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September 5, 2002
A No-Win Game
ESPN The Magazine

I've said it before, I'll say it again. This is the time of year when every football analyst worth his chin strap is tying himself up in knots, trying to determine which team will emerge as the next Super Bowl champion.

I, on the other hand -- as someone who's spent his life studying numbers, trends and precedents -- do not see how any team can possibly win Super Bowl XXXVII. How does one reach such an outrageous conclusion? Let me count the ways:

Rule 1: No Team That Won Fewer Than Four Games in a Season Has Ever Won the Super Bowl the Next Season. This is the era of last-to-first teams, and the last three Super Bowl winners came from so far off the radar screen that none made a single appearance on Monday Night Football during its title campaign. The Rams won coming off a 412 season, the Ravens after 88 and the Patriots after 511, leaving no precedent for last year's doormats, the Bills (313), Lions (214) and Panthers (115). Nor, of course, for the Texans (00).

Rule 2: No Team That Won Exactly Seven Games in a Season Has Ever Won the Super Bowl the Next Season. A little-known corollary to Rule 1 that's effective in eliminating teams from Super Bowl consideration. Last year's seven-win teams -- the Browns, Titans, Giants, Cardinals, Saints and Falcons -- won't have to fret about getting the last pick in Round 1 of next year's draft.

Rule 3: No Head Coach Who Won a Super Bowl With One Team Has Ever Won a Subsequent Super Bowl With a Different Team. Many have tried, including Vince Lombardi, Hank Stram, Bill Parcells, Jimmy Johnson and George Seifert; none has succeeded. What does that mean for Dick Vermeil's Chiefs and Mike Holmgren's Seahawks? No soup for you!

Rule 4: No Team That Lost in the Wild-Card Round Has Ever Won the Super Bowl the Next Season. Not as well known as "The Buccaneers can't win in the cold," but just as devastating. There have been 78 wild-card games, and thus 78 losing teams, since Pete Rozelle inaugurated the concept in 1978. The first 74 have gone 074 at winning the Super Bowl the following year; the other four are last year's wild-card losers: the Buccaneers, Jets, 49ers and Dolphins. Sorry, guys.

Rule 5: No Team Whose Opening-Day QB Was Drafted by a Team That Had Never Before Drafted a Super Bowl-Winning QB Has Ever Won a Super Bowl. First, say that three times fast. For example: Donovan McNabb is the Eagles' opening-day quarterback this year. He was drafted by the Eagles, who have never drafted a QB who has won a Super Bowl. So, say goodbye to the Eagles, Ravens, Chargers, Vikings and Broncos. (Elway, remember, was drafted by the Colts.)

Rule 6: No Team With a Head Coach Whose Surname Starts With the Letter "C" Has Ever Won a Super Bowl. In fact, only one C-coach has even reached a Super Bowl: Bill Cowher lost to Barry Switzer in Super Bowl XXX. (Of course, you know that S-coaches have won their last five Super Bowl appearances ... but I digress.) The immutable laws of alphabetization thus eliminate Dave Campo's Cowboys, Bill Callahan's Raiders, Tom Coughlin's Jaguars and Cowher's Steelers as possible winners of Super Bowl XXXVII. (They also toss a double dose of dirt on Dom Capers' Texans, though you can get eliminated only once around here.)

Rule 7: No Team That Has Played a Regular-Season Game in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium Has Ever Won a Super Bowl That Season. Nine different teams -- including the Buccaneers, of course -- will play regular-season games in Tampa this year. Seven of them have previously been axed from a possible photo op with the commander-in-chief. The Rams and the Packers will go into the off-season cursing the NFL's scheduling formula that sent them to play at Raymond James, thereby snuffing out their chance to hoist the Lombardi.

Rule 8: No Team That Averaged Fewer Than 17 Points Per Game in a Season Has Ever Won the Super Bowl the Next Season. It doesn't matter how many points Steve Spurrier's Redskins might score in the upcoming regular season. The die was cast last year, when the Skins averaged only 16 points per game. This rule also eliminates the Bengals, who averaged only 14.1 points in 2001.

Rule 9: No Team That Allowed More Than 26 Points Per Game in a Season Has Ever Won the Super Bowl the Next Season. The Colts made it this far, but Rule 9 does to them what the training camp Turk does to undrafted free agents. It doesn't matter how well Tony Dungy's D fares this season; the horse escaped the barn when last year's Colts yielded 30.4 points per game.

Rule 10: No Team That Went From Last to First in Its Division Has Ever Won the Super Bowl the Next Season. In other words, after a big leap forward, it's tough to maintain your place and/or take it up another level. This spells curtains for the Bears and the Patriots, each of whom finished last in their respective division in 2000 before emerging as 2001 division champions.



There you have it, all wrapped up in one concise little package. Ten simple rules that, taken together, forestall the possibility of any NFL team grabbing this year's brass ring. That is, unless the unthinkable happens, and for one fortunate team, past turns out not to be prologue.

This article appears in the September 16 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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