Success can be fleeting. Just ask Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Harper Lee or the guy who played “Epstein” on Welcome Back Kotter and they’ll no doubt tell you that today’s gold may turn into tomorrow’s garbage.
With Super Bowl XLV in the books the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves a seeming tweak or lucky bounce away from the Promised Land, but just as Seinfeld begat The Marriage Ref, Dances With Wolves led to Waterworld and the folks who blew our minds with “White Rabbit” tortured our very souls with “We Built This City on Rock N Roll,” things can change at any minute.
So before you book your 2012 flight to Indianapolis let’s take a quick and cautionary look at five Super Bowl runner-ups who quickly lost their way:
2003 Oakland Raiders
Unless you’re running a Thai brothel or Vietnamese sneaker factory, employing veteran experience is generally a plus. But in 2002, Al Davis’ Traveling Circus took this idea to Matlock demographic-like levels.
With the exception of Jerry Porter, every significant skill position player was on the wrong side of 30, including an Early Bird Special-dining Jerry Rice, who led the team in receptions and yards at the tender age of 41.
Throw in a defense led by a pair of 37 year-olds in Rod Woodson and Bill Romanowski and this squad seemed more likely to break a collective hip than wind up in the Super Bowl.
When QB Rich Gannon, RBs Wheatley and Garner, as well as the aforementioned defensive duo predictably succumbed to injuries the following year, the Raiders limped home 4-12. Since then it’s been “Just Lose, Baby” with zero playoff appearances and only one season, this last, with more than five victories. But you’re right, Al, Tom Cable was the problem.
1999 Atlanta Falcons
Unfortunately sometimes timing is everything. And like proposing to Kirstie Alley right before she had her first Krispy Kreme, Minnesota kicker Gary Anderson’s was off in 1998 when his only miss in 40 FG attempts helped send Atlanta to Super Bowl XXXIII.
But that wasn’t the only bit of good luck the Dirty Birds experienced that year. A miraculous run of health led to a 194-point turnaround as the defense went from 20th to fifth overall, Jamal Anderson survived a mind-numbing 410 carries and an aging Chris Chandler dodged the MRI tube long enough to register the only plus 100 QB Rate of his career.
Alas, as Charlie Sheen’s liver is letting him know (hernia, my ass), the good times don’t last forever. In ’99 the defense regressed back to a nasty mean ranking 25th in points allowed, Chris Chandler reverted to his usual game-manager-at-best form and Jamal Anderson tore up his ACL like an out of state parking ticket a mere 391 attempts shy of the previous year all adding up to a spot on our list at 5-11.
1990 Denver Broncos
Like the Grey Cup or a Goodwill Games gold medal, the 1989 AFC Final was a title no one cared about. The Denver Broncos were the only team in the conference that year to finish with more than nine wins while the NFC was so strong both Green Bay and Washington stayed home come playoff time despite 10-6 records.
Two uninspiring playoff victories later and the Mile High-ers were receiving the biggest spanking since J.Lo’s honeymoon sex video from Bill Walsh’s Frisco dynasty in a 55-10 pounding.
When 1990 rolled around the John Elway-led offense continued to hold its own despite Dan Reeves’ conservative, fantasy stat-crushing game plan; but the defense went into a spiral that could make Dana Plato shudder, allowing over 145 points more than ’89 and contributing mightily to a minus-18 swing in turnovers as the Broncos would finish a mere 5-11 in the worst team season of Elway’s career.
2001 New York Giants
When Kerry Collins squared off against Trent Dilfer in Super Bowl XXXV it marked the worst QB matchup in the Big Game outside of Super Bowl XVII’s Theismann vs. Woodley showdown (no disrespect to Joe, it could’ve been Woodley vs. Montana, Unitas or Slingin’ Sammy Baugh he was that bad).
The reason the Ravens were there was a killer defense. The reason the Giants were there was a schedule that could’ve done Boise State proud, the second-easiest in all of football.
In 2001 with a middle of the pack schedule the defense went from fifth to 16th in points allowed, the offense sputtered in at 21st and the turnover ratio went from plus-7 to minus-1 as evil twin “Fumblin’” Tiki Barber suffered from more dropped balls than the locker room in Cocoon. Mix in injuries to Barber, Ron Dayne, Ike Hilliard and Jason Sehorn and this group limped to the finish line like Kramer at the Aids Walk a desultory 7-9.
2005 Philadelphia Eagles
Fresh off five straight 11-plus win seasons, the 2005 Eagles looked like a shoo-in for another Super Bowl run. But alas, after a 3-1 start things fell apart faster than the plot in a ‘70s porno film.
Terrell Owens went down in Week 7, Donovan McNabb followed in Week 9 and suddenly the offense was in the hands of Mike McMahon, whose last extensive playing time saw him complete 49 percent of his passes and throw 17 interceptions…at Rutgers.
To say the offense stagnated would be to call Gary Busey quirky, as the Eagles passed for less than 200 yards in six of their last eight and under 100 yards in two of those contests. Couple this with a defense that put up less resistance than some drunken nymphos I’ve encountered (which actually might say more about me than the Philly D) tumbling from second in points allowed to 27th and the results were predictable at 6-10.
So are the 2011 version of the Steelers in danger of the same ignominious fate? At face value one would have to say no. The defense is rock solid. The O-Line, when healthy, is fully on the right side of 30. Roethlisberger is proven and consistent and Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders look ready to receive the torch from Hines Ward.
Still, with nine defensive starters looking back at 30 come September, including Harrison and Polamalu, and Big Ben seemingly a couple Jaeger shots away from a commissioner-induced vacation, anything can happen. The lady that is NFL parity is a cruel mistress that can humble even the mightiest.