NFL Analysis

Why We Don’t See Super Bowl Repeats Anymore

Winning a Super Bowl is hard. Winning two of them in a row, well, that’s becoming next to impossible.

Since the advent of the salary cap era in 1994, just two teams—the Denver Broncos (1997-98) and New England Patriots (2003-04)—have managed to win back-to-back Super Bowl titles. For those who didn’t major in math, we’ve gone 17 Super Bowls without a repeat champ.

By comparison, in the 28 Super Bowls prior to the salary cap, no fewer than six teams managed to win back-to-back championships.

The cap clearly is a major reason why no team has managed to repeat in awhile, and why only six Super Bowl winners have even appeared in back-to-back Super Bowls since 1994.

“The obvious [No. 1] reason is roster turnover,’’ said Hall of Fame executive and The 33rd Team contributor Bill Polian, who won the Super Bowl in 2006 with the Indianapolis Colts and made it to, but lost, four straight Super Bowls with the Buffalo Bills right before the start of the salary cap era in 1991-94.

“You lose key players because of free agency. You’re in a situation where they’re difficult to replace. And if you replace them with rookies, even if they’re very good players, those guys aren’t as efficient the following year as they might be later on.’’

“It’s hard to keep the core together after you win,’’ said former NFL executive and The 33rd Team co-founder Mike Tannenbaum. “More of the money starts going to a lesser number of players. When all is said and done, the math just doesn’t work. You can’t pay them all.’’

Difficult to Repeat

Since the cap and its big brother, free agency, became a regular part of the NFL fabric in 1994, eight of the last 27 Super Bowl winners failed to even qualify for the playoffs the following season.

Twelve more were knocked off in the Wild Card or Divisional Rounds, and another one was eliminated in the Conference Championship game. Four others – the 2020 Kansas City Chiefs, the 2017 Patriots, the 2014 Seattle Seahawks and the 1997 Green Bay Packers – made it back to the Super Bowl, but lost.

It’s not just Super Bowl winners who have had difficulty getting back and winning the next year. The same goes for Super Bowl losers.

Eleven of the 27 Super Bowl runners-up since 1994, or 40.7 percent, missed the playoffs the next year. Twelve more lost in the Wild Card and Divisional Rounds, and three others lost in the Conference Championship game.

Only one managed to make it back to the Super Bowl. That was the 2018 Patriots, who beat the Rams, 13-3, in Super Bowl LIII the year after a 41-33 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

While the salary cap is a big reason for the dearth of repeat Super Bowl winners, it’s not the only reason. Even for teams that manage to keep the core of their roster intact after winning the Lombardi Trophy, it’s been difficult catching lightning in a bottle two years in a row.

“There’s such a small margin for error in getting to a Super Bowl and winning a Super Bowl,’’ said Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner. Warner’s 1999 St. Louis Rams beat the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV.

A year later, despite averaging a league-high 34 points per game, they didn’t make it past the Wild Card Round.

No Room for Error

“All it takes is one slip up and you’re done,’’ Warner said. “The year after we won the Super Bowl, we started 6-0. We were a scary team. Our offense was actually better than the year we won it. But our defense wasn’t as good.

“Then I got hurt in the seventh game and missed five games. We had Trent Green, who was a really good quarterback. But we went 2-3 in the five games I was gone. Then I came back a week too early and I played awful in my first game back and we lost that one too.

“The year before, we had a first-round bye and homefield advantage in every playoff game leading up to the Super Bowl. In 2000, because of those four losses during that one stretch, we finished 10-6. We didn’t have a first-round bye. We had to play the Saints on the road in the Wild Card and we lost. We could have beaten anybody that year. We could’ve easily gotten back there. But we had to overcome so much more that year than the previous year.

“A lot of people just want to look at a team (that wins the Super Bowl) and say, ‘Well, they’ve still got Tom Brady and they’ve got Mike Evans and they’ve got those two great linebackers. So Tampa should make it back and repeat.’ Or the Rams this year. For the most part, the Rams have the same pieces they had last year and everybody thinks they should repeat.

“Well, they lost (left tackle) Andrew Whitworth. They may have another guy who has played there. But is he as good? Is he the same guy Whitworth was outside the lines and in the locker room? Is he a guy you can run behind on third-and-one and be confident he’s going to do his job and dominate?

“All of those little factors play into the point where they become a big factor. When you start thinking of all the things that have to go in your favor [to win a Super Bowl], you understand why it’s hard enough just to get there one time let alone go back and repeat.’’

