A butterfly flaps its wings. Suddenly we have a different Super Bowl champion. Our perceptions are altered; history is forever changed, all because of something as seemingly inconsequential as a stumble or a drop. We like to think that the Super Bowl champion is determined by the big things: the stars, the touchdowns, the clutch moments that live on as highlights.
It usually isn’t. In a league as parity-stricken as the NFL, championships and legacies are often defined by the slimmest of margins, and as such, we form incorrect notions about players, teams and coaches simply because of circumstance. Our judgment is made on outcomes that are as random as any casino game. Had a butterfly flapped its wings in another direction, the entire NFL landscape would be different.
So let’s look at what happened, why it happened, and what should have happened. I think you’ll find we’ve spent the past few years living in some sort of NFL twilight zone.
Event No. 1: Baltimore Ravens win Super Bowl XLVII
The cause: Rahim Moore trips on a routine prevent coverage he’s executed successfully somewhere between 9,000 and 11,000 times.
The effect: The Ravens win a game they rightfully shouldn’t. They then go on to win the next two and the championship behind stellar Joe Flacco performances, leading many (insert expletive laden rant here) people to proclaim him the best quarterback in the league. He also managed to steal a $120 million contract and inadvertently destroy any chance his team had at a repeat.
The problem with all of this? Joe Flacco never should have had a chance to win that Super Bowl. By the standards we can reasonably expect out of NFL-caliber defensive backs, that game was over.
Therefore, based solely on his own performance, Joe Flacco took the Ravens to the divisional round and gave the No. 1 seeded Broncos a good fight. A fine season, but certainly not “best quarterback in football” material. He managed to win a Super Bowl mainly because of an event he had absolutely no control over. If he had no control over it, why does he deserve credit for it?
He doesn’t, and neither do the Ravens. You can give them credit for taking advantage of their opportunity and winning a title because of it, but let’s not pretend that this is anything more than it is: a remarkable stroke of luck that just happened to be in Baltimore’s favor.
What should have happened: The Broncos should have won this game and then gone on to beat the Patriots (a fair assumption considering how poorly New England played against Baltimore). They then would have gone on to play San Francisco in the Super Bowl that should have happened.
The Broncos and 49ers were the two best teams in football last year. From a metric perspective Seattle and New England belonged in that conversation too, but Seattle’s rise came off of the strength of an excellent finish rather than an entirely great season, and New England’s glaring defensive flaws were bound to be exposed at some point. Denver and San Francisco were the two best teams and the two most complete teams. By rights they should have played each other in the Super Bowl. This is the power of the butterfly effect.
Event No. 2: Lovie Smith is fired
The cause: Minnesota beats Green Bay on an overtime field goal in Week 17, thus knocking the Chicago Bears out of the playoffs.
The effect: Having missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season, the Bears decided to fire head coach Lovie Smith. The problem with this logic? Had Minnesota lost to Green Bay, the Bears would have made the playoffs. In other words, how well they played had no bearing (see what I did there?) on whether or not they made the playoffs. It came down to a tiebreaker, one that they easily could have won.
Let’s assume for a second that Chicago does make the 2012 playoffs. As the NFC’s No. 6 seed, they would have traveled to San Francisco to play the NFC’s No. 3 seeded 49ers (who fell to No. 3 due to Green Bay’s Week 17 win). Considering what happened the last time the Bears traveled to San Francisco (a 32-7 smackdown that might as well have been 62-7), that probably doesn’t bode well for Chicago.
Yet if the Bears had made the playoffs, Lovie Smith probably keeps his job. Did he perform any better or worse at his job in this scenario? No, he just made the playoffs based on someone else losing. He still had a perfectly respectable 10-6 season.
What should have happened: Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been a fan of Lovie Smith, but firing a coach based on not making the playoffs seems like flawed logic. If your coach puts you in a position to make the playoffs, then doesn’t on a tiebreaker, that hardly seems like his fault. Pete Carroll made the 2010 playoffs at 7-9. He clearly did a worse job that year than Lovie Smith did in 2012, but he made the playoffs. Playoffs are hardly an indicator of performance, especially wild card spots that often come down to tiebreakers.
The Bears should have kept Smith on board and fixed their offensive problems with a new offensive coordinator. Normally this would seem like a band-aid, but there were several coordinators available who are capable of making the fix.
