January 4, 2011
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As the 2009 playoffs are about to commence this weekend, there's just one team - the New Orleans Saints - that has a chance to make history by reaching the Super Bowl for the first time. The Saints' 43 seasons of existence has definitely set the standard for NFL futility.
In fact, there are only five NFL teams that have failed to reach the Super Bowl. The others include a nearly brand new team, the Houston Texans; another is only 15 years old, the Jacksonville Jaguars; and the other two have been in the league since well before the first Super Bowl and each won numerous championships in that bygone era - the heartbreak Cleveland Browns (who also came agonizingly close in 1986 and 1987 to playing in the Super Bowl) and the lowly Detroit Lions.
And though the Lions have that storied past, especially from the 1950's, their decades of misery puts them up there with the Saints - in fact it's worse. The Lions count only one playoff victory since their last championship season in 1957. That was in 1991 when the great and special Barry Sanders was turning heads every Sunday. One could make an argument that they are the most "minor" team in the league. Truly abysmal.
The Lions long interval between title game appearances hasn't quite reached the level of the Arizona (formerly St. Louis and before that Chicago) Cardinals. Until last year's thrilling Super Bowl game which yielded a crushing loss, the Cardinals went 60 long years without securing a place in the championship game.
So overall one would have to surmise that, indeed - the Saints and Lions aside - parity has been not just a goal but the general rule for the NFL in the modern era. But though nearly every team has been able to play on that unofficial national holiday we call the Super Bowl, league balance has decidedly come at a gradual pace. Consider - only thrice have there been Super Bowls contested between two first time participants - 1968 (Jets vs. Colts), 1981 (49ers vs. Bengals) and 1985 (Bears vs. Patriots). That is a surprising number; given that there have been at least 26 teams in the NFL since the merger in 1970.
This suggests that there has always been an overlap with the centers of power in the NFL. Think of it as a continuous Venn diagram with one league having a dominant team over several years while the other has a more equitable distribution in the same period. In only one of those three years where new teams were present in both leagues was there a considerable shift in power - 1981 with the start of the 49ers dynasty.
The situation in baseball is strikingly similar.
When the Boston Red Sox finally exorcised their numerous demons and won their first World Series in 2004 after that infamous 86 year drought, many spoke of how the victory freed up New England's collective soul from the shackles of a century's worth of heartbreak. But any fan with a decent baseball IQ was also well aware that there were far worse parched periods for other teams - after all the Red Sox had been to the postseason many times (in six of the last seven decades) and their longest period of not participating in a World Series was only 28 years.
Contrast that with say, the Texas Rangers. The Rangers (formerly the second incarnation of the Washington Senators) and their fans have tested the limits of patience. It's at 49 years now and counting and the Rangers have yet to make it to the fall classic. No other American League team has ever waited this long to play in the sport's showcase. Actually there is only one other American League team that hasn't made it to the World Series, the Seattle Mariners - and only one National League team, the very new Washington Nationals.
Even the hapless St. Louis Browns, who many baseball historians consider one of the worst teams in history, waited a mere 42 years for their October performance when they played the cross town rival St. Louis Cardinals in the 1944 World Series (one of only three to be contested entirely in one ballpark). The Browns would then wait only 22 more years to play in another series, this time as the Baltimore Orioles as they changed cities in 1954.
Of course, the definition of baseball futility has only one moniker and that is Cubs. The Red Sox have a victorious legacy compared to the Cubs. The raw numbers are seared into every Windy City fan's memory; 64 consecutive years without a pennant and an unreal 101 consecutive years of failing to win the Series. The numbers are mind boggling when compared to all the other teams. They set the standard for desperation.
And just as in football, there have been remarkably few years where two virgin teams met in the World Series (obviously baseball has been around for a good 30-40 years longer - depending on when one measures from - and there are scant few opportunities left for this to happen). Strangely, on only three occasions in the more than 100 editions of the World Series have two teams met for the world championship who had never done so before - 1905, 1906 and 1920. It's a stunning statistic.
So if one has no real rooting interest in this year's NFL playoffs, go ahead and root for the Jets and Saints to go all the way. It's a hell of a long shot as combined these two teams have waited 83 years for a chance to play in the Super Bowl.