The days of the uber-dominant NFL team are history.  We are in an era of football where the rules are designed to create a competitive landscape across the entire league.  In the days without a salary cap, a general manager could build a monster team and keep it together, so long as the owner was willing to spend the money to keep the talent together.  Today, however, every team must operate within the same financial boundaries, and the margin for error has decreased considerably.  For every star player you want on your team, you have to cut another one, because of the cost involved.  Thus, roster construction becomes the ultimate game of Tetris, trying to make players and salaries fit in as best you can.

Because the league is more competitive, winning a championship has become even more difficult than ever.  If the talent is spread out more across the league, it means that any particular team has less of a talent advantage than the great teams of the past.  Moreover, any one-and-done tournament comes with inherent uncertainty, as the bounce of a ball can end a team’s season.

Here is the bottom line:  Winning a Lombardi Trophy is extremely difficult, even under the best of circumstances.

Consider first the proposition that there are few uber-dominant teams in the NFL.  This is just one way of looking at things, but consider the rankings – offense and defense, points and yardage – of some of every Super Bowl winner.  The salary cap era began in 1994, so let’s look at the numbers from 1966-1993, from 1994-2011, and finally, during the “Patriots Era”, from 2001-2011:

Pre-Salary Cap Era (1966-1993)

-        Avg Offensive Rank:  4.5 pts, 5.9 yds, 5.2 avg

-        Avg Defensive Rank:  4.0 pts, 4.5 yds, 4.3 avg

Salary Cap Era (1994-2011)

-        Avg Offensive Rank:  7.1 pts, 9.7 yds, 8.4 avg

-        Avg Defensive Rank:  7.2 pts, 9.6 yds, 8.4 avg

Patriots Era (2001-2011)

-        Avg Offensive Rank:  9.5 pts, 12.8 yds, 11.2 avg

-        Avg Defensive Rank:  9.2 pts, 11.9 yds, 10.5 avg

So the average Super Bowl-winning team in the pre-salary cap era was ranked, on the whole, about 4 places higher than the average Super Bowl-winning team in the salary cap era.  This means that there are fewer uber-dominant teams in the salary cap era, and it also means that more teams that would be considered less than elite are winning the Super Bowl in the salary cap era.  And it’s even worse when you look at the “Patriots” Era from 2001-2011.

The top teams have been reduced to very good teams that have flaws.  Some of the great teams in the past have literally had no flaws.  Consider these teams:

-        72 Dolphins – Excellent running game, solid passing game, best defense in the league

-        74 and 78 Steelers – Hall of Famers all over the place, dominant defenses, great running games, and Bradshaw, Swann, and Stallworth in the passing game

-        85 Bears – Jim McMahon at his peak, one of the greatest RBs in the history of the sport, and maybe the best defense of all time

-        89 49ers – Montana, Rice, Taylor, a very good running game, and an underrated, but outstanding defense

The list goes on.  Now let’s look at some of the recent champions:

-        07 and 11 Giants – Decent teams, played great down the stretch, but each had major flaws

-        06 Colts and 09 Saints – Good offense, but pretty bad defenses

-        08 Steelers – Great defense, but they had a lower-third level offense

-        2000 Ravens and 02 Bucs – Great defenses, but average to below-average offenses

Again, the list goes on.  If you take the composite offensive rankings (pts + yds), and the composite defensive rankings, and then divide them by two, you get the average composite team rankings.  From 1966-1993, there was just one team that had an average composite team ranking above 9.0, and that was the 1980 Raiders, at 11.0.

But in just the last 11 seasons, 8 teams had an average composite team ranking of more than 9.0, and 7 of them had a ranking at 11.0 or higher.  In other words, 7 of the 8 worst NFL champions (and 8 of the worst 9), as measured by average composite team ranking, have played in the past 11 seasons.

There are no more uber-dominant teams anymore.

The implications of this are crucial to understand.  Specifically, it means that the margin of error is much, much smaller these days.  Just look at the history of the Super Bowl itself.

Avg Margin of Victory

-        Pre-salary cap era:  16.7 pts

-        Salary cap era:  10.7 pts

-        Patriots era:  8.2 pts

There have been 16 Super Bowls decided by 7 points or fewer, and 9 of them have taken place in the last 15 seasons, and 4 of the last 5. It is more fun as an NFL fan to see the league as it is, because there are always new teams emerging and the playoffs are featuring better games and even the Super Bowl matchups are turning out to be even, which makes for a far more exciting fan experience.  It’s how the league wants it, and they’ve succeeded.

So what separates the best teams nowadays?  If there are no more uber-dominant teams, and if the talent level is spread thin throughout the entire league, and if the margin of error is smaller than ever, what does it take to win a championship?  Well, if recent history is any guide, it isn’t merely talent or coaching that wins games, though those things matter.  After all, better talent and better coaching over the course of a season is still going to put you in a better position to win than other teams.  But more and more, it’s the bounce of a football that can determine the course of NFL history.

Let’s first look at the Patriots themselves.  Here are some of the fortunate breaks the Pats received during their three Super Bowl-winning seasons:

2001

-        Beat Oakland 16-13.  Famous snow-bowl game.  Two huge bounces of the ball saved the Patriots in this one:  the Tuck Rule and Troy Brown’s fumbled punt that the Patriots managed to recover.  If they don’t recover that, they almost certainly lose the game.

