10 Franchises Who Succeeded After Losing a Big Star
Afraid of making excuses, sports teams will always state the "next man up" line after losing a vital contributor. Although it's the mindset fans and the media want to hear, replacing a star is never so simple.
Winning is already difficult with an optimal hand. Removing a top talent dwindles an already low probability of going the distance. Excuse or not, injuries, free-agent departures, trades and retirements often hurt.
The Minnesota Vikings could not sustain their strong start without Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson last season. History may speak much differently about the Oklahoma City Thunder if separate injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook didn't damper two title runs.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule.
Most of the following teams benefited from a deep roster, which in some cases was made possible by losing an expensive star. Losing a marquee name allowed some squads to construct a roster better suited for their style, but most instances featured a younger replacement capitalizing on extra playing time.
Some could be argued as examples for what Bill Simmons coined the "Ewing Theory" after the New York Knicks reached the 1999 NBA Finals without their star center. Yet it's typically dubious to credit a star's departure for the team's surge. Maybe the Knicks would have given the San Antonio Spurs a better fight—no, Charles Oakley, not literally—with Patrick Ewing.
Let's steer clear of cases where teams had a highly touted alternative looming. It's too easy to say the Green Bay Packers flourished with Aaron Rodgers under center instead of Brett Favre. Ditto for the Indianapolis Colts free-falling without Peyton Manning at the perfect time to draft Andrew Luck.
These success stories were not as anticipated. Not all of them ended in champagne showers, but they nevertheless brought validity to the tired sports cliche.
Boston Red Sox (Adrian Gonzalez)
The Boston Red Sox needed a do-over.
In 2012, they finished below .500 (69-93) for the first time since 1997. On the second season of his seven-year, $142 million contract, Carl Crawford lasted 31 games. A year removed from authoring a 2.89 ERA, Josh Beckett unraveled with a 5.23 mark over 21 starts.
It didn't help that this meltdown followed reports of Boston's starting staff consuming fried chicken and beer while playing video games as their teammates lost. Late into the season, general manager Ben Cherington took a drastic measure to shake up the clubhouse and slash payroll.
Under new ownership, the Los Angeles Dodgers boldly declared their intent on spending aggressively. They took Crawford and Beckett off the Red Sox's hands, gaining Adrian Gonzalez in the process. The star first baseman was validating his earnings, hitting .300/.343/.469 after accruing 27 homers and a .958 OPS during his introductory 2011 campaign. The Dodgers needed an incentive to take on the other overpaid veterans.
Instead of repeating past mistakes by throwing more money at new stars, Boston diversified its investments among several mid-tier free agents. Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes and Koji Uehara all provided sizable returns, vaulting the club from last to first in the American League East. Slightly over a year after trading three former All-Stars, the Red Sox won the 2013 World Series.
Cleveland Indians (Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar)
Perhaps the most extreme instance of "next man up" in recent memory, the Cleveland Indians clinched last year's American League pennant in Ryan Merritt's second career start.
How did an untested rookie find himself injected into such a big moment? Up 3-0 in the championship series against the Toronto Blue Jays, they had the luxury of avoiding ace Corey Kluber on short rest. Once the anchor of a deep rotation, the 2014 Cy Young winner was now the Indians' only hope with Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar both injured.
This prompted Cleveland.com's Paul Hoynes to bury the Indians' postseason chances on Sept. 17. Little did he realize, Kluber would carry Cleveland's depleted pitching staff alongside star relievers Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.
And don't forget Merritt, who tossed 4.1 scoreless frames before the bullpen closed out Toronto's high-powered offense for an unexpected American League Championship Series sweep.
Before getting that far, the Indians also overcame the absence of Michael Brantley. From 2014-15, per FanGraphs, he batted.319/.382/.494 with the highest WAR (9.7) among all the team's position players. It was a huge blow when a setback on his injured shoulder ended his season after 11 games.
No one player can receive all the credit for winning the AL without him. Young shortstop Francisco Lindor emerged as a veritable superstar. Carlos Santana (34) and Jason Kipnis (23) both set career highs in home runs. Jose Ramirez went from utility player to borderline All-Star. Mike Napoli crushed 34 dingers, Rajai Davis swiped 43 bags and little-known rookie Tyler Naquin hit .296/.372/.514.
They ultimately fell painfully short, losing Game 7 of the World Series in extra innings after gaining a 3-1 edge over the Chicago Cubs. Yet Cleveland can hold its head high after lasting that long without three of its top players.
Dallas Cowboys (Tony Romo)
The Dallas Cowboys know how hard life can get when a star goes down. In 2015, they lost 11 of 12 games without Tony Romo. When the quarterback re-injured his back during the preseason, onlookers expected another catastrophe.
They instead watched an unlikely star blossom.
Pressed immediately into action, rookie Dak Prescott submitted a 104.9 quarterback rating. The precise fourth-round pick surrendered just four interceptions during an unexpected 13-3 season.
