Sunday, November 14, 2010

Singular Sensations

Winning a championship is the ultimate achievement, no matter what level of what sport you're talking about. In professional and big-time college sports, players and coaches are exorbitantly compensated in the hopes that their ability and expertise can lead to the smorgasbord of confetti, trophy presentations from the commissioner, Queen songs being played on loop, and of course, the ring. If you get there, you're a king, a hero, a winner for all eternity. If you don't, well....not so much. What's interesting is that you can name a good deal of high-profile players and coaches who have gotten a ton of mileage out of one championship. If not for that championship, pretty much all of these guys would likely have a much different legacy.

1. Brett Favre - I hate to do it, but this list has to begin here. Brett Favre conquered some already-existing postseason demons when he led the Packers to victory in Super Bowl XXXI in January of 1997. Since then, he's been known as a World Champion. It was great for him, but not great for the rest of us, since the media uses that Super Bowl as an excuse to give him a pass for all the huge losses over which he has presided in the 13 years since. Just the following year, his 11.5-point favorite Packers were upended by Denver in Super Bowl XXXVII. "Brett" would go on to be, if not responsible for, then at least part of, the following moments:
-Green Bay's first ever playoff loss at Lambeau Field on a frigid Saturday night to a young Michael Vick and the Falcons in the 2002 Wild Card round
-A six-INT playoff loss to the Rams
-The worst interception ever thrown (in overtime, mind you) in the 2003 Divisional Playoffs in Philly, aka the "4th-and-26" game
-His last pass as a Green Bay Packer, which sent the Giants to Super Bowl XLII
-A 1-4 finish that cost the 2008 Jets a playoff spot
-The interception at the end of regulation in last year's NFC Championship Game

I rest my case.

2. Bill Cowher - He gets a ton of notoriety for his scowl, his facial expressions, and his impressively long 14-year tenure as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since he won Super Bowl XL (with the gigantic help from the zebras), the legend of Cowher has morphed way out of control. Of course, he can do no wrong from the comfort of the CBS studios, so his name comes up immediately with every NFL coaching vacancy. Conventional wisdom says he'd be the answer to a floundering franchise's problems. I say he lost four AFC Championship games at home in 11 seasons, and came within a Jim Harbaugh Hail Mary (skip to the 7:30 mark of the video) of losing five. In at least two of those games, he clearly had the better team ('94 vs. San Diego and '01 vs. an upstart New England team that had to bring Drew Bledsoe off the bench to finish the game). Let me be clear - I'm not saying Bill Cowher isn't and wasn't a very good coach, I'm just saying the common perception of him would be totally different if not for Super Bowl XL.

3. Joe Namath - Was he a magnificent thrower of the football? Yes. Did he change the landscape of the NFL forever when he guaranteed the biggest upset in football history to that point when the Jets beat the Colts in Super Bowl III? Yes. Did he win another playoff game after that Super Bowl? No. Did he throw 47 more interceptions than touchdowns in his career? Yes. And finally, did he want to kiss Suzy Kolber? Yes.

4. Mike Ditka - Let me first say that Ditka had arguably the best combination of a playing career and coaching career in NFL history. But similar to Favre, Mike Ditka won a title fairly early in his coaching career and seemingly got a pass for everything after that. Not only do many people give Buddy Ryan an equal amount of credit for the dominance of the 1985 Bears, but Ditka had a 2-5 playoff record in his subsequent years with Chicago, followed by a brutal 15-33 record in three seasons with the Saints where he doubled down on a 9 and got a 2 with Ricky Williams in the 1999 Draft. You wonder how even the Superfans would feel about him if it weren't for 1985.

5. Bobby Cox - He would probably be higher on the list if he managed in a more intense sports city, but I have a feeling Atlanta would still have all the love for Bobby Cox even if his Braves didn't capture the 1995 World Series. The 14 straight division titles are maybe the safest record of its kind, but only one championship in that span is rather underwhelming, especially when you consider how good some of those Braves teams were. A few of those losses you could live with - the 1991 Series vs. Minnesota was as good a matchup as you could find, and they ran into a buzzsaw against the Yankees in 1999. But if you're a Braves fan you really have to shake your head at the 1992 loss to Toronto, the 1996 loss to the Yankees, the 1997 and 1998 NLCS losses to Florida and San Diego, and the 2003 NLDS loss to the Cubs.

