This past February, the Green Bay Packers defied a plethora of injuries and four top-seeded teams to become the second sixth seed in history to take home the Lombardi Trophy. Following a shortened offseason, most experts predict them to be Super Bowl favorites yet again this year. Completely aside from the general respect that Super Bowl champions deserve, the rhetoric behind the support of Green Bay is simple: healthy players and all key pieces returning.
Of course, no one seems to take the notion seriously. Repeat champions are such a rarity in this sport that even repeating once has some labeling you as a "dynasty." With 32 teams all vying for the same prize come winter, even the loser of the Super Bowl has a target on its back in the following season.
Is repeating such a far-fetched notion? Many people like to point out the parity and the long odds staring in the face of the repeat. Yet, paradoxically, more franchises have repeated than the number of franchises that have failed to appear in the Super Bowl in the first place; even taking into account the two newer franchises.
After the jump, let's take a look at the seasons of the defending champions following past Super Bowls.
Prior to Super Bowl XLV there were 44 Super Bowl champions, all the way from the Green Bay Packers winning the first Super Bowl after the '66 season to the New Orleans Saints victory in early 2010. 18 franchises have won the Lombardi, 10 franchises have appeared in the game but failed to win, and four franchises have failed to appear in the Super Bowl all together. Eight franchises share 70% of these 44 victories: Pittsburgh; Dallas; San Francisco; New England; Washington; Oakland; New York (Giants); and Green Bay.
How They Fare In The Division
Following their Super Bowl victory, two teams have dropped to the cellar of their division at fifth place, and three have dropped down to fourth place. This accounts for 11.36% of all past Super Bowl Champions; unsurprisingly, none of these teams have qualified for the playoffs. During the salary cap era, only one defending Super Bowl champion (the 1999 Denver Broncos) has fallen below third in their division.
Eight teams (18.18%) came in third place in their division following a Super Bowl victory. Two of these teams managed wild card berths into the playoffs. Nine teams (20.45%) followed up the past year's performance with a second place finish in their division; seven of these teams went back to the playoffs.
That leaves 22 teams, a full 50.00% of all defending Super Bowl champions, that have come back from a Super Bowl victory to lead their division in the following year. Naturally, all of these teams gained playoff berths. What may surprise you is that only two of these 22 teams failed to obtain a first round bye (or played prior to the wild card round.) What this means is that 45.45% of all defending Super Bowl champions not only held a target on their back for a full season, but managed to thrive on that target and post as-good-or-better seasons following the win.
Given what we know about division placements following a Super Bowl victory, we come up with 31 teams (70.45%) that made the playoffs the following year. That accounts for all 22 division winners, seven second place teams, and two third place teams.
Culling The Pool
Eight of the 31 playoff teams (25.81%) played in a wild card game following the Super Bowl. Both third-in-division teams did, as well as three second-in-division teams, and two division winners. Four of these teams lost in that wild card round, but both division winners passed on. That leaves us with 27 (87.10% of playoff teams / 61.36% overall) defending Super Bowl champions that made it to the divisional round of the playoffs.
Of the remaining 27 playoff teams in the divisional round, 10 busted out of the playoffs during that round; notably, one of these losses was to the eventual Super Bowl champions of that year. None of the four remaining teams that played in a wild card round made it past the divisional round. This means 17 (54.84% / 38.64%) teams made it to their respective conference championship following a Super Bowl victory.
As we narrow down to the short list of repeat Super Bowl champions, we face 17 "year after" teams that find themselves vying for another chance at glory in the conference championship. Of these teams we find six that lost in their bid for another Super Bowl berth; four of which lost to the eventual Super Bowl champions of that year. Coincidentally, the Steelers (74-75), 49ers (88-89), and Cowboys (92-93) all had their chance at a three-peat dashed in this fashion.
We find ourselves with 11 (35.48% / 25.00%) defending Super Bowl champions playing again in the Super Bowl. Eight of these teams went on to successfully repeat: the 1967 Packers; 1973 Dolphins; 1975 Steelers; 1979 Steelers; 1989 49ers; 1993 Cowboys; 1998 Broncos; and the 2004 Patriots. That accounts for 25.81% of all defending teams in the playoffs, and 18.18% of all defending teams overall.
Any Given Sunday
What makes the Super Bowl so special and seemingly difficult to attain is the fact that it's played after a single-elimination tournament. This means that, as the Green Bay Packers proved last season, any seed from either conference just needs to stack up between three to four wins in a row and the Lombardi is theirs for the taking.
In 44 years of Super Bowl history, 23 championships have occurred with at least one of the teams having played in the Super Bowl the year before or after. Seven out of these 23 times, both of the teams that year were competitors in either the Super Bowl prior or before. Several times, franchises have been on the cusp of a three-peat with either three Super Bowl wins in four years (Cowboys, Patriots) or three concurrent Super Bowl appearances while only winning two (Dolphins).
Similarly, the number of repeated Super Bowl appearances from losing teams is noteworthy. Outside of Buffalo's four appearances in a row, the Broncos appeared in three Super Bowls in four years during the 80s, as well as the Vikings in the 70s. You need look no further than the New York Jets of these two past seasons, who were a mere four wins away from being defending repeat Super Bowl champions this season.
The more I look at these stats, the more convinced I am that repeating Super Bowl champions are not the long odds they're played up to be. Historically, even with targets on their back, even with a shortened offseason and higher notoriety, there seems to be no statistical basis to the claim that a team is less likely to win a Super Bowl the second time around.
There are some statistics that support that theory at face value. For instance, Super Bowl champions have an aggregate 0.803 regular season winning percentage. Defending Super Bowl Champions in counterpoint only have a 0.667 regular season winning percentage; that's the equivalent of roughly 13 wins for Super Bowl champions in a 16 game season, versus 10 wins the year after. This means, no surprise to anyone, that very good teams win the Super Bowl.
Some may look at the average 10-6 season of follow-up seasons and see that as proof of a drop-off, but 10-6 is at least decent odds to make the playoffs (as shown, the majority of defending Super Bowl champions make the playoffs the following year). Once a team is in the playoffs, "any given Sunday" holds as true as it ever does. Every team in the playoffs has a target on their back to their opponents, defending champion or not, and every team is three or four wins away from that glory.
I do know one thing: winning the Super Bowl certainly doesn't make you any less likely to win it the next year. The formula to repeating as a Super Bowl champion is the same formula that went into winning it in the first place: a good team with a dash of luck. The Packers certainly have the first part of that equation handled, but we'll see if the Detroit Lions don't have a little something to say about that dash of luck they'll be needing.
Will the Packers repeat? You be the judge of that. But I'm not sleeping on them. Thanks for reading.