Monday, February 05, 2007

AFC Dominance (NFL thoughts)

As I watched Peyton Manning fondle the Vince Lombardi trophy, I asked myself "Gee, when was the last time the NFC won the Super Bowl?"

The correct answer is Tampa Bay, five years ago against Rich Gannon and the Raiders. The NFC has won two Super Bowls in ten years. The Rams were the other. Prior to this ten year stretch of AFC dominance, the NFC won 13 Super Bowls in a row.

So in a sport that has inter-conference play, a common draft, and common rules, how is it that one conference gets this dominant? Back in the Joe Namath days of Super Bowl III, there was an arguable difference between the two leagues/conferences. The boring answer is that it's just random. Once in a while, you can flip heads 13 times in a row. You might even argue that the run of 8-10 for the AFC is just the law of averages in play over 40 trials. But what if it isn't random?

In baseball,the designated hitter is often cited as the source of differences between leagues. What might it be in football? My theory? The NFC has for some reason lost the arms race.

Even, if he didn't play his best game Sunday, most everyone acknowledges that Peyton Manning has been an outstanding quarterback for many years. The only question prior to "Slinging in the Rain in Miami" was whether his playoff frustrations made him Fran Tarkenton/Dan Marino great instead of John Elway great. Last year, Ben Roethlisberger was the youngest quarterback to win the Super Bowl. Should he fully recover from his head injuries, it's clear that he has great prospects for sustained stardom. Three of the AFC Super Bowls in the last 10 years were won with Tom Brady who still has a lot of mileage on his two minute clock. I'm not sure though which count is more important the Super Bowl wins (3) or the supermodel girlfriends (2).

Consider the quarterbacks for the NFC's winning Super Bowl teams in the last 10 years: Kurt Warner had a run of 3 excellent years, but his hand and career fell by the wayside post-Vermeil. Brad Johnson's career numbers are much better than most people realize, but which phrase fits better for the guy: "Hall of Famer" or "journeyman"?

There is one exception among the 8 AFC Super Bowl wins: the Baltimore Ravens won with outstanding defense and Trent Dilfer. Otherwise, the run is Manning, Brady (3), Elway (2), and Roethlisberger.

Let's look at who quarterbacked for the NFC in the 8 losses.

1) Rex Grossman, 2006 Bears. After two dropped snaps, two interceptions, and tripping over himself for a sack, he's now this generation's Tony Eason, a quarterback whose career was actually wrecked by getting to the Super Bowl too early. Eason had a tough day against one of the best defenses of all time, something every quarterback in the league including Montana had that year. For whatever reason, that was basically the end for him. Through the first 3 quarters, I thought Grossman made some plays.
Bottom line though, I saw Terry Bradshaw play and Rex Grossman is no Terry Bradshaw. I'm not even sure he's Jim McMahon.

2) Matt Hesselbeck, 2005 Seahawks. Solid quarterback, but no signs of greatness yet.

3) Donavan McNabb, 2004 Eagles. Another fine quarterback, but at this point a borderline Hall of Famer, barely. He's closer to John Brodie, Rich Gannon, Randall Cunningham than he is to Plunkett or Jim Kelly.

4) Jake Delhomme, 2003 Panthers. Still relatively young, but no one projects him for multiple return trips to the Super Bowl.

5) Kurt Warner, 2001 Rams. Great story, great run...but a short run.

6) Kerry Collins, 2000 Giants. His name's seen in the NFL dictionary under "mediocre starting quarterback."

7) Chris Chandler, 1998 Falcons. Just like Kerry Collins, only older and more injury-prone.

8) Brett Favre, 1997 Packers: The exception that proves the rule.

How about this? The AFC final four consisted of Manning, Brady, Rivers, Steve McNair. Vince Young emerged in his rookie season and nearly got the Titans to the playoffs. Three of the five are probable Hall of Famers. Rivers and Young both appear to have very good shots at great careers. Compare that to this year's NVC final four of Grossman, Garcia, Brees, Hasselbeck. Also consider the most discussed young quarterback in the NFC, Eli Manning. You can throw in Alex Smith, Matt Leinart, or Tony Romo if you want, but I have yet to hear anyone project a Trok Aikman type career for any of these field generals.

"Dynasty" teams tend to have a stable combination of starting quarterback and head coach- Montana-Walsh, Bellichick-Brady, Noll-Bradshaw, Aikman-Johnson (yes I know about Barry Switzer), Lombardi-Starr. I don't really know which is cause and which is effect, but when the coach-quarterback partnership shifts, it tends to be much harder to sustain success. Consider the defense dominant teams that won the Super Bowl, the Bears and the Ravens. Neither team got back to the Super Bowl.

It's not an ironclad rule. 2 coaches have won Super Bowls with different quarterbacks. Joe Gibbs has actually won 3 with 3 different quarterbacks and Parcells (2). The only quarterback I can find who won or at least played a significant role with 2 different teams was Earl Morrall who is an odd case of a guy who wound up in the right place at the right time (injuries to Unitas and then Griese)more than the charismatic leader who carried two different franchises. I would guess, however, that the dominant conference in these runs will always have more identifiable coach-quarterback pairings than its counterpart.

So try this. Name the most stable current quarterback-coach combination in the NFC. It's probably a tie between McNabb-Reid and Holmgren-Hasselbeck. It may not be an accident that those are the two NFC teams that came very close to winning the Super Bowl. The tougher question is name a third longtime pairing of coach and quarterback in the NFC.