For the second time in three years, the Green Bay Packers spoiled Dallas' NFC East title with a divisional-round elimination. As a result, the Cowboys haven't won a playoff game since defeating Donovan McNabb's Philadelphia Eagles on Jan. 9, 2010.
Yet their sudden playoff exit had nothing to do with their neophyte under center. In fact, Prescott nearly engineered a late comeback, finishing his postseason debut with 302 passing yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Two of those scores went to star wideout Dez Bryant, who played just 22 games over the past two seasons combined.
When it comes to replacing a top-tier quarterback, everyone can't pick up the slack. The Cowboys would have stumbled again if Prescott played the way one would reasonably expect a rookie taken in the fourth round to play.
Luckily for them, they instead found a future cornerstone.
Denver Nuggets (Carmelo Anthony)
Carmelo Anthony is now maligned for not dragging the dysfunctional Knicks into the playoffs, but the Denver Nuggets played postseason basketball in all seven of the star scorer's seasons. After trading him, they extended the streak to 10.
Anthony averaged 25.2 points over 50 games with the Nuggets in 2010-11. He deserves credit for that postseason ticket. A sloppy season delayed by the lockout preempted their second trip.
It's the 2012-13 campaign that truly stands out. The Nuggets' 57 wins marked a new franchise high since joining the NBA in 1977. In atypical fashion, they accomplished the feat with a high-powered offense not fueled by a star.
Despite leading the league in scoring, no player posted 17 or more points per contest. Six players—including two they received from the Anthony trade (Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler)—averaged double digits.
Eliminated in the opening round each time, they didn't do any damage without Anthony. That's also, however, how six of their quests with Anthony ended. Neither the Nuggets nor the Knicks have made the postseason since 2013.
Houston Rockets (Dwight Howard)
Already three victories away from matching last season's total, one can easily argue the Houston Rockets are better without Dwight Howard.
In the center's defense, he participated in their 2015 trip to the Western Conference Finals. Yet his desire for a heavier offensive spotlight didn't coalesce with an early adopter of analytics who preferred to run the offense through James Harden.
After Howard signed with the Atlanta Hawks last season, the Rockets found players better suited for their approach in Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. Head coach Mike D'Antoni has created another offensive juggernaut that ranks second in points per game (114.2) and offensive rating (114.2) behind the Golden State Warriors, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Currently making 14.4 three-pointers on 39.9 attempts per game, they're on pace to set NBA records in both columns. This is easier to accomplish without Howard clamoring for post-up shots.
Don't sleep on the Rockets, who wield the league's third-best record (38-17) and average point differential (plus-6.2) after the Warriors and Spurs. They have defeated each of those Western Conference powerhouses once this season, and the Spurs should remember how tough D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns were in their many meetings.
New England Patriots (Rob Gronkowski)
Those who commend Tom Brady for winning with lesser talent are greatly shortchanging Rob Gronkowski. In 95 career games, including the postseason, he has recorded 77 touchdown spikes. When he's healthy, the NFL has never witnessed a more prolific tight end.
The 27-year-old played just eight games this season, two without Brady and one in which he left early due to a back injury. Losing a star pass-catcher and terrific blocker usually hurts an offense, often beyond repair. The New England Patriots, who possess an extremely rare ability to replace established players without consequences, don't abide by normal rules.
Gronkowski recorded his last catch in Week 10, when he suffered a back injury against the Seattle Seahawks. Although he tried returning in Week 12, he left early and later underwent season-ending surgery.
In 10 games—including his brief comeback attempt against the New York Jets—New England went 10-0 with 30.4 points scored per game. Brady didn't suffer from missing his top target, throwing 23 touchdowns to four interceptions, including the playoffs. Malcolm Mitchell, Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman and James White took turns playing the hero.
During their 34-28 Super Bowl LI comeback over the Atlanta Falcons, White recorded 110 receiving yards. In New England's five previous games, the running back compiled 128 total yards. Because they're the Patriots, this is accepted as semi-normal.
New York Giants (Tiki Barber)
Before halting the Patriots' perfect season behind a quarterback who struggled mightily throughout the season, the New York Giants lost their offensive cornerstone.
Running back Tiki Barber eclipsed 2,000 yards from scrimmage in each of his last three seasons. A rare late rushing bloomer, he peaked between the ages of 29 and 31, mostly because of a heavier workload.
It didn't show in his production, but averaging 390 carries over the course of those three seasons took a toll. Following 2006, he abruptly retired as the franchise's all-time rushing leader.
This could have dampened the Giants' chances of building a playoff contender around the young, erratic Eli Manning, but they instead went 10-6 on the strength of their ground game. The muscle to Barber's burst, Brandon Jacobs accumulated 1,009 rushing yards on 202 carries. Derrick Ward complemented the bruiser runner with 4.8 yards per rush, and rookie Ahmad Bradshaw emerged as another lethal threat late in the year.