-        Beat Pittsburgh 24-17.  The Pats got a TD on a blocked field goal.  The block was skill, but the ball could have bounced to a Steeler.  Instead, the Pats scooped it up for a huge score.

-        Beat the Rams 20-17.  The Pats caused a huge fumble by Ricky Proehl, and, while causing fumbles is a skill, where the ball bounces from there is not.

2003

-        Beat Carolina 32-29.  After the Panthers tied things up late in the game, John Kasay kicks the ball out of bounds, giving Brady the ball at the Patriot 40, needing just a field goal to win.  It changed the game situation dramatically.

2004

-        Beat Philadelphia 24-21.  Who can forget the colossal gaffe of the Eagles to not go in the hurry-up late in that game?  I know that’s not exactly a “bounce of the ball”, but it is still a fortunate break for NE that the Pats had nothing to do with.

And now let’s look at some of the unfortunate breaks the Pats received in some of their non-Super Bowl-winning seasons:

2005

-        Lost to Denver, 27-13.  Who can forget the Brady pick to Champ Bailey, which was a bad play by Brady?  But the bad break came after Ben Watson hustled down the field and actually knocked the ball out of Bailey’s hands just before he crossed the goal line.  It should have been Patriots’ ball at their 20 and it would have saved a touchdown.  Huge play in the game and the Pats got a terrible break on the bad call.

2006

-        Lost to Indianapolis 38-34.  Not really a bad break per se, but half the Patriots’ players had the flu for this game, and it showed late in the second half as they wore down.

2007

-        Lost to the Giants 17-14.  Who can forget the Tyree helmet catch?  It turns out that the loss of Stephen Neal to injury was huge as well.

2009

-        Lost to Baltimore, 33-14.  Losing Wes Welker the week before this game proved to be critical.

2010

-        Lost to the Jets, 28-21.  The Pats didn’t really have a bad break in this game, but made some uncharacteristic mistakes.

2011

-        Lost to the Giants, 21-17.  The bad breaks here came in the form of injuries (Rob Gronkowski, Andre Carter, etc.) and fumbles.  The Giants had two fumbles and both bounced right back to Giants’ players.  The Patriots also recovered a third Giant fumble but it was called back due to a penalty.

In order to win the championship, things have to go right for you.  Just look at fumbles during the Patriots’ five Super Bowl seasons since 2001:

2001

-        NE had 3 fumbles, recovered all 3 (0 in the SB, 0 recoveries)

-        NE forced 4 fumbles, recovered 2 (2 in the SB, 1 recovery)

-        TOTAL: 7 fumbles, 5 Patriot recoveries

2003

-        NE had 2 fumbles, recovered 0 (0 in the SB, 0 recoveries)

-        NE forced 3 fumbles, recovered 2 (1 in the SB, 1 recovery)

-        TOTAL: 5 fumbles, 2 Patriot recoveries

2004

-        NE had 2 fumbles, recovered 1 (1 in the SB, 1 recovery)

-        NE forced 7 fumbles, recovered 4 (2 in the SB, 1 recovery)

-        TOTAL: 9 fumbles, 5 Patriot recoveries

2007

-        NE had 2 fumbles, recovered 1 (1 in the SB, 0 recoveries)

-        NE forced 5 fumbles, recovered 2 (2 in the SB, 0 recoveries)

-        TOTAL: 7 fumbles, 2 Patriot recoveries

2011

-        NE had 3 fumbles, recovered 1 (0 in the SB, 0 recoveries)

-        NE forced 5 fumbles, recovered 1 (2 in the SB, 0 recoveries)

-        TOTAL: 8 fumbles, 2 Patriot recoveries

We can see a strong correlation here between the lucky or unlucky bounce of a ball and the Patriots winning a championship.  Obviously lots of other things go into a Super Bowl title besides fumbles.  But these are an interesting indicator of just how razor-thin the margin is in the NFL today.  During their three Super Bowl-winning seasons, they recovered 12 of 21 total fumbles during the playoffs (57.1%).  During their three Super Bowl wins, they recovered 3 of 6 fumbles, but during their two Super Bowl losses, they did not recover a single fumble of the five total that were put on the ground (4 by the Giants).

This past Sunday, there was one fumble, by Ridley on that vicious hit by Pollard (who else?), and naturally the ball ended up in the hands of a Raven.  On the Brady interception, the ball was batted at the line of scrimmage, and when that happens, it could be deflected anywhere.  Of course it was deflected right to Ellerbe standing 10 yards away.

Football is a game of precision, power, speed, emotion, strategy, and skill.  Over the course of time a team with better players and coaching will win more than teams with lesser players and coaching.  In any one-and-done tournament, unpredictable events can alter the outcome, and even more so if the relative differences between the teams is small.  In today’s parity-driven league, where there are no more uber-dominant teams, the margin for error is so small that these unpredictable events play an even bigger role than normal.  And nothing in football is more unpredictable than the bounce of an oblong leather object.

In order to win a championship, a team needs to be good, be playing its best football, and get the breaks.  Patriot fans have seen their share of breaks over the years, but since 2005, the ball hasn’t tended to bounce their way in the playoffs, and the result is an eight-year stretch without a Lombardi Trophy.