolphins, and the remaining ten teams account for a record of 2-3 in the Super Bowl.

Of 76 Super Bowl appearances, six AFC teams account for 28 appearances and seven NFC teams account for 32. Thirteen franchises account for 60 spots, leaving the remaining 19 to account for sixteen spots.

And it isn’t as if there’s some perpetual imbalance here. The NFL is really the only co-operative league, the first to institute a draft to give the worst teams the pick of the amateur litter, and whose salary cap is air-tight. Succeeding in the NFL relies more on better management and coaching than “hording” all the top talent. The Dolphins, Steelers, and Cowboys were dominant in the 1970’s because they drafted, not bought in free agency, their best players. The best teams today draft well and sign free agents within the salary cap with greater acumen. And have the better coaches.

Which is why it’s odd that only three franchises - the Colts, Chiefs, and Bengals, have gone to the Super Bowl exactly twice, and just two, the Giants and Rams, have gone exactly three times. It is more common for a team to never go, or go just once. And it is also far more common to go several times. The “average” - going to the Super Bowl two or three times in 38 years - is not “typical.”

Then again, the “above average” isn’t especially joyous - just ask Bills or Vikings fans. Each team in the league should have won the Super Bowl, on average, 1.2 times, and the younger the franchise, the closer that number should be zero, and the older the franchise, the closer it should be to twice.
But six franchises who have won three or more times have accounted for 23 Super Bowl victories, leaving 27 to fight for the remaining 14. But three more teams have won twice, so nine teams have won the Super Bowl 29 times. So that leaves 23 franchises to account for just eight victories.

The “average” is nearly 1.2; but the “commonplace” probability is less than 40%; it is “typical” for even a longtime NFL fan to have not seen his favorite team win a Super Bowl.

The good news, if there is any, is that of the eight teams that did win their lone Super Bowl, it’s usually been part of a “streak” of one-time winners. (the exception is the 1985 Bears of Super Bowl XX). In the third through fifth Super Bowls, the Jets, Chiefs, and Colts got their lone victories (not that that’s any solace to any fan under the age of fifty). The better news is that the last four winners - Rams, Ravens, Patriots, and Buccaneers, were all first-time winners. There’s hope for your team yet.

But I suspect it’s also highly probable that at least one franchise might not even make the Super Bowl in 100 years, and that there might be one, two or three others that may sometimes get to the game but won’t win it in that span.

It’s not a matter of a “curse” but rather of a statistical inevitability. There will always be “outliers” - those who are disproportionately successful and those disproportionately unsuccessful. This would hold true in eight- or ten- team leagues, and all the more so in 32-team leagues.

The allure of the NFL, especially recently, is the promise that your team can make it big, can win it all. Statistically speaking, there’s no reason to say that it will. On the other hand, statically speaking, there’s no reason to say that it won’t.

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