Now let's try the same thing in the AFC. Dungy-Manning and Brady-Belichick jump right out. There are also emerging pairings with Carson Palmer-Marvin Lewis, Vince Young-Jeff Fisher (Norm Chow), Jay Cutler-Mike Shanahan, and Phillip Rivers-Marty Schottenheimer, all "franchise type quarterbacks" with reasonably secure (for now) coaches.

It's not like the NFC doesn't know this. Manning, Smith, and Vick were all the first overall pick though somehow none of the three got matched with an offensively-minded head coach. Perhaps the NFC lost the arms race because during its run it had so many such pairings for so long e.g. Aikman-Johnson, Montana-Walsh, Favre-Holmgren. This may have inhibited the development of new franchise pairs. It is worth noting for example that Favre is still going in Green Bay and Hasselbeck had to come to Seattle to get a chance to start.

Two possible reasons come to mind. With the exception of Al Davis, think about the more egregious owners in the league. The NFC has meddling ownership in Dallas and Washington, semi-competent ownership in San Francisco, who knows what was going on in Minnesota. I'm not going to anaylyze every owner, but my hunch is that if you rated it on a 1-10 scale, the AFC would do a lot better. Note that the most stable owner-coach relationship in all football is in AFC Pittsburgh which is one of 3 franchises to win 5 Super Bowls. All 5 49er Super Bowls came with the same owner as well though I don't necesarily want Eddie D. back for other reasons.

Stephen Gould, the late anthropologist, once wrote an article that applied the theory of natural selection to popular phenomena like the extinction of the .400 hitter. Gould argued that the sport had forced the extinction of the truly bad pitchers and fielders. The very best hitters might have been equally good, but without the bottom feeder pitchers it became harder for the very best players to fatten their averages. In the NFL, my guess is that bad ownership prevents natural selection from doing its thing. Weaker NFC ownership may have both left weaker teams in the conference and prevented effective coach-quarterback partnerships from forming. It certainly disrupted the relatively successful pair of Garcia-Mariucci. As a sidebar, there were two cases in which a prima donna wide receiver was allowed to emerge as the face of the franchise-Terrell Owens in San Francisco-Philadelphia-Dallas and Randy Moss in Minnesota. It wasn't healthy in any of those cities and arguably affected coach-quarterback partnerships in each one.

Second, I think part of the fallout from the 13 years of NFC dominance a decade ago was that some NFC franchises simply got out of the habit of developing successful coach-qb partnerships. The reasons have been different, but the last decade of NFC qb-coach marriages has been telling. Just start with Daunte Culpepper and Joey Harrington.

Even more worrisome, the NFC already has red flags going up around its better young quarterbacks. Alex Smith may be on his 3rd offensive coordinator in 3 years. Michael Vick and Jim Mora is at the bottom of the water bottle. Coughlin's relationship with Manning almost got him fired. Dennis Green was fired in Arizona before he could have a second season with Leinart. I'd argue that the most promising NFC marriage is Sean Payton (former qb coach) and Drew Brees (AFC reject). If my theory of qb-coach marriages being the key to Super Bowl dominance is right, then the NFC is going to be suffering for at least three more years.



At 2/08/2007 02:16:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The 49ers' York is a semi-competent owner in the way that GB2 is a semi-competent president. York is a 10 on the scale of Most Awful Owner Ever. Eddie D being the best owner. Eddie stinted nothing & hired good people & didn't meddle on the field. York actually told football players in the heat of summer to cut back on the amount of bottled water they drank so as to save money.

Peyton Manning reminds me of the ghastly Elvis Grbak for some reason. I know this is irrational.

At 2/08/2007 09:18:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

When I said semi-competent, I was trying to be charitable. I do think John York has learned a bit. He seems to have football people in place and is leaving them alone right now. Eddie D was fine as a football owner, it was just the matter of the bribery conviction and the occasional sexual assault charges, etc.

I see a possible facial resemblance between Elvis Grbac and Peyton Manning, but they're very different players. Grbac has a knack for becoming unpopular in any city he played in, just not true of Peyton Manning

At 2/08/2007 08:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like that the AFC in football and the American League in baseball have generally dominated in recent history because those are the conferences that the Cleveland teams are in and if my teams can't win it all, it's nice if my conferences can.

At 2/10/2007 09:50:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

it's strange how knowing someone through blogs works. I'd always assumed that you lived much closer to Detroit.

It's sort of sad. The Browns are one of the longtime great NFL franchises and they've somehow never gotten to the Super Bowl. Even worse, the actual Browns franchise with all the traditions is the Baltimore Ravens who replaced the Baltimore Colts, whoo...

At 2/12/2007 08:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I grew up in the Cleveland area, moved here to the Detroit area 12 years ago. I am a Cleveland / Ohio fan first, a Detroit fan second. I always say that if your loyalties change, then you never were a real fan. (Hey, I have to add that to my Quick Quotes.)

Don't remind me about the Browns. The home of pro football has no Superbowl victors except after they were moved by stupid Art Modell. At least the Buckeyes won once in my lifetime. I am so immune to my teams losing big games, it's not even funny.

At 2/12/2007 10:04:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I've spent my entire sports fan life rooting for the San Francisco Giants. The last team they beat in the World Series was the Cleveland Indians in 1954. I can definitely relate.


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