One and Done

Bill Cowher understands. Cowher, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame two years ago and is a 33rd Team contributor, coached the Pittsburgh Steelers for 15 seasons. He didn’t win his one and only Super Bowl until Year 14. The following year, the Steelers finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs.

“We won it in ’05 and then Ben (Roethlisberger) got hurt in the offseason and really wasn’t the same player until the second half of the season because of the motorcycle accident,’’ Cowher said.

“We were able to bring back most of the team that won the Super Bowl the year before. But because of not having that same quarterback, who was our catalyst, we started 2-6. We won six of our last eight, but had dug too big of a hole for ourselves and couldn’t climb out.’’

While every team’s goal is to make it to the Super Bowl, Polian said the long season for teams that make it that far in the playoffs tends to take a toll on them the following year.

“The season is so long for the two Super Bowl teams,’’ he said. “Especially now, with 18 weeks (17 games and a bye week) in the regular season. Then you’re going four more (weeks) in the playoffs. And that’s almost like eight weeks in terms of pressure. That takes its toll. There’s a physical toll that shows up toward the latter part of the following season. You’ve got to be really careful with your team in the preseason and the early part of the subsequent season.

“I don’t think any of that is the so-called Super Bowl hangover psychologically. I don’t think teams are satisfied [because of their success the year before]. We certainly weren’t when I was with Buffalo or in Indianapolis after we won. It’s just the physical grind that gets to you after a while.’’

Not Really Motivated

Cowher admitted that there is a motivation factor involved. He said it’s hard for a Super Bowl team to get excited about the regular-season next year. It wishes it could just snap its fingers and be in the playoffs and start from there.

“There is a little bit of that [Super Bowl] hangover that people talk about,’’ he said. “One of the things that happens is it’s hard to get up for the regular-season because your standard is now [getting] back to the playoffs. You start thinking, ‘OK, we have to start back over again.’

“No. 1, you’re coming off a long season. But you’re also coming off a tremendously successful season where you were the last one standing. So you just want to get back to the playoffs and start from there.

“As a coach, you have to continue to make sure you reiterate the fact that the season doesn’t begin with the playoffs, that it begins with Week 1. And you have to build that back up again. It’s part of the process, even if it sometimes becomes a little bit taxing.’’

Besides getting rings, Super Bowl-winning teams get something else as well: A target on their backs.

“You basically become the measuring stick for every team you play,’’ Cowher said. “You go from being the hunter to being the hunted. That presents a challenge each and every week.’’

“I guess there’s something to that,’’ said Warner. “I guess maybe teams get up a little more for playing the defending Super Bowl champs. I don’t ever remember thinking that when I played. But it’s easy to get up for  a big game, a good team.

“So, I think there is some element of that. I don’t think the ‘X’ on your back is the most important factor [why it’s so difficult to repeat]. But I think there’s such a small margin for error in getting to a Super Bowl and winning it. All of these other factors play into it.’’

The Growth Cycle

Polian said another reason some Super Bowl teams can’t repeat is because they reached their “sell by’’ date. Their Super Bowl window of opportunity closes.

“The hidden part of it is where your team is in the growth cycle,’’ he said. “For example, our team in Indianapolis, when we won the Super Bowl, we were at the end of our growth cycle there.

“(Pro Bowl safety) Bob Sanders’ career was coming to an end because of injuries. Other players were getting a little bit older. We had been among the best teams in the league for the three previous years. So, we had played almost the equivalent of a full season in the playoffs.

“Our cycle was sort of at its peak and was headed down. It was on the back end as opposed to the front end. Now, we did go back to the Super Bowl three years later. But the team had changed over a little bit by then. Peyton (Manning) was still there and Reggie (Wayne) and Dallas (Clark) were still there. The stalwarts were still there. But a lot of the other parts had changed.’’

Said Cowher: “Your team is never the same team. Whatever that dynamic is that you win a championship with, very rarely does that exact same dynamic come back the next year.

“Look at the Rams this year. Yeah, they have the same quarterback and they have Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald. But all of a sudden, you don’t have Whitworth. You don’t have Von Miller. You don’t have Odell Beckham. You have a valued coach (Kevin O’Connell) leave.

“So, it’s tough to keep everybody together. If you do keep everybody together, it’s hard to go down that same path and have all of the variables be the same and do it again.’’

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