The story of historical NFL losers is a long one. People may blame the team, the circumstances or find something else but there is never a singular reason for it. The Bills, Vikings, Browns and Eagles all have made their best efforts for a Super Bowl victory but have fallen short over a period of time. So what is the story behind these NFL losers historically? We take a look:
Super Bowl LI: The Atlanta Falcons were trying desperately to hold a goal line stand against the New England Patriots. The score was tied 28-28 but hadn’t it been 28-3 just a minute ago? There is no way the Patriots could have put them in this position. They did and now the Falcons were just trying to stem the bleeding.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady pitches the ball to running back James White. He goes around the right side, charging hard for the end zone and for ultimate glory. He brushes off one Atlanta defender, another one grabs him around the waist and hangs on, hoping to slow him down just enough for help to come. Help arrives, but it is too late. White barrels into the end zone and the most exhilarating, heart-breaking Super Bowl comes to a close. Atlanta players lay on the field, stunned, numb, embarrassed and humbled. So many words come to mind. What happened? After such a long season, filled with promise and record breaking numbers, Atlanta was sure that this was their year to win it all. Instead they ran into unexplainable misfortune.
Atlanta has not been that successful in the playoffs. Not like other teams. They have only gone to the NFC Championship four times in their history while making just two Super Bowl appearances. Other franchises have the misfortune of being involved in this study of unexplainable misfortune. The Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns have suffered much more. They have had a history of playoff greatness followed by unimaginable heartbreak. Year after painful year they have gone to either the conference championship or the Super Bowl and have never finished on top.
What happened? Is it a curse? Could it be bad luck? It couldn’t possibly be the players, could it? Fans of these teams have suffered long enough without answers. They deserve a championship yet they are left with nothing but painful memories. Maybe there is still hope. This year, three teams who have never won the Super Bowl are playing in their conference championships. They are the Eagles, Vikings and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Could this be their year? After all, the Denver Broncos won two Super Bowls in the late 90s after suffering four defeats in the Super Bowl. Could this be the year of unimaginable joy for one of these teams?
Cleveland Browns: Unlike most teams who struggle to win a championship, the Browns started winning when they were founded in the All America Football Conference (AAFC) in 1946. When the AAFC folded in 1950, the Browns made an easy transition into the NFL by winning championships in 1950, ‘54 and ’55. They fired franchise patriarch Paul Brown after the 1955 championship and in 1964 won their last title. The 1970s were somewhat forgetful but by 1980 they had a winning formula. The entire decade of the 1980’s was a painful one for the Browns. They reached the conference championship in three out of four years late in the decade but got their hearts ripped out by John Elway and the Denver Broncos. Heart breaking moments such as Red Right 88, The Drive and The Fumble still resonate in the city of Cleveland to this day.
Part of what might have happened is a losing mindset. The Browns elected to go for the touchdown rather than kick a chip-shot field goal in the closing seconds of the divisional playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. Quarterback Brian Sipe’s pass was intercepted by Oakland’s Mike Davis. Suddenly, the Browns could not seem to win the Big One.
Through the rest of the decade they had excellent regular seasons, winning games in every way possible. However, when they reached the AFC Championship game against the Broncos they could not seem to get over the hump. In 1986, the Broncos had to go 98 yards to tie the game. Their backs were against the famed Dog Pound, Cleveland’s rambunctious fan base. The odds were stacked against them. None of this fazed Denver quarterback John Elway who proceeded to pick apart the Brown’s defense down the field and into history. This became known as The Drive and it stands as one of the defining moments of Elway’s Hall of Fame career. The Broncos won the game in overtime 23-20.
While The Drive was heartbreaking for the Browns, the Fumble was a close second. In the 1987 AFC Championship game, the Browns fought back from an 18-point deficit and were down 38-31. Cleveland was on Denver’s eight-yard line with a little over a minute left to play. It looked like the game would go into overtime. Cleveland’s Earnest Byner took the handoff and was running towards the end zone. All of the sudden, Denver’s Jeremiah Castille came out of nowhere and stripped the ball out of Byner’s arm. Denver recovered and Cleveland was left to pick up the pieces of their broken hearts. While Cleveland did return to the AFC Championship game in 1989 against the Bronco’s of all teams, they have never truly been the same since. The 1989 game was not close and the Browns lost again, this time to a score of 37-21.
Cleveland lost its team in 1995 to Baltimore who then renamed it the Ravens. They have since won two Super Bowls and are usually in contention. Cleveland finally got their Browns back in 1999 as an expansion team. They have not been any good while only going to the playoffs once in 2002. They bottomed out this year with an 0-16 record. What happened? Did all of those heartbreaks in the 1980s get in their heads? Does the Browns name bring bad luck? No matter the reason, they still have believers in their beloved Dog Pound. Year after agonizing year, they go to the games hoping for a winning season. A season where they will finally be able to hoist the Lombardi Trophy over their heads, lifting the spirits of their fans.