If the Bears had hired Norv Turner, for example, they would have been able to keep Lovie while also fixing their offense, another thing he is often blamed for. How Mike Martz’s poor performance in Chicago falls on Smith I’ll never know, but apparently Phil Emery saw it as enough of a reason to fire a fairly successful coach.
Event No. 3: New York Giants win Super Bowl XLVI
The cause: Wes Welker drops a catchable pass that he’s converted hundreds of times; the pass is slightly overthrown by all-time great Tom Brady, who makes that throw 999 times out of 1,000.
The effect: Once again we have a quarterback receiving credit for something he had absolutely no control over. After the game, Eli Manning was proclaimed the NFL’s most clutch quarterback and potentially the best. There was even some buzz about him as the better Manning, an absurd notion for too many reasons to count.
Yet had Welker caught the ball, he never would have had a chance to win the game. Considering the fairly routine nature of the throw and catch (at least between two Hall of Famers like Brady and Welker), it took a substantial amount of luck for Manning to be in that position in the first place.
In fact, you could make a similar argument about the NFC championship game, in which the Giants benefitted from not one, but two muffed punts. Now obviously, muffed punts are part of the game, but it takes an incredible stroke of luck to get two in one game. By reasonable standards, the Giants shouldn’t have expected it. Yet Manning and the Giants obviously benefitted greatly from it. Did Manning have any control over those punts? No, but he still gets unjust credit.
Once again, the Giants deserve credit for capitalizing on their opportunities, it just needs to be put into perspective. Based on what reasonably should have happened in a football game, by the standards of what any team can fairly expect, the Giants should not have won Super Bowl XLVI and Eli Manning should not get as much credit as he does with fans.
What should have happened: By all rights the Giants should have lost to San Francisco, but we started on Welker and frankly, I think the Patriots would have beaten the 49ers anyway. Had the Giants lost to New England, Tom Brady would have four Super Bowl rings and would be regarded almost universally as the greatest quarterback of all time.
I happen to think that Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback of all time, for reasons that will both be displayed in this article and because he has too many butterfly effect scenarios to count. But the point is, Brady would receive the credit now bestowed onto Eli Manning, who would be fairly regarded as a very good but not elite quarterback.
Event No. 4: Green Bay Packers Win Super Bowl XLV
The cause: 10-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers lose a Week 15 overtime game to the 4-12 Detroit Lions without Matthew Stafford.
The effect: The past two winners needed strokes of luck in the playoffs to win their titles, but the Packers needed help just to get in. There was a three-way tie for the No. 6 spot in 2010 between the Packers, Giants and Bucs, all at 10-6. The Packers beat the Giants, knocking New York out of the race, but needed tiebreakers to get ahead of Tampa Bay.
Of course, were it not for a great bit of help the Bucs would have made the 2010 playoffs, not the Packers. As you know, 4-12 teams rarely beat 10-6 teams. Those percentages go down quite a bit later in the season when the 4-12 team doesn’t have anything to play for, and it plummets when you account for a missing starting quarterback. By no reasonable standard could the Packers have expected Tampa Bay to lose an overtime game to Detroit in Week 15, but they did, propelling them into the playoffs.
What does all of this mean? Consider the following: had Tampa Bay in fact won that Week 15 matchup with the Lions, the Packers wouldn’t have made the playoffs. If that were the case, Aaron Rodgers would currently have a 1-3 record in playoff starts. Before 2013, he never would have won a playoff game, and even afterwards his only one would come at home against Joe Webb. If this were the case, people would unfairly lump Aaron Rodgers into the ridiculous Matt Ryan/Tony Romo/young Peyton Manning “not clutch” group.
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A very big part of Aaron Rodgers’s reputation can be attributed to a random Week 15 game between two teams that didn’t make the playoffs. As great as his playoff run was, it wouldn’t have occurred had the expected result happened in a game he did not participate in. Like Lovie Smith’s case, his making the playoffs was not determined by his own play, but rather the play of two other teams in a separate game. The 2010 Packers could have played at the exact same level and be remembered as a team that missed the playoffs rather than won the Super Bowl.
Yes, we must acknowledge the “any given Sunday” factor, however we also have to remember the old “great teams don’t win close games, they avoid them” adage. Were the Packers as great as they’ve gotten credit for, they wouldn’t have needed help just to make the playoffs. Injuries may have cut into their record, but injuries are as much a part of the game as upsets. Point is, Aaron Rodgers owes Shaun Hill quite a bit.