The "Earth, Wind and Fire" backfield carried an inexperienced Manning into the playoffs. With Ward hurt, Jacobs and Bradshaw combined for 461 total yards and five touchdowns over their four postseason victories.
Although it's dangerous to correlate Barber's departure to the Giants' title run, the retired back presented a similar theory to Bleacher Report's Brad Gagnon in 2012.
"People don't want to hear it, but if I played, I don't think they would have went to the Super Bowl," Barber said. "Because the dynamics of the team shifted when I left, and Eli became that guy who had to take all the pressure on his back. And at the time, incorrectly, I didn't think he could handle it."
Manning probably couldn't have handled Barber's loss without the support of another stout running attack.
Pittsburgh Penguins (Marc-Andre Fleury)
For the 10th straight season, the Pittsburgh Penguins reached the Stanley Cup playoffs with Marc-Andre Fleury shielding the net. Yet instead of riding their veteran goalie to a 2016 title, they turned to rookie Matt Murray.
While hoisting a career-best 2.29 goals against average, Fleury's season ended early due to his second diagnosed concussion. Pressed into high-stakes action, the backup neophyte notched a playoff saves percentage of 92.3.
In his lone postseason start, Fleury relinquished four goals to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Murray stepped back between the goalposts to allow three scores over Pittsburgh's ensuing two victories. He then limited the San Jose Sharks' fourth-best scoring offense to one goal in three of his four Stanley Cup Final victories.
Murray's run expedited a changing of the guard Pittsburgh has not entirely embraced. In an even timeshare this season, the 22-year-old has outplayed his veteran peer, tallying a 92.2 save percentage to Fleury's 90.6. Perhaps the squad is ready to make the switch permanent.
In a Toronto TSN 1050 radio appearance, via FanRag Sports' Chris Nichols, NHL insider Pierre LeBrun said the Penguins have had "a very preliminary discussion" with the Dallas Stars regarding a Fleury trade. Murray is Pittsburgh's long-term answer, and nobody can say he lacks big-game experience.
Seattle Mariners (Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez)
The rest of this list stays within the past decade, and most of the honorees cemented their success story with a championship. The 2000 and 2001 Seattle Mariners, on the other hand, receive recognition without a World Series appearance.
They made two trips to the ALCS despite losing two first-ballot Hall of Famers and another legend who would undoubtedly join them if not for the use of performance-enhancing drugs. They also set a regular-season record with 116 victories in 2001. That's worth something, right?
Before Randy Johnson hit free agency, Seattle sold him to the Houston Astros. The 6'10" ace won four consecutive National League Cy Young Awards for the Arizona Diamondbacks, whom the Mariners could have met in the 2001 World Series if they didn't lose to the New York Yankees.
They at least received Freddy Garcia in the exchange. While no Big Unit, he registered a 3.05 ERA over 238.2 innings in 2001.
Following a 1999 season in which he hit 48 home runs, the Mariners sent Ken Griffey Jr. packing to the Cincinnati Reds. The superstar outfielder belted 40 homers the following year, but struggled to stay healthy the rest of his career. This deal brought back Mike Cameron, who netted 19.9 WAR over four seasons, according to FanGraphs.
Adding to the improbability of 2001's magnificent success, Alex Rodriguez defected to the Texas Rangers, joining their AL West rivals with a groundbreaking contract. As he hit .318/.399/.622 with 52 homers for his new employer, Mariners shortstop Carlos Guillen batted .259/.333/.355 with five long balls.
The Mariners once rostered three of the greatest players ever. With all three gone in 2001, they won 71.6 percent of their regular-season games. Imagine how dominant those squads could have been if Johnson, Griffey and Rodriguez played alongside Edgar Martinez and Ichiro Suzuki.
St. Louis Cardinals (Albert Pujols)
The Cleveland Cavaliers were doomed after losing LeBron James. For as long as they can, the Patriots will enjoy life with Brady before its bitter end. It's one thing to lose a star, but no franchise can withstand parting ways with an iconic legend.
Except the St. Louis Cardinals, who watched Albert Pujols sign with the Los Angeles Angels after winning the 2011 World Series.
For 11 seasons, Pujols represented the sport's gold standard. He never once batted below .310 or submitted a slugging percentage below .540. The first baseman averaged 37 home runs per season, with 30 signifying the nadir.
He did this all for the Cardinals, who also won the 2006 World Series with the second-worst record (83-78) of Pujols' tenure. Losing such a significant superstar seemed like a crushing defeat, but St. Louis bounced back.
Given the impossible task of replacing a franchise idol, Allen Craig posted a higher OPS (.876) than his predecessor (.859) in 2012. St. Louis eased the blow by signing another prominent veteran, Carlos Beltran, who bopped 32 homers.
Since Pujols left, the Cardinals made four straight playoff appearances and have averaged 92 victories per season.
Pujols is set to earn another $140 million over five years despite not being a star anymore. His contract stands out as one of baseball's worst (from the team's perspective). The Cardinals caught a massive break when he signed elsewhere.