They have the gaudy rings and the rest of the swag that comes with being a Super Bowl champion.
The prism of history, however, isn’t so kind.
Some years, the team that rampaged through the fall doesn’t celebrate on a confetti-strewn field in winter, Lombardi Trophy thrust aloft in giddy celebration. For every ’85 Bears and ’72 Dolphins, there’s a group whose grasp on the national imagination faded not long after the MVP’s parade at Disney World.
Sure, everybody loves an underdog, but underdogs aren’t born, they’re made. Somewhere along the way, they tripped up before capturing the elusive “it” that carried them through the final Sunday of a six-month slog from training camp to triumph, a team of the year if not for the ages.
To call them the “worst” of the best would be a snarky misnomer. After all, the championship banners all come in the same size, right? Still, looking back, it’s a wonder some got there at all.
TEAM: 1980 Oakland Raiders (11-5)
WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS? The first wild-card team to win the Super Bowl, the Raiders spent most of the year as a mistake-prone offensive mess. Oakland turned it over 44 times and finished 16th in total yards. Jim Plunkett completed just 51 percent of his passes and had 16 interceptions to go with 18 touchdown passes. While Plunkett was markedly better in the playoffs, Oakland needed the Browns to be … well, the Browns in the divisional round. Trailing by two in the final minute and well within field goal range, Cleveland’s Brian Sipe was picked off in the end zone on a play infamously known as “Red Right 88” and the Raiders escaped with a 14-12 win.
WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS! Cornerback Lester Hayes and his stickum-laden fingers picked off 13 passes and the Raiders collected seven return touchdowns to bail the offense out that season. In a relatively easy Super Bowl win over the Eagles, the defense was dominant. Rod Martin picked off three passes in a 27-10 romp.
TEAM: 1987 Washington Redskins (11-4)
WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS? Don’t let the record fool you. Washington’s NFC East-leading mark received a major boost by the replacement players, who went 3-0 during the ’87 strike, helping the Redskins overcome shaky quarterback play as Jay Schroeder and Doug Williams took turns winning the job … and then losing it. The defense was 24th against the pass and 18th overall. The four regular-season losses were to teams who went a combined 24-36.
WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS! Coach Joe Gibbs finally settled on Williams midway through the regular-season finale against Minnesota and the Redskins took off. Darrell Green‘s exquisite hurdling punt return for a touchdown sparked an upset over Chicago in the divisional round and Williams went off on the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Washington ripped off five touchdowns in the second quarter of a 42-10 annihilation, an imperfect team that represented an imperfect year after the league endured its second strike of the decade.
TEAM: 1990 New York Giants (13-3)
WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS? So what if they started 10-0? The Giants went 3-3 down the stretch and lost quarterback Phil Simms to a foot injury in Week 14, leaving the offense — such as it was — in the hands of a largely unproven Jeff Hostetler. New York’s leading receiver was scatback Dave Meggett (39 receptions) and the ghost of O.J. Anderson averaged 3.5 yards per carry.
WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS! Oh, right, LT. The league’s best defense allowed less than two touchdowns a game, picked off 23 passes and found a way to upset the two-time defending champion San Francisco 49ers on the road in the NFC championship. Then, Hostetler and Anderson played keepaway from Buffalo’s “K-Gun” offense in the Super Bowl, leading to a 20-19 upset in what remains the greatest Super Bowl ever. (Save it, 2004 Patriots and 2008 Steelers fans.)
TEAM: 2011 New York Giants (9-7)
WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS? Does it seem like we’re picking on the Giants? Well, maybe we are. Still, these guys kind of deserve it. New York is the only Super Bowl winner to finish the regular season with a negative point differential (minus-six), ranked 25th in total defense, lost four of five in the middle of the year and was just 7-7 going into a “road” game against the Jets on Christmas Eve.
WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS! The Giants upset the 15-1 Packers in the divisional round, dominating Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field in mid-January. They avoided catastrophe at rainy Candlestick Park to top the 49ers in overtime in the NFC title game, then stunned the Patriots and Tom Brady in the Super Bowl for the second time in five years. The defense that couldn’t stop anybody during the regular season held Brady in check in Indianapolis and gave Eli one more Super Bowl title than big brother Peyton … regardless of whether he’s Eli-te or not.
1967 Green Bay Packers: Even with all those Hall of Famers, Vince Lombardi‘s injury-decimated group was in the bottom half of the NFL in total offense and turned it over 36 times (including 17 picks by Bart Starr).
2001 New England Patriots: were 5-5 in November before Brady started to figure it out.
2012 Baltimore Ravens: only 11th in the league in point differential (plus-52) and if Denver’s Rahim Moore times his jump properly on Joe Flacco‘s late heave to Jacoby Jones, the Ravens don’t escape with the “Mile High Miracle.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.