What should have happened: Let’s say Tampa wins that game against Detroit and makes the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. They presumably would have lost to Philadelphia, while New Orleans would lose to Seattle as they actually did. That sends Michael Vick to Chicago for the second round, where he faces the Bears, a team that has always had his number. The Bears win and advance to the NFC championship game. Meanwhile, without the Packers to knock them out, the Falcons win their game and get to host Chicago.
While you could make an argument for either team in that game, the matchups heavily favor Chicago. Atlanta was much more of a run-based team in 2010, before they drafted Julio Jones. The Bears had the No. 2 ranked rushing defense in football. Remember also that the Falcons had a very poor defense against the pass (22nd in the league), mitigating the “Jay Cutler will throw the game away” factor.”
Finally, as the game would be played in a dome, not only would Devin Hester be at a tremendous advantage as a returner, but Jay Cutler probably wouldn’t have torn his ACL on the turf and missed the second half.
So let’s say the Bears win and play against the Steelers. The not-so-dirty little secret going into that game was how weak Pittsburgh’s offensive line was going to be without a healthy Maurkice Pouncey. Against the stellar Bears defense, that’s enough to swing the game.
Remember also that several key Steelers (specifically, Troy Polamalu, Aaron Smith and Bryant McFadden) were limited by injuries, putting them in a worse state than Chicago.
Finally, Pittsburgh’s special teams were by most estimations either below-average or worse (not surprising considering their injury and depth issues). That’s a huge issue against the Bears, who routinely have the best special teams in the league.
So basically, I’m suggesting that Tampa Bay’s loss to Detroit not only saved the legacy of Aaron Rodgers, but also destroyed the legacy of Jay Cutler. How differently would we look at Cutler with a ring? Would Lovie Smith still have a job? Would Rodgers be considered the best in the league? All of these are valid questions, once again stemming from something that nobody here actually took part in.
Event No. 5: New England Patriots win Super Bowl XXXVI
The cause: Charles Woodson strips Tom Brady and recovers the ball, essentially sealing the win for Oakland, but the ball is given back to New England on the obscure “tuck rule.”
The effect: I gave Brady an extra ring earlier so now it seems appropriate to take one away. You can argue about the tuck rule game all you want, but the general consensus among unbiased observers is that Charles Woodson fairly stripped the ball and that the Raiders should have been awarded possession. In this case, the Patriots never would have won their first Super Bowl.
Once again, referees are a part of the game just like injuries and scheduling, but when a call so obviously affects the game and it is incorrect it has to be acknowledged that the rightful winner did not actually win the game. In this case, the Raiders lost a game they rightfully deserved to win. It is therefore fair to take credit away from Tom Brady, as he was essentially awarded a free chance to win a game he didn’t deserve to win. To his credit he took it and won the Super Bowl, but that chance shouldn’t have existed.
What differentiates this case from the others is that Brady was directly involved in this play. You could argue, however incorrectly, that the entire sequence was intentional. However, based on the video evidence, it appears as if the ball should have been called a fumble. Therefore, there is a real argument to be made that the 2001 Patriots were not the rightful champions.
What should have happened: Had the Raiders won this game, they would have gone on to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers in the AFC title game. Since Kordell Stewart starting in a Super Bowl is crazy, the Raiders would have won, and then been beaten by the Rams in the Super Bowl. The Rams are suddenly a potential dynasty, and rather than handing the job to Marc Bulger a year later, Kurt Warner is given the chance to recover and salvage his career in St. Louis.
Meanwhile, without a Super Bowl ring, a long term answer to the very real (at the time) question of “Brady or Bledsoe” might not have been solved. The Patriots might have held on to Bledsoe for an extra year and lost some trade value, or even chosen him over Brady. Let’s say that Bledsoe gets traded later. That costs the Patriots star defensive end Ty Warren, a critical piece in their 2003 and 2004 championship runs.
Does Brady lose even more rings in this case? Potentially. All we can say for sure is that Tom Brady doesn’t win his first ring in 2001.
The point of all of this: As fans, we have to be able to look beyond the bare facts and critically analyze the game rather than just the results. Yes, Joe Flacco won a Super Bowl ring last year, but not all Super Bowls are created equal. Yes Eli Manning has two rings, but that does not put him ahead of his brother Peyton, who only has one.
Circumstance matters. We have to understand why certain events occur. We can’t let our perceptions be altered because a butterfly flapped its wings in the wrong direction.
By: Sam Quinn