Buffolo Bills: The Bills have usually not been serious contenders other than the early 1990s. From 1990 to 1993, they became the first team to go to four straight Super Bowls. They lost all four. They lost in succession to the Giants, Redskins and twice to the Cowboys. What happened?
The easy answer would be that they never got over the mental road block of the first Super Bowl. After years of building through the draft, the Bills had built a juggernaut. They had a high-powered offense led by quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas and wide receiver Andre Reed. All three became members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The defense was led by outside linebackers Darryl Talley and Cornelius Bennett while defensive end Bruce Smith was sacking quarterbacks at a record pace. Smith would retire with the most sacks in history and is also in the Hall of Fame. This group of playmakers pummeled the competition in the playoffs and stormed into the Super Bowl with a fire in their eyes.
They faced off against the New York Giants and immediately it was a clash of styles. While the Bills were known for their high flying offense (K-Gun), the Giants were known for ball control and physical play. This alone put the Bills in a tough spot because they could not play the way they were used to playing. The Giants set the tone of the Super Bowl and the score stood at 20-19 with New York defending one final drive by the Bills. They were successful in getting in field goal range and their kicker Scott Norwood trotted out for a game winning 47-yard field goal attempt. It missed. Immediately the Giants sideline jumped in jubilation and the Bills were left stunned.
This did not fracture the team. They never would have reached four straight Super Bowls if it had. However, while they knew how to reach the Super Bowl, they never figured out how to win one. The next three Super Bowls were blow outs. The Redskins beat them 37-24 and the Cowboys dominated them the following year 52-17. The Bills had a 13-6 lead the following year but the Cowboys great running game wore them down in the second half and Buffalo lost 30-13.
What happened? Did they over think the opportunity? Did they have a mental road block from the first Super Bowl loss? Perhaps it was the latter. If Norwood had made the kick, the Bills would have believed they could win the Super Bowl and they might have won more. Another way of looking at this is with the strategy. All four Super Bowls featured a team with a dominant offensive line and hard hitting defense. While the Bills were talented on both sides of the ball, they may have been worn down by the physicality of the other team. Keep in mind that the Bills enjoyed an offense which relied on speed and a defense which relied on a dominant pass rush. Take away the speed and the pass rush and the game is no longer in their hands.
The Super Bowl losses hurt but what the Bills did was truly historic. Including wide receiver James Lofton, they had five future Hall of Famer players on their roster. Their head coach Marv Levy and owner Ralph Wilson are also in the Hall of Fame. What they did will probably never be done again yet since that time they have never won a playoff game. After 17 seasons, they finally made the playoffs this year. Even though they lost in the first round it seems that they have finally turned a corner. Maybe in the near future they will be serious contenders again.
Minnesota Vikings: The entire history of the Minnesota Vikings has been of missed opportunities after very successful seasons. This trend began in 1969 and built up through the 1970s when they reached four Super Bowls but never won it all. This was arguably the greatest period for this franchise as it was lead by the famed Purple People Eaters, their ferocious defensive line. This group included Alan Page, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen. Both Page and Eller are in the Hall of Fame while Marshall is best known for his record 270 straight starts.
While their defense was suffocating opponents, their offense was led by Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton. Joe Kapp was the quarterback in 1969, when the dominance began, while Tarkenton was in the midst of a brief hiatus with the New York Giants. None of the Super Bowls were especially close. The game against the Kansas City Chiefs proved them to be outcoached. The Chiefs were way ahead of the Vikings in terms of strategy and had a terrific defense loaded with Hall of Famers such as Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier and Buck Buchanan. The Chiefs were also led by Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson. Outcoached and outmanned, the Vikings stood no chance against a team primed for a championship.
The Vikings also ran into a brick wall of some of the greatest teams of all time. They lost to the 1973 Miami Dolphins who had most of the players who had gone undefeated just a season earlier. They lost to the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers who were just getting started with their dynasty. Finally, they lost to the 1976 Oakland Raiders who had spent years trying to get over the hump just like the Vikings. All four teams had superior talent to the Vikings despite having three Hall of Fame players of their own. The Vikings of that era were known for being very physical, perhaps due to their stadium which could get very cold during the winter.
With that being said, it is hard to believe there defense was out-muscled in the Super Bowl. Perhaps the reason for all of these Super Bowl losses was a lack of identity on offense. Other than Kapp and Tarkenton their offense was pretty sub-par, although their running game was respectable with fullback Chuck Foreman. Regardless of the reasons for their Super Bowl losses, they still have not found a way to even get back to the Super Bowl since 1976.
The Vikings were contenders in the late 80s with a devastating pass rush. However, defense was all they had and they could not find consistency in their offense to go back to the Super Bowl. That all changed in 1998 when they drafted wide receiver Randy Moss to team with fellow wide out Chris Carter. Together they lit the NFL on fire with a high powered offense by setting the all-time record for the most points scored in a season. They also went 15-1.
