The Fate of Super Bowl Losers in the 32-Team NFL Era

Embed from Getty Images

By Jackson Baird

A season ago, the Carolina Panthers bulldozed their way to the best record in the NFL. Their 15-1 mark did not equate to a ring, however, as Ron Rivera’s crew was stopped dead in its tracks by a transcendent Denver Broncos defense. As a result of their 24-10 loss in Super Bowl 50, Carolina fell into the infamous category of Super Bowl losers.

Much has been said about how difficult it is to successfully defend a title in the NFL. Only eight squads have ever been able to repeat as champs, the most recent instance coming courtesy of the New England Patriots in Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX. Well if the winner of the big game has a hard time scaling the mountain the following year, it stands to reason that the loser would find their road to glory even more perilous.

Indeed, only one team in the Super Bowl era lost the title game one year and ended up winning it the next: The Miami Dolphins. After the 1971 campaign, Miami lost Super Bowl VI to the Dallas Cowboys 24-3. Apparently they were so upset by their loss that they just decided to beat literally everyone they played the following year, completing the first (and only, at the time of this writing) perfect season by defeating the Washington Redskins 14-7 in Super Bowl VII. So it’s clear the Panthers have their work cut out for them if history is any indication.

But the NFL has grown and evolved over the decades, with the current playoff format having only been around since 2002. That was the inaugural season for the Houston Texans, and thus the inaugural season of the eight division setup. So if we’re going to give a history lesson, that seems like a good place to start.

What sort of history is Carolina pitted against as we gear up for the 2016 NFL season? Let’s take a look at all the Super Bowl losers since the inception of the current playoff format to find out.

The Dark Times (2002-2007)

Year

SB Loser (record that season)

Record Following Year

Made Playoffs Next Year?

2002

Raiders (11-5)

4-12

No

2003

Panthers (11-5)

7-9

No

2004

Eagles (13-3)

6-10

No

2005

Seahawks (13-3)

9-7

Yes

2006

Bears (13-3)

7-9

No

2007

Patriots (16-0)

11-5

No

Records via NFL.com

The early years of the revised NFL were quite harsh to the Super Bowl losers. Five of the first six teams who lost the Super Bowl under the new format missed the playoffs altogether the following season. The lone exception was the 2006 Seahawks, who took the NFC West by one game over the 8-8 Rams that year, and eventually edged the Cowboys 21-20 in the Wild Card round in the now infamous Tony Romo Botched-Field-Goal-Hold game. Their season ended at the hands of the eventual NFC champion Chicago Bears, who themselves would suffer a similar fate to most Super Bowl losers during this time frame.

As one might imagine, extenuating circumstances (namely injuries) played a big role in the decline of many of these teams. Rich Gannon won the MVP award for the Raiders in 2002, but suffered a season-ending injury in Week Seven of the following year against Kansas City (though Oakland was only 2-4 entering that game).

Donovan McNabb played most of the 2005 campaign for the Eagles injured until finally being put on the shelf for good after a Week 10 loss to Dallas. That season also featured the bizarre Terrell Owens saga which ended with the Eagles suspending the wideout for the final nine games of the year.

Chicago’s secondary was decimated by injuries the year after losing to the Colts in the Super Bowl, and they never really settled on a quarterback all season long, flipping between Rex Grossman and Brian Griese for much of the year.

The Patriots just got unlucky, managing to become the first team since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990 (different format, same number of playoff slots) to win 11 games and not qualify for the postseason. That was also the year Matt Cassel led the offense after New England lost Tom Brady to a torn ACL in Week One.

A Step in the Right Direction (2008-2014)

Year

SB Loser (record that season)

Record Following Year

Made Playoffs Next Year?

2008

Cardinals (9-7)

10-6

Yes

2009

Colts (14-2)

10-6

Yes

2010

Steelers (12-4)

12-4

Yes

2011

Patriots (13-3)

12-4

Yes

2012

49ers (11-4-1)

12-4

Yes

2013

Broncos (13-3)

12-4

Yes

2014

Seahawks (12-4)

10-6

Yes

2015

Panthers (15-1)

?

?

Records via NFL.com

Now that’s more like it. Beginning with the Cardinals, every team coming off a season in which they came up short in the title game has made the playoffs the following year. In fact, no team since has finished with less than 10 wins.

But success can be relative though, and if we’re looking for a team who followed up a Super Bowl loss with a Super Bowl win, we still have yet to find one. The Patriots and the 49ers came the closest, both reaching their respective conference title games the year after falling in the Super Bowl.

Extenuating circumstances were kinder to the Super Bowl losers during this time frame, but that doesn’t mean they were nonexistent. A year after the Steelers went 12-4, won the AFC North and lost to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV, Pittsburgh notched another 12-4 mark, but this time had to settle for a Wild Card berth after Baltimore took the division. The Steelers then traveled to Denver in the Wild Card round and promptly got Tebowed in overtime.

The Patriots came close to returning to the Super Bowl in 2012, but an injury to Rob Gronkowski that forced him to miss Weeks 12 through 16 plus the AFC Championship game arguably cost the Patriots that return trip.

Seattle’s 2015 squad was without the services of Kam Chancellor for the first two games of the season due to the player’s holdout, and also had to deal with the newly imported Jimmy Graham’s season-ending injury during Week 12.

The Royals celebrate after winning the 2015 #WorldSeries.
via wikimedia

So this is what the 2016 Carolina Panthers are up against. Looking at the other three major North American sports leagues, you would think winning it all after a loss in the final round would be no sweat. The most recent champion crowned in both MLB (Kansas City Royals) and the NBA (Cleveland Cavaliers) were teams who failed in that same exact spot one year prior. In the NHL, one only has to go back to the 2008-09 season to find the last time a team (Pittsburgh Penguins) turned the trick. But for whatever reason, the 1972 Dolphins are alone in the NFL’s version of this category.

The Panthers have most of their key pieces back, and will even add wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin after losing him for all of 2015 to a torn ACL. The goal is obvious: The Vince Lombardi Trophy. But to reach it, they’ll have to navigate a grinding regular season and an intense postseason, evade the ever-present injury bug, and chase down the ghost of the only undefeated team the league has ever seen. Best of luck Carolina, we’ll be watching.


Jackson Baird is a contributing writer for YourSitch.com

Twitter: @jaxbaird124

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