6. Peyton Manning - I was reluctant to put Manning on this list because he's still active, but you can't deny how many question marks would still surround him if not for the Super Bowl XLI win four years back. While he's possibly my favorite athlete out of anyone that doesn't play for a team I root for, Manning has a lot of postseason woes to his name. Granted, two losses were the direct fault of Mike Vanderjagt, but that doesn't erase the 41-0 Wild Card rout by the 2002 Jets, the consecutive drubbings in Foxboro the two years after that, the 2007 Divisional Round home loss to a Billy Volek-led Chargers team, and the pick-six to Tracy Porter in last year's Super Bowl. How much of any of that was his fault is debatable, but fortunately in this case the one Super Bowl rightfully puts to bed any doubt of Peyton Manning.

7. Lou Piniella - Sweet Lou was a clutch contributor to back-to-back World Series champions with the 1977 and 1978 Yankees. After becoming one of George Steinbrenner's many managerial victims in the 1980s, Piniella guided the 1990 Reds to a wire-to-wire first place finish and a sweep of Oakland in the World Series. After moving on to Seattle, Piniella's teams boasted one of the top lineups in baseball for nearly a decade but never made it past the ALCS, including the 116-win team in 2001 that got bounced by the Yankees in 5 games. By the end of Sweet Lou's run, which consisted of three woeful years in Tampa and two Division Series exits with the Cubs, his legacy was built just as much upon epic ejections as it was on being a good baseball man.

8. Steve Young - Given the task of replacing Joe Montana, Steve Young was in an almost impossible spot. What made it even worse was that Montana remained on the 49ers for two seasons while Young held the starting spot. Whenever he threw a pick or a bad incompletion, 49ers fans would begin the calls for Joe. Even after Montana was sent to Kansas City, it didn't get any better for Young, especially in the wake of consecutive NFC Championship losses to Dallas. When January of 1995 rolled around and Young finally got the 49ers past the Cowboys and delivered a record 6 TD passes against San Diego in Super Bowl XXIX, there was no more vindicated man in America. Winning that championship of his own allowed people to remember Steve Young as an MVP-type player and not merely the guy who came in for Joe Montana.

9. Eli Manning - This was a toss-up between Eli, A-Rod, and Albert Pujols, but there's too big a faction of people who will never give A-Rod a break and Albert Pujols doesn't really have doubters, so Eli Manning gets this spot due to the sheer size of his stage and his brother's shadow. During the Giants' 2007 regular season, Manning had a few terrible games that caused people to ask whether or not he was adopted. So to do what he did in winning three straight road playoff games and punctuate it with a victory over an 18-0 team in one of the three best Super Bowls ever played is nothing short of remarkable. And while he may never fully escape the identity of "Peyton's little brother," the venom from New York fans and media is likely gone forever.

10. Rick Pitino - This list has been limited to pro football and baseball partially because they are my two areas of expertise, but also because college sports create a different dynamic due to coaches constantly losing their top players to graduation and the pros. Rick Pitino has been all over the map, spending 6 seasons coaching the Knicks and Celtics in between taking three different NCAA programs to a total of five Final Fours. Ever since he was the Providence wonderboy in 1987, Pitino has been one of the most consistent winners at the college level, culminating in his 1996 National Championship with Kentucky. But there were some monumental losses with Kentucky along the way, followed by four horrendous seasons as Celtics coach that are most remembered for this tirade. It's easily conceivable that if 1996 didn't happen, Pitino would be labeled as a guy with a ton of talent at his disposal and relatively little to show for it. The debate should go deeper than that, but I promised myself I'd keep the Pitino section short enough that it could be read in 15 seconds.

In conclusion, I'll admit the list was put together rather hastily and off the top of my head, so if there are any people I omitted or included wrongfully, the floor is yours.


  1. I remember the 1995 Colts team well. They snuck into the playoffs as a wild card at 9-7 and rattled off some impressive road wins. Jim Harbaugh was finally getting the job done in the NFL and I was pulling for him against the Steelers. That ball should have been caught.

    Pitino left Kentucky stacked with talent and they would win the 1998 title under Tubby Smith in his first season. It can be argued that Tubby won with Pitino's players. Tubby would also later get axed (unfairly?) largerly because of Pitino's success. If Pitino stays at Kentucky and doesn't go to the Celtics he is probably still at Kentucky and tears down the nets a couple more times. The guy can recruit and sells the NBA to his players. I think he's pretty legit but I doubt he wins it all at Loiusville. He's similar to Spurrier in that regard. I can't think of another good college coach for this list off the top of my head.

  2. Can the Brooklyn Dodgers go in as a team? (Although theirs was at the end of their run).

    Jon Gruden fits in the Cowher mode, though with less time coaching and a more probable shot at getting back into the game. Tony Dungy fits alongside Peyton Manning too (assuming you're only looking at him as a coach).

    Still time left as well for him, but considering I-A Championships, Jim Tressel is approaching the same stage. Big Ten dominance (sorry Kevin) is one thing, but one National Championship during his run glosses over the 2 BCS title game losses.