At that time, only two teams, the 1984 49ers and 1985 Bears, had ever gone 15-1. Both of those teams won the Super Bowl. At last, this seemed to be the Vikings year. They reached the NFC Championship against the Falcons and were stunned with a 30-27 loss in overtime. Many people blame kicker Gary Anderson for losing the game when he missed a field goal which could have put the game out of reach. What people fail to realize is that the Vikings were not themselves in that game. There were dropped passes and missed opportunities throughout. That’s football. Sometimes things just don’t happen the way they should and a superior team loses.
That was not necessarily the case in 2009. The Vikings had built a contender by adding veteran quarterback Brett Favre in the offseason. Combined with running back Adrian Peterson, the Vikings roared to a 12-4 record. They reached the NFC Championship against an excellent New Orleans Saints team. Unfortunately, the Vikings practically gave the game away with a number of fumbles and ill-timed interceptions and lost 31-28 in overtime. The team quickly declined after that devastating loss and has searched for an identity ever since.
Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles have only reached two Super Bowls and lost both. They have reached a number of NFC Championships but had a string of bad luck in the 2000s. The 1980 squad was a true inspiration for the city of Philadelphia. The whole year their goal was to beat the Dallas Cowboys and they did so in the NFC Championship to a tune of 20-7. However the magic ended there. Coach Dick Vermeil decided to work the team harder than usual, perhaps inspired by his Rose Bowl victory in 1975. In that victory he had his UCLA squad practicing twice a day and nearly had a mutiny. Somehow he convinced his players to not quit and they beat Ohio State for the Rose Bowl title. The result was not the same for the Super Bowl. By game time the team was exhausted and uptight. They did not play well at all and lost 27-10 to the Oakland Raiders.
The Eagles were pretty pitiful in the playoffs until 2001 under coach Andy Reid. He built a fine squad with players such as quarterback Donovan McNabb, running back Brian Westbrook and safety Brian Dawkins. They reached the NFC Championship four years in a row and finally reached the Super Bowl the fourth time in 2004 but playing against a New England Patriots squad is never a small task. The Eagles battled hard but found themselves with a 10-point deficit with only 5:40 remaining in the game. They faltered in a huge way by huddling. If they had gone to no huddle then they might have been in a better position to win the game. They did score a touchdown and somehow got the ball back but with only 46 seconds left and they were at their four yard line. McNabb’s desperation pass was intercepted and the hopes of Philadelphia were crushed, losing 24-21. While the Eagles did reach the NFC Championship in 2008 they have never been this close to a Super Bowl title since.
Denver Broncos: The Broncos were exactly like the teams on this list. They won many games, usually due to the brilliance of John Elway but fizzled out in the Super Bowl. The blame usually shifted to their one dimensional offense and lack of support on defense. While they did have a 1,000 yard rusher in 1989 they were not a well-rounded offense. Everything revolved around Elway and his golden arm. Everything changed in 1995 when they hired coach Mike Shanahan to change the culture of a desperate organization. He immediately drafted a Hall of Fame running back in the sixth round, Terrell Davis, who surprised everyone by starting as a rookie and making a huge impact from the start. They also got help on defense in 1997 by getting veteran defensive end Neil Smith. 1997 was a special year for the Broncos as they were finally able to get over the hump and win the franchise’s first Super Bowl. This time was different as Elway no longer had to carry the team. They were able to win the game because finally had a complete team. The running game was even more dominant in 1998 when Davis ran for over 2,000 yards.
What is truly amazing is how the Broncos were able to get over the mental road block of the four previous Super Bowl losses. Mike Shanahan was able to change the losing mindset by changing a culture. This culture was over reliant on John Elway. The Broncos won as a team. Maybe this is what teams are missing when they can’t figure out how to win, or get to, the Super Bowl.
Each team on this list is unique. The Bills were never able to establish tempo in the Super Bowl. The Browns had horrible luck. The Vikings lacked offensive identity and were outmuscled by some of the greatest teams in history. The Eagles were outcoached. All of these teams have one thing in common. They did not take advantage of the opportunity.
This Sunday two of the teams on this list will be facing off for the right to go to the Super Bowl, the Eagles and the Vikings. They are led by career backups at quarterback, the Eagles Nick Foles and the Vikings Case Keenum. Whoever goes to the Super Bowl will be riding a great underdog story. However, this goes way beyond a simple underdog story. This is a story about heartbreak and hopefully triumph. Maybe this is the year that one of these long suffering franchises finally wins the Super Bowl. Hopefully other teams will be inspired by their resiliency and turn the corner by finally winning a Super Bowl of their own. However this season ultimately plays out both of these teams are built to last and look to be contenders for years to come. Super Bowl LII will be one for the underdogs and it will be exciting to see how it unfolds.